The Surrogate For Life

There is a kind of a thing we say – we talk about having made either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ life choices and believe that an awful lot hangs on this. When we talk about having made the bad kind of life choice this is of course generally said with a lot of regret and a not inconsiderable amount of self-recrimination too – living in the knowledge of having made a poor life-choice is no easy thing. This way of thinking implies (or more than just implies) that our lives would have been totally different if only we had made the right choices instead of the wrong. So what we have here is a way of thinking that makes everything (or almost everything) about the type of choices we make. All of our effort has to go in to this very important matter of making the right choices, therefore.


The whole of life has in this way been reduced to a kind of glorified intellectual puzzle, therefore! As usual, we are assuming that everything has to do with the rational mind and its black-and-white maps of reality; as usual, we are overvaluing the importance of mere logic – since when has life had anything to do with logic, after all? Where we ‘end up’ in life has nothing to do with how carefully thought out our choices are – it has to do with our inner state, it has to do with how much ‘being’ (or ‘consciousness’) we bring to life. Any talk of ‘inner states’ or being or consciousness is quite alien to our modern way of looking at things however; conventional psychology has nothing at all to say on the subject. It disdains to mention ‘being’ or the lack of it. Don’t we all possess exactly the same degree of ‘being? Aren’t we all equally conscious? Doesn’t an ‘inner state’ just refer to whether we are happy or sad or frustrated or bored?


A good way to approach this is by looking at how present we are in whatever situation we find ourselves in. If I am totally distracted, with my mind 100% engaged in ‘other things’, then clearly I’m not at all present. I’m not ‘home’, I’m ‘away’. If on the other hand I’m interested in what’s actually going on in the present moment (and not in some other, purely hypothetical situation) then I can be said to be present. The more I’m aware of what’s happening right now, then the more present I am. The more engaged I am in mentally processing what’s going on (or rather what I think is going on), the less present I am.


There are two things that we can say about being present. One is that the more present we are, the more we find there is to be present to (this is an open-ended thing, which is to say ‘the more you look the more there is to see’) and the other thing is that the more present we are the less definite we are can be about the question of ‘what things are’. There is a trade-off going on here therefore – if what we want is to be more definite (or more ‘sure’) about what things are then the only way this can be brought about is by being less present. The question is therefore “What is it that we want – to be present (i.e. to be aware of the present moment) or to ‘know what things are’?


This is pretty much a rhetorical question because although we may like to think that we have aspirations towards being conscious or present in our lives this aspiration is trumped by the overwhelmingly powerful desire to be ‘definite about the world’, so to speak. This desire is brutally powerful but at the same time we are not usually aware of it in everyday life; we are not aware of it in everyday life so we don’t think that it’s there. There is a way to find out about it however – if it were to ever be the case that we started to feel that we are losing our positive knowledge about the world (i.e. losing our concrete sense of ‘what things actually are’) then the chances are very much that we will quickly reach the crucial point at which we become afraid to move any further in this direction. We will get an urge to travel in the opposite direction and we won’t be able to resist it. It may not seem like very much to ‘not be able to know what things are’ but it’s a very big deal – losing our ability to know what things are engenders a state of panic in us, the loss of positive knowledge launches us straight into a world of ontological terror.


What’s odd about this is that we never really knew what things ‘were’ anyway – we label things as being this or being that and then we believe that we know what they ‘are’. The security-producing feeling that this positive knowledge of ours produces has absolutely nothing to do with reality at all and so when we get spooked as a result of realising that we don’t know what things are then we haven’t lost anything other than an illusion. This fragile illusion is all that stands between us and existential terror therefore, and the odd thing about this is that this apparently ‘super-solid’ world of positive knowledge that we inhabit every day and which we never question is utterly without substance and can disappear without a trace at any moment. The feeling that we ‘know what things are’ completely hypnotises us, so to speak; it hypnotizes us so that we wouldn’t even know how to go about questioning it and yet at the same time it’s nothing more than a two-dimensional hallucination. There is no depth to it at all.


Our ‘positive reality’ (this sense that we have that we know what things are, which is, as we have said, quite hypnotic in its intensity) is a two-dimensional hallucination but we never see this. We never see it because we’re clinging too tightly to the 2D-hallucination to give ourselves a chance to see – we won’t stop clinging no matter what and this means that there is never any gap between us and what we’re clinging to. As long as there is never any gap there is never going to be any insight and if there is never any insight then there can never be any possibility of change. Just as long as there is no gap between us and the positive reality that we clinging to then we ourselves are this positive reality. By cleaning so tightly to the 2D-hallucination we become the 2D-hallucination and so we can say that we are ‘creating ourselves’ with our own clinging, with our own attachment. The ‘product’ of this operation is us (or ‘the definite sense that we have of ourselves’). There has to be some point to this whole ridiculous and stress-creating business of clinging to illusions, after all!


Even though we are saying that the sense of security were experiencing as a result of our attachment is ‘unquestionable in its concreteness’, the truth is that our positive reality is a fragile illusion, a precarious soap-bubble of phony make-believe reality existing within an infinitely rich multidimensional universe. On the one hand we are experiencing this neverending flat sense of certainty about everything, a sense of certainty that doesn’t allow for the possibility of anything else, but on the other hand there is the actual (terrifying) reality of the situation, which manifests itself as ‘pressure’ (or ‘unconscious stress’). The pressure remains unconscious just as long as we are able to act out whatever mechanical activity it is that we are engaged in – what we experience in this case isn’t the ‘insoluble fear of the unknown’ but ‘the perceived necessity to successfully conclude whatever task it is that we are engaged in’. ‘Obeying the mechanical rule’ thus becomes the ‘safe surrogate’ for the desperation that is inherent in the situation which we find ourselves in. We don’t experience ontological terror therefore, we just experience ‘the compulsivity of the task’, and the compulsivity of the task will abate just as soon as we obtain the prescribed outcome. That’s where our ‘safety’ lies – it lies in the fact that the pressure which we are under can be satisfactorily obeyed by solving the surrogate problem. There is ‘an end in sight’, therefore – albeit not a real end.


‘Safety’ comes at a price however. It comes at a price because the whole mechanism is never any more than a displacement and so the ‘original problem’ (which we fear so much) is never solved. It actually can’t be solved of course, and so once we have completed whatever task it is that we have been engaged in there is always going to be another one to be getting on with after that. The original problem isn’t being genuinely solved at all – all we’re doing is preoccupying ourselves in a futile manner with the surrogate problem, whose only job is to momentarily distract us or shield us from the truth. It can do that all right, but it can’t do any more than this. The ‘price’ of the safety that we are obtaining for ourselves is that we have to keep on doing whatever are we doing forever – that’s going to be our life from now on. We are striving to complete whatever task it is that we have been provided with in order to obtain ‘relief’ from the pressure that we’re under and this transient feeling of relief from the pressure is the ‘serial surrogate’ for the task of solving the original problem of ontological terror. The original problem can’t be solved, as we keep saying; it can’t be solved because the openness that the ontological terror exists in relation to is real, whilst what we are trying to protect isn’t.


This is ‘mechanical existence’ therefore, and there never was a more futile thing. Mechanical existence is the great joke that we can’t ever see. We are spending our whole lives chasing a thoroughly unreal thing, which is ‘a solution to the problem of reality’. When we allow ourselves to believe that we actually have ‘achieved the impossible’ then we experience euphoria and when we realise that we haven’t solved the problem of reality then we get to experience the dreaded ‘loser-feeling’ of dysphoria instead. Oscillating between the one and the other thus becomes the ‘be all of the end all’ of our entire existence – we can’t do better than being able to believe that we have ‘achieved the impossible’ (when we haven’t) and we can’t do worse than having to see that we haven’t in fact managed to do this, and between these two poles lies the whole of conditioned existence. The key ingredients of this most peculiar two-dimensional existence are ‘right choices versus wrong choices,’ which leads to ‘successful outcomes versus failed outcomes’ (‘winning versus losing’), which then leads to ‘euphoria versus dysphoria’. Underlying these key elements there is the brute force of compulsivity, which is to say, the fundamental inability to do anything other than try to achieve the designated goal. This ‘lack of freedom’ (or ‘compulsivity’) is of course what drives the whole mechanism and keeps it hanging together. All games operate on the basis of ‘zero freedom’.


Whenever we hear talk of ‘making the smart life choices’ therefore this is just the thinking mind trying to increase its hold on us. Our choices are the thinking mind – what else would they be? No matter what choices we make – good, bad or indifferent – all we’re doing is pushing the conceptual mind out in front of us like a greedy bubble of hyperreality that subsumes everything it comes across. My ‘choices’ are simply projections of myself – my choices are me and that’s all they are, and so what choice is there in this? What would be genuinely interesting – the only thing that would actually be interesting, as it happens – would be not to be endlessly projecting ourselves, not to be continually extending ourselves, not to be unfailingly ‘importing ourselves into every situation that comes along’. When we don’t do this then what we encounter instead is something Krishnamurti refers to as choicelessness, another word for which is simply reality.









9 thoughts on “The Surrogate For Life

  1. So let me see if I understand this… Choice (or control), after all, is just an illusion – “being present” is choiceless awareness, there is presence but there is no one who is present. When there is (or seems to be) choice then there is (or seems to be) “somebody” (me, myself and I).
    Does everything just happen without choice? Or does real choice also happen, is there choice in every moment but no one who chooses?

    I can’t understand this. 😀

    1. Well if this doesn’t wreck your head then nothing will! I hesitate trying to answer this because it’s so easy to get confused. Our everyday experience is that I am making decisions, and that if I don’t decide to do something then it won’t happen. This is the experience of ‘personal responsibility’. But if we really carefully notice what is happening (and we don’t do this) we will always find that the choice or the decision ‘just happens’ – i.e. it is spontaneous, like the universe as a whole is since no one makes the universe happen (unless you happen to be a Christian). Carefully observing life shows that everything ‘just happens’, however, which is highly perplexing from the POV of the self. Even the self’s decisions ‘just happen’. If I decide to do X or do Y this ‘decision-process’ just happens. This has to be the way because otherwise I would have to decide to decide before anything would happen, but then if this was true (if it was true that I have to decide to decide before anything can happen) then an infinite regress immediately sets in because I would have to ‘decide to decide to decide’. This goes on forever since no decision can just happen by itself and s0 – logically – I would never get to the beginning of it and the whole process wouldn’t be able to happen. This is what Alan Watts calls the ‘starting paradox’. When we perceive that someone has to decide this is just ‘lazy thinking’ therefore – we’re simply not bothering to look into what we’re claiming here.

      1. So this allows us to see that the start has to be spontaneous and spontaneous means that no one decides it or ‘makes it happen’. So everything ‘just happens’, life ‘just happens’. This is really weird however because the basis of our experience of life is that we are making things happen on purpose and this perception is what allows us to believe in the reality of the ‘causal agent’, the ‘self’. When we see that it’s all ‘just happening’ this idea loses traction – life just happens, the perception of the self just happens, but we can’t actually find any self there making stuff happen. There CAN’T be any such thing as ‘choice’ therefore because choice implies a self that has the choice or that is making the choice. No self means no choosing (or no choosing means no self). The most fundamentally important thing to us no longer exists, and so how do we process this?

  2. Dear Nick, thank you for your detailed answer. I’ve been following your articles for a while and it amazes me (besides the sheer amount) each time how consistently you repack the basically same topic again and again and look at it from all possible sides.

    I came across the “Liberation Unleashed” page a little while ago on the subject of “no self”, but despite some insights, I couldn’t break through. Your words seem to put me on the right track and yet I am apparently not yet ready to take the “decisive step”. However, this is ultimately not necessary because – you know – everything simply happens…

    1. ‘No self, no problem’ as they say! I don’t know who exactly said it, but still…. I just looked up the Liberation Unleashed page which is very interesting. There is one thing about the ‘flavour’ of it that I am wary of however, and that has to do with any mention of methods etc. My understanding is that this is an obstacle because – and this is the old,old issue – any talk of methods and the like means that we are making the assumption that there is something we can do to ‘help the process along’. So straightaway we have jumped on the self-improvement bandwagon. But who is it that wants to improve and what is the motivation behind this? When we look we find the self and if the self is driving it (as it always it when it comes to methods and tools) then we’re not ever going to get anywhere. It might seem for a while that we are, and this is very exciting, but we aren’t because it’s just another self-activity. The not-self never uses methods or tools. What I would say is that whenever we try to change our situation in any way from being the way that it is, then this is ‘resistance’ and resistance always creates the self. That’s how the self gets to be created – i.e. via thinking things would be better if they were a different way. The key is to ‘not resist’ therefore but this can’t be a method because if we try to change our resistance so that we’re not resisting so much any more then this equals resistance too. We’re looking into the face of a very profound and very intractable paradox here.

      1. This is super-tricky therefore – if we have the slightest intention whatsoever in this regard (i.e. with regard to gaining insight about ‘non-self’ or dissolving the self then this is resistance and resistance always strengthens the self. Our interest is contaminated. We’d have to have absolutely no agenda with regard to this but how do we go about having no agenda? This is why people sometimes say that the key to everything is ‘acceptance’ (they say it in radical acceptance therapy) but the point that never seems to occur to people (especially radical acceptance therapists) is that we are all fundamentally non-accepting and so if we try to become more accepting then we’re rejecting our actual non-accepting nature and this isn’t very ‘accepting’ of ourselves. That is another thing Alan Watts says. I have a client who is attending a radical acceptance course run by a psychologist in Dublin so I see this paradox raising its head. We always come back to the same thing which is ‘trying to change ourselves on purpose’ which is the work of the self. I was was going to say ‘which is the work of the Devil’ which might not have been too far off! Beware the devil and his clever enticements…

        There’s nothing we can do other than live our lives exactly as our lives are and exactly as we are and this is what Jung calls the ‘Via longissima’ – the long road. We’re always looking for short-cuts or hacks and every short-cut or hack creates a self which hopes to reap the benefit! When we SEE this then it is quite funny and it is only through seeing the endeavours of the self as being funny (and ridiculous) that the self is weakened….

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