Exchanging The Profound For The Trivial
When we are in the identified state then we have a very clear awareness of whatever the particularities are that we happen to be dealing with at the time, along with an awareness of how that interaction is making us feel (which is to say, whether we feel that are getting somewhere by it or not) but we have no awareness of how we are outside of the very narrow context of this specific particular situation, so to speak. We are aware of the specific details of whatever it is that we are involved with (which can sometimes seem extremely important to us, perhaps even overwhelmingly important) but are not aware of the tremendous brute fact of our actual existence, in other words. We have forgotten about that fact, tremendous as it might be.
When we put it like this it can be seen that what we’re talking about is a very peculiar thing – we have forgotten the tremendous ‘existential fact’ in favour of the nitty-gritty ‘specific details’ of our existence. We’re not saying here that the specific or immediately pressing details aren’t important (they can sometimes be of ‘life-and-death’ importance) but merely that when we use them as a way of losing sight of the ‘main event’ in life – which is the unprecedented and utterly astonishing fact of our existence – then this is rather an odd kind of a thing, to put it mildly! What exactly is going on here – why would we want to trade off a tremendous awe-inspiring awareness (an awareness without precedence) for an endless series of unremarkable or ‘matter-of-fact’ awarenesses? Why do we always go for the small picture rather than the big one? What (if anything) do we think we’re gaining with this trade-off?
The other way looking at this of course is to say that it’s not as if we have any choice in the matter. We don’t choose to be in the state of passive identification any more than the fly chooses to be stuck on a strip of flypaper. We don’t even know that there is this state called ‘the state of identification’ and that we are stuck at it – what we’re experiencing is just normal life as far as we’re concerned. As far as we’re concerned there is nothing else so we don’t see ourselves as being ‘stuck’ on anything. We don’t know that there is this thing that we are referring to as ‘the awareness of the unprecedented and utterly astonishing fact of our existence’ and so – obviously enough – we don’t know that we forgotten about it. Life for us – as ‘identified beings’ – is one big long series of specifically-focused awarenesses that are not in the least bit ‘unprecedented’ – they are essentially ‘regular’ in nature. There are – of course – enough ‘minor variations’ in what we are being served up to keep us interested (most of the time, at lease) but they are nevertheless ‘all the same sort of thing’, just like reading the Daily Express newspaper is essentially the same sort of thing every day. We’re never going to learn anything radically new this way.
Wei Wu Wei, a distinguished commentator on Cha’an Buddhism who lived a long way away from China in County Tipperary in the Republic of Ireland, explains this by saying that the ‘phenomenal’ life occurs solely on the horizontal dimension – one thing follows another, which follows another, and none of these things are radically different from any of the others. None of them are ever going to radically surprise us because everything we encounter on the horizontal dimension always fits in perfectly with our preconceptions, our well-used assumptions for how things ‘ought to be’. The events here are ‘regular rather than unique’. This is the causal realm; the realm where ‘everything is explainable in terms of what has happened before’. Even when the events that occur aren’t connected to each other they are still all understandable in the same way; they can still be explained in terms of cause and effect. When we look at the vertical dimension however, nothing is explainable in terms of causing effect – everything is unprecedented. If the horizontal level is ‘linear time’ then the vertical dimension is ‘eternity’. Eternity obviously doesn’t have a cause, but rather than taking any interest in this singularly odd thing, we keep our noses firmly to the grindstone with regard to the progression of practical / regular matters that keep coming our way, and keep on need attending to.
As we have said, it is certainly the case that matters arise that really and truly do need attending to, but just because life does have a practical ‘nuts and bolts’ aspect to it that we are obliged – if we want to go on living – to sort out as best we can, that is hardly justification for us turning our existence into nothing more than an endless series of everyday regular problems to be dealt with, which is exactly what we have done. If we were to watch ourselves we would see this to be true – even when we aren’t going from one mechanical task to another without a break between them, we’re going from one thought to another and this is exactly the same thing. Thoughts are mechanical events. It’s not as if we ever take time out to ponder upon eternity or reflect on how strange it is that there is this thing called ‘life’ – we’re preoccupied with the task of processing the everyday tiresome old data-stream of our lives. Although some of these details might be more interesting than others (some of them may be quite exciting to us if it looks as if some benefit is going to come our way as a result of them) none of them ever take us out of ‘the Domain of the Petty’ – the domain of the petty is where we pretty much stay, from the time when we first start out with a habit of ‘thinking seriously about things’ to the point where we breathe our last. This is the sentence that has been handed down to us, and this is a sentence that almost all of us are going to serve.
‘Identification’ is therefore the process in which our attention is glued to the trivial (or to ‘the matter of fact’) at the expense of the profound. The identified life is a rather incongruous affair therefore – we contrive to spend every day ‘processing the matter-of-fact details’ as if this practice is sooner or later going to ‘pay dividends for us’. We’re ‘minding the pennies and letting the pounds take care of themselves’; we submerge ourselves in the humdrum routines of our lives as if nothing else were of any importance to us. Nothing else is of any importance to us – we don’t have any time for it, we don’t have any patience for it. If someone were to come along who wasn’t talking about these strictly practical matters then we have no patience for them either! We are therefore defined by the contents of our run-of-the-mill preoccupations; they define us so that we become every bit as petty as they are. We have forgotten about the vertical axis. Our appetite for the trivial ensures that we insulate ourselves from the awareness of how utterly strange everything is, how utterly unprecedented everything is, and it’s not just the case that we have temporarily forgotten about this awareness, forgotten about the vertical dimension in life, but rather that we have made it so that it doesn’t exist. It is actually become very important indeed that the vertical dimension (which is to say, consciousness) doesn’t exist – any degree of perspective at all would render of our cherished obsessions obsolete – the ‘meaning’ that we have managed to scratch together (and which we precariously hang our ‘sense of self’ on) would be swept away immediately, as if by a river in full flood.
The ‘identified state’ is incongruous because everything is back to front and it. All values are reversed – all values are reversed because we cherish and what is essentially worthless and neglect or spurn what is most precious. The world which we concern ourselves with every day has nothing of any intrinsic value in it – it is all made up of pragmatically important stepping stones and we hop from one stepping stone to another in the hope that we are eventually going to get somewhere as a result of this. Their ‘value’ lies in where we are (supposedly) going to get to as a result of them, rather than ‘where we actually are’. The snag here however is that linear time doesn’t lead to anything more linear time; the snag is that the stepping stones don’t need to anything more stepping stones. When we are in ‘the world of extrinsic value’ then this means that the value is always elsewhere! Or as we could also say, when we in the realm of extrinsic meaning then the meaning is always elsewhere, then the meaning is always ‘outside of us’. It goes without saying that there is no genuine meaning in our lives when we are in the identified state – genuine meaning has been replaced by something else, which is a compulsive urge to fix things, the compulsive urge to strive to be ‘somewhere else’, somewhere else where the grass is forever greener.
The identified state is a state of forgetting, the state of ongoing hypnosis by the trivial, the state of being anaesthetised by all the practical details that we are continually caught up in, and so of course there is no meaning in it. There is – we might say – meaning in a mechanical task when that mechanical task is being ‘consciously engaged in’, but not when it is being used as an anaesthetic, not when we have been swallowed up in this pernicious business of ‘enacting the routine for the sake of enacting the routine’ or ‘keeping busy for the sake of keeping busy’. When action comes out of stillness then there is a some sense to it, but when action comes out of a complete lack of stillness then it is nothing more than a pointless distraction. We dignify what we are doing with various glossy cover stories but our narratives are nothing more than a thin membrane self-deception. And it’s not just that we are lost in ‘doing for the sake of doing’, as we have already intimated – there is a very grim type of logic that takes hold when we are immersed in the state of identification, the type of ‘grim logic’ that drives everything. Once we banish the Big View which is the unprecedented awareness (i.e. the awareness that our situation is entirely unprecedented) then it ceases to be ‘an awareness’ to us and – instead – it becomes purely and simply ‘the enemy’. It becomes the ‘bad thing’ that we never want to know about, the bad thing we won’t admit to ignoring because we’re too frightened by it.
We don’t know anything about the Big Awareness other than the fact that it threatens our entire world (which we know only on an unconscious level) and this is why we spend our lives fighting against it. We have to fight against the enemy of unconditioned awareness in a very instinctive or automatic way (without allowing ourselves to see what it is that we doing) since to know that we are fighting against a strange and therefore frightening type of awareness is itself a strange therefore frightening type of awareness. At the slightest hint of this awareness impinging on us and making everything seem strange we do whatever we can do to solidify our picture of the world and ourselves and thereby get rid of the uncomfortable ‘extra perspective’ that has come our way, and which is threatening to relativize our concrete perceptions. We engage in thinking and goal-orientated activity even more desperately at this point because thinking and goal-orientated activity is our anaesthetic. That’s what keeps ‘the Immensity’ at bay…
This is ‘The War against Strangeness‘ and when we are successful in this war (as we generally are) then what we have been successful in is shutting the door to any genuine sense of meaning and replacing it with a surrogate type of meaning which is – as we have said – no more than mere mechanical compulsion. Instead of ‘open-ended reality’ we simply have ‘the System’. The routine or rule-based existence that is kindly provided for us by the closed system of extrinsic motivation is a substitute form of meaning inasmuch as it is constantly keeping us busy doing ‘the next thing then the next thing after that’ – there is nothing ever new in the routine (obviously enough!) but what we do have in abundance is ‘a comforting sense of familiarity’, and a comforting sense of familiarity is of course the perfect antidote to the unwelcome perception of ‘strangeness’. And as it happens, it is the perfect antidote to reality, too…