The difference between the helpful use of thinking mind and the illegitimate and therefore ‘suffering-producing’ use is that in the first case we are trying to solve a specific ‘pragmatic problem’ (which will be to our benefit in some way) whilst in the second case we are – unbeknownst to us – trying to solve everything.
This sounds very bizarre of course – how could anyone ever try to ‘solve everything’? When we look into the matter however, we see that this is not such a strange idea after all. When we suffer from ‘generalised anxiety disorder’, for example, then we are of course ‘trying to solve everything’ – we are ‘anxious in a general’ way, and this means that we are seeing ‘anything or everything’ as ‘a problem that needs to be fixed’. That’s what anxiety is – it’s when we see situations as being ‘problems that we have to fix’ when they’re not.
This isn’t quite true however – we could add something to this definition just to make it a little bit clearer and say that anxiety is when we see situations as being problems that need to be fixed when they don’t and when – on some deep level – we know that they can’t be fixed! What this ultimately comes down to is that we are trying to ‘fix reality’: reality is clearly something that both doesn’t need to be fixed and can’t be fixed! When we feel (on some unconscious level) that we need to ‘fix reality’ then – by the definition that we have just given – this is absolutely bound to lead to anxiety!
But why would we have this feeling that reality itself needs to be fixed? Where would that belief come from? Again, this might sound strange at first but it makes perfect sense when we look into it a bit more. Of course life (or reality) can seem like a problem – ‘existence’ (and whatever demands that this might places on us) is the big, overshadowing problem that we all face! Life has the potential to completely overwhelm us and the only reason it doesn’t ordinarily do so is because we usually have it very well regulated. We have arranged things so that everything happens pretty much as we have planned it to happen, in the way that we expect it to happen. We have – in other words – made life essentially predictable and that’s why it doesn’t ordinarily overwhelm us.
When life ‘overflows its banks’ however, and comes at us in lots of different directions at once (in ways that we don’t expect and have no ‘coping strategies’ for) then this will be a totally overwhelming experience for us and on some level we know this. On some level we know that we have to ‘defend’ ourselves against it and saying that we have to ‘defend ourselves against it’ is just another way of saying that we perceive life as a problem that needs to be fixed! Life (or reality) is inherently overwhelming and so we need to regulate it, tame it, manage it. This is not to say that when life ‘overflows its banks’ and comes at us in ways that we don’t expect this is in itself ‘a bad thing’, but only that when we live the ordinary sheltered’ or ‘managed’ type of life that we do then it becomes – for us – a ‘subjectively bad thing’. Actually, of course, when life overflows the banks or barriers that we ourselves have made for it (because we are afraid of what might happen if we don’t) then that isn’t ‘a bad thing’ at all – it’s just life!
Life always has this ‘frighteningly overwhelming’ quality when we defend ourselves against it, and the more we ‘dig in’ with our defences against it the more potential for being frightening it has. Fear breeds fear therefore: as Gangaji says, ‘What a strange creature fear is. It exists only when there is resistance to its existence!’ What this means is that when we start going down the road of ‘defending ourselves against reality’ then we just have to keep on going down it; – there’s no ‘going back’ – there’s no ‘retracing our steps’. We keep on going happily enough (so to speak) because we believe that one day we going to get to the ‘ideal state’ of being one hundred per cent safe from all the dangers that life represents to us. This goal is however an illusion – it has to be an illusion if ‘the more we defend ourselves against fear the more that fear grows’! Our goal (not that we ever spell this out to ourselves) is to ‘defend so well that there actually isn’t any fear left’, but this just isn’t going to happen. That just isn’t the way things work. If it is our defending creates the fear that we are defending ourselves against then how can we possibly defend so well (or so successfully) that we make the fear go away?
Trying to ‘solve everything’ is definitely a road to nowhere! How the hell can we ‘fix everything’? The only way we can fix everything is by fooling ourselves that we are doing so, or by fooling ourselves that we have at least a fair chance of doing so, and this is pretty much the way things work when we are in ‘denial mode’. ‘Denial’ is a strong word to use here however, and – to most people – it probably won’t seem like the right word. What is it that we are supposed to be in denial of, after all? The answer to this question is of course very easy to answer – we are in denial of everything, we are in denial of the actual nature of the universe within which we live! To put this as succinctly as possible – we are in denial of our most basic reality.
The actual nature of our most basic reality can be expressed in a number of ways, but they all come down to the same thing. In Buddhism, we come across the word ‘groundlessness’, or ‘emptiness’ in this connection. The ultimate nature of reality is ‘empty’, or ‘groundless’, according to the Buddhist treatises on the subject. It may also be said to be open, by which we mean, the more perspective we obtain on the matter, the more this perspective leads us to radically revise everything we ever thought we knew about it! And not only this, but there is also an infinite supply of perspective out there for us to avail of! This means of course that we are left with nothing solid to grasp hold of, which is an excellent thing if we are tired of being constrained within the arbitrary limitations of thoughts, but a very bad thing (a disastrous thing) if we want or need something solid to believe in, and don’t really care if this ‘solid thing’ happens to be true or not…
Our fundamental ‘rational orientation’ towards the radical uncertainty which is actual reality is that we don’t have any relationship. We relate by not relating, so to speak. Instead of having a relationship to reality as it is in itself (which is ‘empty’ or ‘groundless’ or ‘open’) we create our own surrogate version of it – which is a ‘perfect inversion’ of the true state of affairs. The thought-produced ‘surrogate version’ of reality is an inversion because it is solid and definable and quantifiable and knowable and ‘very reliably what we have defined it as being’. It is therefore all the things that reality isn’t! When we relate to the ‘inversion of radical uncertainty’ which is our ordinary everyday conceptual reality we are relating to ‘the truth of our situation’ by not relating to it, by steadfastly ignoring it, therefore. This ploy – on the face of it – seems to work perfectly well, but what we don’t generally realise is that by this clever strategy we have created an ‘invisible, all-determining force’ – the invisible, all-determining force of fear.
Fear is ‘safely invisible’ to us just as long as we are able to go on believing that the surrogate version of reality (i.e. the conceptual reality) is actually the only reality there is, but whenever it happens that the inadequacy of the model, the theory, to explain reality starts to become obvious, then fear is the inevitable result. That’s what fear is – it’s when we have banked everything we have on ‘the known’, and then start to see that there actually isn’t any such thing as the known’, but only the ‘Radical Unknown‘! If life is a known state of affairs to us, a ‘known thing’, then in our dealings with it we will experience the full range of pleasure and displeasure, satisfaction and dissatisfaction, approval and disapproval, but the one thing we won’t experience is ontological terror, which only shows itself when we glimpse reality itself. We won’t experience any sense of mystery or wonder either, of course – there will be no ‘spiritual element’ to our life. On the one hand we have the ‘thrills and spills’ of the game (the game being ‘the known version of life), whilst on the other hand we have ‘falling off the cliff edge of the known world into a world where none of the rules we take for granted hold good any more’. This isn’t to say that ‘falling off the cliff edge of the known into the Radical Unknown’ is in any way ‘a bad thing’, but just that when we deny the Radical Unknown, and it suddenly becomes visible to us for what it is, then this is our ultimate fear come true! It’s what we have been hiding from all along, and we didn’t even know that we are doing hiding from it. We were hiding from the fact that we were hiding from it, and this is what denial is all about.
In the context of what we have just said therefore, it becomes clear what exactly is meant by this phrase ‘solving everything’. If we are on the run from radical uncertainty – as we almost always are – then all of our purposeful activities will have the nature of denial. Even the very necessary and practically useful things that we do have this flavour, this quality. On the conscious level I am carrying out this task or that task because it is ‘practically needful’ for me to do so, but on an unconscious level I am using this purposeful activity of mine to ‘deny uncertainty’. I am reassuring myself with it, in other words – I am convincing myself, via my ‘controlling activities’, that everything can be controlled, that everything can be known and regulated. Just to repeat the point therefore, when I control something this doesn’t by itself mean that I’m doing so for covert reasons (either secretly and is reason and trying to assert that there is no such thing as about as radical uncertainty), but if it so happens that I am in denial of the radical unknown, then it is inevitably also going to be the case that all my controlling, all my ‘fixing’, will be subverted by my own unacknowledged need to prove to myself that everything in this world can be controlled, can be known, can be ‘allocated its proper place’ in the thinking mind’s scheme of things.
It can be seen therefore that our unhealthy obsession in this technological culture of ours with ‘making and achieving goals’ has nothing to do with anything other than ‘the need to deny the true nature of reality’, which is something that is utterly and completely unknowable. The reality within which we live is vast beyond all reckoning, but rather than taking any interest in this – as a poet might, as an artist or philosopher might – we pin all our interest on our tiresome concrete goals and the supposedly wonderful benefits that are to come from achieving them. Our response to the Inexplicable Vastness within which we find ourselves is to get obsessed with counting, and measuring and slapping names or designations on everything in sight. Our response is to attach great value to our petty goals and make succeeding at them into our god. Our response – in a nutshell – is to play games and then (implicitly) say that these games are reality. The thing that we get excited about more than anything else is this thing that we call ‘winning’ and – in whatever constant context it takes place – winning simply means that we have proven to ourselves – in some unconscious symbolic fashion – that there is no such thing as the thing which we are in denial of, which is radical uncertainty.
What this ‘winning’ (or ‘achieving’) business really means is that the known world is the only world there is, and that – consequently – the supreme good, the supreme value, is always going to be found within it. This is exactly what ‘winning’ or ‘succeeding’ means – it means attaining the supreme value safely within the context of ‘the Realm of the Known’. What need therefore is there for the Radical Unknown? Not that we explicitly think this, of course, but this is the implication. We can obviously dispense with the Radical Unknown entirely and so the excitement and feeling of triumph we derive through being successful in our games comes not from the actual details of whatever trivial accomplishment it is that we have made, but from us proving to ourselves – in an entirely illegitimate way of course – that the realm of the Radical Unknown can be safely ignored, that there is ‘nothing in it’, that – in fact – it doesn’t actually exist at all. Our ‘philosophically positive’ attitude to life arises from the denial of the unknowable, the indefinable – this is why we put so much emphasis on rational thought and purposeful doing in our culture, and so little on spontaneity, play and genuine agenda-free creativity. Another way to put this is to say that it is our underlying attitude of uncertainty-denial that causes us to be so wretchedly serious whole time – seriousness being the hallmark of denial. What could be more serious (and more driven) than denial, after all? Denial is the most ‘serious’ thing there is! It is also the most dull, the most sterile.
We don’t frame our seriousness in this way of course. We frame it in exactly the reverse way and this is of course what the positivistic stance is all about – we implicitly represent all movements in a ‘positive’ direction as being movements into a territory that needs to be won or conquered via our heroic actions, via our hard work and worthy industriousness. We are creating values that would not exist unless we made this effort. The truth is however that what we really ‘value’ (although we’ll never admit it) is successful escaping from the underlying insecurity or uncertainty of our situation. This is ‘an inverted value’ since there is – of course – no such thing as successful escaping from the ‘underlying uncertainty of our situation’. There isn’t ‘a value to be achieved’ but an act of self-deception that we perpetrate on ourselves! All we have succeeded at is in ‘creating a lie and then believing in it’ and this is therefore an obscuration of reality, rather than an attainment of some value that exists within in it. This isn’t ‘an attainment’ therefore, it’s an avoidance.
The ‘positive reality’ is an escape from reality that we have turned around to seem like some kind of heroic act, some kind of noble endeavour whereby we are ‘extending the frontiers of knowledge’. We see the positive reality as a legitimate territory in its own right when the truth is that it is a construct that we believe in as if it were a real thing. It’s an ‘inverted reality’ therefore – it’s a game that we are playing. When we play the game, when we adapt ourselves to the inverted reality’ (when we exclusively inhabit the Designed World which is the world that is made up of our own projections) then it may be said that we are ‘successfully hiding from reality’. Another way of putting this would be to say that we have ‘become unreal without realising that we are’. This is what always happens when we play a game – the game supplies us with our identity, our sense of self, but the game itself is not real. The game itself is not real so neither is who we think we are within the context of that game.
This is why life tends to have an ‘overwhelming’ quality. It’s not that life is overwhelming us, but that it is overwhelming who we think we are. It is overwhelming our precarious ‘identity in the dream’ – what else would we expect it to do after all? Life is overwhelming our identity in the dream and so we are constantly being driven to solve the problem that this constitutes for us and this is what we are doing with all our rational thinking, all our purposeful doing. Things are made right that are not right; errors – when they arise – are ironed out. Mysteries are cleared up; logical explanations are found. If we were to see the bigger picture however we would see that the ‘errors’ which we are working at eliminating are actually reality itself and what we are protecting is unreal. We’re ‘protecting the lie’, in other words! This is the ‘use’ to which we are putting the thinking mind and it’s not a very heroic or honourable use of the instrument of thought when it comes down to it! We don’t really deserve any prizes or commendations for what we’re doing here. Solving particular practical problems is the helpful thing; using the thinking mind for creating a system of denial is an abuse of thought, not a ‘use’ of it! Thought is being used in a profoundly unwise way, and that is of course the defining characteristic of our present-day civilization. The unwise use of thought is our speciality, our superpower...