Paradoxical Ego Boundaries
When we are not attached to what we think we know, then we move through life with grace. There is no fuss, no commotion, no upset, no drama about it. When we are attached to what we think we know then however there is plenty of fuss, plenty of commotion, and lots and lots of drama. The reason for this is because we are caught up in stuff that we think is extremely important even though in reality it isn’t important at all. Being caught up in this way with what we ‘think we know’ means that we are constantly lurching from crisis to crisis, drama to drama, problematic issue to problematic issue. It is as if we are living on the set of Eastenders – life has become synonymous with constant dramas and stress and high octane, ridiculously over-the-top emotional reactions. Grace is a stranger in this situation. We create bucket-loads of pain and suffering where there really doesn’t need to be any, and we keep on doing so with truly remarkable persistence. We get in our own way the whole time so that nothing ever happens easily. We suffer neurotically – we are our own suffering!
Because of our unnecessary attachments we get tied up in knots all the time – we end up in a terrible tangle trying to cling onto stuff that we think exists but doesn’t, and trying to run away or hide from stuff that we think is real but isn’t. A perfect example of the type of pointless struggle which we get caught up in is when we come up to what we think of as ‘an end’. Actually the idea of ‘an end’ is quite meaningless – there is no such thing as an ‘end’ without a ‘beginning’ on the other side of it and so really what we call an ‘end’ and get upset about is something which we would be better off calling an ‘end/beginning’, which does not of course sound nearly so terrible. There can be no such thing as an ‘end’ without a ‘beginning’ adjoining it any more than there can be a line or boundary without an ‘outside’ immediately adjoining the ‘inside’. A boundary can never have an ‘in-side’ without at the same time having an ‘out-side’ – in fact a boundary is made up equally of an ‘in-side’ and an ‘out-side’. It is therefore an end and a beginning at the same time! A boundary is both an end and a beginning at the same time and it is quite impossible to separate them.
Saying that the end is the same as the beginning or that the beginning is the same as the end (or saying as Alan Watts does that my out-line is the same as the universe’s in-line) is a way of saying that the boundary which we believe in so very much isn’t actually a real thing at all. How can it be real when it is two opposite things at the same time? Opposites, when brought into contact with each other, invariably cancel each other out – that’s what ‘being an opposite’ is all about. If I say YES and then straightaway say NO then altogether I have said nothing. If I cross a line one way and then perform the opposite action of crossing the line the other way then I negate what I have just done. To cross twice is not to cross at all, as G. Spencer-Brown says. If I bring an electron together with its inverse particle (i.e. a positron) they immediately annihilate each other. And so on. Suppose then that I draw a line, a boundary, and I say that everything on this side of the line is IN and everything on that side of the line is OUT – which is of course what I am saying anyway (in graphical language) when I draw a boundary. ‘In’ and ‘out’ are opposites, they cancel each other out, yet here in the boundary we have both ‘in’ and ‘out’ in actual direct contact with each other, with nothing at all separating them! This constitutes undeniable mathematical proof that the boundary doesn’t exist.
The boundary is a PLUS/MINUS split, a YES/ NO divide, it is two opposites side-by-side and the only thing dividing them is the line itself which, because it is strictly one-dimensional, doesn’t actually take up any space. The fact that there is no space between the PLUS and MINUS, YES and NO, IN and OUT means that we can make a statement regarding the identity of these two opposites – we can say that PLUS EQUALS MINUS, that YES EQUALS NO, that IN EQUALS OUT.
YES = NO is actually a well-known form of the so-called cybernetic paradox, which is also a version of the even better known (in philosophy) liar paradox or Cretan paradox (which gets mentioned in the Old Testament). Paradoxical or self-contradicting statements such as YES means NO or [+] = [-] sound nonsensical (and therefore dismissible) but what they are really drawing attention to is a limitation in our way of modelling or understanding reality. When a statement is paradoxical that doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, it just means that it belongs to a higher order of truth than the one we are normally used to. In fact the type of statements that we are normally used to – the ‘non-paradoxical’ ones – aren’t actually true at all when it comes down to it; they aren’t actually true because they are based on ignoring stuff. We ignore the fact that the in-line is also the out-line; we focus one-sidedly on what lies on the inside of the line and ignore what lies on the outside and this one-sidedness is what makes our boundaries, our categories, our definite statements or thoughts seem non-paradoxical to us. This is what makes them seem real to us.
Saying that boundaries, categories, definite statements, etc are paradoxical is therefore a way of acknowledging that they don’t really exist – that they aren’t meaningful in an ‘absolute’ sense despite the fact that they implicitly claim to. They are arbitrary mental constructs – abstractions – and therefore not actually part of reality (as it is ‘in itself’) at all. But just because the mental statements we make to ourselves about the world are only abstract constructs doesn’t by any means prevent us from taking them very seriously indeed. As Alan Watts points out, we take our mental constructs (abstract as they might be) more seriously than we take the ‘non-abstract’ reality from which they are derived, and upon which they are projected. Just because our ideas are only arbitrary mental constructs doesn’t stop us getting totally caught up in them, and suffering greatly on their behalf, just as if they were actually real and not made up. It doesn’t prevent us from getting hopelessly locked into the insoluble problems that inevitably arise out of these constructs as a result of their self-contradictory nature. We invent the boundaries that we take seriously and then we suffer because of them, but the problem is that once we have invented them, and have started taking them seriously, we don’t know how to un-invent them, we don’t know how to stop taking them seriously…
Creating boundaries somehow facilitates a feeling of fond familiarity – ownership even. Putting a boundary in place carries the implication that we know what it is that we have bounded. After all, what sense would it make to say that we have a boundary in place if we don’t have the slightest clue about what it is that is being enclosed by the boundary? The implication is very much that we do indeed know. And yet – implication or no implication – we no more know what it is that lies inside the boundary than we know what lies outside of it. The boundary is merely a demarcation that we have projected onto the situation out of some purely arbitrary consideration that we have decided to ‘take seriously. But once we do project it, and do start taking it seriously, then as we have said we get ‘trapped in our own device’ and can’t help thinking as a result that we actually ‘know’ what it is that lies on the inside of the arbitrary demarcation that we have drawn. We think we know what we have defined.
This is true for all of our mental categories – it is true for all of our thoughts, for all of our ideas, for all of our concepts. The mere fact that we have demarked them (or defined them) makes us feel somehow that we ‘know’ whatever it is that we have drawn a line around. Another way of putting this is to say that merely by naming something we know what it is. This sounds ridiculous in the extreme but it is nevertheless the case – language is nothing but names and by calling things by the names we have given them we get to feel deeply familiar with them. By talking about the world using the language we have arbitrarily invented we get to feel that we actually know the world we are talking about. But this feeling of familiarity is groundless, just as the feeling that we ‘know what we are talking about’ (or ‘know what we’re thinking about’) is groundless. We don’t really know anything – that is just an illusion that we have somehow managed to manufacture for ourselves.
The way we manage to manufacture this particular illusion is via a type of a trick. By focussing one-sidedly on what lies on the inside of the boundary (and thus ignoring the fact that my outline is the same as the universe’s in-line, and that all endings are also beginnings), we create the illusion of substance. We create the illusion that there is actually something there – something solid and tangible and real. This happens every time we look at a figure drawn on a page – our eyes (or rather our brains) are trained to look at the figure in such a way that what lies inside the boundary which marks out the figure is emphasized at the expense of what lies outside of it. The space inside the line is emphasized and the space outside the line is de-emphasized (or ‘ignored’). This is essentially the same thing as what is called ‘figure-ground discrimination’ which, to paraphrase Wikipedia is ‘where more than one equally valid interpretations of what is being looked at are offered, and the viewer chooses one to the exclusion of all the others’. If we don’t choose one interpretation or viewpoint over the others then the particular ‘figure’ associated with that viewpoint doesn’t get to exist. Or we could say that if we don’t ‘ignore the ground in favour of the figure’ then the figure doesn’t get to exist. Whichever way we want to put it the key point is that ignoring is necessary if we want to create some kind of positively defined object or statement, and that the necessity for this ignoring (i.e. the dependence of the defined statement upon it) is also something that we have to turn a blind eye to.
Using a slightly different language, we can equivalently say that what gives us the illusion that we ‘know’ what lies on our side of the boundary is the production of entropy. Entropy is ‘ignorance the existence of which we are ignorant’ – it is what we don’t know, but also ‘don’t know that we don’t know’. Stuart Kauffman says that ‘knowing requires ignorance’ – in other words, for our mental categories to work for us as categories, we have to throw away all incoming information that doesn’t match them. We have to be thoroughly uncompromising in this. We dump this information – we flush it away without ever taking any interest whatsoever in what we are flushing away. We intentionally lose it without ever knowing what we have lost and it is this intentional dumping or losing of non-agreeing information that makes our categories ‘stand out’ for us. It is this entropy that makes our definite statements seem real to us, our thoughts seem real to us and our thoughts seem real to us.
It is this ‘invisible darkness’ that we carry around with us (this ‘unsuspected constriction of what we are allowed to be aware of’) that creates the world we ‘know’ and relate to on a daily basis. It is this ‘illusion of knowing’ (which is created for us by the unsuspected constriction of what we are allowed to be aware of) that is responsible for all of the ‘trouble’ that we get ourselves into – the upsets, the commotion, the dramas and the crises, and all of that type of stuff. All of this trouble arises out of our unreflective belief in the boundaries that we ourselves have created. It arises out of our ignorance.
Saying that we believe in these boundaries (or that we ‘take them seriously’) is the same as saying that we believe that we ‘know’ what is enclosed by them. Thinking that we ‘know’ something – whatever that is supposed to mean – means that we are attached to it, but what we are actually attached to is not any sort of independent reality’ but simply our own projections, our own assumptions. We are attached to our own imaginary boundaries, our own arbitrary ideas.
The tension between what we think we know on the one hand and what we unconsciously or unreflectively imagine to exist (in what is necessarily some sort of oppositional way) on the other side constitutes the core ingredient that lies behind all of our striving, all our yearning, hoping and fearing. Every time we feel pressurized to achieve some result, to obtain or avoid some outcome or other, then it has to be the case that this perceived need derives from this imaginary tension, this imaginary opposition. It is this tension that makes life seem so problematical – so full of need and fear and stress. All of the pressure of the compulsive mind comes out of this tension, the tension that is inherent in the nature of all boundaries.
Fear, at root, is always about the same thing – it is about the protection or safeguarding of what we think we know against the ever-present threat of what we don’t know. We know that whatever lies on the other side of the boundary must be in opposition to what lies on this side – this belief is implicit in the very existence of the boundary in the first place – but we do not ever examine or reflect on what the nature of this opposition might be. After all, the fact that we think we know what we have enclosed in our superimposed or projected boundary, and that we feel because of this that we somehow ‘own what we know’ means that we automatically stand to lose it if we are not careful. In a manner of speaking, we may say that the illusion that ‘I know what is enclosed within my boundary’ creates the illusion that I ‘have’ it, and the illusion that I have it gives rise to the illusion that I stand to ‘lose’ it. These three illusions are of course so inextricably tied together that we might as well say that it is all just the one illusion – the illusion of a self-existent boundary, where actually there is no such thing.
Another – and equally valid – way to put this is to say that the illusion that ‘we know what is enclosed in the arbitrarily drawn boundary’ gives rise to the illusion that we are ‘that which we know’. The illusion of knowing spawns the illusion of identity, in other words. The key point to remember in all of this is however that we never did know anything, and that we are therefore both forever grasping at shadows, and forever fearful of losing shadows. Before the boundary was imposed there was the unknown, and after it is withdrawn there will be the unknown again, and in-between times what we think we have grasped hold of is still the unknown. The unknown came before and it will continue afterwards, and in fact when it comes right down to it there never was a time when there wasn’t ‘the unknown’.
There is a Buddhist saying, ‘Nothing ends but it changes’. The boundary isn’t ‘an end’, but simply ‘a change’. So we can say that the boundary is ‘a point at which change occurs’. But as we have pointed out, the boundary is entirely paradoxical, which means that it isn’t actually a real thing anyway. Thus, the ‘enclosed unknown’ doesn’t suddenly change when it reaches the boundary because there never was a boundary. On the contrary, the unknown always was changing – in fact we can say that the unknown is change. We could also say that everywhere is the boundary, and that at the same time the boundary isn’t anywhere.
The unknown equals change and change equals the unknown. The boundary on the other hand is a fixed super-imposition upon this groundless flux, and as such it doesn’t really exist. It is an abstraction. There are no boundaries, there are no lines of demarcation. Abstractions aren’t real. There is nothing to grab hold of, nothing to gain or possess, and therefore nothing to let go of or lose.
What causes all the trouble in life, all the hopeless entanglement and suffering, is therefore the core fear that we will lose ‘the self’. But what is the self? The self is the bounded area – it is what we have arbitrarily marked off, and then forgotten that it was we ourselves who have arranged this limitation. The self is the definite statement, the fixed idea, the figure. The self is that which is ‘emphasized’, that which stands out in our experience as being ‘special’ or ‘central’. It is what lies preciously and precariously enclosed with the boundaries that we have drawn or projected. But these boundaries are entirely paradoxical, they don’t really exist. So we can say that the self too is paradoxical, and that it too doesn’t really exist.
The self (we may say) is a plausible fiction brought into apparent being by the (relative to us) existence of mental entropy – which is the power of ignoring without knowing we are ignoring. Fictional or not, however, it is undeniable that this self, the ‘self that is manufacturing through ignoring our own ignorance’ causes us no end of trouble…