So far we have been modelling what we may refer to as ‘mechanical behaviour’ in terms of a basic tropism orientated upon a pain/euphoria continuum. This framework of understanding is however only the overt level of meaning. If we take our attention away from the overt level of meaning and switch over to seeing things on the covert level of meaning, then the tropism changes over from pain/euphoria to strange/ not-strange, where strange can be defined simply as ‘anything that does not support the logic of the system of thought’ or ‘anything that is not the system’. As we have said before, strange /not-strange is not a continuum, which is to say, it does not consist of a set of points arranged in different places within the same framework. Instead, we can think in terms of a manifold or three-dimensional surface that has hollows and bumps, valleys and ridges, deep ravines and lofty peaks. ‘Ground zero’ is absolute equilibrium, which corresponds to ‘maximum gravitational pull’ (i.e. minimum freedom); the greatest height would be ‘zero gravity’ (complete freedom). Strangeness, therefore, is a measure of how free (in the sense of undetermined, unknown, unpredictable) our reality is, how fresh and mysterious it is. We can also say that strangeness is when the degrading, distorting and misrepresenting influence of the ‘artificial gravity of the thinking mind’ is at an end, so things are allowed to develop or unfold according to their own inscrutable law.
Strangeness avoidance can thus be seen as the exacting and utterly engrossing business of taking the lowest path in all things, so that one always seeks out the easiest route from A to B, like a river winding down from the hills. In effect, one seeks always to be defined by structures that have existence outside of us. I hug the contours so that I am the contours, so that I am not anything myself apart from these defining demarcations. This is what we have referred to as ‘handing over responsibility to extrinsic rules’. The state of being strange, therefore, comes down to ‘being something other than the established terrain’. When we are not strange, we are understandable in terms of the rules that make up the environment, and when we are strange, we are just that – strange.
PROGRAMMING SPACE AND TIME
We can use Eric Berne’s idea of games versus intimacy to illustrate what is admittedly a somewhat wider dichotomy than the one he intended. Eric Berne was speaking of interpersonal games versus interpersonal intimacy, whereas we are going to suggest is that this idea can be extended to ‘purposeful (or rule-based) interaction’ versus ‘spontaneous (or rule-less) interaction’. Rule-less interaction with one’s environment ultimately means that one has no ‘protection’ from that environment, in the sense of ‘protecting one’s personal agenda (i.e. identity)’. So the idea is that if I interact in a rule-based way, I preserve my idea of myself at all costs, which corresponds to Carse’s finite games, whereas if I were to interact in an open or agenda-free manner then I am likely to totally lose my idea of my self. Put another way, we can say that having rules-of-interaction ensures that I stay separate and distinct from my environment, whilst the situation where ‘all rules are equally good’ (i.e. the situation where I am existing in a state of equanimity) means in effect that there is no all-important distinction between myself and the universe as a whole. This state of being lost without a trace in an undefined Whole is profoundly threatening from the point of view of a localized and specified ‘I’ and so this (we said) constitutes the hidden motivation for all purposeful activity.
Eric Berne too has his version of this type of ontological fear, and although he does not express it in quite the way that we have, it is clear from the following passage that he sees ‘fear of structurelessness’ as being a fundamentally important motivation (Berne-1961, p85):
The everyday problem of the human being is the structure of his waking hours. If they are not structured for him, as they tend to be in infancy, then he is impelled to find or set up a structure independently, hour by hour.
Berne goes onto say ‘the operational aspect of time structuring may be called programming’ and he gives three different types of programming – material, social and individual. In other words, there is a particular brand of structure that is there to follow, a structured pathway that we can avail of to bypass the fearful expanse of unstructured time that exists between the time of waking up in the morning to the time of safely tucking ourselves up in bed at night. If, as Abraham Maslow says, the underlying rationale behind neurosis is ‘the avoidance of novelty,’ then normal, routinized life must itself be nothing more than neurosis. In fact, it becomes hard to see anything that is not neurosis!
It is fairly easy to see what it is about unstructured time that is so frightening. It offers us no means of ‘purchase’, no ‘grip,’ no notches to mesh our cogwheels with. It gives us no confirmation of our expectations, no way of validating our agendas. Programmed living is like ‘paint-by-numbers’ – we get to feel that it is us that is doing it but actually someone else has done all the real work for us. As long as we focus purely upon the level of ‘trivial choice’ we can feel satisfaction about what we are doing, but even though what we are doing may be enjoyable in its way, it is not truly creative. Unprogrammed life, on the other hand, is like a blank canvass. It daunts us because it contains no guidelines at all. In order to start, we have to make a jump into the unknown, we have to take a huge risk. Sitting there thinking about it is no good – the longer we think about it the more impossible our situation seems to be. Somehow, there is a barrier that we have to get over, the barrier of our own minds. We can attack this barrier, but that only makes it stronger, and the other alternative of simply sitting there looking at the blank canvass and doing nothing is too intimidating. Intimidated and thwarted at every turn, we find ourselves drawn back into the theatrical challenges of finite games, in flight from the huge dramatic challenge of the infinite game.
THE DESIGNED ENVIRONMENT
One way of distracting ourselves from reality is through the ‘inner arena’ in which our own internal dramas are played out, and the other way (we might say) is the ‘outer arena’ within which our socially validated games are facilitated. A programmed space means a programmed experience, and that means that there is no chance of encountering any truth that is ‘non-trivial’. We are kept busy with nonsense, in other words. There is no ambiguity regarding the question of “What do I do here?” because the designed environment tells us everything we need to know. There is a pre-decided role for us to play here, and that role has to do with improving our performance within the given parameters. Optimizing our game is the ‘thrill’ of interacting with a designed environment – optimization is the challenge of making the rules that determine the shape of my behaviour exactly the same as the rules that determine the shape of the designed environment. The thrill is the thrill of approaching total agreement, of reaching the point where there is ‘zero-gap’, where there is a perfect match between the map and the territory. From this, we can arrive at the following statement:
EUPHORIA CAN BE DEFINED AS ‘THE PLEASURE ASSOCIATED WITH LOSING THE TRUE SELF BY CONFORMING TO AN EXTRINSIC SOURCE OF ORDER’, WHICH MEANS THAT ECSTASY WOULD BE DEFINABLE AS ‘THE JOY OF LOSING THE FALSE SELF, WHICH HAPPENS THROUGH THE ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF INTRINSIC ORDER’.
We have said that a designed space ‘tells us what to do’ when we are in it. This is obviously true in the case of simple examples such as a road which has markings on it and signs posted at various points to give us information to enable us to drive safely. Similarly, the shape and colour of a flower provide useful information: on the one hand there is advertising to attract the pollinating insects, and on the other hand there are hotter/colder contour markings to show the right way to go to get the ‘good stuff’. A waiting room of a doctor’s surgery also tells us what to do, although in a slightly more subtle way. The arrangement of the chairs, the type of chair, the little tables with magazines upon them, they all serve to gently channel us into what is the acceptable (or ‘preferred’) form of behaviour. This type of thing is more obvious in an environment that is designed for activity like, for example, a leisure complex that has, amongst other modules, a bowling alley adjoining a bar and a dance floor with disco lights. Here, there is no question of “What do I do now?” because it is abundantly obvious. I might not know how to bowl or how to dance, or how to buy a drink at the bar but I can learn these things. That, in fact, is the one thing I can do – I can develop or improve or perfect my skills at being in this particular environment!
Another excellent example of a designed environment is a big supermarket or a shopping mall. You don’t have to be a genius to work out what the encoded message is in this case – the whole thing is buy, buy, buy… We are being offered a deceptive brand of freedom, the freedom to choose between a large and varied selection of ‘high quality products’. The overt message of the supermarket or shopping mall is “Look at the great choice of goods that is on offer here!” This message seems to empower us, it gives us the impression that we are in charge – that our power as a purchaser is being respected. Naturally, this makes us feel good, and it sucks us in like fish on a line. The freedom of the purchaser to ‘buy what he or she wants’ is in reality a dangerous deception of course because straightaway we are trapped in thinking that we actually want to buy something, or that we need to buy something. The genuine freedom that originally I had, which is the freedom not be interested in the first place has been handed over to the god of consumerism. This brings us to the next point about ‘finite messages’. When intrinsic freedom is handed over in exchange for the dubious benefits of conditioned or extrinsic freedom, there is a pay-off. So, we can say that to start of with there is the attractiveness or allure of the designed space. It tantalizes us and sucks us in. In terms of the information encoded in the environment, we can say that there is a great temptation to tune into it. When we do tune into it, and read the message ‘full-on’, as it were, there is a powerful reward, a flash or glow of deep-down pleasure. This is the moment of ‘handing over’ – it is the all-important moment when our attention is captured by the finite message.
NEGATIVE FREEDOM ZONES
Once my attention has been captured by the message that I am reading, then all the assumptions that it arose out of become totally invisible. I no longer have the freedom to ask why I am doing what I am doing, the only freedom I have is the freedom to ask how I can do it better! Therefore, what has happened is that I have become psychologically unconscious. Walking into a big supermarket is an excellent illustration of this sort of thing – unless I have concerns on my mind that are powerful enough to over-ride it, there is usually a ‘free-fall’ feeling that comes with changing mental gears into neutral. This is because there are absolutely no challenges within this environment. There are of course challenges like “Where are the pickled onions?” and the challenge of negotiating a way around other shoppers, but these are technical challenges – they do not require me to think in a new way. This is a ‘non-work environment’; it is a ‘negative freedom zone’. Thus, even though shopping can be, and frequently is, exhausting in a physical sense, the work that one does is perfectly null. If I manage to stay alert enough to watch myself, I will be able to spot the classic ‘euphoric lift’ that always comes with turning off one’s consciousness – always assuming of course that I am not already in the depressed mode of ‘reverse-euphoria’ that comes as a result of opting for a euphoric life at some earlier. A negative freedom zone is attractive in the way in which it invites us to let it define our consciousness, it is superficially delightful in the way that it offers us an unquestionable context of meaning within which we can live out a type of ‘virtual existence’. In this virtual world objects have a peculiar flat reality – they have an immediately obvious, matter-of-fact appeal that doesn’t actually go anywhere. As Colin Wilson says, on one level there is an absolute reassurance, but this solidity is so ‘flat’ and literal that it is really quite laughable and unbelievable. If one ‘wakes up’ in a negative freedom zone, it is like suddenly finding oneself having a starring role in a cartoon movie, when before one had assumed that it was actually real life that one was taking part in.
THE PLASTIC DOLL PHASE
Being in the realm of negative freedom means, as we have been saying, that my idea about a thing is exactly the same as the thing itself. What you see is what you get, everything there is right there in front of you, all on the one level. There is no radical uncertainty, only trivial uncertainty. This is fine if you like what you see, if it seems good and wholesome to you, if it seems right and proper, but somehow there is always the possibility (the knowledge of which can be repressed for a while) that it is perhaps not so wholesome after all. When the awareness of this possibility breaks through it can appear as a nasty feeling that there is some sort of conspiracy going on. There is a very unpleasant sense that I am trapped in an inimical reality, a reality that is no friend of me at all, even though it may appear to be on one level. Essentially, I am aware that something very important has been taken away, but I cannot quite put my finger on what it is. What this important ‘thing’ is, of course, is my freedom to be what I really am.
We have said that negative freedom zones contain the dual possibility of either a euphoric lift or a depressive low, and in addition to this we ought to add the possibility of a sort of in-between stage of boredom, which is actually where we all spend a lot of time. The fear of boredom, which is such an important (if unacknowledged) motivational force behind a lot of our activity, indicates that we suspect that boredom leads on to depression, and it is for this reason that we keep ‘on the move’. Aside of the euphoria of ‘successful’ self-distraction, and the boredom of ‘not-so-successful’ self-distraction, and the depression of ‘failed’ self-distraction, there is one more possibility, and that is the possibility of sheer, unadulterated horror. What happens here is that awareness, which had previously been sent off somewhere, returns to show us that we are identified with an unreal or false situation. We see what is around us, and all we can see is its ‘flatness’, the fact that it is all ‘cheap-promise-with no-substance’, a bit like a very bad movie that we can’t manage to swallow no matter how badly we might like to get into and get distracted. Timothy Leary et al in The Psychedelic Experience (1964, P 57) give a nice description of this state when they talk about what happens when the psychedelic voyager ‘reacts with fear’ to the irresistible flow of images and experiences that occur on a trip:
Such a reaction is attributable to the accumulated result of game-playing (karma) dominated by anger or stupidity. A nightmarish hell-world may ensue. The visual forms appear like a confusing chaos of cheap, ugly dime-store objects, brassy, vulgar and useless. The person may become terrified at the prospect of being engulfed by them. The awesome sounds may be heard as hideous, clashing, oppressive, grating noises. The person will attempt to escape from these perceptions into restless external activity (talking, moving around, etc.) or into conceptual, analytic, mental activity.
Elsewhere, Leary et al (P 66-7) draw attention to the ‘conspiracy-type’ nature of the experience, which they refer to as the ‘plastic doll phase’ because everyone suddenly appears unreal and ‘thing-like,’ like plastic dolls or garish, crudely-fashioned puppets. Here, the authors explain that the discovery (which is central to the psychedelic experience) that objects and things and ‘selves’ do not exist since everything is composed, at root, of transient, ever-changing energy-waves, may cause a panic reaction in which the person holds on tight to his or her constructs, and thus ends up trapped in a dead world of things that stands in static opposition to the ecstatic flow of unfettered life:
The fact of the matter is that all apparent forms of matter and body are momentary clusters of energy. We are little more than flickers on a multidimensional television screen. This realization directly experienced can be delightful. You suddenly wake up from the delusion of separate form and hook up to the cosmic dance. Consciousness slides along the wave matrices, silently at the speed of light.
The terror comes with the discovery of transience. Nothing is fixed, no form solid. Everything you can experience is “nothing but” electrical waves. You feel ultimately tricked. A victim of the great television producer. Distrust. The people around you are lifeless television robots. The world around you is a façade, a stage set. You are a helpless marionette, a plastic doll in a plastic world.
If others attempt to help, they are seen as wooden, waxen, feelingless, cold, grotesque, maniacal, space-fiction monsters. You are unable to feel. “I am dead. I will never feel again.” In wild panic you may attempt to force feeling back – by action, by shouting. …
It can be seen that there is a sort of ambiguity regarding what the ‘trick’ is: on the one hand there is the suggestion that the discovery that there is no solid ‘ground’ leaves one feeling cheated, and this is a reaction that is often reported after the rude awakening that happens shortly after the ingestion of a powerful psychedelic drug. What I thought was there to rely on, is not there at all, and so I react to this negative discovery by feeling loss, and mourning what I thought I had had. Conversely, however, as both Itzhak Bentov (in Stalking the Wild Pendulum) and John Lilly (in The Centre of the Cyclone) say in their different ways, when my consciousness is projected into a lower plane of reality so that I am less than I ought to, I find the experience horrifically oppressive. I have been sold an inferior product and that product is the system’s version of ‘who I am’. I am married to a cheap and mocking vision of ‘what is’ and there is no possibility of me obtaining a separation. And yet, due to the distortion inherent in this downwards movement, I cannot put my finger on what is wrong, and for this reason I feel that there is a sinister conspiracy going on. I feel that I am the victim of a conspiracy – the meaning of my reality is being controlled by hostile forces. The first version of ‘the trick’, I have been cheated out of the security that is being ‘bound’ (or ‘bounded’; in the reversed version I have been cheated out of the freedom of being unbound, the freedom of being my True Self.
We started off with the example of the supermarket. The supermarket is a deliberately engineered ‘plastic doll world’ which we enter when we let our attention be captured by all the cheap and garish products that are on show there. Okay – so food isn’t a cheap a garish product, but in a supermarket it is more the packaging that we are interested in than the underlying substance. It is the assigned meaning that we tune into, rather than the intrinsic meaning of the food itself. This is of course much more obvious in a fashion clothes shop, where image is everything, and substance nothing at all. And, in a more general vein, the social system as a whole is nothing more than an intricate ‘plastic doll world’ – a nightmare that we haven’t woken up to yet, a nightmare which is the world of the ‘non-strange’…
ZERO GRAVITY VERSUS FREE-FALL
The basic dichotomy that we keep coming back to is the dichotomy between ‘normal’ and ‘strange’, between design and accident. We have been saying that ‘normal’ goes hand-in–hand with goal-orientated action, which in turn goes with euphoria on the one hand (when the goal is attained) and depression on the other (when the goal is not attained or is lost). ‘Strange’, we have said, goes with spontaneous action, which is action that is not undertaken for gain, and we linked it with ecstasy, which is the thrill that comes from witnessing a Reality that is beyond our power either to anticipate or explain. Along with these elements, there is also the element of meaning, which we have split into the extrinsic and intrinsic varieties. Extrinsic meaning gives us a basic sense of direction – it orientates everything, it keeps everything glued into place, so that even if the boat rocks about a lot we can still carry on functioning. It is harder to say what intrinsic meaning gives us because, on the face of it, it seems to have the purely negative function of undoing everything that extrinsic meaning does. When the stabilizing influence of extrinsic meaning is removed the order of the world seems to vanish, and everything is left floating around in a weird sort of ‘zero-gravity’. As Jung has said, there is no longer and ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ to experience, and instead of experiencing myself as a subject which looks out at its objects, I perceive myself to be the object of some overpowering external subject, which is consciousness itself. Somehow, everything is ‘other’ – a brightly shining and highly acute consciousness which doesn’t actually belong to anybody. This ‘self-of-otherness’ is the stranger inside me, and it gives me no possibilities of orientating ‘my self’ at all.
The metaphor of zero-gravity turns out to be quite a good one to work with. Normally, we might say, we are stuck firmly to the surface of the planet by some universal and ‘taken-for-granted’ gravitational force. Everything has its place and everything stays in its place. This high gravity situation is the situation that prevails at the bottom of the vertical ‘information content’ axis that we talked about in Chapter 2, and it is characterized by stability. Fluctuations from the norm are negligible because they so quickly get ironed out – a solid structure may wobble ever so slightly when a shock wave hits it, but the wobble dies out in the face of all that massive stability. We can afford to ignore them because they will come to nothing in the end, and we know that. That is a ‘dead-cert’ – normality always wins out in the end, just like a super-efficient police state that always manages to spirit away those individuals who challenge its rules. There might be such individuals, there might even be the beginnings of a revolutionary movement, but no one ever gets to hear of it because it always gets stamped out so effectively.
At the top end of the vertical W-axis (if we may use such a term) there is structural instability – there is an absence of gravity to hold things in place. Infinite instability means infinite vulnerability, so here we have the situation where the slightest fluctuation can end up taking us anywhere at all. No one knows where anything can end – the consequences of any action are always beyond calculation. Structural stability on the other hand means that there is the rule of some terrifically huge, all-powerful, and utterly insensitive force. It squashes anything that doesn’t go along with it without even noticing what it is doing. It never learns at all – it only ‘learns’ what it wants to learn, i.e. it only ever ‘learns’ that it is right, that it was right all along. Instability is infinitely sensitive – it ignores nothing, and so everything that happens is of the utmost (albeit unknowable) significance.
CONVERSATION THAT IS ‘OUT OF CONTROL’ IS AN INFINITE GAME
We can illustrate this idea by using the example of two types of conversation. The first type is ‘conversation which has an agenda’. Here, the agenda is the attractive force because the person with the agenda is continually bringing everything back to the guidelines that they have in their head. Anything irrelevant is either ignored, or re-interpreted in such a way that it backs up the point that they wanted to make. An example of such a conversation would be a conversation with a person who wishes to convert you to some religion or other: one often finds in these cases that there is lip-service paid to the notion of a ‘free-floating’ exchange of ideas, but beneath this pleasantly nonchalant exterior there is a profound absence of genuine curiosity – any interest in different viewpoints that is expressed is purely there for the sake of politeness, it is a theatrical artifice and nothing more. Before very long the true reason for the conversation comes to the surface and we quickly discern the fact that nothing else really matters at all. What we have here is a classic example of a finite game, there is one overwhelmingly important ‘attractor’ or goal and nothing matters unless it contributes in some way to the fulfillment of that goal. The other type of conversation, obviously, is a conversation where none of the contributing parties has an axe to grind. No one has a vested interest in where the conversation will end, or what it will ‘prove’, and therefore there is a genuinely ‘zero-gravity’ type of a situation where there innumerable different directions in which the conversation could go, and no particular reason why it should or shouldn’t go there! What happens here is that the conversation goes ‘out of control’ – it belongs to no one and is beholden to no one, and it develops itself beyond the boundaries of anyone’s expectations. This is what Carse means when he talks about the infinite game, of which there is only one.
In an agenda-based conversation the gain is that the agenda is met. The aim of the whole thing is attained, and so we go away feeling good (or satisfied) in this particular respect, which means that we are talking about euphoria. In an agenda-free conversation the ‘gain’ (if we may call it that) is strangeness – we end up, or we may end up, in a very strange place. We didn’t want to be there, and we have no vested interest in being there, or, indeed, any interest in validating the strange place as ‘a strange place’, but we are interested in being there, in the sense of being curious about it. The ‘gain’, therefore, is ecstasy, which is the type of good feeling that comes when we just ‘hang out’, without having any games on the go. We are not there because we want to gain something, or because we are afraid of losing something, and the benefit that flows from this is that we get to see something we never saw before, and be somewhere were we never were before…
THE LAW OF INCREASING ENTROPY
We can use this gravitational model to further elucidate and develop what we have been saying about euphoria/ depression and ecstasy, and about how euphoria is ‘a sort of inferior analogue of ecstasy’. We have said that we like hi-gravity because of the sense of orientation that we obtain from it, the sense of ‘place’. There is another benefit to be had, and that comes from the way in which we can use hi-gravity to obtain euphoria whenever we want it. Gravity, in itself, doesn’t feel nice because it pins us down in one spot, and because it makes us heavy so that we have to drag ourselves around. Therefore, even though we live under gravity, we crave relief from it at the same time – we live for our momentary releases from the all-determining force of gravity. The ‘momentary release’ from bondage is what we have been referring to as euphoria, and it is gravity itself that provides us with this ‘holiday from gravity’. We can explain this in terms of free-fall: suppose that I am in an elevator which is in a shaft that goes down to the bottom of a very deep mine. If I allow the lift to fall under gravity I will find that I am in the state of free-fall, which is a state of remission from gravity, a sort of ‘simulated zero-gravity’. It isn’t really the same as zero gravity however because a debt has been incurred as I fell, a debt that I will have to pay back as soon I finish having fun. The debt is obvious enough – I have obtained the free-fall experience by descending down the lift-shaft, and having descended, I have to at some point ascend again otherwise I am going to be stuck down at the bottom of the mine, where there is not much euphoria to be had. Therefore, I have to do work simply to get back to where I was before. There is another alternative here, as it happens, and that is to sink another shaft from the bottom of the first shaft, which would give me another interval of free fall. Of course, this alternative is a dire one due to the double debt that is incurred – and what is more, it sets a very dangerous precedent in terms of ‘reality avoidance’ because it gives me the idea that I can escape payback time indefinitely. In a short-sighted sense I can because I can always exercise the power that I have to postpone payback and dig the mine deeper, but I took the longer view then I would have to acknowledge that fact that I will inevitably have to climb out of the hole at some point, and so it would be wiser to do it now rather than postponing it and making my predicament worse.
To sum up, if I live in a hi-gravity environment, then I can always take little holidays from the oppression of the binding force by the equivalent of ‘losing altitude’. Each holiday involves an equal and opposite anti-holiday because when you drop down a level you always have to make it again later on. For every PLUS there must be a MINUS. From the point of view of ‘life in a designed environment’, it is these little diversions to nowhere that keep me going – they are the oases in the desert of my bleak and businesslike existence. Needless to say, I do not focus on the way in which the diversions are ‘diversions to nowhere’ because if I did then I would not be able to look forward them! Ideally, it would be much better to get out of the gravity well altogether because then we could escape the weight of our materiality completely, and not have to rely on the unsatisfactory ‘cheating method’ of dropping down a level each time we want a lift. In a gravity well I have to engage myself in purposeful behaviour in order to obtain euphoria, but when I am outside the influence of gravity then I don’t have to do anything special to reap the prize of ecstasy – it is infinitely abundant and totally free. From this it might be assumed that if I, even when under the influence of gravity, simply ‘drop all my rules’ then I will start to feel relief from the tedium of all the games that I have been involved in. Matters are not so simple however, because I have yet to climb out of the hole I am in. This is why the pseudo-spontaneity of simply ‘letting stuff happen’ doesn’t result in enlightenment – there is still a big payback to be made, I have yet to reverse the Great Fall. Therefore, I am faced with the straight choice of working for no reward, or opting for an immediate gain that is annihilated a bit later on by what John Bennett calls the ‘compensatory mechanism’. We are using the analogy of gravity to explain the idea of ‘free-fall’ versus ‘zero gravity’, but what are we really talking about? This question is not a hard one – the attractive force in question is the force that tends to bring everything down to the same level, the force which causes irreversible ‘information collapse’, in other words, we are talking about the law of increasing entropy, i.e. the second law of thermodynamics. This means that we can define euphoria as the pay-off that we obtain as a result of ‘going with the entropic law’, and depression as the compensation for this short-term gain. Ecstasy, on the other hand, is the state of zero entropy, or Maximum Information Content, which can be expressed esoterically in terms of Self-Remembering.
GOING OFF THE RAILS
The society which we live out our lives in is a dealer in euphoria – that is the currency which keeps the whole thing churning on. What this means is that we are continually being offered euphoric lifts – highs – as incentives to move in a particular direction. If the downside of the deal that we are being offered were to be made clear to us, there would be nothing sinister about this, but the whole point is that society is based upon unconsciousness (or ‘denial’), which is to say, we all work hard at pretending that the downside doesn’t exist. This one-sidedness is sinister, just as all collusions against the truth are sinister. What it means is that we are not really friends to each other, despite the overt emphasis on collective morality and general solidarity. It is impossible for us to be true friends to each other because we are all up to our necks in the collusion against the true meaning of pain. An extreme example of this is the approach we have to depression – on the one level we medicalise depression and say that it is a meaningless aberration of normal psycho-physiological functioning, and on the other (and usually more subtle) level we blame and punish the sufferer because we have surreptitiously taken away their right to be depressed. Basically, we cannot allow people to be depressed because we do not want to hear the message of depression.
It sounds rather crude to suggest that we all sell our souls to society for the sake of little packages of euphoria that are dangled in front of our noses. In a sense it is true – it is both crude and true, but explaining things this way does not do justice to the subtlety of the slavery to which we are subject. The key to understanding this subtle slavery is by looking at finite messages, and what happens when we read finite messages. The whole of the perceived world may be said to consist of messages (i.e. information) of one sort of another. A proportion of what we are perceiving is an infinite message, which is to say, it is a message that gives us an intimation of the way in which everything is more than it seems to be, and other than it seems to be. This is what we have been referring to as the novelty component of information. Normally, the preponderance of what we perceive are numerous finite messages, which are messages that tell us how something actually is what it appears to be! The finite (i.e. conceptual) mind operates by coming to final conclusions; it works in a way that is similar to regular, goal-orientated sex – which is to say, by quickly reaching a climax. Once the climax has been reached the whole business becomes uninteresting so we forget it and move on to something else! An ‘armchair’ is identified as an armchair, the public toilets are identified as the public toilets, my wife is identified as my wife, and so on. Having identified the object, we lose interest and move on unreflectingly to the next thing.
We do not get enslaved or trapped in the extrinsic meaning system by making a series of conscious decisions to opt for the short-term benefits of adaptation, but by ‘reading messages’ in good faith. Someone comes along and tells us something, or we pick up a magazine and browse through an article, and by this apparently innocent act we give away our freedom to see the world in ways that are incongruent with the context of meaning inherent in the message. The reason this is so ‘subtle’ is because it doesn’t matter a damn whether we agree or disagree with what we hear, or what we read – whatever way we take it we’re hooked. This is like the witticism concerning politicians and politics: “Don’t vote, it only encourages them!” Even if I ignore the messages that are being beamed at me, that is still being caught up in the game because ‘ignoring’ is a positive action – I am deliberately not looking at something, and so I am negatively focusing on it. Ignoring is really a way of relating to something, a way of establishing a connection, and so by the act of ‘turning a blind eye’ I end up taking for granted the framework of meaning within which that the message exists.
This process of being ‘caught up in the game’, as we have been saying, necessarily involves a jump in the amount of entropy of the system. Every time I read a message I make the essential act of identification (i.e. ‘this is what it seems to be’) I lose the ability to see that ‘this is not what it seems to be’. When I identify something there is a kind of ‘click’ that takes place in the ratchet mechanism of my rational / conceptual / evaluative mind. This is just like a billiard ball dropping smoothly into a corner pocket: we might say that the ball moving on the surface of table corresponds to the indeterminate mode of mental functioning, the mode in which ‘all positions are equally good’, whilst the ball when it has dropped into the pocket is mind in its determinate (or ‘fixated’) mode. The penny has dropped – we see what the score is and having seen what the score is we react accordingly, and after reacting we lose interest and move on to the next thing. This is the whole thing about identifying – once I know what something is then I can get on with the show, and it is in the show where my interest lies. Who wants to question the authenticity of the props? How can the game continue if I refuse to accept the inviolable nature of the rules?
LOOKING AT THINGS SLANT-WISE
Just supposing that I don’t want to lose myself in theatrical or surrogate version of reality, what do I do with all the messages that are lapping up against me wherever I go, trying to draw me into the ‘Big Bubble’ of consensus reality? Earlier we said that when we read a message ‘full-on’ there is a subliminal flash of euphoria as we become adapted to the framework of meaning within which that message is couched. We become identified with the system of thought, we become the system of thought. And as we have just said, were I to identify the incoming messages as ‘the enemy’ and stare defiantly in the other direction, clutching my crucifix in my right hand and holding a vial of holy water with the other, this would be no good because I have still ‘identified’. The answer to this dilemma is clearly not to indulge in yet another form of prejudice-based avoidance, which would come under the category of ‘reality manipulation’ or ‘control of meaning’, but to see whatever is there without identifying it, to see it whilst allowing it to remain strange.
What we are talking about therefore is a kind of ‘tantric sex’; only in relation here to the act of identifying a definite reality, rather than the act of sexual intercourse. The secret is ‘not to come’; as the line goes in the well-known Frankie Goes To Hollywood song: “Don’t do it…. (When you want to come)”. This can be looked at in two complementary ways. On the one hand it is, as we have said, the ‘not doing’ of an action which we would normally do in order to obtain pleasure, and on the other hand it is the same as Gurdjieff’s idea voluntary suffering / conscious labour because I am experiencing discomfort in the space where I am which would normally result in an automatic reaction on my part in order to exit this discomfort, this space. Either reaction (obtaining pleasure or avoiding pain) involve moving from a strange space to a familiar or routine one, and so both come to exactly the same thing. There is no question of acceptance or rejection in seeing because it is not a voluntary Yang-type (positive) act – on the contrary seeing is a Yin-type (or negative) act, i.e. it is when I ‘receive’ a reality that I myself did not collude in. The frustrating thing for the naïve practitioner of ‘not doing’ is that we don’t get to win the prize. It is there, tantalizing us, offering us far more than it could ever deliver, but we let it go. This makes no sense at all – and there is no guarantee whatsoever that this is a smart thing to do. The great thing for the experienced practitioner of ‘not doing’ is that, instead of the inferior ‘substitute’ or ‘analogue’ prize (which is inferior because  it is definite (i.e. dead) and  it is automatically erased a bit later on by the infallible mechanism of compensation) we find out that we are already inseparable from the genuine prize (which doesn’t suffer from the dual drawbacks of being limited and being automatically erased shortly afterwards). There is no contest really, and yet, amazingly, it is practically a ‘dead certainty’ that we will end up putting all our money on the former rather the latter.
The ‘analogue prize’ is extrinsic reality, which is not a thing-in-itself as is intrinsic reality – when in extrinsic reality (which we have also been speaking of as ‘the realm of negative freedom’) we see the world in terms of the compulsivity of [+] and [-], which are always referring outwards to something else, some ‘thing’ that we take totally for granted. There is a ‘bluff’ going on here that we never have the nerve to call: when we are in this null-domain of the rational mind we are perpetually hypnotized by the attractiveness of the [+] and the frightfulness of the [-], and perpetually engrossed in the taxing attempt to steer the correct course between the two. Thus, we are always kept going by the hope that our situation can be improved, that great things are possible for us (or, alternatively, we are kept going by our fear that something terrible is about to happen to us unless we keep running). In truth, nothing is possible at all because of the principle of compensation, but we never quite grasp this. The reality of what we fear or what we desire is at all times ultimately illusory, and yet we are nevertheless happy to put ourselves through any amount of suffering on their account. In a nutshell, we might say that the analogue is where we have a definite description (or label) which convinces us beyond any question that there must be a real reality which corresponds to that label or description. At the same time as this, however, the certainty of the description (or thought) blocks or occludes the reality which it is supposed to represent, so that the situation, although rich in description, is utterly impoverished in quality or essence. The original (non-analogue) situation is where we have no definite descriptions at all – there is no certainty of thought here at all, and because of this the Reality of the situation is able to express itself in a completely ‘unimpeded’ way. So we have ‘poverty of description’, but infinite wealth of essence. From this it can clearly be seen that there is no advantage whatsoever to be had from dallying with the ‘degenerate analogue’ version of Reality. There only appears to be advantage.
STAYING OUT OF DANGEROUS GROOVES
From what we have said about the dangerously entrapping and sneaky nature of the finite messages that are accosting us on every side, it might be imagined that a good thing to do would be to keep well out of the way, and find some relatively unpolluted place to hang out in. From another point of view, however, highly distracting environments are simply good opportunities for psychological work. Normally, when we are in a highly distracting environment we are highly distracted, and this means ‘no work’. However, just because we find ourselves in such an environment doesn’t mean that we have to offer ourselves up like lambs to the slaughter to every finite message that comes our way. We can look at the messages ‘slant-wise’, so to speak, and refrain from being sucked into the state of passive identification. This does not mean that I have to screw up my face or wear mirrored glasses or keep glancing away from temptation the whole time because all of these are calculated attitudes, and calculated attitudes are no good at all. Looking at stuff slant-wise means looking at the world from a non-prescribed point of view – so I am there, but I am coming from an irregular angle and not out of an established groove. Another way to put this would be to say that I can look at anything at all, whether it is a ‘finite message’ or not, but it will only be a finite message for me if I am looking at it from the standpoint of a mental groove which corresponds to that message. If I am not in a groove, than everything is strange – even the familiar and banal manifestations of social game reality are revealed as strange. Finite messages are no longer finite at all.
Strangeness occurs when we disregard the implicit instructions or expectations of our environment, i.e. when we do not do what we are expected to do, in terms of perception and cognition as much as external behaviour. Simple examples of this might be sitting on the floor instead of a chair, spending the night in a pub without drinking alcohol, or sitting all day on a bench in a high street without getting involved in any consumer-type activity. A particularly effective one is to sit for two hours outside a tube station or bus stop in the city at seven in the morning when everyone is taking part in the great morning migration to work. The resulting experience is totally different from the experience which I would get by taking part in the rush hour myself: because going to work is a highly regulated goal-orientated activity it is actually a ‘repeat performance’ every time – there will be minor differences each time but the gist of the thing is the same each time, and because I know this there is a huge tendency to ‘turn off’ and go along with the mechanical flow of events. The experience of watching the rush hour activity from the outside is not mechanical or routine, however, despite the fact that it looks exactly every time. On the contrary, it is strange each time I see it – it is strange because it is so regular. Similarly, spending a quiet night in watching a bit of TV can be an exercise in strangeness. Watching TV is kind of a strange thing to do, but we will only notice how strange it is if we stay awake whilst watching it, which is hard enough to do. As we have said already, engaging in ‘conscious telly-viewing’ without automatically relapsing into a deeply familiar comfort-zone does not mean wilfully ignoring the television – it means being just as interested in the space around the picture on the screen as I am in the picture itself. Therefore, I am aware of the programme, and I am equally conscious of the context of the room in which we are all sitting, and of myself and everyone else sitting there watching. Another way to explain this is to say that I am equally interested in the signal and the context of the signal, which is to say that I am just as interested in what I am supposed to be looking at as I am in anything else. This of course is the definition of even-mindedness, which is when we have not fallen into a convenient mental groove, no matter how extreme a provocation we might be under.
In general, ‘hanging out in strange spaces’ comes down to being in a place where people don’t want to be. Normally, we are constantly jockeying for the ‘preferred location’ – we are trying to be in the interesting place, the cool place, the place with kudos. We are in dread of ending up in the loser-space, the place where you only are because you are too stupid or too sad to have gotten out of. Thus, if I am in an ‘inferior’ location, and I am happy to just hang out there, without any clever agendas up my sleeve, then this is truly a recipe for strangeness. Needless to say, if I hang out in an inferior location because I think that I will gain something as a result, then this means that I think it is ‘cool to be uncool’, which is the glitch of ‘making a rule that there must be no rule’. We can apply this same principle to the ‘internal designed environment’ which also has its ‘cool’ and ‘uncool’ locations, its preferred and not-preferred places to be. Non-strange is when I am constantly jockeying to be euphoric and distracted, and strange is when I am happy to hang out in ‘inferior’ states of mind. So if I feel embarrassed or ashamed or generally stupid, awkward or inadequate, and I don’t automatically attempt to exit these states, then I actually to get to be conscious, which is a far greater prize than the prize which I would otherwise have my eyes on – i.e. the complementary unconscious state of being which would be feeling ‘cool’ or ‘justified’ or ‘vindicated’ or ‘smart’ or ‘respectable’ or ‘slick’ or ‘in control’ or whatever. What we have here is the principle of reversal again – the principle of ‘upside-down perception of value’ which means that we are forever looking for happiness in the wrong place. Basically, what I usually want to do is maintain my extrinsic integrity, which is the integrity of my denial, the integrity of the lie, and so anything connected with this overall aim is routine unconsciousness, and anything that is unconnected with this aim is genuine awareness. We can, therefore, sum up the preceding section by saying that the prize which is ‘freedom of awareness’ is obtained by being consciously in the game. This state of affairs is an odd one – it is like working hard for a wage whilst all the time understanding that money is an utterly meaningless concept! The ‘belief in money’ corresponds to the condition of being in thrall to negative freedom, dominated by the compelling force of extrinsic motivation. It is this belief that effectively prevents us from ever having any awareness of what is actually going on.
Because awareness means uncovering the plot that we have instigated against the truth, and perceiving the damage that has been inflicted because of the execution of this plot, it tends in the first stage to be coloured with pain. Pain itself is the quintessential example of the principle that we are expounding in that it appears to us to be very familiar, and our reaction to it is very routine, yet if we were to ‘hang out’ in this most undesirable of places, we would discover there the Greatest of all Mysteries – redemption from all ills. Johannes Fabricius (1976, p 21) furnishes us with a number of alchemical sayings in this vein, all of which go to prove his point that the hermetic scientists of old had reached an unsurpassed height of psychological understanding many centuries before the birth of Sigmund Freud:
Fig. 28 shows the opening up of the earth to its very centre and the parallel development of the ‘chaos’ of the prima materia. The sinister layers of the subterranean continent are illuminated by the rays of a golden stone at the bottom of the bottomless chasm: the philosophers’ stone, which first appears in a shoddy and despicable form. Filth or dung are some of the many synonyms of the prima materia, which the adepts frequently compare to secretions and excrement such as feces, urine, milk, and menstrual blood.
It is frequently stressed that the stone is to be found ‘in filth’, and that it is so cheap and despicable that it is thrown out into the streets and trodden upon by people. An alchemical poem reads “There is a secret stone, hidden in a deep well, worthless and rejected, concealed in dung or filth.’ In the ‘Tractatus aureus’ the philosophers’ stone is described as follows: “Our most precious stone, cast forth upon the dunghill, being most dear, is made the vilest of the vile.’ The paradox of the stone being simultaneously vile and precious occurs already in the Greek texts. Zozimus says that the stone is ‘contemned and much esteemed, not given yet given by God.’ Similar paradoxes appear in the ‘Turba’, which describes the lapis as ‘a thing… which is found everywhere, which is a stone and no stone, contemptible and precious, hidden, concealed, and yet known to everyone.’
ESCAPING FROM GOALS
It might be said that strangeness as a quality is closely related to what happens when our goal-orientated operations fail us miserably and the desired goal is not achieved. This is because the moment we land somewhere where we really didn’t want to be is the moment when we have escaped from the unseen tyranny of our agendas. Despite ourselves, we have actually done something without premeditation, and so we have stepped out of the prison-house of our conceptual mind. Of course, what happens in the very next instant is that we step neatly back in again because we identify where we are as ‘the wrong place to be’ (or even ‘the right place to be’) and as soon as we make this identification we are back in our agendas again. In practice, the moment of freedom – the ‘gap’ – is so vanishingly minuscule that there is no real chance for us hang around in it long enough to be in any way freed up by it. Therefore, in the general run of things, getting things wrong isn’t really an excursion into mysterious territory at all. And yet, it is there, a potential doorway into Reality, and so it is always possible for us to take advantage of it.
We can illustrate how it might work with a few examples. Let us suppose that I am on a train journey from Waterloo station in London to Plumstead. As a result of not paying proper attention, I overshoot my station and am forced to travel a considerable distance in a distance that takes me further and further away from where I want to be. Eventually, the train stops at the next station and I disembark. Now, it goes without saying that this is completely unprogrammed, I am not ‘supposed to be’ here at all. I am supposed to be somewhere else; this place is (in terms of my agenda) no use to me at all. Because this happened ‘choicelessly’ I am now somewhere strange. Stuff that happens as a result of choice is normal, stuff that happens choicelessly is not normal i.e. it is not part of the system of ‘me and my plans’. Usually, as we have just said, when an accident of this kind happens we compulsively wipe it out – we wipe out the strangeness before we ever get to see it, or smell it. Naturally, I can’t instantly wipe out the strangeness by instantaneously transporting myself to the correct station in some sort of psychokinetic fashion – although I would dearly love to – but what I can do is write off where I currently am as being a place of no use to me whatsoever. I can do this, and I almost inevitably do do it. This action of turning my back on where I actually am is the essential act of resistance. I get upset, I get angry, I get sad. Having failed in my original plan, I compensate for the feeling of failure by putting all my energy and attention into the new goal, which is the goal of ‘correcting my mistake’. Needless to say, this new goal is very powerful in terms of its ability to preoccupy me and distract me from noticing where I actually am, and that is what I want – after all, I don’t want to be where I actually am.
This ‘wanting’ business is the key to the whole thing because wanting locks me into ‘control mode’ and control mode locks me into my assumptions and my assumption lock me into the null-domain of negative freedom. The whole business is so slick, so efficient, that it would make a person cry – but of course its very slickness is the reason that we don’t notice it, and so we end up suffering unconsciously rather than consciously. The motto is – if I can do it consciously, then whatever I am doing will help me, and if do it unconsciously, then everything I do is equally unhelpful. When automatic resistance is not so strong, then there is a chance that we will notice the gap. In this case, there is the perception of the unexpected beauty and mysteriousness of where I have ended up. The ‘unprogrammed space’ which is the undesired station is full of information, it is just not the sort of information that I had been looking for. If I do not immediately press the button to return myself to scheduled reality, then I will be able to experience the boon of being in a non-designed location, and so when I do get back to where I was going (if indeed I still want to) then it will not be the same person who goes there, which would mean that EVERYWHERE I go from then on will be that little bit stranger…
It is often said that the good thing about making mistakes is that we learn from them, but the point is not that we learn how to be more efficient next time (which is what one might assume) but that we learn the ways in which our original goal was not so important anyway. This same idea of ‘faulty goal-orientated behaviour’ can be applied to the business of being addicted. An addiction is a routine par excellence and therefore there is no (obvious) strangeness anywhere in it anywhere. The routine consists of the obtaining of the substance, the taking of it, the period of rapture, which is then followed by the period when one feels the need to acquire and take more of the substance. The ‘need phase’ corresponds to being in the wrong place – it is a wholly unwanted and unvalued part of the cycle and as such it only exists in order to be gotten rid of. Because this is where the big thrust of the compulsion comes in, which is most definite and most goal-orientated, this is also where the potential strangeness comes in since all I have to do is stay in that space that I feel so much like getting out of. This is the place that I am not looking at, and so this is where the strangeness is! To stay in and appreciate this state of non-attainment of goal is a new experience for me, it is like being in a country that I have never before visited and which I have never even heard of before. Within the normal cycle of things the feeling of unrelieved craving is of course deeply familiar to me, but I am of course never interested in it. It is not part of my game, it is something to be passed over as quickly as possible. All the same, it is only through this gap that I can ever find release from the misery and meaninglessness of the never-ending cycle that is addiction. Release does not come from craving release, which is only ‘wanting’ in another guise, i.e. it is still only the pursuit of goals. The way I get free from my compulsive routines is not through my burning desire to be elsewhere, but from finding within myself a genuine interest in where I am, which comes down to valuing strangeness for its own sake. As we have said, if I chase strangeness for gain, then the whole thing is jinxed and I am back to square one in no time.
What is true for one compulsive situation is true for them all, and so we can apply the principle set out above to the compulsive emotions like anger and jealousy, or to the general run-of-the-mill compulsiveness of our ideas and opinion (our fixed viewpoints). No matter what is going on it tends to have compulsiveness in it, and so there is the gateway to strangeness. Even boredom is a gateway, as we said earlier in this chapter, because all we need to do is to refrain from acting on the compulsion to escape from the boredom. In practice – unless we are actively engaged in doing psychological work in our daily lives – there is probably a greater chance of momentarily experiencing ‘strangeness’ when we take a big ‘knock’ than when we suffer from a smaller one. Sogyal Rinpoche (1992, p 102-5) gives an example of this sort of thing in a passage that dramatically illustrates the basic Tibetan Buddhist idea of the bardo, which he defines as an unstable ‘gap’ in the normally stable (i.e. solid) experience of reality:
One of the central characteristics of the bardos is that they are periods of deep uncertainty. Take this life as a prime example. As the world around us becomes more turbulent, so our lives become more fragmented. Out of touch and disconnected from ourselves, we are anxious, restless, and often paranoid. A tiny crisis pricks the balloon of the strategies we hide behind. A single moment of panic shows us how precarious and unstable everything is. To live in the modern world is to live in what is clearly a bardo realm; you don’t have to die to experience one.
This uncertainty, which already pervades everything now, becomes even more intense, even more accentuated after we die, when our clarity or confusion, the masters tell us, will be “multiplied by seven.”
Anyone looking honestly at life will see that we live in a constant state of suspense and ambiguity. Our minds are perpetually shifting in and out of confusion and clarity. If only we were confused all the time, that would at least make for some kind of clarity. What is really baffling about life is that sometimes, despite all our confusion, we can also be really wise! This shows us what the bardo is: a continuous, unnerving oscillation between clarity and confusion, bewilderment and insight, certainty and uncertainty, sanity and insanity. In our minds, as we are now, wisdom and confusion arise simultaneously, or, as we say, are “co-emergent.” This means that we face a continuous state of choice between the two, and that everything depends on which we will choose.
This constant uncertainty may make everything seem bleak and almost hopeless; but if you look more deeply at it, you will see that its very nature creates gaps, spaces in which profound chances and opportunities for transformation are continuously flowering – if, that it, they can be seen and seized.
Because life is nothing but a perpetual fluctuation of birth, death and transition, so bardo experiences are happening to us all the time and are a basic part of our psychological makeup. Normally, however, we are oblivious to the bardos and their gaps, as our mind passes from one so-called “solid” situation to the next, habitually ignoring the transitions that are always occurring. In fact, as the teachings can help us to understand, every moment of our experience is a bardo, as each thought and each emotion arises out of, and dies back into, the essence of mind. It is in moments of strong change and transition especially, the teachings make us aware, that the true sky-like, primordial nature of our mind will have a chance to manifest.
Let me give you an example. Imagine that you come home one day after work to find your door smashed open, hanging on its hinges. You have been robbed. You go inside and find that everything you own has vanished. For a moment you are paralysed with shock, and in despair you frantically go through the mental process of trying to recreate what is gone. It hits you: You’ve lost everything. Your restless, agitated mind is then stunned, and thoughts subside. And there’s a sudden, deep stillness, almost an experience of bliss. No more struggle, no more effort, because both are hopeless. Now you just have to give up, you have no choice.
So one moment you have lost something precious, and then, in the very next moment, you find your mind is resting in a deep state of peace. When this kind of experience occurs, do not immediately rush to find solutions. Remain for a while in that state of peace. Allow it to be a gap. And if you really rest in that gap, looking into the mind, you will catch a glimpse of the deathless nature of the enlightened mind.
As the Twelfth Tai Situpa (1996, p 96) has pointed out however, a spectacular flash of insight might occur as the result of extraordinary circumstances, but we cannot rely on that to help us. The ground has to be prepared beforehand. One way in which he explains this is in terms of devotion:
We have to develop compassion in order to develop pure devotion, and vice versa. The purity of our devotion to the Buddha determines the purity of the blessing we can receive. If we want to see something clearly, we have to have good eyes. The better our eyes are, the clearer our vision will be. The purer our devotion, the purer the blessing, and the more we are able to benefit.
Without a genuine interest in strangeness (i.e. devotion) we cannot take advantage of gaps in the reality broadcast, and we can’t ‘switch on the curiosity’ whenever it suits us. If I am incurious as a general rule, then I will be all the more incurious when something big happens. Looking at it another way, if I am habitually identified with the system of thought (the system of descriptions) then no matter what spectacular flash of insight I might obtain as the result of shock, it will inevitably be re-interpreted later on when I have come back to my normal mind. Similarly, I can’t rely on fortuitous instances of ‘failed goal-orientated behaviour’ to break me out of my habitual mind-set; unless I take an equal interest in all outcomes (both unexpected and expected) then I will be caught out by a new agenda – the agenda to have no agenda. The only way to freedom is through cultivating a profound even-mindedness in all things, which means being in a ‘curious’ state of mind at all times. It could also be said that what we are talking about here is having no interest in short cuts, and being utterly and completely patient. This idea is mentioned by Carlos Castaneda when he talks about the way in which a sorcerer waits for the ‘cubic centimetre of chance’ that would allow him or her to make a bid for freedom. According to Castaneda a sorcerer might well have to wait all his or her life for such a chance, so the ‘waiting’ must be of the most patient (i.e. agenda-free) nature.
Even though moments of extraordinary freedom do arise, and even though regular determinate reality doesn’t give us any breaks, the truth of the matter is that both accidental and designed environments are equally unaccountable when it comes right down to it. Everything is unfamiliar once I actually take enough interest to actually see it – to see stuff as ‘normal’, and therefore unremarkable, is simply the result of a lazy habit of thinking. Even when everything always happens as it should do and nothing weird ever happens, if I stick with it I will see that this unrelenting stability is, as Colin Wilson says in his book Mysteries, patently absurd. The situation is a joke – if only I can see it.
STRANGENESS IS WHEN THERE IS NO ONE THERE TO SEE IT
At this stage it would probably be a good idea to review what exactly it is we mean by strangeness, since we have been using the word rather a lot and the tendency is for the ‘comfortableness’ (or familiarity) of the word to take over, and insidiously detract from the uncomfortableness of what we actually mean by it. One way to define strangeness is by using complexity theory. If I only have the one level of description for an object, then the object (when correctly identified) is what it is, and is nothing else than what it is. This is definition in terms of classical Aristotelian logic – with regard to the question that is posed by the evaluator concerning the identity of what he or she is looking at, the answer has to come back either as a [YES] or a [NO] and if it is the one then it can’t also be the other. This is, in other words, exclusive (i.e. EITHOR/OR) logic. Total definition within the remit of this type of logic means zero strangeness, and therefore we can see that strangeness has to do with non-definition, ‘not-knowing’, or simply [?].
We can proceed in jumps from zero strangeness to ‘a bit of strangeness’ by considering what happens when we have an object for which we have two equally valid levels of description. The figure which looks like a vase if looked at one way, and two faces if looked at the other way, is a perfect example. Suppose I am looking at the vase, and suddenly I switch my perception so that I can see the two faces. At the precise moment of ‘switching’ there is a shock of strangeness because a wholly unexpected picture has just come into view. This switchover is unpredictable: what I see in the second instance is not at all inherent in the first instance and so there is a surprise factor. This gives us another way of defining strangeness – it equals a ‘jump in the information content of the system’.
Now, although having the possibility of a second level of description gives the object in question more ‘hidden depth’ than another object for which there is only the one level, its power to behave in an unexpected way is strictly limited. A non-complex object is thoroughly two-dimensional – what you see is what you get. An object with a dual aspect has more strangeness, but not much more. If we could get our hands on an object for which there are three equally valid and logically unconnected levels of description, then that would be better still – there would be more fun to be had with it. Taking this progression of ‘depth’ to its ultimate extreme, we can talk about an object that is infinitely complex, which basically means that we are talking about an object that is in the real world this time. ‘Real world’ objects have endless hidden depth, what we see on the surface is merely ‘the tip of the ice-berg’. What we have here is the thoroughly slippery situation where all levels of descriptions are merely transient stages on an ongoing movement that never actually comes to an end. Therefore, none of the stages are real in themselves, they only have reality inasmuch as they are part of the motion, part of the overall journey. In other words, when we statically identify with any one viewpoint we depart from the living truth of our situation, and when we are not attached to any one viewpoint then our perception of the relativity of that viewpoint means that we are relating to Reality through it. By allowing the finite to be what it really is (i.e. infinite), we go beneath the surface of appearances, and can see into the endless depths of everything. This gives us another way of looking at strangeness – we can say that strangeness is concomitant with movement, or ‘unfolding’.
Another way in which we have been approaching the idea of strangeness is by saying that it has an inverse relationship to self-consciousness, by which we mean ‘reflexivity of awareness’, i.e. the way in which our awareness tautologically curves back in on itself. Reflexive awareness is the state which we have referred to in terms of organizational closure. In an organizationally closed system there is never any new information because we only ever see the world in terms of what we already know. For this reason, there is no radical uncertainty to anything. Although this state of affairs sounds incredibly boring, in practice we do not experience the full impact of how boring (or ‘redundant’) the whole thing is because we substitute another factor for strangeness, and that is the factor of extrinsic motivation, i.e. attraction/aversion. This factor works by dominating our awareness with promises and threats, by ‘bluff’ in effect, and because we never call the bluff but merely react as if the assumed object of desire or fear was real, we don’t really see the redundancy that is built into the closed or tautological system. Or, as Bennett says, we never see the [-] and the [+] at one and the same time. The process by which we avoid seeing the tautology is nothing other than the operation of the law of psychological entropy, which causes our attention to be fixated so narrowly that we never see what is going on in the Big Picture. Another way to get at this is to say that we don’t generally experience redundancy (i.e. a sense of meaninglessness) in what we do because our consciousness is identified with the rules that condition our experience, and so we simply do not have the necessary perspective. We are like cartoon characters who do not know that they are cartoons because the awareness that we would have needed to see it was necessarily lost when we ‘devolved’ into cartoons in the first place. This is the essential action of psychological entropy, the essential ‘trick’ of organizational closure – we forget, and we also lose the capacity to know that we have forgotten; we ignore, and at the same time we lose the capacity to know that we ignore.
The next step in our discussion of strangeness comes when we make the connection with the empirical self or ‘me’ which is the tautological basis of our perceptions, thoughts, emotions and actions. Reflexivity of awareness, by pure ‘sleight of hand’, creates a ‘me’ which seems to be the most rock-solid and definite thing in the universe. This is the ‘assumed subject’ – the unquestionable basis for almost everything we do. The definiteness of the world around us with all its ‘assumed objects’ is perfectly counterpointed by the definiteness of the empirical (or assumed) self. For this reason, therefore, we can define strangeness in a very simple way by saying that it is what is there when there is nobody there to see it. From the point of view of the empirical self, this presents an insurmountable glitch, a glitch that it can never get out of. Because of this glitch the ‘I’ of the system can never ever see the essential strangeness of the universe – it is condemned to dwell forever within the tautology, diverting itself endlessly with the threats and promises of an unreal-but-very-plausible ‘extrinsic reality’.
This sounds terrible to be sure, but then again, I am not really the ‘I’ of the system at all – I just think that I am! The fact that I am not the glitch in Reality, but Reality itself, is something that it is very comforting to know. All the same, it is formidably hard work to make the transition from the glitched reality of the game to the open, unconditioned situation which the game exists within. Were I to doubt the difficulties involved, a little bit of ‘wall gazing’ would soon put me right. Experience shows that when I gaze at a wall long enough, what I am seeing progressively gets stranger and stranger. In time the notion of ‘me’ and the ‘wall’ start to go completely – I seem to be heading towards an experience of ‘utter strangeness’, I can feel myself about to fall off the coffee table of conceptual reality entirely. Before, I had thought that this conceptual reality was the whole universe, but now I can’t help seeing that it was nothing at all – it just seemed like everything because I was so identified with it, so ‘stuck to it’. This sounds excellent from the point of view of me as a ‘strangeness seeker’ but in practice, however, what happens is the with the first tiny trace of strangeness my conceptual mind cuts in automatically and thus I am returned to the fold. There is a ‘blip’ of strangeness, and I evaluate it, but the instant I evaluate the strangeness it is no longer strange. It has been evaluated as ‘strange’ and so it is quite normal. What is worse, when I abruptly snap back into normality means that means that I become subject again to the prosaic and highly exclusive rules of normality, and that in turn means that I find myself disbelieving that it ever happened. Either that, or I cling to the idea that it happened, which cuts me off from the experience of strangeness just as effectively as denial does since I am now in the mode of ‘clinging to my thoughts’, and because I have become invested in believing that a certain thing ‘is true’, then that means I can no longer afford to be truly open-minded and allow myself to unrestrictedly question stuff, because I will be subject to the sneaking suspicion or fear that it is not true. So even though I want to believe in strangeness, it has all been poisoned by like/dislike and so it has been turned into a sham like everything else.
Strangeness is therefore a trigger, it (almost) unfailingly activates the mechanism which screens itself out, the mechanism of unconsciousness. The stranger the stuff that I see, the more intense is the urge to evaluate or categorize it. Instead of strangeness, we might just as well talk about beauty. Beauty is also a trigger – it is the trigger which (as we have said at the beginning of this chapter) prompts us to import ourselves into the situation. The urge here is the urge to bring ourselves into the picture, to comment upon or otherwise appreciate the value that is there. The perception of such riches goes hand in hand with the desire to possess the riches, the desire to benefit from them – and make sure that we can go on benefiting. The essential act here is the act of making what I see relevant to me, and thereby (surreptitiously) making myself a necessary part of the process, when the truth of the matter is that I am wholly redundant. Actually, the ‘I’ of the system is not just unnecessary to the process, it is a pernicious obstacle to it.
Beauty (or ‘richness’) may be defined as the reality which is revealed to us when experiencing the emotion of love, and we have already met the idea that love is a highly reactive state of consciousness, so reactive in fact that it almost always reacts with its own projections to devolve into the analogous form of attached love, which we spoke of as Type-1 Love since it is so ubiquitous. The irony of Type-1 love is, as we have noted at the beginning of this chapter, that it is a reaction to informational richness that results in impoverishment, so by grabbing hold of the reality we so adore, we unfailingly ruin it. In this we can see the principle of the ‘assumed object’: if only I could stay in the gap, which is that first ‘privileged’ moment when I see things as they are when I am not there to spoil them, then everything would remain wonderful. However, what I very much tend to do is to put the direct experience of the Great Value to one side, as it were, so that I know it is there in an unconscious sort of a way, and switch over into manipulation, which is a whole mass of activity that is predicated upon the ‘assumed object’ that I indirectly know to be so important. Once I operate on the basis of the assumed object of Value, then all my activity, although ostensibly for the sake of that Value, actually serves the reverse purpose of destroying what I thought I held most precious. Everything flips over into falseness, in other words. The thing that is so very poignant about all this is that it is my unconscious appreciation of the preciousness of life that drives me to deny it!‘Value’, when transferred into the theatrical realm of extrinsic reality, become the cause for harmful activity.
PARADOXICAL VERSUS CONTRADICTORY SELF-ESCAPING
We can summarize the above by making the point that strangeness or beauty can only be found when we escape ourselves, and this the self can never ever manage to (deliberately) do. Within extrinsic reality, which is the lower analogue of intrinsic reality, the attempt to escape the self alternates with the attempt to create, consolidate, and extend the self. As we have said, for the self to purposefully escape the self is quite impossible: everything the self does is ‘selfish’, which is to say, everything it does is an extension of itself, including the attempt to go beyond itself. When the system of thought fantasizes about the mysterious realms that lie beyond itself, all it is really doing is creating for itself a simulation of not-self based upon its ideas about what not-self is, and yet of course the system of thought’s ideas about not-self are only thoughts and so they are still part of ‘the system of thought’.
In our normal state of mind, however, it is impossible for us to see the impossibility of the self escaping the self – on the contrary, it appears to be a completely feasible endeavour. This is because the rational mind operates by not seeing that YES is the same thing as NO, because it sees [+] and [-] as being independent, in other words. YES we can take as being the euphoric impulse behind self-maintenance – the drive that urges us on to lay down layer after layer of additional structure upon a foundation of ideas (or assumptions) that have already been given to us. This is the grand purposefulness of the system of thought – the moral, social and economic order that we all pledge allegiance to. Self-maintenance feels great – it provides us with an unquestionable motivation, and it provides a framework of meaning within which we can continue our activity. Alongside this ‘noble’ motivation, there would also appear to be another, distinctly nihilistic (or self-destructive) urge that comes into play when we get fed up of doing what we are ‘supposed to be doing’ and seek release in some form of distraction, minor or less minor. At one end of the scale there is the coffee break or the cigarette break, and at the other end of the scale might be a mad drinking spree or an illicit love affair. Basically, we can include here the whole range of distractions that we have at our disposal – some socially acceptable like TV and other media, others unacceptable such as violence or heavy drug use.
In this context, NO (i.e. ducking out of the official programme) does not stand for depression, despite the fact that we have said that YES is the euphoric impulse inherent in self-maintenance. NO is also a euphoric impulse because it also results in the creation of a self – in this case the self of wanting, the ‘I’ of desire. Both the grand purposefulness of the avowed order, and the sneaky purposefulness of the illicit release are of the same nature, both are distractions from the ultimate Reality of radical uncertainty, which is to say groundlessness (or selflessness). Depression is not the direct result of purposeful action, but the indirect result of purposefulness – one might say that it is what happens when we get ‘stuck’ in the false self. Thus, it may be that we are ‘stuck’ in the legitimate moral order of the socially validated self, and find ourselves temporarily unable either to derive euphoric satisfaction from the role, or to successfully distract ourselves from the stifling unacknowledged ‘phoniness’ of it. On the other hand, it may be that we are stuck in the self which has been created by the illicit purposefulness and find that we cannot distract ourselves from the reality of that. Either way, we are ‘mined out’ – we have extracted all the juice we can out of our situation and now we are left sitting in the midst of a barren and polluted landscape, a site made ugly by our refusal to appreciate it for what it is.
THE ‘DARK GOAL’ OF THE ALCHEMISTS
We can make the assertion, therefore, that the majority of our time is spent consolidating and extending the ‘official’ self, and taking holidays from this morally correct but periodically tiresome business. This is ‘contradictory escaping’ because both YES and NO confirm the validity of the context of meaning in which they are construed – the latter creates a self just as mush as the former does. It is only because we allow ourselves to be ‘blinded by euphoria’ (or by our desire for euphoria) that we fail to see that there is never any escaping from the self-of-the-system. Johannes Fabricius (1976) in his book The Medieval Alchemists and their Royal Art argues for a correspondence between Freud’s concept of the Eros Drive and the positive movement into structure (optimization) that we have been speaking of in terms of moving towards an defined equilibrium value (or ‘attractor’). Fabricius sees the complement of this movement as the dark urge to ‘self-destruction’ and he linked the drive associated with this with the Thanatos (death) Drive. Within the lore of the alchemists, self-destruction is the secret to rebirth in a higher form, as can be seen from the following section in Fabricius (p 95) on the subject of the ‘dark goal’:
The first medal of fig. 162 shows the philosophers’ son and his birth-star rising from a skeleton on the ground. The inscription reads; ‘These are the flowers which are hidden under so many thorns and thistles.’ The second medal shows the philosophers’ son resting in his vessel of rebirth, identified with the womb of the pregnant virgin. The inscription reads: ‘Like the philosophers’ son, the philosophical stone must be nourished by the virgin’s milk.’ The expression of the birth place of the lapis appears in the three words of Kalid: ‘For three months the water preserves the babe in the womb; for three months the air warms it; and the fire for the same length of time guards it. And this word and this teaching and the dark goal stand open, so that all may see the truth.’
The dark goal is the goal of suffering and decomposition – a concept akin to the ‘path of disappointment’, which Chogyam Trungpa talks about. There is no logic in it, no promise of any gain, nothing apart from the darkness. In this act of dying there is an end to purposefulness, and thus an end to the self that can never (deliberately) escape itself. From our discussion of ‘false-escaping’ however it would appear to be possible that what Freud was getting at with his notion of the death-desiring Thanatos Drive was actually the attempt of the bored (or despairing) self to escape itself, rather than the process of genuine death and rebirth, which is not driven by any goals. All goals of the self are the self, even the goal of self-destruction, and so this ‘false escaping’ is not at all the same thing as the Dark Goal of the alchemists, which is not really a goal at all but the ‘giving up of goals’.
This brings us to the notion of ‘paradoxical escaping’. Self-transcendence is of course (in a sense) an escape from the self but it is a paradoxical escape because as soon as we move beyond the trapping gravitational field of the self we realize that it wasn’t our ‘self’ at all, but merely an arbitrary way of looking at things. As Alan Watts says, it is like our lap which vanishes into thin air as soon as we stand up – its existence is dependent upon our posture. So, self-transcendence would be a ‘real escape’ if it wasn’t for the fact that the self which we are escaping from wasn’t there in the first place. No escape was necessary, because there was nothing to escape from. An equivalent statement would be to say that finite messages, despite their power to bind us in one spot, are all the One Infinite Message, which we would be able to see as plain as day if only we could look at things without fear or greed.
THE ‘ONE MESSAGE’
We can conclude this discussion by coming back to the central idea of the ‘Two Realms’. We have just said that both our ‘opting in’ and ‘opting out’ (our conforming and our rebelling) are equally stage-managed and therefore equally meaningless. I get to feel good both ways because if I conform I am a ‘good boy’ which is a positive morality trip, and if I rebel I am a ‘bad boy’ which is a negative morality trip. It is great to know that I am good and justified in the eyes of the consensus opinion, and it is also great to know that I am naughty and that I ‘don’t give a damn for all that crap’. In both of these stances, however, the universe is humouring me – both are shows that are perfectly believable if I identify with them. If I believe in the show, then it takes on a pragmatic reality. This reality totally convinces us (at least it does for 99.999% of the time) but it is frustrating all the same: nothing ever really works out as we wanted it to, and even when it seems momentarily as if it is working out, there is always the threat of it going wrong. Ultimately, everything that we worked for (we are of course talking about unconscious work here) gets undone and we are back to square one again. Our successes are staged and so are our failures, but because it suits us to believe uncritically in our successes, we also have to swallow the bitter pill of believing in our failures. This double-act of pleasure and pain go to make up the theatrical realm.
In the theatrical realm everything comes back down to the frightening ‘blank reality’ of the nullity. The more we believe in our distractions, the more frighteningly appalling is the base level of the central tautology – the place we cannot run away from. If we did not believe so much in the positive or negative distractions then the unmasked nullity would not as much power to appall us, and we would begin to see beyond it. And then, when we stop investing all our energy in escaping it, we start to see that ‘it’ isn’t so terrible as to be beyond enduring. The nasty echoey quality of the nightmare solipsistic vision gives way to something else and after a while, we can see that where we are isn’t horrible at all but sublime. The trap of organization closure (the ‘mind echo’) only occurs when I attempt to pre-empt (or apprehend) reality, and when I desist from this purposeful mode of mentation I am no longer closed off in the meaningless private universe of my own thoughts. Beforehand, the zero-information content of the nullity had oppressed and mocked me; now, the exhausted finite message which is the unveiled nullity no longer oppresses me but affirms my true identity – it allows me to be who I really am. Zero information equals infinite information. The finite message is the Infinite Message. Everything is the Infinite Message.
The Dramatic Realm is the realm of communication, rather than the suffocating non-communication of the unmasked nullity, or the false communication of the effectively hidden nullity. It can be seen from this that the closed form of communication has a type of correspondence with the open (or true) communication of the Dramatic Realm, which is to say,
FINITE MESSAGES ARE AN ANALOGUE OF THE INFINITE MESSAGE
This is the very same correspondence that we noted as existing between Type-1 (conditioned) Love and Type-2 (unconditioned) Love. We may say that the ‘currency’ of the theatrical realm is conditioned love, which is basically attachment (i.e. like/dislike) whilst the currency of the Dramatic Realm is unconditioned love, which is non-attachment. Instead of being based like conditioned love upon an object (which is only apparently real since it only has existence within a game), unconditioned love is based upon the Truth, which is at all times wholly outside our games. Another way to put this is to say that the Infinite Message that is unconditioned love relates us to the Truth that is everything and everywhere.