Working With Negativity


‘Positive thinking’ isn’t the great ‘cure-all’ that we have traditionally taken to be and it is a sign of how desperately ‘unpsychologically-minded’ we are as a culture that we think it is. It is of course perfectly true that unhappy states of mind such as anxiety, anger and envy arise from describing reality to ourselves in a negatively slanted way without realizing that this is what we are doing, but that does not means that the ‘cure’ is to start slanting things in a positive way! It looks like the obvious way to try correct matters, but what is obvious is rarely true. A good way to explain the error inherent in the ‘positive approach’ is to think in terms of uncertainty. The world we live in can be said to be uncertain, in the sense that when something happens we can never know what the final consequences of that event are going to be. This is the basic principle of ‘chaos theory’. At the first glance chaos (or unpredictability) looks like a bad thing because it threatens the orderly management of our lives, but on the other hand, if we really think about it, it always seems that the best things that happen to us do not happen because we planned for them to happen – they happen by accident. They happen despite us, not because of us. There is even a word to describe this sort of thing, serendipity – defined by Cassell’s dictionary as ‘the happy knack of making unexpected and delightful discoveries by accident’. We are brought up to respect the idea that we have to work for the good things in life, which is true up to a point, but an unfortunate side effect of relying on our own goal-orientated activity is that we close ourselves off to serendipity.  It could be said that serendipity actually underlies everything, since life itself has the nature of ‘an unexpected gift’ (although of course we might not always find it delightful).



Uncertainty clearly has something to do with ‘unexpectedness’ – if I am certain, then I am not open to anything unexpected. Contrary-wise, if I am a bit uncertain, then I will be open to the unexpected. Out of the two, the closed-mindedness of certainty and the open-mindedness of uncertainty, it is the first option that we are most drawn to. It is an undeniable fact that uncertainty is something that we are not very comfortable with, and for this reason we tend to run from it.  Uncertainty offers us no security since we would like to know immediately whether the event (or thing) is good or bad, and whether we should, on that basis, either take advantage of it, or avoid it. Certainty seems like a welcome friend to us because it means that at last we have something to go on, at last we know what is happening, and this is a great relief to us – nothing is harder to bear than the ambiguity and suspense of not knowing. Even if I am having a terrible time, I want to be certain about it. I will want to know exactly how long I have to put up with it for, or I will want to know if it really is ‘all up with me’. Somehow, that feels better than not knowing what the story is. Thinking the worst is called ‘negative thinking’, and it is widely recognized as being unhelpful. This is a form of closed-mindedness. However, exactly the same is true for ‘thinking the best’ – positive thinking is just as closed as negative thinking, it is just another version of the same thing. Both negative and positive thinking offer us relief, an ‘easy way out’, from reality, which is as we have said painfully uncertain.




A simple way to illustrate this tendency of ours to transform uncertainty into spurious certainty is by considering what happens when we meet a person for the first time. What often happens is that we make an instant judgement on the basis of our prejudices, our inbuilt ‘evaluation-system’, and from then on we become more or less closed to any new information that would contradict our beliefs about that person. This is sometimes called ‘labelling’. It is very hard not to label people in some way, but the truth of the matter is of course that we can never be certain about people in this way. I might label a person as a menace to society who ought to be locked up, yet this same person might go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. They might go on to save the world. I might label another person as being a hopeless coward, and yet she might save my life one day, at the risk of her own. What store would I set on my evaluative criteria then? Another point that we need to consider is that we label ourselves, all the time – I might label myself a useless waste of space, or a coward, and then get stuck in the false certainty of this belief. Here again the answer is not just to ‘re-label’ myself as being the opposite of whatever it was that I labelled myself as being in the first place. It is no good for me to re-label myself as ‘a valuable / courageous person’ for that is still ‘control of meaning’, it is still spurious certainty, i.e. it is something that we have decided ourselves to believe in. If it is false for me to label myself as a coward, then it must be equally false for me to label myself as a ‘not-coward’!



If the answer is not for me to re-label myself (or my situation), then what is the solution? Clearly, the only way out of the mess is not to label reality at all, to let it be what it actually is! This is so obvious that we might wonder why we have not already thought of it, but the trouble is, of course, that we are not aware of how we doctor our reality in the first place. The process is basically unconscious, or ‘habitual’ – it happens so automatically that we just don’t see it. I identify my situation as being a certain way, and then straightaway act as if that is really ‘how it is’. In other words, I am utterly oblivious to my own participation in creating that reality. On the one hand ‘ignorance is bliss’, because I can hand over all responsibility and project all negativity on the outside world, but on the other hand it is this unconscious, unreflective way of living that creates the negativity in the first place!




Another reason we have problems with the idea that we are constantly weaving a world around us with our labelling is that we have such a strong belief that there actually is an objective, ‘certain’ reality out there, a reality that is independent of our way of looking at it. The point is not that we ‘create the world out of our heads’ but that we put a spin on it, and then believe in that spin. We automatically slant reality in accordance with the way that we have learned to see things over the years, in accordance with our ‘conditioning’.  But then why have we said that there is no ‘certain’ reality out there – surely if we stop viewing the world through the distorting lens of our conditioning, then we will ‘see things as they really are’? The trouble with this naive assumption is that ‘reality as it really is’ is infinitely complex. This essentially means that there is no one correct way to observe and describe the universe. This is the principle that lies behind ‘complexity theory’, which is a sort of sister to chaos theory. Complexity theory asserts (as did quantum theory before it) that every time I look at the world in a definite way, I obtain only partial knowledge. What is more, the price I pay for this partial knowledge is that I lose sight of other, complementary ways of seeing and knowing the world. Processing information inevitably means losing that information which was not relevant to your processing rules. This is why Nobel Prize-winning physician/biologist/physicist Stuart Kaufman says [quote taken from John Horgan (1996, p 228)] :

To be is to classify is to act, all of which means throwing away information. So just the act of knowing requires ignorance.

This is a neat way to explain why we can never obtain the true definitive picture: we can’t do it because there is always part of the whole that we cannot see. As we have been saying – reality is uncertain.



In our day-to-day reasoning we do not appreciate this fact. We think that there really is such a thing as ‘genuine certainty’, so that even if I am persuaded that my beliefs (along with my perceptions) are the simply result of my conditioning, I still hang on to the idea that all I need to do is correctly describe the world to myself, and then everything will be back on track! What I don’t see is that all descriptions, all ‘labels’, are misleading. They misrepresent the dynamic nature of the universe, causing me to interact with my infinitely complex environment on the basis of a static (i.e. ‘non-complex’) view. This in turn traps me within my assumptions so that I believe in them even more than before, which a process known sometimes known as ‘reification’. As long as I cling to the belief that somewhere ‘out there’ there is an objective, ‘certain and definitive’ description of my situation, there remains the possibility that I might really be whatever it is that I have labelled myself as being.  After all, if there is such a thing as a definitive description, then I will always have grounds for believing that my description is ‘the right one’. Or, as we have just said, I will always have grounds for believing that I can arrive at a correct description by working away at it, and so I will get caught up in the endlessly deceptive business of trying to manipulate (or control) my own beliefs.



This is the essential idea behind ‘positive thinking’, and behind all therapies that say we can control (i.e. re-structure) our own conditioning. It seems obvious enough but ‘obvious’ doesn’t mean that it’s going to work! There is a nasty glitch in the idea because in order for me to ‘correct’ my evaluative criteria, I must of course have another set of evaluative criteria concerning what is good and bad, desirable and undesirable. And if those criteria are themselves suspect, then how do I check up on them? In the end, I am forced to admit that I can’t deliberately change myself since the problem lies in my assumptions and there are always going to be a set of assumptions that are invisible to me. To control, I need to classify stuff as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and, as Kauffman reminds us, to classify is to throw away information. Just as knowing requires ignorance, so too does controlling require ignorance. Controlling requires us to have a mental blindspot, and it is that ‘mental blindspot’ which is causing the problem that I want to fix. The more I try to correct for it, the more it comes into play!  What I can’t get to grips with – naturally enough – is the principle which says that the only way to see my blind-spot is by not looking for it.




We can sum all this up by saying that our dangerous tendency to put all our money on fixing (or ‘correcting’) is the result of the unspoken (and totally ridiculous) assumption that ‘some labels are true’.  In other words, we implicitly believe that it is possible for us to actually know the correct way for things to be. This belief arises in turn from a viewpoint known as positivism, which was the philosophy that underpinned the expansion of the scientific revolution before relativism started to creep in and spoil for good any possibility of an absolute framework of reference.  Relativistic science says that there never can be any final description of a situation or event, since that situation or event only makes sense in relation to the way in which we arbitrarily chose to view it. As our understanding deepens, we find that things were not what we originally took them to be, and we see that the problem lay in what Robert Anton Wilson (1990) refers to as our tendency to jump to a ‘premature state of certainty’. Relativism is threatening, since it continually pulls the carpet from under our feet; it induces a profound and unsettling sense of intellectual vertigo, as sociologists Berger and Luckman point out in the introduction to their book The Social Construction of Reality, but at the same time it doesn’t sew everything up once and for all, which is of course no more than intellectual cowardice. Relativism opens up for us the awe-inspiring possibility that the universe we live in is capable of being a deeper phenomenon than we had blandly assumed it to be – it reminds us with a jolt that all of our labels are no more than bland and over-simplistic assumptions.




Ultimately, the only thing that we can say for sure is that we don’t know. Saying that ‘we don’t know’ isn’t an admission of defeat, on the contrary, it means is that we have an open mind – we are capable of learning because we haven’t got our heads full of ‘premature certainty’, i.e. prejudice. If we can allow ourselves to see the truth of uncertainty then this is strength not weakness! This is an amazingly important point, not for any fancy philosophical reason, but simply because it is through the understanding of cognitive relativity that we find the key to working with negativity. ‘Cognitive relativity,’ we may note, means that none of our thoughts are absolutely true, but only true with regard to the assumptions which we have had to make in order to be able to think them. The essential idea that we are going to be working with is the idea that it is false certainty which causes negativity, and it is the appreciation of the meaning of uncertainty that allows us to live in a way that does not generate negativity.



One question that we could ask at this point is “What exactly is this thing we’re calling ‘negativity’?” This is a very good question but we cannot answer it in a direct way for reasons that will become apparent shortly. Before we do attempt to answer the question, we will first take the particular form of ‘negativity’ known as anxiety, which we are all perfectly familiar with, and use it to demonstrate how certainty produces negativity in this case. Let us say that I am about to go into a room for a job interview. I can take two approaches to this – I can be certain in a positive way, and tell myself that I am going to do fine, that it will be a doddle, or I can be certain in a negative way, and tell myself that it is going to be an utter and unmitigated disaster. Now, normally it is said that the first type of certainty is good, and the second bad. Both, however, are manifestations of anxiety because in both cases I am fixating upon the possibility of failure. In the second instance it is of course obvious that I am completely caught up in (or attached to) the idea that I am going to fail, but the attachment is exactly the same in the first instance. If I say that I am definitely going to fail, then this is positive attachment to failure, and if I say that I am definitely going to succeed, then this is negative attachment to failure, since by deliberately ignoring the possibility that I might fail I have actually highlighted that possibility. By making a point of avoiding it, I have made it important.



It would appear that negativity here has something to do with ‘making an issue’, or ‘getting hung up on something’. It has something to do with attachment, in other words. It is now possible to see why we cannot define negativity in a direct way:

The problem is that if we objectify negativity by ‘deliberately working against it’ then this is itself an attachment and so our reaction to the negative has actually become PART of that negativity…


Attachment basically means that we have made something real that isn’t real, it means that we have reified a concept or idea and got stuck with it. Alternatively, we could say that attachment means that we have fixated upon one partial view of a complex (many sided) reality, and got trapped within that particular static perspective, so that any action we might undertake based upon either attraction or aversion within this perspective enmeshes us even more than we were in the first place. In the case of the negativity of anxiety, we can say that any kind of purposeful activity taken in relation to the issue of anxiety makes that anxiety more of a threat than ever. Therefore, negativity isn’t an actual thing but rather it is the result of reacting to supposed ‘negativity’ as if it were a real thing. This is a sort of circular feedback reaction. Once we do react, then we have trapped ourselves in the illusion that there is a real thing to react to, and so it is just the same effect as if there actually had been! In this way the whole thing snowballs tremendously, but there is no real basis for it anywhere. In a nutshell, negativity is the attempt to avoid negativity.



In the terms which we have introduced earlier, both positive and negative attachment equal ‘control of meaning’ – in both cases I am putting a spin on reality, and for this reason we can say that both positive and negative thinking are ‘lies’, i.e. misrepresentations of reality. Going back to the previously mentioned job interview scenario, the truth of the matter is simply that I do not know how I will get on in the interview – how can I, unless I can see into the future? Therefore, if I suggest to you that you should use ‘positive thinking’ to free yourself from anxiety, the implication is that by misrepresenting reality to yourself, you will somehow become free. Actually, of course, the only sort of freedom that you will get this way is ‘the freedom to believe in a lie’, which can also be referred to as ‘the freedom to successfully fool yourself’. John Bennett (1960) calls this ‘negative freedom’. Once the matter is put in this way, it is not hard to see the flaw inherent in this whole pernicious business of positive thinking: only truth can set me free, and truth is not something that I create on purpose, in order to suit myself. 




Positive thinking, in its more naive manifestations, is not particularly difficult to see through – many people will voice their reservations about the cruder types of self-affirmation, for example. What is harder to see is that even the type of prescribed ‘reasonable reformulations’ that we find in cognitive behavioural therapy are also fatally flawed. As a patient in need of cognitive restructuring I am encouraged to identify ‘thinking errors’ such as black and white, ‘all or nothing’ thinking, so that if I am tempted to condemn myself for one mistake, I can re-route my thinking by saying helpful things like “Everyone makes mistakes”, or “Criticism from others is normal – it doesn’t mean that I am a failure”. These statements are perfectly true of course, but that doesn’t help. If I am deliberately trying to restructure my thinking in response to some tendency towards anxiety, or depression, or low self-esteem, then what I am essentially trying to do to avoid that negativity, and therefore I am caught up in the feed-back loop of generating negativity just as surely as if I was merely contradicting my automatic negative thinking by saying YES every time it says NO. To paraphrase Stuart Kaufman formula: ‘Correcting’ means ‘classifying,’ which means ‘throwing away information’, and so the very act of ‘correcting’ requires ignorance. I am trying to correct (or control) my own thinking, and so I am ensnared in my own mental blind spot, a slave to my own ‘ignore-ance’.



We may also shed light on the hidden glitch in cognitive restructuring by asking “What is my motivation for attempting to restructure my own thinking?” It has to be the basic perception that some state of affairs or other is absolutely unacceptable. If my issue is that I tend to think that I am a total failure (or ‘loser’), then any attempt to moderate this tendency to fly off into a complete condemnation of myself as ‘a loser’ is loaded with the implicit assumption that ‘it is bad to be a total loser’! In other words, my attempt at purposeful interference within this whole evaluative framework of ‘winner versus loser’ merely traps me further in that framework, and it is that evaluative framework itself which is the problem, not my position within that framework. Reformulation, which is to say, corrective action, takes the validity of the issue for granted, and thereby ensnares me deeper in the game. Freedom doesn’t come this way, freedom comes from seeing that the game itself doesn’t matter a damn, or rather, that it only matters if we choose for it to matter. Going back to our example of anxiety, we may say that the only way to become genuinely free from anxiety (or any other form of negativity) is by not reacting to that anxiety. To react is to lose perspective, and to lose perspective is to take the game seriously. Not reacting, in essence, means ‘not describing,’ or ‘not identifying’. Therefore, the only way to become free from negativity is by not describing reality to myself, which is to say, by allowing reality to reveal itself to me, in its own good time. This, in practice, means learning to allow uncertainty, i.e. learning not to jump to conclusions, either of the positive or negative variety.




Normally, the last thing we want to do is to allow reality to speak for itself. When I find myself in a situation, any situation, the very first thing I do is to describe that situation to myself, in accordance with the way I have judged or evaluated situations in the past. Thus, what rules the roost here are my ‘habitual reactions’, and the ‘mental map’ which these reactions are based on, rather than what is really going on in the here and now. This is a case of what James Carse calls the ‘past triumphing over the future’. The past equals my habitual mind, the automatic system which I use to evaluate what is happening to me. Because of this automatic system, what starts to happen is that I confuse my expectations of reality with reality itself, which sooner or later makes things very difficult for me because I am now reacting to my own prejudices, rather than reacting to something outside of myself that is real. I jump to a conclusion about what is going on, and then I proceed to act on the basis of this false certainty, as if it were objective truth, whilst actually I have lost my connection with the truth of the situation.



This is a bit like going to interview someone who has a guardian or protector who always answers on her behalf. Every question you put to her gets answered by this over-protective companion, who genuinely thinks that they are speaking for the person under their charge and conveying their viewpoint honestly. The problem is one of ‘a false sense of familiarity’ – the guardian feels as if they know exactly their charge would say in any situation, and because of this, they go right ahead and say what they think the person would say without allowing a gap through which something new might show itself. There is zero ‘reflectiveness’ in this attitude, zero time given to considering the possibility that the person’s views on a subject might actually be unknown to them. This lack of reflectiveness is inevitably the result of pressure or anxiety – I am forced to act first, and think not at all, by some sort of hidden fear. Although the motivation for the over-controlling guardian is understandable, and not deliberately malicious, the net result is that an act of profound violence has been carried out upon the person under their charge. Their voice has been stolen, and therefore they might as well not be there at all. It is exactly the same as if they weren’t there.



We can all generally spot this kind of gross ‘hijacking’ of another person’s reality when we come across it, but the point we are making is that we are all guilty of exactly the same thing just about every time we interact with the world around us. We have a false sense of familiarity about life, we assume that we know what is going on. When something happens, we go straight into automatic thinking, leaving as small a gap as we possibly can between stimulus and response, trigger and reaction. By leaving virtually no gap what we have done is to effectively exclude the vital stage of allowing reality the chance to say anything – we move straight on to ‘answering on reality’s behalf’.  The interpretation of a stimulus (i.e. registering that ‘this is important’) and the execution of a response (i.e. deciding ‘how to deal with it’) are both actions of the automatic mind, whereas the ‘gap’ is reality.  Evaluation and reaction are both ‘the past’, and the fleeting gap between the two is the reality of the here & now, which we rarely have anything to do with in our anxiety-driven rush to perpetuate the past over and over again into the distant future.  Due to our unacknowledged anxiety, the old pattern of our automatic mind is re-asserted time and time again, and reality is never allowed to speak for itself.




What keeps us trapped in the old and deeply familiar system of our thinking is the process of automatic labelling (or ‘identification’), and the automatic emotional responses that are based upon the premature certainty which labelling generates. The ‘book of life’ is left unread, since in our haste to ‘get on with it’ we have assumed that we already know what it says. Perhaps we caught a glimpse of the cover, or perhaps someone else already told us what it was all about. Either way, we have now ‘closed our accounts with reality’ (as one psychologist has put it), and we are only interested in putting what we know (or think we know) into practice. We battle on grimly, seizing hold of our ‘truth’ more and more tightly as the pressure builds, as it must inevitably do once we are committed to upholding one static view of reality over all others. Actually, what we are really committed to is ‘learning nothing new’ and this necessarily puts us in conflict with the universe, which, as we have said, is always new.  Socrates expressed this in his dictum ‘A life unexamined is a life not worth living’, and if the truth of this was ignored then, over three thousand years ago, then it is ignored twice as hard today!



The discussion above is not too hard to follow, but putting it into practise is hard, and there is no way that it can’t be hard. It is not hard because there is something special that we have to do, or because there are difficult skills involved that we have to learn to master. On the contrary, it is hard precisely because there is no ‘special way’ to do it, no skill that we can learn that will make it easier. No matter how clever we get, it will not help us, because it is our cleverness that is our enemy. Usually, when we learn something new we learn some new type of ‘doing’, but working with negativity has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘doing’ – the whole point is simply ‘not to do’ when normally we would ‘do’. The compulsion is to react, and the way to work with the compulsion is by not reacting. Things are however not really quite as simple as all that because what we quickly find out is that the habit of ‘doing’ is so deeply ingrained in us that it is virtually impossible for us not to react, no matter how much we want not to. There are two ways in which I can run into problems: either I react as normal because it all happens too quickly for me to notice what is going on, or I react to the compulsion by enforcing a ‘counter-compulsion’, which is still a form of ‘doing’. In the first case I am baffled because the automatic process just happens to me and I can’t see any gap at all (where presumably there would be a moment of choice involved), and in the second case I am continually frustrated by the way in which I ‘mess it up’ by making a ‘doing’ out of ‘not doing’ (i.e. by trying to ‘do’ ‘not doing’, which is obviously absurd). This is the big brick-wall that we run into when we try to purposefully influence our own tendency to be automatic, so as to make ourselves (hopefully) less automatic.



The two basic problems are [1] that we aren’t aware of the process because it is too fast or too unconscious, and [2] that all we have is our automatic reactions, so that we end up trying to make automatic reactions not be so automatic by reacting against them automatically, which is obviously a non-starter! The essential point to understand about all this is that we cannot be less automatic on purpose. This isn’t the dead-end that it seems however, because it is the lack of understanding about this basic impossibility that prevents us from getting anywhere, because in the absence of this understanding we are bound to invest all our energy and time in the meaningless task of ‘trying to change ourselves on purpose’. Without this key insight there is no chance that we will not end up going down the alchemist’s via erratum, the ‘way of error’. Before we look at how it is possible to work with automatic reactions (in a non-purposeful way), we will first take a closer look at what exactly is involved in ‘automatically reacting’.



What we are basically talking about here is ‘habit energy’. In a habit, the responsibility for deciding to carry out an action is taken away from us and made automatic. Something has taken over, but actually of course there is no one there taking the responsibility away – the action occurs but there is no real ‘doer’ behind the doing. What has happened is that the executive authority for the action has been handed over to a programme, a set of instructions that is buried in our unconscious mind. We can therefore look at habits in terms of a devolution of responsibility from the true ‘I’ or Self to an instrument or servant of that Self. Now as long as the true ‘I’ stays ‘present’ there is no problem, but what inevitably tends to happen is that more and more responsibility is taken away from the true ‘I’. More and more energy gets sunk into automatism until the habit starts to act like an individual ‘I’ itself, and in time turns against the real Self.  This is a bit like the situation of a king whose subjects refuse to take any notice of his wishes – they carry on doing what they want to do no matter what kingly commands are issued.  Clearly this is not a very satisfactory state of affairs – at least from the point of view of the king! If we take it (just for the sake of this analogy) that the role of the king is essential for the general well being of the kingdom, then it is bad news all around, and no one will benefit, despite the illusion of a short-term benefit that may seem initially to be there.



That there is an initial feeling (or impression) of some sort of gain or benefit is unquestionable. As long as I as the king assume that what my subjects are doing in my name is what I would want them to do then everything seems fine. I am probably going to feel quite pleased with the set-up because I don’t actually have to do the work – all that is taken away from me! But suppose as time goes on I get more and more comfortable, and less and less vigilant as to the activities of the ‘apparatus of state’. Due to the on-going drift of kingly authority that occurs in situations such as this, more and more devolution tends to take place – after all, if the initial devolution of authority made things easier, then for the interests of convenience and efficiency it makes sense to keep  taking the process further. Eventually, the tendency will come to its logical conclusion and the ‘apparatus of state’ (i.e. ‘the toxic bureaucracy’) becomes a fully independent entity in itself. The true ‘I’ is now redundant! King Richard is gone and the Sheriff of Nottingham has taken over!



What we are talking about here isn’t just some vague possibility, something that might possibly happen under certain circumstances, what we have actually done here is to state the second law of thermodynamics in a somewhat unfamiliar form. The second law of thermodynamics says that the entropy of a closed system is bound to increase, and what this means is that when ‘rules’ are set up in a symmetrical (i.e. ‘rule-less’) situation what happens from then on is bound to be a one-way street, since rules are by their very nature closed. This might seem like a very sweeping statement, but in fact all we are doing here is to restate the same basic principle of irreversible information loss we referred to earlier in the quotation by Stuart Kaufman. Once symmetry is broken, and there has been an ‘information collapse’, there is no way to get back to the previous, relatively highly-complex state on the basis of the subsequent, relatively non-complex state that the system has degenerated into. The information has simply been lost to the system, and that is that. In order to get back, the system must look beyond itself, and this is the one thing the system of thought cannot do!



We are therefore dealing with the fundamental law of thermodynamics here, which means that we had better be pretty damn careful – this is not a law to be taken lightly! The logical conclusion of this business of ‘interacting with our environment in a rule-based manner for the sake of efficiency’ (which is what we are basically talking about) is that we end up with an organizationally-closed system – i.e. we end up losing all awareness of radical (or ‘irreducible’) uncertainty. In other words, we end up thinking that our rules have an exact correspondence with reality, the implication of this being that we can then happily ‘hand over all responsibility to our rules’. In terms of the king and his bureaucracy, the assumption is that the rules which the bureaucracy are enacting are adequate and appropriate for all conceivable circumstances that might arise in the state. This is organizational closure in a nutshell – it means basically that we have ‘shut the book’. We have ‘closed our accounts with reality’ (as Williams James says) and this leads to an inevitable increase of psychological entropy, i.e. ever-increasing predictability of thoughts, beliefs, and behaviour, increasing rigidity and brittleness of the personality, anxiety and depression.



The analogy of the erosion of kingly authority through the development of an increasingly autonomous administrative apparatus is potentially misleading in some respects. For one thing, when we are talking about the situation of the devolved authority of the true ‘I’ there is a key feature of the process that does not get properly addressed, and that is the phenomenon of ‘identification’. When a rule-based information processing system (i.e. the conceptual or rational mind) is set up to help with the interaction with the environment, devolution of responsibility actually means the loss of the true Self by the process of unconscious identification with the instrument of the true Self, which is the rule-based mind. Therefore, the ‘self’ is felt to be the defined (and necessarily limited) representation of the reality rather than the reality itself. What this means is that there is a reversal going on here whereby ‘who I really am’ gets forgotten, buried under the false certainty of ‘the self-of-passive-identification’. A classic example of identification would be where I perceive the opinions and beliefs that I automatically voice to be authentically mine (which is to say, a spontaneous expression of my individuality) rather than being an accidentally acquired set of rules that have ended up being lodged in my head. My reaction is automatic, which is the opposite of spontaneous, but because of my high degree of identification with the rules in question, the rules which condition the reaction, I experience what is automatic to be spontaneous. This ‘backwards-ness’ (or ‘inversion’) is characteristic of the state of passive identification.




Another potential source of confusion arises from the very notion of ‘the king’. Who is the king? Are the autocratic associations of this whole business of kingship helpful in a view of psychological functioning? The first thing that we should say is that our normal ideas of a king as a special or superior personage are misleading when applied to the true ‘I’ because of the implication of locality. When we use the term locality we are going beyond the narrow definition of ‘location in space’, and getting at the idea that where one set of rules are arbitrarily elevated over all others, there is a sort of ‘local’ understanding of what is right and wrong, important and not important, and so on. I have what is basically a ‘provincial’ viewpoint, and such a viewpoint inevitably says more about where I come from, than it does about the world which I am bending to suit my assumptions. An extreme version of this is the highly opinionated person whose freely offered opinions of others provides information about himself, rather than being of any help at all in understanding anyone else!



We can attempt to explain what we mean by locality’ by reference to an imaginary chessboard, which has a square for each view of the world which it is possible to take. When I stand on a square in the infinite chessboard of ‘all possible views of the world’, then one way of looking at things stands out and excludes all the others. A particular coherent and self-consistent world has come into being, but the reality of that world is dependent upon the fact that I am standing in that particular spot, that particular ‘square’. I am specifically located within what is sometimes called ‘rule-space’ – the mathematical (or abstract) continuum composed of all possible sets of rules that might be brought to bear on the organization of the perception of the complex universe that we all live in. Each different location in this space brings with it a different pragmatic perception of the universe, but all of these views misrepresent that universe. They don’t misrepresent it because they are ‘only partial pictures’, they misrepresent it because they are ‘partial pictures which claim to be the whole picture’. The only way to not misrepresent the complex universe is by not subscribing to any partial (or local) view of it, in other words, by taking a non-local view.



What is a ‘non-local view’? To put it simply, it is when no one set of rules is elevated over any others. This means that ‘all rules are equally good’. (Or ‘equally bad.’) However, as we know, if all rules are equally good that does away with the whole meaning of  ‘a rule’, since a rule is essentially a dissymmetry between <what is allowed> and <what is not allowed>. A rule, in other words, is a split between <RIGHT> and <WRONG>, it is a specification regarding the way things must be. When all rules are allowed, there is no split between what is permitted and what is not permitted, and therefore all possibilities are equally permitted, which means that there is no ‘interference’ involved at all. In conclusion, we can say that for each local view, there is a Rule (or linked set of rules) that is operative, and which by their operation create that local projection of reality, for non-locality there is also a Rule, but that Rule is the paradoxical rule which says <THERE SHALL BE NO RULES>. In topological terms, then, locality corresponds to the dissymmetrical state (i.e.  ‘particularity’), and non-locality to the symmetrical state (i.e. ‘universality’).



Regarding the dissymmetrical state of locality, there are things that can be said, always bearing in mind, however, that the meaning of ‘what can be said’ is conditioned by that very dissymmetry. This is simply another way of saying that the reality (or truth) of the partial view is conditioned by the fact that I am located on that specific square in rule-space and no other. The pragmatic effect of being located in this square is that the conditioned truth manifests as an ‘independent’ truth, i.e. the relative validity of my perceptions is misrepresented as ‘absolute validity’.  Coming back to the notion of ‘the king’ now, what this means is that we are bound to look for the king in local terms. Basically, we want a King of whom ‘things can be said’, but the True Self to which we have been referring all along is not a conditioned truth (i.e. not a ‘relative perception’) but the unconditioned (or ‘independent’) truth of non-locality, and this means that we can say nothing about such a King, because to say stuff would be synonymous with breaking the perfect symmetry of non-locality. The ‘King’ is actually the symmetrical situation which is outside of the limiting conditions of space and time, referred to by Robert Anton Wilson (1990) as the non-local self. 



If Robert Anton Wilson’s ‘non-local self’ is who we really are, then we can see why it is that any King who can be specified is bound to be a ‘false King’, since the partial picture always passes itself off as the Whole Picture. [As Bohm says, the nature of operation of the system of thought is that it both participates in creating the reality we see, and effectively erases all traces of its participation.] So in answer to the question “Who is the King?” we would have to answer that he is ‘neither this nor that’, which is the formula in the Hindu system of metaphysics. This is of course a ‘non-definition’, but then again only a non-definition can point towards non-locality!




When I define myself as ‘this’ or ‘that’ then what I am doing is seizing hold of a ‘local self’, and identifying myself with that misrepresentative view. The point that we are trying to make out of this discussion is that this process of ‘identification’ is the same process by which the authority of the true ‘I’ is devolved to the false ‘I’ of habitual (or unconscious) reactions. The process is really one of ‘self-losing’, whereby I end up believing that I am what I am not, so that any purposeful endeavour from this false stand-point only serves to perpetuate and extend the unreality of my situation. My actions within the domain of negative freedom do create consequences, however, and these consequences are what we have been calling ‘negativity’.



Negative freedom means ‘ignoring Reality’, and when we ignore or deny Reality its influence on us does not disappear, it just becomes destructive, or ‘negative’. Actually, of course, it isn’t that Reality has become a malign entity, because Reality is what it is, no matter what attitude we take towards it. What has happened is that, because of our position of being identified with the false (or unreal) self, the property that Reality has of being itself is experienced in the most frighteningly negative aspect. John Bennett (1961, p 199-200) uses the idea of ‘positive identity’ versus ‘negative identity’ to explain why this should be:

Positive identity is to exist according to one’s own essential pattern. Pure essence identity is the hold of the Self upon the ultimate reality of Being.



Negative identity is ‘essential non-existence’. It is to be what one is not as the imaginary component of a null-triad, of which the other part is being what one is. Being what one is not, confronted with what one is, is to be threatened with annihilation. This state of the Will is called Fear. The horror of self-destruction is at the root of all fear. The Material Self under the sway of the law of negative identity is constantly reminded of its own nonentity. It half realises that to face Reality means to face its own nothingness. This state of half-realization is the essence of fear. It is the negative aspect of the Cosmic Identity that faces its own finitude before limitless Being. This latter is the state of Awe into which all existing selves – great or small – enter when they contemplate the Ultimate Being. The Material Self is incapable of approaching such a state, and can experience only the divided state of fear of the unknown.


Although some of Bennett’s terms may seem mysterious, what he is saying is plain enough – the type of negativity known as fear (and this includes fear-of-fear, which is anxiety), is the result of being identified with the false or unreal selfThe problem with freeing ourselves from the suffering of negativity-that-we-believe-in is therefore one of ‘split-sincerity’: we want to escape suffering and have happy and fulfilling lives, but we want to do so on our terms, that is, on the false basis of being who we are not.




But how, we might ask, can a negative designation such as ‘non-locality’ be the best way we have of speaking of our true identity?  The idea seems too absurd to take seriously, and of course even if we do try to take it seriously, that still doesn’t help because we just can’t figure it out! If there is no ‘ego’, no local centre-of-consciousness, then who is there to know that they are there? If I am there, but do not have any way of knowing that I am there (if I do not have any way of ‘checking up on myself’, so to speak) then surely I might as well not be there! What would be the difference? And, anyway, who is to say that this whole dubious business of ‘non-locality’ isn’t just another way of saying ‘non-existence’, as we cannot help suspecting?



All of these questions and doubts stem from what we have called ‘the backwardness of the state of passive identification’, which, it will be remembered, is a kind of an ‘upside-down’ perception that afflicts us when we are grounded in the domain of negative freedom, which is where the false self always is. In the upside-down state that is our common-sense way of seeing the world, ‘certainty’ is always seen as primary, whereas the truth of the matter is that certainty is always a conditioned reality, a ‘trick of the light’; it is always the result of a sneaky manoeuvre on our part by which we make an assumption, a choice to look at the world in a certain way, and then conveniently forget the part that we played in producing the reality that we adapt ourselves to. In ‘game-reality’, the unconditioned Reality of radical uncertainty can never be allowed a look in, or else the whole show comes apart at the seams, and for this reason we have to see thing backwards.



Of course, if the True Self is nothing other than radical uncertainty, then that defeats entirely any attempt we might make to get to the bottom of ‘who I am’. I cannot look for myself, because ‘looking’ implies certainty, i.e. the choosing of one direction over any others. When I look, it is in the particular, in a specific locality, and so I am always going astray. Similarly, when I look for something that will help me in my situation, I always focus on the particular. By trying to look for the true ‘I’, I go wrong from the very start. By trying to seek help through my own deliberate efforts (‘trying to escape on purpose’), I close myself off from the help that comes from the unsuspected quarter. Basically, as soon as I get clever and think that I have some sort of clue as to what direction to look in, I get lost in negative freedom, which is another term for ‘the way of error’.




When we are firmly stuck in the paradigm of certainty, our search for ‘who I am’ leads us to a red herring ‘I’, a decoy identity, a ‘self-of-distraction’. We hang on to this red-herring identity, despite the fact that we are dooming ourselves to endless misery and confusion through our unwise allegiance with certainty. By putting our money on the wrong horse, we gain the dubious benefit of having a definite horse on which to put our money. The logic is simple: once we have got a definite horse, we can relax. It is done – we know where we are now. In the paradigm of uncertainty, however, there is no right horse. Every horse is the wrong horse. We can never have the satisfaction of having found a horse on which to put our money; we have to keep our money, unspent, burning a hole in our pocket. According to the Mahayana sutras, we can find no ‘resting place for the mind’. This unsettling lack of a RIGHT/WRONG orientation, of a SELF/OTHER duality, is the doorway to the universal, the gateway to the infinite. Usually we are in the situation of being what we might characterize as ‘infinity seeking to be finite’. Infinity runs from itself out of a fear of its own infinitude, out of the great terror of being Lost in Itself. The fear of being Lost in Infinity is the ‘discomfort of radical uncertainty’, the ‘discomfort of having no resting place’.



The discomfort in question is the Original Terror, the terror of being ‘nowhere’, lost in infinity and unable to find anything to hold on to, so that we can say (with relief) “This is me.”  And yet, this terror only arises because I am looking for myself, and if it was the ‘looking’  (i.e. seeking the true self in the particular or the finite) that made me lost, then not looking (or not ‘checking up’) is what will make me found. This is a paradoxical ‘foundness’, however, as we have already said, because I am only truly ‘found’ when there is no one there to find me, and nothing there to be found. In the paradigm of certainty, ‘not found’ means lost, but in the paradigm of uncertainty, ‘not being found’ is not the same as lost because I am not looking (searching) any more. I don’t need to look because I no longer think that I have to – I am no longer driven by my unconscious assumptions, by my unexamined need to catch hold of myself. ‘Not looking’ is a ‘non action’ and the state of ‘not being found’ (i.e. ‘not being located’) is the fruit of ‘non action’. ‘Non-action’ is what Taoist philosophy calls not doing or wu wei, and it is not doing that delivers us from the domain of negative freedom.



Not doing means not looking for an answer, since all possible answers that can be arrived at by looking are extensions of the false ‘I’ system, which David Bohm (1994) calls ‘the system of thought’, and which we have been calling negative freedom. Any answer that I might find will only be a decoy answer, a distraction that will go on to create further negativity. Zen teacher Steve Hagen (1997) explains this in terms of repairing a hole in a tablecloth by cutting a patch from another part of the same tablecloth. Sure – it fixes the hole, but now I have another hole to fix!  If I focus narrowly on the short-term benefit which is the satisfaction of having a way of fixing the problem, of ‘knowing what to do’, then everything is okay, or at least it seems to be okay. As long as I don’t allow myself to see how I create a new [-] for every [+] that I obtain, then I can continue indefinitely. The only problem with this of course is that I get locked into a never-ending cycle that isn’t actually taking me anywhere, a cycle of hope and despair, and then hope again as we forget the previous cycle. It is perfectly possible to endlessly distract oneself, and keep on imagining that we are getting somewhere, just as long as we work hard on ignoring all the signs that ‘our method isn’t working’, all the signs that we aren’t actually getting anywhere at all.



Sometimes, though, we don’t find ourselves able to ignore the signs, and we call these ‘signs’ negativity. Working with negativity doesn’t mean we stop ‘patching the hole’ – it just means that we see what we are doing.  ‘Work’, in this sense, means ‘seeing through the game’, i.e. seeing through the distraction, seeing that for every PLUS arrived at through purposeful action there is always a MINUS, that for every gain there must be a loss. This is a very hard thing to see, not because it is difficult to see it, but because it is so extraordinarily frustrating! Working with negativity, therefore, doesn’t mean forcing ourselves not to keep on enacting the pattern that is keeping us prisoner, but finding the courage and patience to allow ourselves to see the game that we are playing as we are playing it.



To express this another way, working with negativity could also just mean ‘getting our sense of humour back’!











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