Rules Tell Us Who We Are

As Baudrillard says, “It is always the same: once you are liberated, you are forced to ask who you are.” The contrary is therefore also true: when we have not been liberated then we do not need to ask.  We don’t need to ask because a key part of our slavery is being told who we are.


To be imprisoned is to be defined – we are defined by our limitations. What else could we be defined by, after all? We are defined in terms of what we are imprisoned by and so what this essentially means is that we are what we are imprisoned by. ‘The predator gives us his mind’, as Carlos Castaneda says. To say that we are defined by our limitations is the same thing as saying that we are our limitations.


To speak of being freed from our limitations is therefore a contradictory statement, even though we can’t see it to be such. We may say this in all apparent sincerity, but we can’t really mean it. We can’t mean it because this is a statement that disagrees with itself. We can’t mean it when we say that ‘we want to be free’ because this particular statement – being self-contradictory – doesn’t actually have any meaning. It is the conditioned identity that wants to be free and yet it is this conditioned identity that imprisons us.


The existential philosophers have always said that – deep-down – we have a fundamental (if unacknowledged) aversion to freedom, despite our strident claims to the contrary. In a way we can quite easily relate to this – being unfree means that we don’t have to take any responsibility for what we do in life and this lack of responsibility is of course highly attractive to us. We absolutely love rules, on this account, as is well known. As Erich Fromm says in Escape From Freedom,


…modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine, well fed, and well clothed, yet not a free man but an automaton.


This was of understanding our ‘fear of freedom’ makes sense to us, therefore. There is more to the fear of freedom than this however, as we have just indicated – the handing over of responsibility goes deeper than we might imagine. Rules tell us what to do and what to think – they don’t give us any choice in the matter (this being the nature of rules). When we are told what to do, what to think and how therefore to see reality – without any possibility at all of questioning what we are being told – then this is what gives us our sense of identity. This tells us ‘who we are’.


The point we are making is this: everything we do and think is based upon who we think we are, our sense of identity. Our whole world revolves around our sense of ourselves, our defined idea of ourselves. This (i.e. our identity) isn’t just ‘a big thing’ to us, it’s the whole thing. It’s everything. It’s what our lives are about – we don’t do (or think) anything unless it makes sense in relation to our idea of who we are. The way we perceive the world and ourselves (and what we understand life to be about) is nothing more than the logical extension of this central idea, this ‘core assumption’.


Our purposeful activity (our plans, our hopes, our fears) is centred upon our idea of ourselves. Our entire ‘purposeful/rational output’ is as we have just said nothing more than an extension of this conception of ourselves. It’s all the same thing. It’s all ‘the continuity of thought’ and the ‘continuity of thought’ (which David Bohm calls the System of Thought‘) is the same thing as ‘the continuity of the self’ – it is all a closed loop of logic.


The self (our idea of who we are) is defined by rules. What else could define it? This is a tautological statement – it is of course only rules that can define anything! Rules – we may say – are an inversion of freedom. They are ‘freedom turned on its head’. They are the very antithesis of freedom. So this profound ‘absence of freedom’ informs us who we are and it also lies behind everything we see, everything we think, everything we do. what we have called ‘the continuity of thought’ is the extension of the rules which say who we are, and it is therefore an extension of the absence of freedom which is what the rules are ‘made up’ of. This is why the continuity of thought is a tautology; that’s why it all thought is an exercise in ‘disguised redundancy’.


Our whole world is really just this ‘continuity of thought’, this ‘continuity of self’. Our whole world is a closed loop of logic. The only way the world we perceive would not be an extension of the continuum of thought would be if we paid attention to those elements in our environment that don’t make sense in relation to the core assumptions, the core rules that define our thinking. The only way the world we perceive would be just this ‘continuum of self’ would be if we took an interest in those aspects of reality that are of no possible value to that self, aspects of reality that cannot be exploited or utilized by that self the further its ends. This is a tricky little glitch because our first question on hearing this is tends to be “How is it going to benefit me to notice aspects of reality that cannot be exploited or utilized by me?” In other words, what possible reason could I have for doing this? What’s the incentive? Liberation is not something that happens for OUR sake, even though this is of course how we approach it.


When we do take an interest in those aspects of reality that have zero relevance to our established way of seeing things and which are therefore of no use whatsoever to us, then naturally our world expands tremendously. It expands tremendously because it now goes beyond the continuum of thought, the continuum of self. We have in this case moved out of the closed and predetermined world that has been created for us by the rational-conceptual mind into the open (or ‘undefined’) world which is the ‘unconstructed world’, i.e. the world that has not been created. Liberation involves the transition ‘from the created into the uncreated’ therefore, which as far as the defined self is concerned, simply means extinction.  The defined self – needless to say – is not very interested in its own extinction!


The problem here then is that this isn’t really what we have in mind when we say ‘we want to be free’. What we mean by freedom is presumably to have some pleasant or untroubled kind of existence where there are no overt obstructions acting against us; essentially what we want is an existence in which we are not going to be obstructed from enacting the rules which define our being and which we have lazily mistaken for ‘our own free will’. Freedom for us means – we could say – ‘the freedom not to be impaired or impeded in obeying mere mechanical rules that we actually can’t SEE to be ‘mere mechanical rules’. Freedom means the freedom the obey the rules that define our life without ever seeing that these rules AREN’T our own free will.


We have a fantasy that this will be something great, something marvellous. The fantasy is that this will be the greatest thing ever. We imagine that when we are totally unobstructed in ‘obeying the hidden rules’ then the result of this ‘freedom’ will surpass our wildest expectations. What we don’t (and can’t) see is that there is nothing great, nothing wonderful possible within the narrow (in fact redundant) remit of the continuum of thought, the continuum of self – the ‘redundant remit’ which constitutes the whole world for us. We also don’t (and can’t) see that what the so-called ‘freedom’ which we are pining for is actually – if the truth were known – the freedom never to have to ask who we are. Rules tell us who we are, and for this reason we are not about to relinquish them any time soon…





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