Every man, no more than every woman, has hit upon a limit that represents the point at which their courage, their curiosity, their interest in life has failed and has started to atrophy. We all tend to reach this point – it is the norm rather than the exception. Yet rather than being seen as such (rather than being seen as the point at which the organism ceased to grow and started instead to stagnate) this limit is heralded and celebrated as a positive achievement – it is seen as ‘getting it right’, or ‘arriving at the prescribed destination’. Far from seeing this ‘switching off’ of our interest in life as a manifestation of morbidity we see it as success – we see it as ‘arriving at the place at which we are supposed to be’.
When we hit this high-water mark, this point at which we cease to be interested, we turn this lamentable event around it make it seem as if we have achieved something that is both eminently worthwhile and truly remarkable. We nail our colours to this limit, we pitch our tents here, we set up camp here. We glorify and enshrine the limit of our courage and curiosity as the final goal to which all sensible people must aspire. The train has pulled into the Central Station, it has reached the Grand Terminus, and now we must disembark and set about the very serious ‘business at hand’, whatever that might turn out to be. This dismal process is what we call ‘growing up’.
But what exactly is the ‘business at hand’ that we are expected to get down to once we have disembarked at the prescribed station? What sort of ‘business’ is it that is based upon seeing the abject and thoroughly ignoble failure of our courage as a glorious accomplishment in itself? What sort of activity could possibly proceed from this thoroughly inauspicious basis? The answer to these questions is straightforward enough, though distinctly uninspiring. What happens with this ‘high tide mark’, this limit to our curiosity about life, is that through the process of validation the limit gets neatly turned around (or ‘inverted’) so that it becomes the actual cast-iron definition of our identity. It becomes, in other words, ‘who we are’ and ‘what we are about’.
The limit in question doesn’t just define us, it is us. Or we are it, whichever way round we might want to put it. This falsely glorified and spuriously validated limitation becomes henceforth the basis for everything we do, everything we strive for, everything we desire, and everything we think. Saying that the high-tide mark of our interest in life becomes the basis for all our subsequent activity – both behaviour-wise and thinking-wise – is just another way of saying that this arbitrary limit goes on to form the basis for who or what we think we are.
The process by which the high-tide mark of my actual curiosity in life becomes the basis of all our subsequent activities, all our subsequent aspirations, and so on, is the process in which we identify with the rule, the process in which we passively allow the static rule to define everything that we are. The thing is of course that the rule isn’t really the rule at all. The ‘rule’ sounds like ‘something special’, it sounds like a different proposition entirely from all of the usual run-of-the-mill, ‘ten-a-penny’-type stuff, but it isn’t at all! It is – on the contrary – purely arbitrary, purely random, purely non-special, purely ‘run-of-the-mill’. There is nothing special about it at all. What we call ‘the rule’ is just another bit of nameless flotsam washed up by the tide and left there on the beach with all the sea-shells and dead crabs and bits of driftwood and strands of assorted seaweed.
For reasons unknown to ourselves however we make an awful lot of this little bit of flotsam – we make out that it is a happening of the utmost cosmic significance. We venerate it, we enshrine it, we build alters and churches and make up a religion about it. We invent innumerable tedious rituals and preposterously unwieldy dogmas and proceed from this point onwards to spend all of our time worshipping the bit of flotsam with the most ridiculous po-faced solemnity. Such is the nature of our perversity.
This is like Brian Aldiss’s short story in which a colossal space-lizard lands on the Earth, and sits there for a thousand years or so, resting. Once the human race recovers from the disruption caused to the oceans and continents caused by this unprecedented event they start to worship the space-lizard and form a number of major new religions – each of which naturally claims to be the one and only true way to pay homage to the Great Lizard God who has chosen to take up residence upon the planet. Every five hundred years or so the space-lizard shifts its position slightly, radically redesigning the continents in the process and causing further cataclysmic disruption to the human population. Each one of these movements generates a truly prodigious amount of religious interpretation, which the humans duly spend centuries debating and arguing and fighting over. Eventually the cosmic lizard-creature departs for good, kicking the planet into a new and – for the human population – disastrous orbit in the process and this (of course) sends a very obvious message of unworthiness to the lizard-worshipping human beings who are now doomed to slowly freeze to death.
In much the same way, we ascribe entirely unwarranted significance to the specific point at which our curiosity in the world dried up. Not only have we wrongly ascribed significance to this event, we are actually looking at it quite backwards, seeing beneficial virtue where there is only disastrous moral failing. What we have obtained as a result of this cessation of curiosity isn’t a benefit at all but a miserable cheat. Here is no benediction, only pure meanness. This is not a door that has – as we have been repeatedly told – been flung gloriously open; it is not even a door that has been bolted shut – it is a door that has been concreted over and turned into a wall. Such is the nature of the defined (or ‘fixed’) self that has been created by our (unacknowledged) terminal lack of curiosity in reality.
But how is it the case that this should happen? Why would such a dismal thing happen? Why would a wonderful marvellous doorway be not only slammed shut so irrevocably, so finally, but also buried under sixty tons of quick-setting concrete into the bargain?
One answer is to say that fear is always like this. Fear is afraid to admit to itself, fear is afraid to see its own nature and so it turns away from itself and becomes the apparent opposite of itself – it turns into an absurdly brash and shallow form of false confidence, or even arrogance. This sort of brash, empty confidence is all around us –a whole way of life, a whole social system, a whole world, has been constructed on this basis. We stop taking an interest in the real world (the world that we did not make, the world that is not an invention of our own minds) and turn instead to the world that we have made up for ourselves by ‘glorifying the rule’, the rule which is no more than a single tremendously over-blown snap-shot of a moving process.
It is as if we pick a particular paving stone from a path and make a whole world of it, completely ignoring the fact that the paving stone in question is only one out of untold millions of others, stretching off into the distance beyond the limits of our vision. If anyone comes along and has the temerity to tell us that this is what we have done we will fall over laughing, mocking them for being so stupid as to believe in fairy tales. We will marginalize them, ignore them, label them as cranks and eccentrics and exclude them from all ‘serious’ discourse.
Naturally we cannot recognize the choices that we have made as being driven by fear – to recognize this fact would be to remind ourselves of the very thing we are trying so hard to run away from. So instead of admitting to our fear we make a virtue of staying the same at all costs, we make a virtue of turning into statues. Instead of admitting that we have defaulted on the only thing that makes life meaningful because we were afraid we make up some kind of convenient story to validate our choice. Rather than say that we opted for the easy option, the safe option, the cowardly option, we say that we have found the ‘one true way’ and we congratulate ourselves for nailing it so successfully.
What we do – so to speak – is to seize hold of the last thing we saw on that journey and turn it into an all-important rule, a rule that fully defines us and the world that we live in. Thus, we make our bed so that there is then nothing to but to lie in it. This is like the story of the man who torments his wife by playing the same note on the fiddle, over and over again all day long. When she asks him why he cannot play a tune like other fiddle-players do, he replies, “They are still looking for the right note – I have found it!” Or it is like a man who – with great difficulty – learns eventually to cook a steak for himself, and after this seminal learning event proceeds to eat steak every single day of the year.
This is a truly spectacular proposition we are making here – what we are saying is that the entire scope of our concerns, the fullest stretch and reach of our horizons, is in reality no scope at all, no stretch at all, no reach at all. How can there be reach or depth in a static snap-shot? How can there be a stretch in a single paving stone? How can there be scope in a door that has been bolted shut, and then buried deep under sixty tons of quick-setting concrete? The entire range of possibilities to which I address my attention during the course of my life, the entire scope of my day-to-day mind exists only in a bizarre kind of a ‘virtual-reality’ world – a world in which there is width and breadth and depth, but only virtual width and breadth and depth. In reality there is no such expanse of dimensionality at all. In reality this whole ‘world’ does not exist at all.
This is a very peculiar kind of ‘make-believe’ world that we are talking about here, a world that only makes any sense at all if the point at which our curiosity in the world cut off really does represent the ‘one and only true way of looking at things’. If this were to be true, then there might perhaps be a kind of a reason (or an excuse) for us never looking any further. If the point at which our growth got terminally arrested really is ‘the Glorious Final Destination’ (and not simply some arbitrary and pointless limitation) then perhaps it is understandable enough if we never ever stir ourselves again after reaching it. This is of course the highly precarious hook upon which the whole ‘surrogate’ or ‘make-believe’ world hangs on!
It is not just the case that the world to which I exclusively address all my attention is unreal. The truth is far more ironic than this – the world to which I address all my attention is only meaningful if the abject and ignominious failure of my courage is not an abject and ignominious failure but, on the contrary, a supreme act or heroism, a supremely and marvellously triumphant attainment. Then, and only then, would this world have any meaning at all…
There is another very powerful factor that lies behind the false glorification of our profound lack of curiosity in the true world (which is the uncreated world) and that is the force of massive social collusion. If it were the case that every time one of us were to fall back due to loss of courage everyone around us would be present for us in our difficulty and encourage us to turn again to the light, rather than falling ever deeper into the ‘psychologically inverted’ state of glorifying restriction, worshipping shadows and praising darkness, then the event – natural as it is – would not be any big deal at all, but just another part of the journey. But this is very far from being the case. On the contrary, what we are pleased to call our ‘culture’ or ‘civilization’ is no more than a heavy-duty collusion to see ignorance as a worthwhile thing in itself, or to ‘see darkness as light’. More than a social collusion, this is a water-tight conspiracy that swings into action from the moment that our parents start talking to us and telling us about the world that we live in. It is a fiat accomplis, a done thing, a victory over the truth that has occurred a long, long time ago. It not just my own fear therefore that I have riding like a malignant monkey on my back, driving me to turn my back on the true reality and sign my name to a contract that no one in their right mind would ever even dream of putting their name to. It is also the fear of untold millions upon millions of all my fellow human beings who are part of the planet-wide collusion that is leaning on me, like some kind of irresistible dead-weight, guiding my shaky and will-less hand to sign obediently on the dotted line.
Once we realize the true nature of the situation we are in we are bound to wonder how anyone could ever stand a chance of not falling (or rather, being driven) into the heinous trap of ‘inverted limitation’, limitation that we are taught from an early age to praise and feel grateful to. The odds seem astronomically against the possibility of anyone ever waking up out of this trap and standing up against the combined dead-weight of all their sleeping fellows. How could anyone find within themselves the courage and sheer audacity to question – let alone flagrantly disregard – such a tremendously Big Lie? As Herman Goring, who has been called ‘the father of modern propaganda’, is on record as saying, if a lie is big enough no one will ever even come close to doubting it – the very possibility of doubting it will not arise because no one will ever have the audacity to believe that EVERYTHING could be a lie… Small lies we know about and are alert to but the Big Lie – by virtue of its universality – remains forever invisible to us. Even if we were somehow to stumble upon the truth, our trust in ourselves has been so effectively compromised by the insidious process of socialization that we are going to doubt ourselves first rather than doubt the whole system.
It is not just the case that the surrogate world which has been created by the static or rule-based mind is one in which all growth is prohibited, all meaningful change is prohibited, all interest in anything that hasn’t been prescribed by the system is prohibited. In this surrogate consensus world being itself is not allowed. Instead of being, we are permitted something else in place of it, we are provided with a ‘shoddy substitute’. What we are provided with is an abstract system which is essentially made up of empty threats and hollow promises, threats and promises that can never be delivered (since they are only empty abstractions) but which we can – and do – orientate ourselves to as if they really can be. We use the idea that some final (and therefore abstract) outcome will occur if we act in the right way (or – alternatively – can be successfully prevented from occurring) in order to provide us with the ground for under our feet, the ground that is our ‘substitute’ for actual being. This ground is however an inferior substitute because it is as we have said only an assumed ground – it never did exist and it never could, but we nevertheless assume it and, what is more, this assumption works perfectly well for us.
The reason that the threats and promises which make up the surrogate world can never be delivered is as we have suggested because they are only real or meaningful with regard to an abstract point of reference. This is like when we think about a length of timber only in terms of its ‘edges’, which is of course what we do when we buy it – we ask for a certain length of wood, a certain breadth, and a certain width. We can go into a hardware store and ask for a six foot length of two-by-four and that’s fine, but, as Alan Watts says, the mere measurements without the actual wood aren’t going to be much good to us. We can’t build anything out of abstractions.
And yet we create the surrogate world which is the system of ‘threats and promises’ in relation to an abstract point of reference which is no different in kind to a list of measurements. The point of reference in question is the external viewpoint of the self. The self is – by unspoken but nevertheless unquestioned implication – an extrinsic unchanging reference point. We take this reference point to be absolutely unchanging, absolutely immutable and therefore absolutely permanent. This we do so automatically and so unreflectively that we never see anything odd at all about what we’re doing, but the truth is of course that in reality there is no such external framework of reference, no such vantage point. We are assuming something that is unreal, something that is profoundly impossible. Never mind the fact that we are all only here temporarily, and could easily die any moment, not even a second can pass without change taking place. The absence of change is itself an abstraction, and yet it is this very abstraction (i.e. this very impossibility) that we use to construct the surrogate world that we live out our lives within.
The drama of ‘wanted versus unwanted outcomes’ only has the precise meaning that it does have for us if this assumption of a permanent, external vantage point has a basis in reality – and it doesn’t. In other words, the whole big ongoing drama created by our positive and negative attachment to certain outcomes only has that very precise and specific meaning that it does have when observed from the vantage point of ‘who we’re not’. These outcomes which we get so excited about would only be genuinely meaningful if the game we are playing is not a game, and to call this precondition a ‘precarious basis’ is of course a very great understatement indeed. The virtual reality world of threats and promises, fear and desire, is only conditionally real – it is real only from the perspective of this very particular vantage-point – the provisional vantage-point (or ‘jumping-off point’) of “Let us assume that such-and-such is the case…” Step ever so slightly either to one side or the other of this very specific point of reference and the whole significance of the drama is instantly and irrevocably lost – it is lost as thoroughly as if it had never been there in the first place (which of course it hadn’t).
Apart from the fact that it isn’t actually real in the first place, life in the static surrogate world has some very serious drawbacks; in fact the more closely we examine this VR world the more serious the drawbacks in question reveal themselves to be. All of the ‘drawbacks’ come back in the end to the fact that the world isn’t real, to the fact that in this world we have no actual genuine being, but because this uncompromising fact is not immediately apparent to us we have to deal with this central difficulty in various displaced and disguised manifestations. Following the basic psychological principle, because we won’t deal with the difficulty where is belongs we have to deal with it where it doesn’t belong.
The most immediately obvious drawback is therefore that in the ‘purposeful realm’ we always have to be busy, we always have to be struggling and striving. The reason we always have to be struggling and striving is because we are basically trying to do something that is impossible – all the purposes we are trying to attain (all the things we are trying to hold onto) are constantly slipping through our fingers like the sand in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem. All of the outcomes that we are trying to permanently secure are slipping away from us as we try to secure them, but rather than causing us to give up the attempt, this fact only makes us try all the more harder. We constantly have to be active, therefore – we constantly have to be planning, calculating, analysing, scheming, projecting, controlling, and so on. We can never rest. Only being can rest, just as only being can be creative, or happy, or sensitive, or loving.
In the purposeful world the only place we can rest is in our thoughts, our beliefs, our opinions, our desires and our grievances, in our fixed mental pictures of the world. But this is not rest – this is painfully over-strained rigidity. This is like a clenched fist. We cannot find rest in our static mental pictures and ideas of the world because these static pictures are profoundly unreal – there is no rest to be had out of them. With the skeletal abstract framework which is our abstract viewpoint on the world comes (as part of the package, so to speak) states of positive and negative anticipation with regard to the outcomes that we have either been promised or threatened with, the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feelings that are associated with the projected outcomes. Both the euphoric and dysphoric states of mind are however equally ‘unwholesome’. They are both equally ‘soaked in suffering’ despite the fact that we value the former and detest the latter. Euphoria leads inevitably to dysphoria, which then gives way to euphoria, which leads to dysphoria, and so on and so forth, the one forever giving way to the other like the turning of a wheel, with no possibility of change whatsoever. This is what Buddhist metaphysics calls ‘the cyclical mind of samsara’.
Because there is no possibility to rest in the surrogate world that is produced by our cyclical samsaric minds, we are forced to live in our goals. We are forced to live in states of either positive or negative anticipation over ‘final’ outcomes that will never happen (since there is no such thing as a fixed or final outcome). Because there is nothing for us in the substitute world we are forced out of the present moment (which is the gateway to eternity) and into our goals, our thoughts, our ideas, our descriptions, our hopes and our fears (which are a gateway to nowhere). All of these mental productions either attract or repel us because each one of them appears to be the gateway either to something ‘good’ or something ‘bad’, but in reality they are only ‘gateways to themselves’, just like a revolving door that we get stuck in is only ‘a gateway to itself’. There is no rest for us here because all of our mental productions – whatever they might be – ultimately resolve themselves into the same old ‘turning wheel of illusion’, and so we are condemned to keep on struggling and striving forever. We are condemned to keep on fighting the futile fight to get the outcome that we want on the turning wheel before it turns again – as it must – into its opposite.
We are of course ever-hopeful of ‘returning with riches’ from this cyclical world, even though all we ever harvest from it is frustration, grief and suffering, in all sorts of varying hues and colours and flavourings. In this world we are – unbeknownst to ourselves – the enemies of ourselves because in forever trying to better ourselves we are also forever undoing ourselves, negating ourselves, like a man who unfailingly trips himself up every time he manages to stand up again, or – in the most extreme case – like the leaden homunculus of the alchemists who is constantly attacking himself in various ways, by impaling himself with a sword, by tearing at his own flesh with his teeth, by boiling himself alive, by setting fire to himself, and so on.
This realm, this ‘surrogate’ or ‘substitute’ world that we have been talking about in the preceding pages, is essentially a vibration – it is an ongoing oscillation between two extremes or two opposites. A vibration is activity that never actually gets anywhere. It is, we might say, a manifestation of ‘trapped activity’ or ‘trapped energy’. At any one moment in time the vibration seems to be getting somewhere (which is to say, it seems to be heading very definitely in the direction of either one opposite or the other) but when we take the overall view we can plainly see that it is going nowhere at all, and the reason it is going nowhere at all is because the two so-called ‘opposites’ are really one and the same thing.
The ‘error’ which causes the vibration is to see two things where there is only the one thing – it is to see the two opposites of YES and NO, UP and DOWN, IN and OUT, RIGHT and WRONG, SELF and OTHER, etc as being separate, independently-existing entities when they are not. The ‘error’ is the same thing as ‘the game’ because without seeing YES as being separate from NO, SELF as separate from OTHER there can be no game.
The social collusion that we have been talking about – which is the collective game that we are playing – has therefore as its result our conversion from being (which is non-dual, or ‘non-vibrational’) to the surrogate or substitute for being – which is ‘duality’ or ‘vibration’. Our everything thinking (which is the everyday, rational mind) infallibly converts us via its operation into the lower or inferior analogue of being, which is generally the only type of ‘being’ that we know about. Reality is degraded or corrupted into a ‘low vibration’ – something like a ‘fart in a tin can’.
This downwards conversion of reality into a sterile, pointless game is what Jean Baudrillard refers to as ‘The Perfect Crime’ – i.e. the Murder of Reality. As Baudrillard notes, this is a crime that has gone entirely unreported, and to which there appear to be no witnesses…