Being present doesn’t involve straining but it does involve work. It involves work because we’re going against all the tendencies that we have not to be present, because it goes against all the inbuilt tendencies we have to run away from being present.
The tendencies we have to not be present rule our lives when it comes down to it. Our whole lives are based on ‘running away’ in one way or another, loathe though we are to admit this. Our not wanting to admit this is of course part of the running – once we start admitting stuff to ourselves then we have stopped running.
When we are engaged in the peaceful endeavour to be present in our own lives (rather than being absent) then this involves – as we have just said – work rather than straining. This straightaway sounds confusing because we think that work is straining, and that straining is work. We can’t see that there is any difference between the two things. We almost always mistake straining (or trying) for work but the truth is that the two are the complete antitheses of each other. We strain to avoid work – the conditioned need to avoid ‘psychological work’ at any cost is what lies behind our constant unremitting straining…
The ‘work’ we are talking about here is simply the work that is involved to be where we already are – the work involved is the work that it takes to be in reality rather than fantasy. Or as we could also say, the work is not to be compulsively trying to change things the whole time! The work is to be in the actual reality of our lives, which happens to be exactly ‘where we don’t want to be’!
It might seem strange to assert that we don’t want to be present in the actual reality of our lives. Why on earth would this be the case? Surely we all want to be in reality (at least most of the time) – why would we not? One way of approaching this is to bring to mind what the existential philosophers have to say on the subject. The job-description of philosophers is to look more deeply into everyday life than we usually do and what the existential philosophers found is that there is a very great anxiety that is hidden right at the core of our being – an anxiety that we are usually in denial about. Our whole lives – according to the existentialists – represent a flight from this anxiety into the banal but reassuring certainties of life…
‘Existence is a colossal risk’ says Paul Strathern in his discussion of Kierkegaard, but the thing about this is that we very rarely experience this ‘risk’ where it belongs right at the core of us but rather we experience projected outside of us in terms of whether things go well or don’t go well for us. Or as we could also say, we experience it in terms of whether we make ‘the right decisions’ in life or not. But this displaced form of anxiety presupposes that there are such things as ‘right decisions’ that we can either make or not make. Existential anxiety however – as Paul Strathern says – arises out of the accurate perception that there is no set of rules with regard to how we are to live life, which means that there is no ‘right or wrong’ about it. We have to face life with a book of rules, without an authorized map or model that we can rely on to guide us…
So existence is a risk because we don’t know what it means, because we don’t (and can’t) know it’s all about. We don’t know what ‘existing’ could turn out to be if we did take the risk – we don’t know what that would demand of us. The present moment – which is where existence (or being) is to be found – contains tremendous uncertainty and we don’t have any protocols or methods that would enable us to deal with it. The uncertainty (or ‘newness’) that we find in the present moment undermines all our comfortable assumptions about reality and ourselves, in other words; it doesn’t just ‘undermine’ them, it blows them all clear away like a pile of dry leaves caught in a sudden gust of an autumn gale!
The question is therefore – are we ready to enter into the tremendous uncertainty of the present moment and see what becomes of us and the raft of unexamined assumptions that we are sitting so precariously on? The answer is clearly that we aren’t – we aren’t at all ready. The entire momentum of our lives is moving in the opposite direction – it is moving in the direction of increasing our sense of certainty about life, it is moving in the direction of confirming the validity of our assumptions about life. We’re busy ‘digging in’; we’re entrenching ourselves as much as we can in our comforting narratives; we’re minimizing the sense of existential risk that Paul Strathern is talking about…
We can say therefore that all of this ‘straining’ that we have been talking about is straining to minimize the risk of existence. We’re straining away from uncertainty and towards the imagined security that our definite, black-and-white narrative about life provides us with. What happens when we stop straining after the security of our fixed attitudes, our fixed stance in life, is one of two things – either we start to feel the bite of the ontological insecurity that we have been busy running away from, or we start to feel what we might call the secondary pain (despair, repressed sadness, frustration, anger, depression, bitterness, etc) that we have inadvertently created for ourselves as a result of unwisely clinging to an ‘outmoded’ style of being in the world. This is equivalent to saying that when we are no longer able to successfully distract ourselves then we experience the rebound ‘lash’ of whatever it was that we were distracting ourselves from. The present moment often contains pain, in other words.
Having said all this it becomes clear therefore why it is that we are so keen to continue with our clinging, our straining to optimize our spurious sense of certainty about life. The alternative to continuing with the straining is just too painful! The path of pain-avoidance is the path of running away from uncertainty and ‘running away from uncertainty’ means running away from being present in the actual reality of our life. The strange thing about this however is that when we’re ‘straining for certainty’ we experience ourselves as straining for existence, even though our true being can only be found in the uncertainty that we are running away from. We’re straining to ‘secure’ ourselves and so it stands to reason that we must experience ourselves as ‘straining to exist’.
We can understand this most clearly – perhaps – by thinking in terms of ‘game playing’. The point of a game is of course to win and the penalty for not winning is that you will lose. The question is then why is winning so good and losing so bad? We can answer by saying that winning is good and losing is bad because the game says it so, and we are playing by the terms of the game. There has to be more than just this dry, abstract ‘allocation of meaning’ however – in some unconscious way we load something onto the polarity of winning versus losing so that it represents something fundamental for us, without us realizing what this issue is that has been loaded onto the game. Another, simpler way of putting this is to say that we personalize the game in some way – it becomes meaningful to us in a very personal way. What we are playing for – without us consciously acknowledging it – is our own existence.
‘Winning’, as James Carse suggests, is a kind of short-hand for immortality – we wish to preserve ourselves, we wish to perpetuate ourselves. If we win, everyone wants to know us and our names go down in history, if we lose on the other hand nobody cares about us and our name isn’t worth remembering! Clearly then, the desire to be a winner rather than a loser has to do with the public recognition of our existence which allows us to recognize our existence. We get to ‘be somebody’ by winning whilst losing consigns us to the ignominious realm of chronic pernicious nonentity because we have completely failed to distinguish ourselves in any way. If we distinguish ourselves, and ‘make a name for ourselves’, we exist and if we fail to do so then we fall short of existence – we never make it. We’re ‘not good enough’ to exist, in effect; we’re merely ‘wannabes who never made it because they didn’t have what it takes’ – we are simply unremarkable (and therefore instantly forgettable) faces in the vast seething ever-changing crowd of humanity.
The whole point of a game is that we are playing for the prize of existence. What type of an existence does the loser have, after all? The pain of being a loser is the pain of not counting for anything, not having any status, not having any significance. We are playing to be. To paraphrase James Carse, we play in order that we might live, rather than living in our play. This is a very serious struggle, therefore; there is nothing humorous about it at all. Games are only a more ‘clear-cut’ or ‘transparent’ example of the murkier issues of everyday life; whenever we feel under pressure in day-to-day life this turns into the very same ‘serious struggle’, the very same ‘polar situation’ – i.e. the right thing rather than the wrong thing, the good thing rather than the bad thing. All polar situations are ‘serious / humourless’, that is the nature of them. All polar situations are games, as we might equally well say.
The basic tropism of the conditioned (or game-playing) self is from uncertainty to certainty, from insecurity to security. This self – this defined idea of who we are – cannot exist in the uncertainty of the present moment; its sense of ‘being under threat’, of ‘being insecure’ is therefore entirely justified. When the mind-created self perceives the threat of its potential dissolution in the present moment it is not wrong; it is in fact bang on the money – the tremendous uncertainty of the present moment spells its absolute and irrevocable extinction. The conditioned self’s struggle to secure itself by striving as hard as it can to move in the direction of increasing certainty (and away from uncertainty) makes perfect sense therefore – it really is ‘fighting for its existence’.
The very peculiar thing about this however is that it’s all backwards! We’re holding on to a definite picture of who we are and what the world is because that’s where our sense of being secure in ourselves, secure in the world, comes from and this ‘straining for ontological security’ is synonymous with this super-serious business of ‘playing for our very existence’ that we were talking about earlier in our discussion of games and game-playing. Failing to make the grade, failing to distinguish ourselves is synonymous with falling back into the pit of non-being, non-existence. On a societal level, when we fail to ‘distinguish ourselves from the masses’ we fail to exist, and a variant of the same logic holds good on the most basic level of all – the level of our own perceived solidity and reliability as ‘a self’. When we fail to be definite about who we are and what we are about and how we see the world then we fail to exist as the self we believe we are. This is the ‘ontological crisis’ that we are perpetually trying so hard to avoid….
The ‘cosmic irony’ which is the fruit of this unconscious activity is this however: when we desperately strive for (conditioned) existence what we are actually striving for is the narcotic oblivion of ‘self-forgetting’, whilst at the same time the fate that we are most frightened of (and try to avoid at all costs) is consciousness, or ‘remembering who we are’. We have it all backwards, therefore. This is the ‘inverted basis’ of unconscious life – we flee being and consciousness for non-being and unconsciousness, whilst backwardly perceiving what we’re doing to be the legitimate ‘struggle for our existence’. We’re fleeing life itself (we’re fleeing the only life we ever could have) whilst deludedly imagining the whole time that we’re striving to live.
When we reach for what we mistakenly see as ‘being’ we’re really reaching for oblivion. When we win at the game what we are winning is this oblivion, this unconsciousness. That’s the prize we walk home with! When we hold on tightly to the mind-created sense of identity what we’re holding onto is a perfect vacuity – a sterile two-dimensional image of ourselves which is governed absolutely by blind mechanical laws. In the game that we’re playing we are ‘only potentially alive’ – life being a potential that we can only achieve if we win, if we ‘distinguish ourselves’. In one way there is some truth in this unconscious perception of ours – just as long as we are engaged in playing the game we are only potentially alive. Just as long as we’re playing the game we’re ‘absent rather than present’. Where the game misleads us is in promising us life (or ‘being’) on the condition that we play successfully – playing the game (either successfully or unsuccessfully) only perpetuates our absence, our ‘unconsciousness’. It can’t ever lead to anything else – how can dreaming ever lead to anything apart from more dreams? Or as we might also say, how can telling lies ever lead to the truth?
What we are chasing in our games appears to be ‘everything’ – we appear (to ourselves) to be chasing life itself. The truth is however that what we are chasing so determinedly is only a gaudy mirage. In order to obtain this mirage we have to lose all of our consciousness, all of our actual being – the mirage wouldn’t seem real to us otherwise and so how could we ever ‘obtain’ it (or rather believe that we can)? To win this particular prize is therefore to lose everything, since if we lose touch with the truth of who we really are what good is anything? We think we’re gaining everything but really we’re gaining nothing. The trick is a cruel one – we have to sever our connection with the truth of our being in order to play the game but winning at the game (which is of course the lure) gives us nothing in return – only a handful of dust. We have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage, we have done a deal with the Devil and – surprise, surprise – he has cheated us.
The definite picture of ‘how things are’ is extremely attractive to us – it is extremely attractive because it represents the ultimate in ontological security. Nothing looks better to us when we are in full flight from radical uncertainty. It looks good because it represents ‘no work’, whilst facing up to uncertainty is pure undiluted psychological work with nothing easy or comfortable about it. Inasmuch as we are committed to avoiding doing the work of examining and letting go of our assumptions, then the definite picture of reality looks wonderfully attractive to us. It is a beacon that we hone into. The definite picture might look good but that’s as far as it goes – the actual truth of the matter is that there is no desert as arid and barren, as cruelly inimical to life, as the cosy illusion of ontological security that we are so desperate to obtain for ourselves. By clutching for certainty in the way that we are we are throwing ourselves down the deepest, darkest hole there is. The definite picture of who we are and what life is all about is actually the grave-yard of the spirit. How could ‘obeying the law of fear’ (i.e. running-away from reality and ourselves) not lead to our spiritual annihilation, after all? What else could we possibly expect, if we were to reflect on it?
When we run away from ourselves (and towards the mirage of security) in this way we have the illusion that we’re heading for something very good indeed and we are also subject to the illusion that we acting out of our own free will. Neither of these perceptions are true however – we’re heading for disaster and we can’t help doing so! We think we’re playing the game but in reality the game is playing us…