The most useful thing that anyone can do, under any circumstances, is to gain perspective. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the only genuinely useful thing that we can do is to increase the amount of perspective we have available to us. Anything else, any clever tricks or gimmicks or procedures, are only short term measures and this means that they are guaranteed to create as many problems as they solve. Albert Einstein is on record as saying something to the effect that ‘you cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that was used to create that problem’ and this is exactly the point that he was making. If I don’t gain a higher viewpoint, then whatever I do is tainted by the same invisible errors, the same invisible blindspot. Ultimately, my problem is not the problem that I complain about – that is just a decoy – my problem is the blindspot that is hidden behind my thinking. In other words, my problem is my lack of perspective on things.
The most important point to understand about this business of ‘increasing perspective’ is that anything that I do on purpose (i.e. anything I do with a goal in mind) traps me even further in my present thinking. My goals are my thinking – they contain the same invisible errors, the same false assumptions. I cannot go beyond my theory of the world using that same theory, that same idea. So when I understand that, then I know that I am totally hogtied. I know that as soon as I conceive a goal that seems meaningful to me, then straightaway I am being mislead again; I think I stand a chance of ‘getting somewhere’, but I don’t. I am just going around and around in the ‘mind-maze’ of my rational thinking, which is synonymous with the condition of zero perspective. Travelling around on the horizontal will not ever free me from this maze because it cannot (by definition) increase my perspective. The only thing that can help me is moving upwards, I have to ‘ascend to a higher viewpoint’, I have to look at things in a different way.
The reason why we say the rational mind is synonymous with ‘zero perspective’ is because it is an organizationally closed system, i.e. it moves in circles without knowing that it moves in circles. Organizational closure is a very ‘complete’ form of closure because not only is it closed, it is closed to its own closure. Not only are we closed to any new information, we are also incapable of knowing that we are closed to new information. We are – in effect – very sure of ourselves and very smug in our cleverness, but the only reason we are so smug is that we are limited in what we can see. We lack perspective, but also we lack the perspective to see that we lack perspective, and so we are bound to look for all the answers within the narrow and bounded realm that is allowed us by our rational thinking.
We have said that the important thing to understand is that our thinking cannot help us escape our thinking. And since just about everything we do is based upon our thinking, where does that leave us? There is a way to get back in touch with a wider, more complete reality, however, and there isn’t really anything to stop us doing this. It is just that the way is invisible to our rational, goal-orientated minds – it doesn’t lie where our thinking points us because our thinking always points us towards next red herring. Once we understand this then this is our first step because the rational mind (as we have said) is constitutionally unable to see its own limitations; if I can see the limitation inherent in my thinking then I have already gone beyond my thinking. The bubble of organizational closure has burst.
The key to transcending our flat, rational understanding of the world is the ability to see the invisible compulsions that are acting on us. A convenient way of approaching the matter is to say that we are subject to two environments, the inner and the outer, and both contain invisible but powerful ‘compulsion fields’. A compulsion works in a very simple way, it makes us uncomfortable if we don’t do what it wants us to, and it makes us (momentarily) comfortable when we do. In other words, it punishes us for not obeying and it give us a transient reward when we do obey. If we take the outer environment first, we can say that it contains rules that are expressed in the form of compulsions. These compulsions ensure that the ‘instructions’ encoded in the rules are able to reach out and regulate (or control) the way that we behave. Basically, rules have the function of controlling things so that stuff that they ‘agree’ with gets to happen, and stuff that doesn’t agree with them doesn’t get to happen.
Compulsions are either attractive or repellent in nature, just like attracting and repelling magnetic fields. They create within us the state of mind known as wanting – a positive compulsion makes us experience positive wanting (or greed), and a negative compulsion induces negative wanting (which is fear or repulsion). ‘Wanting’ is a funny business because although I think that it is me who wants this or wants that, actually the wanting controls me, without me being able to see this. It is therefore a ‘back-to-front’ way of seeing things – we don’t want by our own volition, we are controlled to want.
BEING CONTROLLED BY ADVERTS ON THE TV
We can take an advertisement on TV as a simple example of what we are talking about. An advert is a message (or instruction) which is usually hidden (to some extent or other) within attractive images. [Scary images are also sometimes used but this is usually in order to give some sort of warning.] The reason the message is partially hidden and in the background somewhere is because if an ad came right out with it and said “Buy McNulty’s Bread” we would probably feel insulted and affronted and we would rebel against it. We like to feel that we have free will, that we can do what we want to do! Like stroppy children, our attitude is “You are not the boss of me…” For this reason, the modern sophisticated advert panders to the idea of empowered consumers who have the power to choose for themselves. Of course the ad doesn’t really want the consumer to have free choice because if they had free choice they might not want to buy the product that is being promoted in the ad! What the ad-men want is for the consumer to feel that they have free choice whilst being influenced the whole time to buy whatever it is that is being advertised. After all, as everyone always says, if there was no ‘control’, no ‘influence’, the why would the advertising agencies lay out all the money that they do?
Compulsions work in exactly the same way as adverts in this respect: they make me do what the rule specifies I should do, and at the same time they make me feel as if it was me that wanted to do it. A kind of ‘mental inversion’ occurs at this precise moment so that I see everything upside-down – I perceive the state of mental slavery as being freedom. This might sound highly peculiar but we have all had experience of this sort of thing – I feel a craving to smoke a cigarette, and I reach out for the packet. Under normal circumstances this ‘just happens’ and it feels for all the world as if it is an expression of my own free will, because when we automatically obey or go along with a compulsion it feels like it is our own genuine volition, whereas the truth is that we didn’t actually have any choice in the matter.
We can think about compulsions as being itches to do something or other, the thing being that the itch only itches when I don’t do what the compulsion wants me to do. If I behave ‘unconsciously’ – which is to say, if I obey every itch without thinking about it – then I am simply not aware of the itches, I am not aware of any discomfort or threat of discomfort. Everything just ‘happens’. It is only when I cannot for some reason scratch the itch that I become of my lack of freedom. The principle here is that when we are able to conform successfully to some external authority, we have no insight into the fact that we are actually conforming. We have no insight, and we don’t want to have any insight, either! As we have said, it is only when for some reason we can’t conform successfully that we start to gain insight into what is actually going on, and – needless to say – this insight generally comes as an unpleasant surprise.
HAPPILY SHOPPING IN THE SUPERMARKET
What we are saying is that our normal everyday state of mind is a ‘comfort zone’ and this comfort zone is conforming to the artificial requirements of the compulsion that is effecting us, whilst remaining perfectly unaware that we are in fact conforming. We said earlier that we are subject to two compulsive environments, the inner and the outer. If we take the outer environment first, we can use the analogy of the supermarket. This isn’t an ideal example because supermarkets are designed only to contain attractive compulsions, not repulsive ones, but the same basic idea applies: as I browse along the aisles I am wafted along almost effortlessly, moving from one potential area of interest to another. I am drawn from one thing to another and as I go along I am buoyed up by the sense of my own ‘power to choose’. “What’ll I get…?” I muse to myself, and the subtle feeling of ‘being in control’ that is implicit in this situation creates a pleasant level of euphoria that is helped along by the muzac playing in the background. Forgetting about all other concerns for the moment, I am in shopper’s paradise, with my brain firmly in neutral! Supposing for the sake of the argument, that this is the case, i.e. that I am totally at the mercy of the brainwashing effect of the supermarket and in reality have no free will of my own – which luckily for us isn’t usually entirely the case when we go shopping – what happens to me then?
What happens is that I walk along from one compulsion field to another, but no compulsion is ever detected because all I feel is the delicious tingle of desire and interest – Unless my finances are not good, I don’t usually notice the other side of the coin, which is the dismay that comes when I realize that I am not able to purchase the products in question. Let us assume however that I am a ‘successful’ (or ‘empowered’) shopper and I am able to buy whatever I desire. In this case I move from aisle to aisle making purchases, and when I enter a compulsion field that ‘gets to me’ I conceive the idea of buying the product and instantly mistake it for my own free will. The external authority surreptitiously substitutes itself for the authority of my own true will and so I am in reality no more than the unconscious tool of the system, a ‘puppet-of-the-compulsion’.
As I continue on my way I buy this and I buy that, and finally I pay at the check-out and leave, and not for a second do I realize that I have been controlled the whole time by the environment. I didn’t do anything myself, I was triggered to do it! The question at this point is, if I could suddenly gain insight into what just happened, how would that make me feel? It felt all very pleasant at the time, but with the added ingredient of consciousness, how pleasant does it seem now? In other words, what does it feel like to know that I am a puppet?
EXPANDING THE ANALOGY
We do have to address the limitations of this particular analogy. For a start, it has to be said that mostly we don’t have the luxury of this sort of free-fall shopping. There are constraints: usually I have a list and I have to get what is on the list. In addition, I have a budget, and I have to shop within my means. Shopping reality is not quite the same as the ‘shopping utopia’ we have envisaged here. Furthermore, what I chose to buy will probably correspond to some extent with my personal tastes – if I don’t like pickled onions then I won’t buy them. But does this mean that I am a free agent after all? The answer is still ‘no’ and we can try to show this by bringing in the idea of the ‘inner compulsive environment’. Not only am I subject to the various triggers in the external world, I am also subject to all the various likes and dislikes that I have accumulated (either learned or inherited), and it is the interaction between the two that will determine what I do. Between the compulsions that come from the outside, and the compulsions that come from the inside, it seems that I have precious little freedom at all.
It must be stressed that we are not putting forward an argument to try to prove that people have no free will. That is not what we are doing – what we are trying to do is to take a look at the factors that act against this free will, which we will take for granted at this point. The way the world around us influences our thinking and our emotions is one way in which our freedom is lost, and the other way is through our ‘conditioning’, which (along with the biological ‘hard-wired’ programs that we are born with) basically comes down to the rules of perception, cognition and behaviour that we have internalised at some point or other. What we are saying, therefore, is that the inner compulsive environment is really just a long-winded way of talking about our mental conditioning. Mental conditioning includes the lot – it includes the biological drives, as we have said, and it also includes social programming, along with all the quirky individual stuff which constitutes our personal programming. We tend to feel quite proud of this motley conglomeration of rules and see it as being ‘who we are’, but in actual fact it is nothing of the sort – it is merely accidental and has nothing to do with our true individuality at all.
Everything we have said about the outer compulsions holds true for the inner compulsions. Our comfort zone in both cases is to conform to the hilt, while remaining blissfully unaware that we have handed over our freedom in this way. Thus, when I express an opinion that in reality derives from my conditioning, I say “I think such and such…” but really ‘I’ don’t think anything of the sort. I am only obeying a compulsion to think about the world in a particular way, a compulsion that derives from an implanted bit of mental software. Needless to say, it feels a lot more comfortable to identify with the thought or opinion in question and implicitly claim it as my own. If I did not identify myself in this way then I would suddenly come face to face with my own complete lack of mental freedom and this revelation would come as a very unpleasant shock. Not seeing my own lack of freedom is, as we keep reiterating, my ‘comfort zone’. Waking up to the fact that we have not ever expressed our ‘true self’, our true individuality, is something we are quite happy to avoid, for our whole lives if possible.
LIVING IN KEN & BARBIE LAND
The scarily superficial state of mind that we associate with shopping in a big modern supermarket is a crude sort of an analogy for the state of mind we spend most of our lives in. Such a mental condition might be called ‘Ken and Barbie land’, and another fitting image is that of the ‘Stepford Wives’. The scary thing is that, if we had our own way, we would probably opt for this as a full-time mode of being because it is so very ‘non-challenging’. We love not to be challenged. Easy is good! Easy is good! If you do not believe this, then just watch yourself for a day or two and see where your head is at for most of the time – are you in one of your various comfort zones (in the realm of the known), or are you somewhere new, somewhere challenging?
If I were to be honest, then I would have to admit that it is the former rather than the latter. Every time I turn on the TV and watch a sitcom, or a football match, I am wafted away into Ken & Barbie land. The same thing happens when I chat to a friend, when I listen to my favourite DJ on the radio, or when I flick through the pages of a glossy magazine and read about fashion or the goings-on of the ‘celebs’ whose lives hold such fascination for us. Actually, any form of media (or ‘conventional communication’) that you might care to think of has the effect of inducing the state of mind which we have called passive identification. In fact, we can go further than that and say that all of the information that we are daily bombarded with has this function – to keep us firmly asleep. Whenever we subscribe to a shallow or limited view of the world without realizing that this is what we are doing then what we are doing is playing a ‘psychological game’. From this definition, we can see that when we perceive the world though the filter of our rational-conceptual minds, this too is ‘a game’. The way that the conceptual mind works is that I only register (or pay attention to) information that matches my evaluative categories, i.e. information that corresponds to my ‘basic but invisible’ assumptions about what is important/unimportant, meaningful/not meaningful, real/unreal, and so on.
Using the terminology of Ernst and Christine von Weiszacker’s Model of Pragmatic Information, we can say that the type of information that we receive when we are in our rational minds is strictly Confirmation. Essentially, what we see has the effect of confirming that our way of seeing the world (i.e. our model) is the right one. It would also be true to say that when we are playing a game, we are in effect compelled to receive (or ‘tune into’) only confirmation-type information. The whole point about a game is that we are not allowed to see that it is a game; we are forced to believe that ‘the game’ is in fact reality. This is the compulsiveness of thinking in a nutshell – our thoughts compel us to believe in them. (We get ‘trapped in the description’, in other words.) This is what organizational closure is all about.
In the Model of Pragmatic Information, information that does not agree with our expectations is called Novelty. Novelty means that we are seeing things in a new way, not the old way. When a degree of novelty filters through to us, secluded as we are within the sterile confines of our rational minds, then we are seeing beyond our thinking and our concepts – we are seeing through the game. The remarkable thing about receiving novelty-type information is that ‘meaning’ of what we see has not been decided in advance by ourselves. This show is not ‘rigged’, it is real! Obviously, if I have already decided in advance what is going to be meaningful or not-meaningful then nothing is genuinely meaningful at all, and this is why the world created by rational thought is always sterile. All I am doing is humouring myself. When we live in the universe of confirmation we are living in a meaningless world but (normally) we just can’t see it. Sometimes we get a flash of this sort of awareness when we hear a word or phrase that has become a cliché; when the insight comes in a more dramatic way we experience what Jean Paul Sartre called nausea, and what Kierkegaard called angst. This is when we see first-hand the sterility of the universe of confirmation, which is the universe that is created by our thoughts.
THE SYSTEM OF THOUGHT
The idea that we have been putting forward is that the designed (or ‘outer’) environment compels us to see things in one way, and only in one way, and that this in turn determines how we think and how we act. Perception, cognition, and behaviour are all controlled by the designed environment that we create for ourselves and for the most part this designed environment is where we spend our lives. We said that the way that this works is that the outer environment produces specific types of itches, and along with the itch it provides a specific way of alleviating that itch. Therefore, if we do what this ‘programmed’ environment wants us to do we feel good and if we don’t we feel bad. For example, if we are in a bar the thing to do is drink, if we are in a bowling alley the thing to do is to bowl, if we are sitting in front of a TV the thing to do is to watch the TV, and if we are in a doctor’s waiting room the thing to do is to sit quietly and mind our own business. In all cases, the thing to do is to ‘follow the inbuilt logic of the situation’.
THE TASK OF ADAPTATION
Basically, a programmed (or conditioned) environment requires us to interact with it in a certain way in order for that environment to ‘make sense’ – it has a ‘logic’ to it that we are compelled to follow. When we do interact in the ‘correct’ way then we have successfully ‘adapted to our environment’. This is like falling into a groove, or running along a set of railway tracks; from then on, if we manage to stay successfully on the rails, everything proceeds smoothly and effortlessly. A simple example is the example of going to a polite dinner party and following all the ‘rules for politeness’: we ‘play the game successfully’ and as a result the evening goes perfectly smoothly, it all goes just like ‘clockwork’.
The only problem is that nothing real ever comes out of such terrible conformity. It is like humouring somebody – no feathers are ruffled and no one is offended but when it is all over there is nothing ‘real’ or ‘true’ that has come out of it. It was all just a show, it was all empty theatricality and nothing else. The ‘short-term gain’ that we get out of such games is that we avoid difficulty, and the ‘long-term costs’ are two-fold:
 The first cost is the suffering we are bound to go through when we find ourselves, for whatever reasons, unable to successfully obey the dictates of the compulsive environment
 The second cost is the suffering that we inevitably incur in the end when we are able to successfully conform; what we are talking about here is the curse of meaninglessness
Lack of meaning is, as Jung noted halfway through the last century, the unacknowledged epidemic (or pandemic) of modern rational-technological society. This is one ‘disease’ which medical science cannot hope to cure; this is a task for the individual, and not one that can be handed over to the ‘experts’ – in fact, it is our addiction to external authority (which Ivan Illich speaks of as the state of heteronomy) that produced the problem of meaninglessness in the first place. Therefore, we have two contrasting tasks on our hands: the first is the task of adapting to the world which I am born into, which cannot be ignored, and the second is the task of discovering who I really am, which is radically different to the ‘me’ which is defined by society and everyone who knows me. This second task is called by Jung the path of individuation.
THE TASK OF INDIVIDUATION
In order to undertake the task of individuation we have to strike out on our own, and accept it as the very personal challenge that it is. This is one job no one can take on for me. As we have said, the outer environment has a logic to it that is very hard to resist and this is equally true for the social world which makes up a very important part of the designed environment. The point is, if we go along with it, then everything is hunk-dory and we quickly end up in Ken & Barbie land, lost without a trace in the global equivalent of a ‘supermarket trance’. If we don’t go along with it, or find ourselves unable to fit in, then we find out that the system (the social environment) can be very unforgiving. A good analogy is being an ‘odd kid’ in tough secondary school, a kid who can’t help being different. What happens then is that the system (when it notices us) bullies us remorselessly, it makes life very uncomfortable for us. And even when the system doesn’t notice us, we can’t help looking around us and wondering what is wrong with us, why we can’t be like everyone else.
What we are talking about here is social pressure, which is invisible when we conform, but highly visible when we do not (or cannot) conform. The pressure to conform socially is therefore no different in essence to the pressure to conform to our physical environment, or to conform to the conditioning that is in our heads.
GOING BEYOND THE SYSTEM
The designed (or ‘outer’) environment is an expression of a self-consistent system of logic, which is a particular ‘way of looking at things’. This system of logic is like a dictator or tyrant because it has to have things its own way, and it cannot accept that there are any alternative viewpoints, any alternative ways to go about things. Once we start obeying the specific black and white viewpoint that is inherent in the system of logic then any other viewpoints quickly fade away and become inaccessible to us. This particular viewpoint looks like the only viewpoint, which means that it isn’t a viewpoint at all – it is just ‘how things are’.
This is how we get trapped in what David Bohm calls the ‘system of thought’: we become ‘submerged’, which is to say, we lose perspective. As we have said, the chief characteristic of the system of thought is that it is organisationally closed. This means that the ‘possibility space’ which is allowed by the dictates of the system curves back and eventually meets up with itself again, thereby excluding all other ways of looking at (or understanding) the world. All the ‘routes out’ lead back to where they started, all the apparent ‘doorways’ that the system of thought entices us with are in fact ‘trick doors’ that return us back into the system. Therefore, we are in a prison that we cannot see; we are contained without knowing that we are contained.
The conditioned (or ‘inner’) environment is also an expression of the same system of logic, or ‘system of thought’. When we fall under the influence of this conditioning (which we generally do just about from the word ‘go’) then we are trapped within the world that this conditioning shows us. Our motivations are conditioning, because they force us to take a specific goal seriously, and if we take the goal seriously, then by default we are also taking seriously the framework of reference within which the goal makes sense. Our habitual emotional reactions are another form of conditioning – emotions such as anger, hatred, jealousy or self-pity all induce perspective loss, they all squeeze our way of looking at the world to make it very narrow, very constrained, and very compulsive. All such emotions create a black & white viewpoint which drastically oversimplifies the world we see – they force us to follow a crude and circular logic that blinds us to the bigger picture. Our regular day-to-day thinking is the same – it forces us down one specific track, it describes the world to us in an oversimplified way and then traps us into believing this limited and misrepresentative description. This is the system of thought in a nutshell – it is a compulsion to ‘believe’ in a particular picture, a particular image of things. Once we believe, we react accordingly, and when we react we deliver ourselves into the trap full-time because ‘reacting’ means that we have ‘put all our money’ on the particular model or picture that the system has shown us. From this point on, we have lost the ability to question our mental projections, we can only react to them, either greedily or fearfully.
Since both the conditioned (internal) environment and the designed (external) environment are both expressions of the same system of logic, this shows us that they are actually two ways of looking at the same thing. If we say that the external environment is a series of stimuli designed to trigger specific reactions in us, then the internal environment is a set of inbuilt tendencies to react to these triggers. Really, as David Bohm says, the external world that we have built around us is no more than a physical projection of the system of thought – it is the system of thought in visible, tangible, material form. This has to be so because the features of the designed environment are only there because they correspond to our categories of thinking; they correspond to what we think is important, in other words. If we can’t see the sense in something, we certainly aren’t doing to include it in the world that we build up around ourselves!
A simple way to envisage the interaction between us and our environment is to see it in terms of reading a message. We have to look at our environment in such as way that it makes sense to us. When it comes right down to it, everything can be thought of as information, and this means that the task of adapting ourselves to the designed world around us comes down to reading the message that is encoded in it. In order to decipher the message, we have to have a set of rules (or evaluative criteria) internalised in our heads that allows us to process the information in the correct way. Therefore, the message corresponds to the ‘environmental triggers’, and the evaluative criteria correspond to the ‘tendencies to react’. Both are aspects of the same system of logic.
Now when we ‘react’ to the message that basically means that we mentally orientate ourselves with it in such a way that the message makes sense to us. [‘Reacting’ means any sort of purposeful cognitive or behaviour response at all.] The message is essentially a set of instructions and from this point on we can either obey the instructions or disobey them, but either way we are trapped in the system of logic within which the instructions make sense. This is the sneaky trick which the system uses to capture us within it – if I say YES to the instructions then I am trapped in the context of meaning within which the instructions make sense, but if I say NO then I am just as caught up in that context. The reason for this is of course because whether I say YES or NO (whether I react positively or negatively) I am still reacting, which is to say, I am taking it for granted that the rules of interpretation that I am using to make sense of the message are ‘valid’ or ‘meaningful’.
Once I do take this for granted, then I am by definition aligning myself with the system of thought, I am agreeing with it – in fact I am allowing it to take me over completely. No other, individual viewpoint is allowed, there is only the viewpoint of ‘the party’, the ‘system’, the ‘official approved version’ of reality. By definition, when I am in 100% agreement with the external source of authority that is the system, then I have abdicated all responsibility. 100% agreement means ‘zero perspective’, it means that I have no capacity to question anything on a radical level; I no longer exist as an autonomous individual, but rather I am simply an extension of the system, an appendage of it, a blind functionary, a tool with no ability to think for myself. It goes without saying that I do not want to face this unpalatable truth, and so to save me this indignity the system grants me a false or virtual sense of individuality, so that I honestly believe that the system’s views are my views, that what the system wants is what I want, and so on. This deceptive or illusory sense of identity is sometimes called the ‘false self’. The false self is – if the truth be known – no more than a cleverly camouflaged version of the ubiquitous system of thought, which is the hidden ‘puppet master’.
There is no method that we can use to gain perspective. There is absolutely no ‘cleverness’ called for, in fact the smarter, the trickier and more the sophisticated I get the deeper I go within endless layers of self-deception. There is nothing to achieve because all my goals are projections of the system of thought; likewise there is no beneficiary of the purposeful activity because the ‘me’ that wants to benefit is also a projection of the system of thought.
The way to gain perspective is not to react to provocation, whether it is the provocation of fear or the provocation of desire. The capacity that I need to develop is the capacity not to scratch an itch – I need to get good at ‘not taking a bite at a tempting piece of bait’. The conditioned environment provides us with itches, and a ready-made way of alleviating them. This is another way of saying that our environment has ‘grooves’ in it that we slip comfortable into. When we are not ‘in the groove’ we feel uncomfortable, strange and alone, and so the temptation is to follow everybody else. When we do align ourselves with the inbuilt structure of the world around us, the rules behind the structure become invisible and unquestionable, and this is the normal ‘unconscious’ state. We are now the helpless slaves of the structure, but because we are given trivial (i.e. meaningless) choices within this structure, we do not perceive our lack of freedom; on the contrary, we mistake extrinsic freedom for intrinsic freedom.
LICKING THE CANDY
Wherever I am I am in constant danger of being swallowed up in candy-sweet unconsciousness. I am under constant threat of being swallowed up in my bland, unconcerned everyday consciousness, which is like the person ahead of you in the queue who is talking away nine-to-the-dozen on the subject of nothing at all really. It is just talk, apparently meaningful on the surface but empty really. The stream of trivial concerns that the everyday mind thrives on is attractive on the outside just as gossip is attractive – we listen in, eager for the next bit of information at the same time as feeling distaste for what we are doing. Alternatively, it is like reading a trashy newspaper – it sucks us in with the constant promise of juicy news, but at the end of it we feel soiled or contaminated, knowing that we have in effect betrayed ourselves by reading it. It was just garbage dressed up to look interesting. As Tony de Mello says, it is as if we are hypnotised into thinking that a worthless scrap of newspaper is a cheque for a million dollars.
The key is not to react to the lure, the promise, and in order to not react we have to be able to learn the lesson that the promise is always false. Usually, we don’t want to learn this particular lesson because we are so greedy for it to be true – we are too attached to the idea of what we think we are going to obtain. We are too addicted to the state of positive anticipation to want to find out that there is nothing there at the end of it. The delights we are promised are hollow delights that will melt away like a mirage as we get closer. Equally, the unnamed disaster that I am threatened with if I do not act is no more than a paper tiger, a fiction that only has reality when we believe in it. What we are talking about is deception, and as long as I am aware the whole time that ‘life is a test’, then I will not fall so easily into the power of the deceiver. But who or what is ‘the deceiver’? From one point of view we can of course say that it is the system of thought, but from another point of view we might as well come clean and say that it is ourselves, because the truth of the matter is that it suits us only too well to be deceived. We want to be deceived (even though we won’t admit it) and so what we are basically talking about is self-deception.
FEAR OF ILLUSION
The great Tibetan master Milarepa said that the one thing that spurred him on was the fear of samsara, or ‘fear of illusion’. More specifically, it was an acute appreciation of the power which we all have to go on efficiently deceiving ourselves for an indefinite period of time. Normally, this is the only real power that we have, which is not exactly good news!
When we are psychologically unconscious we have no conception of samsara, and so we definitely do not have any fear of it. According to the sutras, this is like being a child who is playing happily in a burning house, oblivious to the fact that disaster is imminent. Our situation is dire, but with the aid of the super-insulated comfort zone of psychological unconsciousness, we continue regardless. This is the advantage of comfort zones – and it is also of course the very great disadvantage.