Seeing Things Backwards

Whenever there is ‘desire that we act upon’ or ‘fear that we act on’, there can be no consciousness. This is something that we could call a ‘basic principle’ – if there is to be consciousness then there can be no acting on the basis of desire of fear. It’s a straight trade-off: there can be desire or there can be fear, but there can’t be consciousness if we’re obeying the aversion/attraction or identifying with it. We could also say that there still can be consciousness when we are obeying fear or desire, or identifying with it, just as long as we can see the obeying or the identifying. The point about this however is that when we act on fear or desire (or when we identify with the self that is doing the desiring or the fearing) then there isn’t any awareness that is independent of this conditioned situation (i.e. independent of the desire or fear). Desire or fear then become the whole world to us than and because they become the whole world to us they totally define us.

So what does it mean to be defined by desire, or defined by fear? What does it do to us to be thus ‘defined’? The most essential answer to this question is that it makes us less than we would otherwise have been. So no part of us exists other than what is allowed by desire or fear to exist; no part of us exists that is interested in anything else – that isn’t permitted us. All we can think about is either how to obtain that which we desire, or how to run away from whatever it is we fear! When we are able to do that then we will be able to get on with our lives and do what we really want (or so we think) but until that time we just have to keep on struggling away. We have to keep on struggling to get the outcome that we want and avoid the outcome we don’t want, and that will make everything OK, we feel. This equals ‘being caught up in conditionality’, therefore…

We all know that fear isn’t a great thing when it gets out of hand, but we’re not necessarily so sure about desire. Some desires are self-destructive, we realise, and all desire – if taken too far – will lead us into the slavery of addiction, but for the most part it is fair enough to say that we see ‘healthy’ desire as being the thing that gives us direction in life, motivation in life, meaning in life. Healthy desire is what keeps us focussed and purposeful, and being focussed and purposeful is what prevents us from drifting into a way of life that is stagnant, that’s not going anywhere. Carpe Diem is our mantra – we see it as being a healthy expression of our nature to ‘seize the day’ with our purposeful a directed activity, rather than like letting life pass us by’. This of course makes a certain sort of sense since it is our purposes, our ideas of what would constitute ‘an improvement in life’, that incentivise us to get up off our asses and get engaged in life. Pursuing our goals is seen – in the Western world at least – as being at the very heart of what life is all about.

If what we started out by saying in this discussion is true however (just assuming for the purposes of the argument that it might be!) then this would put a different complexion on things entirely – losing consciousness can hardly be what life is all about, surely? That certainly doesn’t sound too great. What we are basically saying here therefore is that life is ‘counterintuitive,’ counterintuitive in a very big way in fact – just because the dictum ‘seize the day’ looks so very obviously true we keep on bashing our heads against a brick wall over and over again, only pausing when we become momentarily stunned and can’t continue with our favourite activity. And then – when we become able again – we immediately start trying to seize the day again, with predictable consequences. The phrase ‘knock yourself out’ takes on a whole new meaning here. The reason the consequences are so predictable is because our goal-orientated activity (because we’re identified with it, because we’re using it to ‘construct a self’) causes us to lose consciousness (because the self cannot ever be conscious) and any activity that operates on the basis of ‘a lack of consciousness’ is bound to bring us into conflict with reality. The only way we could not be in a state of conflict with reality would we be if we were conscious, but trying vigorously to ‘seize the day’ as we do is an absolute guarantee of unconsciousness. Who else ‘seizes the day’ but the conditioned self, after all?

What we grasp or hold onto we lose, as the Buddhist saying has it. Or as we were read in the Bible (John 12:25) ‘He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.’ which is perhaps not quite so easy to understand. Even to state that ‘what we hold onto we lose’ is of course completely counterintuitive, even if it is readily understandable in a superficial sense. Every instinct in us urges us to grasp onto what we desire as tightly and as determinedly as we possibly can and this urge is so intense as to be irresistible. Every instinct in us is to seek unconsciousness therefore, strange though it may sound to say this. We don’t see that this is what we are doing of course; we believe ourselves to be grasping for some sort of valid external value so that we may secure it and therefore benefit ourselves, and this of course makes perfect sense. We see ourselves as being in a situation that is unsatisfactory (in terms of what we stand to gain if we were proactive about things and took the initiative a bit) and we wish – naturally enough – to improve that situation. We are always trying to ‘improve our situation’ and we see this as a good thing. We are creatures that are constantly looking for the advantage, and trying to make the best use of it when we find it. It’s not overstating things to say that our lives are dominated by this activity of ‘trying to seize the advantage’); as far as we’re concerned this is what life is all about. What else would life be about if not pursuing our dreams and goals? What else would life be about if not benefiting the conditioned self?

In effect therefore – although no one will ever believe it – life for us is all about losing consciousness and – once we are unconscious – staying that way forever (or for as long as we can possibly manage it). Just as plants exhibit a tireless tropism towards the light, we trope towards the wretched darkness of unconsciousness. Given that this state of unconsciousness means that we have no relationship with the real world but only with our hopes and fears, only with our own projections, this can hardly be counted as a good thing – no ‘benefit’ can come to us from being cut off from reality. In religious terms this is equivalent to the state of being ‘cut off from the grace of God’, which is a state of hell or damnation. What we grasp or hold onto we lose and so when our very being is a state of grasping is reality itself, and it is of course not possible to lose more than this! And our very being does equal ‘grasping’ just as long as we are being defined by fear or desire, as we have already said. We’re not grasping at reality in order to lose it of course but in order to gain it and so – clearly – we’re seeing things backwards in a big way. We’re not just ‘seeing the world darkly’, we’re seeing it invertedly.

Generally speaking, this grasping attitude of ours is understood in terms of what might be called ‘crass materialism’, which is to say, in terms of our crude desire to possess objects or things for our very own, so that no one else may have them, so that we alone can enjoy the benefit that is in them. The term ‘materialism’ can also be applied to very basic biological urge to seek status in society or have control over other people (so we can have our own way but they can’t have theirs, so that we can have all the good stuff and they can’t have any), and this is of course very much true for modern society just as it has been true throughout human history. In a more subtle sense however ‘grasping’ can be applied to our attempts to understand the world, and say authoritatively to ourselves ‘what it is’. We want to be ‘one up’ on life by understanding what it’s all about, and so we grasping at the security of positive knowledge.

This subtle form of grasping (i.e. ‘grasping by the mind’) is of course something that we have been highly successful at – just about anyone you meet will be convinced that they know what life is all about, or that they know what the world is, and what it means to be in the world. This is the power of the conceptual mind – to render the world in terms of known concepts, and then thus foster the pernicious illusion that we know what the world ‘is’. Knowledge is seen as the greatest good, the accomplishment that will benefit us the most, but the truth of the matter is indirect in stark contrast to this. As Jung says:

Knowledge does not enrich us; it removes this more and more from the mythic world in which we were once at home by right of birth.

Another way of putting this is to say that by obtaining knowledge and not having any awareness of the relativity of knowledge, we become profoundly unconscious. We become unconscious because consciousness is the awareness of the relativity of all of our ‘definite’ statements about the world; consciousness is perspective, in other words. When we believe unquestioningly in the literal truth of our knowledge about the world then we are ignorant of the world itself. ‘Awareness of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom,‘ says Socrates, but we go round with very little awareness of our ignorance and whether we are highly intelligent or not particularly smart makes no difference at all in this regard – we are all blissfully ‘ignorant of our own ignorance’.

‘Positive knowledge’ might seem like an unqualified advantage therefore but there actually is a qualification, and a very big one at that – the qualification being that when we lose perspective to the degree that we can no longer see that our definite statements are only ever relatively true, then we get totally separated from reality and this is a big problem whether we can see it or not! This is what being unconscious is all about – this is what Jung refers to as ‘the original sin’. And the point about this is that positive knowledge (i.e. the system that is made up of our definite statements about the world) always drives out all perspective – if positive knowledge didn’t drive out any last remaining trace of awareness that we might have of the relativity of our so-called knowing then it wouldn’t be positive knowledge; if our definite statements didn’t drive out all sense of perspective about these very same definite statements then they would no longer be definite. There would be provisional instead and thought doesn’t make provisional statements (or rather, it does but it doesn’t admit to doing so). There is no mechanism by which thoughts can admit to making provisionally true statements – mechanical systems don’t deal in relativity and that’s why they’re called ‘mechanical systems’! ‘Mechanics’ equals ‘logic’ and the thing about logic is that whilst it can assert or deny, it can never doubt the essential legitimacy of its own assertions or denials. Logic can of course examine its own definite statements and then come to a conclusion as to whether they are true or not, valid or not, but it cannot doubt the mechanism by which it comes to these conclusions. Logic (or thought) has no way of acknowledging the essential relativity of everything it says, the essential relativity of both its denials and its assertions. We could say – therefore – that this is the mistake of thinking that the world is in essence ‘non-enigmatic’, and this is the mistake that logic can’t help making.

What we are saying with all this comes down to two things. [1] is that when we act on the basis of either desire or fear then we become ‘unconscious’ (which is to say, we become disconnected from reality) and [2] is that when we operate on the basis of logic (or thought) we become unconscious, we become disconnected from reality. We might go one stage further than this therefore and wonder if these two things are not really manifestations of the same thing – there is after all an equal lack of perspective in both situations. Another way of talking about perspective is in terms of having a sense of irony about the situation we find ourselves in; irony means that we can see things in two ways at the same time – we can see things the way thought shows them to be, and at the same time we can see that this way of seeing things isn’t actually true at all, not really. We can see a definite statement in the terms that it itself presents itself (i.e. as being ‘definite’), whilst at the same time we can see that the so-called ‘definite statement’ is only definite because we have tacitly agreed to look at things this way, which means that it isn’t definite at all. Having perspective – or having ‘a sense of irony’ – thus produces a type of vertigo, which is really the same thing that Kierkegaard is referring to when he talks about ‘the dizziness of freedom’. We don’t like this vertigo and that’s a very big understatement – we don’t like it because we don’t know that it’s actually freedom. Instead, we perceive in it the possibility of loss, the very strong possibility of loss. We can see on a deep intuitive level that we stand to lose everything we know and this naturally doesn’t seem to us to be a good thing. Because of our very short-sighted way of looking at things, having our definite ideas about the world falsified seems like an extremely bad thing, despite the fact that our definite ideas about the world are entirely false. We stick with our cruel abuser – not because we particularly love him (he has no virtues to love) because we don’t, but because we fear what we don’t know….

Art: Through a Glass, Darkly

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