A very simple way of talking about the business of ‘being in the world’ or ‘being in reality’ is to say that it’s difficult. This is what M Scott Peck says at the very beginning of his well known book, The Road Less Travelled – “life is difficult”. J.G. Bennett says that ‘reality is work’ – if we imagine that we can be in reality and yet avoid work then we are sadly mistaken. ‘Work’ isn’t necessarily what we think it is however – the usual way of thinking about work is to say that it is when some sort of specific outcome is achieved against resistance. This is mechanical work: in physics mechanical work is defined as follows:
Work is the product of force and displacement. In physics, a force is said to do work if, when acting, there is a movement of the point of application in the direction of the force.– Wikipedia
The type of work we are talking about is very different however; it is different because it can’t be measured or defined. ‘The work of being in reality’ isn’t anything to do with any kind of known or measurable outcome for the simple reason that reality isn’t a ‘known or measurable outcome’! Outcomes can occur in reality but – very clearly – reality itself is not an outcome. What would it be an outcome of, after all?
We could also say that ‘the work of being in reality’ isn’t anything to do with coming into alignment with a framework, which is to say, some unquestionable external standard that is used to determine progress. Again – obviously enough – there can be no external reference point here; how could there be ‘an external reference point’ when it’s reality that we talking about? If there were such a thing then it would – by definition – be unreal and so what good would that be to us? We’d be aligning ourselves with a dream in that case; we’d be coming into accord with a hallucination. There is nothing whatsoever mechanical about the work of being in reality. As Krishnamurti says in his often repeated quote – ‘truth is a pathless land’.
There is work involved here therefore but no one can tell us what it involves. What we can say however is this type of work has nothing to do with achieving goals or fixing problems – both of which of course come down to the very same thing. What ‘the work of being in reality’ does involve is not fixing problems, which is to say, it involves being aware of an (apparent) problem without acting so as to get rid of it. Our whole being seems to be itching to ‘solve the problem’ but we simply don’t scratch that itch and this is the essence of ‘conscious work’. It’s not what we do but what we don’t do, therefore. ‘Doing’ – which is to say purposeful doing – is always mechanical in nature – if I believe in a goal and understand it to be specially significant and desirable, then I am in the mechanical mode. I’m in ‘mechanical mode’ precisely because I am trying to fix a problem – the goal that I am trying to attain (no matter what it is) equals ‘the solution’ to some problem or other. What else could it be?
It still may not be obvious why we are saying that this is ‘mechanical’ work as opposed to ‘conscious’ work but the point is that certain assumptions need to be made in order that there can be such a thing as ‘a goal’, and in order that there can be such a thing as ‘the one who is either going to succeed or fail at the task of attaining the goal’. Once we start up on this footing then there might be ‘work’ of a sort taking place but it is the work of ‘acting on our assumptions’ and what this always comes down to (looking at it the other way) is ‘the work of validating our assumptions’. We have a belief, in other words, and we are working away to try to prove that our belief is true, and that we are ‘right’ in having it. Unconscious or mechanical work always means trying to validate our assumptions and no matter how hard we apply ourselves in the service of this cause we’re never going to be able to do this; we’re never going to be able to do this for the simple reason that our assumptions are never going to be valid! In reality there is no such thing as a ‘valid assumption’. The mechanical struggle is the struggle to prove that our assumptions are right, and this is a struggle that is always doomed to failure. It is always doomed to failure because the universe is always bigger than we are.
A blunter and more ‘to the point’ way of putting this would simply be to say that mechanical work is essentially all about protecting and perpetuating the illusion of the self. This is what it’s all about in a nutshell. Mechanical work is where we work non-stop to make sure that this particular illusion doesn’t ever start looking like the illusion that it actually is! We don’t do this because we ‘know what we doing’ and because we ‘genuinely want to do it’, we do it because we don’t know what we doing and we can’t help from doing it. Mechanical work is driven or unfree, in other words; we are compelled to try our very best to validate the self and we feel very bad indeed when we can’t do so. It never occurs to us that we are trapped, but this only goes to show how thoroughly enslaved we are. We don’t know what we’re doing and we don’t see that we aren’t free (because we understand our enslavement as being an expression of our true volition) and neither do we realise that what we are fighting so hard to do can never be done. We try to make the illusion of who the system of thought says we are be real, and ‘who we really are,’ but no amount of work can ever make this be the case. Inasmuch as we are 100% committed to this struggle therefore we are in line for suffering without end, suffering that is going to be very real to us despite the fact that it ‘belongs to an illusion,’ despite the fact that it is ‘occurring on a false basis’ (i.e. despite the fact that it is ‘pseudo-suffering’, as Wei Wu Wei puts it). If we make it ours then it is ours and so it’s up to us and no one else to not ‘make it ours’.
Mechanical work is work, and sometimes it can be extremely difficult, extremely arduous, but it is nevertheless work that gets us nowhere at all. Or as we could also say, it is ‘work that goes against us’, ‘work that creates extraordinary painful situations for us’. We’re not working towards an outcome that is actually going to be of any use to us – on the contrary, we’re working towards solidifying and strengthening the very source of our suffering (whilst believing the whole time that we are trying to benefit ourselves). Mechanical work has two phases, one being the euphoric phase and the other being the dysphoric phase. We can explain Phase-1 as being that period of time in which we are putting energy into a task and the task is going the way we want it to. This – very clearly – is the perfect recipe for euphoria – things are ‘going our way’. Phase-1 of the mechanical task is like rolling a boulder to the top of a hill – the closer we get to the top we better the better we feel and the promised good feeling of attaining the summit, and having no more laborious pushing to do, seems sweet indeed. The ‘reverse phase’ which is Phase-2 is therefore where the boulder comes rolling right back down to the bottom of the hill again, despite all our strenuous efforts, despite all our investment. The ‘two-stroke’ nature of mechanical work means that we are always setting ourselves up for the ‘backlash’ and the harder we strive towards success the greater that backlash will be when it comes.
Talk like this sounds very defeatist, very nihilistic from the point of view of the striver or goal-seeker; it sounds nihilistic because when we are operating out of this point of view we can’t conceive of any other meaning in life other than the meaning of trying to reach our goals (which is although we cannot see it the meaning we ascribe to ‘the movement towards the self’ since the self is its goals). The striving self (which is redundant to say since all selves are strivers) can never understand the other type of movement, which is movement out of equilibrium, movement away from the self. When we are identified with the Mind-Created Concrete Identity we can’t see that this movement is actually the only type of movement there is, the only type of journey that there is. The other (mechanical) type of ‘journey’ isn’t a journey, as we have just said. The movement out of equilibrium is the only real type of movement there is and the work of moving out of equilibrium is the only real type of work there is. The ‘equilibrium’ that we’re talking about can be understood either in terms of the system of thought or in ‘the sense of being this concrete or defined identity’ – to go beyond thought is also to go beyond the concrete identity. The work of moving out of equilibrium is difficult not just because it is hard work but also because, as we have said, there are no goals and no guidelines (goals and guidelines being the creation of the same thinking mind that we are trying to move beyond). From our usual identified POV this is an absolutely crushing difficulty and we’d be inclined to give up straightaway and engage ourselves in easier and more comprehensible pursuits, pursuits which actually make sense to us, but this conditioned reaction of ours is nothing if not ironic – we are disappointed or discouraged because we can’t have any goals or guidelines and yet goals and guidelines are the very things that are trapping us, the very things that have been putting us wrong our entire lives.
Given it might seem like an absolute impossibility to transcend thought or transcend the self but there is one very great advantage in our side when we are orientated towards conscious work and away from equilibrium and that is that the movement out of equilibrium is a real movement (unlike those movements that are moderated by thought). Not only is it a real movement, it’s the only movement there is, the only thing there is. Nothing exists but this movement. Reality itself is on our side, in other words, and that is a very difficult different kettle of fish indeed from the situation where reality isn’t on our side because we have been fighting against it the whole time. On the one hand we have the unfree or compulsive mechanical task of validating the self, validating the concrete identity, (which is both ‘the task that we can never complete’ and ‘the task which rebounds against us’), and on the other hand we have the voluntary ‘task’ of undertaking the Hero’s Journey, which is how Joseph Campbell refers to the movement out of equilibrium, and this is the movement into reality itself (as opposed to the movement away from reality, which is the only type of movement that we usually interested in). The movement away from reality is jinxed because no one can move away from reality, whereas the movement away from illusion and towards reality isn’t jinxed. There is an all-important dissymmetry here therefore and it is a dissymmetry that is working for us. The movement away from illusion may be formidably difficult and more challenging than anything else we will ever do in our lives, but it isn’t jinxed. On the contrary it is – in fact – perfectly possible. It is perfectly possible and it is also the direction that life itself is taking us.