What happens in life is that we start controlling and can’t stop. To start off with, it never occurs to us that we need to be constantly controlling, and then – later on – we never think to question it! That’s the reason we adults are generally so serious – because we’re all about the controlling, because controlling is all we know or care about. If our lives are to move in a meaningful direction, if we are to be ‘successful’ (whatever that means) then we firmly believe that this can only come about as a result of our successful controlling. It can only happen as a result of us ‘making the right choices’, as we so often say.
The other way of putting this is to say that in adulthood we get ‘trapped in our own ceaseless purposeful doing’; we get trapped because once we have got caught up in purposeful doing then there’s no chance of reversing this tendency, no chance of reversing this insidious mechanical process. When there are problems – and they always will be problems arising when we’re locked into purposefulness because we have divided the world up into ‘right versus wrong’ – then we can’t help trying to solve these problems with yet more purposeful doing, thereby adding to our problems rather than diminishing them. This is the neurotic struggle in a nutshell – the root of our neurotic pain is a non-stop purposeful doing, which is a bad habit we have fallen into as a result of our insecurity, as a result of our fundamental lack of trust in life.
Inasmuch as we want to continue experiencing life on the basis of being this self-contained and independently existing volitional or purposeful agent, inasmuch as we remain unwilling to drop playing this particular game, then we are obliged to carry on acting purposefully the whole time, without any break, and so this is another way of saying that we’re ‘trapped in a purposefulness’. We might get tired of the non-stop busyness about lives (we do get tired of our own non-stop busy-ness) but that doesn’t mean that we’re willing to take the risk of dropping it. All we need to do to appraise ourselves of this unwillingness to let go of our purposeful activity is to watch the thinking mind for a while. If we did this we would notice that the thinking mind carries on with its activity without a break. It simply can’t stop – not of its own accord, anyway.
All of our thinking is purposeful, even though a lot of it might seem fairly random on the face of it. Thought always follows a basic pattern; it’s always either an attempt to either gain advantage or avoid disadvantage and so even when nothing is being achieved there is still this purposefulness to it, as if there were some aim to it, as if they were something to be attained by what we’re doing. Even when one thought chases after another around and around in our heads for no reason at all, with no benefit at all (no reason or benefit that we can see, anyway) there actually is a reason for our thinking, the reason being to ensure the apparent existence of the phenomenal self, which is the sense that we have of being ‘a self-contained, specifically localized and independently existing volitional agent. So when we do drive ourselves around the bend with our non-stop thinking – which of course happens often enough – we could remember this – that this is the price we pay for maintaining the integrity of the game we’re playing, which is the game of being the purposeful self.
Instead of saying that what basically happens in life is that we ‘start controlling and then can’t stop’, what we could say is that we ‘identify with a particular idea of who we are and then can’t stop acting on behalf of it’. We can’t stop acting on behalf of it no matter how much suffering this course of action might cause for us. We start playing the game and then we can’t stop playing it, not for love nor money – we can’t stop playing the game because we don’t see it for what it is. Instead of having an awareness of the game as being a game (i.e., something we can stop playing at any time we want to) we see it as being the same thing is reality itself – as far as we’re concerned, there’s nothing playful here at all. Everything is deadly serious, everything is as serious as can be: all we know is that we have to make sure that absolutely everything has to happen ‘according to the rules.’
If we could see the absurdity of making everything about ‘following rules’ then we would be able to see society for what it is, which is a humourless substitute for life, an exercise in following conventions as if adaptation were the thing that constitutes the very core of life, as if obeying rules were to key to everything. What this situation comes down to is that we are being swindled or conned (although there doesn’t have to be a ‘culprit’ behind this, which is what we automatically assume) – it’s a swindle because the implication is that if we faithfully observe these rules, these conventions, then life will somehow bestow its full blessing upon us. That’s the deal that we have accepted, in all good faith. We conform so that we will get the blessing. This never happens however – it doesn’t (and can’t) happen because it’s obviously not within the game’s capabilities to bestow this blessing (or any other blessing for that matter).
The game we’re playing (in place of living life) can’t offer as anything real because it itself isn’t real. All it can offer – at the very best – is ‘success within the terms of the game’ and this is very far from being a blessing. It’s a trick rather than a blessing because it’s a revolving door: winning leads to losing which leads to winning which leads to losing and that’s all a game can ever offer. So, when we adapt to the consensus world, the world that is foisted upon us from all sides, and faithfully perform our roles as we’re supposed to in the hope of ultimate fulfilment, then we are actually being ‘led up the garden path’. We’ve been duped, we’ve been suckered into buying a worthless product. All a game can ever offer us is ‘success within the terms of that game’ and that – by definition – doesn’t mean a damn thing outside of this artificial context. We can’t see this however – we can’t see this because all we know is the game, and the game never lets on about its true nature any more than rule lets on to us that it’s not really serious.
We can make exactly the same point about patriarchal religions, which are all predicated upon ‘following rules’ (or ‘doing what you’re told’). The impression given (as Alan Watts says) is very much that life is extremely serious –everything is super-serious because it’s all about obeying God’s Law and God very much tends to be represented as the Ultimate Authoritarian, the Great Dictator. What could be more serious than this, therefore? As Philip K Dick says, on the subject of ‘the Bellower’ –
Everything is turned around; yin or YHWH bellows and curses and rants; whereas the true Abba, the authentic yang part, is gentle–and its voice is mild and small and reasonable; it does not threaten or rant.
When we follow the rules then our reward is infinite and if we don’t then our punishment is also infinite, and that’s OK because we deserve it. We were given our chance, after all, and we fluffed it. How can we pretend that there is any humour in this? Humour is always missing from this kind of mechanical situation – there’s no room for it, no space for it. Lightheartedness is regarded as being disrespectful – it’s no accident that the Puritans (like the Taliban) banned public entertainment – song, dance and theatre – life is too serious for this and so we are obliged to repress any manifestations of lightheartedness. The implication is that if we do distort our essential playful (or ‘formless’) nature in this way – and become rigidly humourless about everything – then our reward will be great indeed. It won’t be however – we’ve been conned, we’ve been swindled, and all our effort is for nothing.
Nothing good ever comes out of controlling as a way of life, and games are of course all about controlling. A game is ‘non-stop controlling’. Controlling as a substitute for life which is to say don’t stop controlling, never results in anything worthwhile for the simple reason that control this the antithesis of life, virgin island life. Control equals ‘the restriction of all unwanted possibilities’ and whilst this is appropriate when it’s a physical process that we’re talking about such as building a house, driving a car, or cooking dinner, it does nothing but create suffering when it becomes a way of life. In this case our entire life becomes a prolonged and entirely artificial exercise that is carried out ‘for the sake of obtaining an imaginary goal’. The unstated logic – as we’ve said – is that the pain of the artificial posture – which is like a muscle cramp – is worth it because of the reward that we’re going to get at the end of it. This is a lie however – there is no reward. There is never any reward for playing games outside of the game itself.
There’s no reward for what we’re doing but we are all the same locked into it – we’ve started and so we have to see it through to the bitter end. We just can’t stop controlling. If we stopped then that would be the end of the painful knot of tension which is artificial posture that we have identified with and there’s nothing in the world more terrifying than this for us. There’s nothing more terrifying than losing our sense of security in the world, however contrived that sense might be. The fact that we have identified with the artificial posture means that we see everything invertedly, so that our salvation (or ultimate benefit) seems to us to lie in the direction of an ‘ever-increasing restriction of possibilities’. This is perversity itself – whoever became free as a result of obeying rules, whoever became whole as a result of outlawing humour, whoever grew and realized their potential as a result of avoiding existential risk by copying everyone else? We however are completely unable to see how deeply perverse this is and this is the invisible absurdity of unconscious life.
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