The world is like a huge sheet of blotting paper which soaks up all of our conscious attention without leaving even the slightest trace behind. We don’t generally see this business of having our attention ‘soaked up’ as being a detrimental thing however – on the contrary, we are in fact all for it. Our idea of living seems to be looking for – and hopefully finding – handy ways of getting our attention all soaked up so that there is none left over. We are actively on the look out for new and improved ways of mopping up every last little troublesome drop of it and if we can get through the day in such a way that there isn’t any point at which our attention is not safely absorbed in something or other then we will be all the more pleased.
We define ourselves in terms of our preferred ways of keeping our consciousness all soaked up. I say that I am into sport or music or politics or current affairs or theatre or films or literature and what I mean by this is that this is my preferred way of keeping my attention tied up. If I want to describe what kind of a person I am (for example, if I am introducing myself in a group, or – even more bizarrely – entering personal information in an internet dating site in the hope of finding a soul mate) then these are the type of details I mention. This reason this is ‘bizarre’ is of course because the details I think so important have absolutely nothing to do with who I really am – any more than the little metal tokens (the Battleship, the Top Hat, the Motorcar, and so on) which you choose to represent you in a game of monopoly say something about your true identity outside of the game. The identity I think is me is likewise only a stereotyped token, mass-produced and devoid of any trace of individuality whatsoever. It’s just a kind of a ‘thing,’ and a very limited and utterly generic kind of a thing at that.
So when we distract ourselves from ourselves by allowing our attention to be soaked up by this interest or that interest we are carrying out this self-distraction business in a very clever and thorough way – by identifying our consciousness with the stereotypical or generic ‘token identity’ of the Top Hat or the Battleship or the Motorcar or the Little Doggie we make its concerns (the concerns that are pre-programmed into the token) into our concerns, and so who we really are gets completely swept under the carpet, completely ignored or neglected. In this way we wholly lose ourselves, and the more caught up in the trivial details and dramas of it all the more thoroughly we forget ourselves. To say that this tactic works extraordinarily and superlatively well would therefore be an absolute understatement, it would be a tremendous understatement. This tactic works so well that no one has ever even heard of it – nor would it mean anything to anyone even if they had…
We do not see the fact that we define ourselves in terms of our habitual style of self-distraction as being at all peculiar (if not to say, totally suspect), and the reason for this is of course that we don’t see what we’re doing as being ‘self-distraction’ at all but quite the opposite. I see what I am getting caught up in as being a reflection of my true and genuine interests. I see these activities as facilitating myself rather than distracting myself – I see them as being healthily empowering rather than being a way of side-lining or ignoring what really matters to me, underneath all the various multitudinous onion-skin layers of spurious and misleading social conditioning.
To say that my ‘interests’ are this, that or the other is inherently paradoxical. The word ‘interest’ itself is being interestingly subverted (or even ‘inverted’) when we use it like this. When I say that I am ‘interested’ in such a thing or such an other specific thing (as we are all prone to doing) then what this implies is that I am not interested in any other things other than the ones that I have just defined. If I define myself as being into heavy metal then this tends to mean that I am not a fan of country-and-western music and if I was into everything then it wouldn’t be correct to say that I am into anything. To put this another way, if I ask you what your interests are and you enthusiastically reply “Everything!” then this is simply not a legitimate answer to the question. It won’t do. It completely fails to answer the question in an understandable way. It doesn’t define you.
To have a particular interest in some area of life is to have a ‘cut-off’ point, it is a point or boundary beyond which I am not interested. My attention is thereby contained, just as a flock of sheep is contained in a field by a perimeter fence, just as a river is contained by its banks. This is basic, text-book ‘figure-ground’ psychology – if I want to focus on the figure (so that I can see it as a positively defined figure) then I have to ignore the ground. Ignoring creates the figure – if I was equally interested in everything within the field of my perception (if I had no boundaries) then there would be no figure. Straightaway we can see the paradox here because if I am interested in some specific or defined area then this necessarily means that I have to be disinterested in everything else. Thus we can say that to have ‘interests’ – in the generally accepted sense of the word – means that I do not have an interest in the unbounded and undefined domain which is life itself…
This general idea is of course pretty well understood, even if its deeper significance isn’t – if I am ‘into’ a certain thing then this is where my passion lies, this is what brings me to life, this is what causes my eyes to light up. And then if the topic of conversation drifts off somewhere else then my interest wanes – I immediately ‘tune out’ and my eyes are no longer lit up. I look uncomfortable, I look bored. Being interested in a particular known domain requires me to be turned off to the rest of life – that’s how it works, that’s the only way it can work. That is how the engine of the rational-conceptual mind works – by ignoring everything that is not related to what it is focussed on. What we are doing therefore when we tune into a specific known domain is that we are distracting ourselves from the bigger picture.
In the language of psychotherapy what I am doing is closing down – I am retreating from the big wide world into a nice and safe closed domain by attaching my consciousness to a ‘defined set of relations between known objects’. Restricting attention to a defined or specified set of relations is a way of talking about playing a game – a game is where we act as if a particular defined domain is ‘the whole reality’ and proceed with our activities upon this hugely narrowed-down basis as if it weren’t a hugely narrowed-down basis. To play a game is to withdraw from the unbounded, unquantified and infinitely unpredictable domain that is reality and restrict ourselves instead to a vastly simplified surrogate of the real thing, without at any point acknowledging that this is what we have done. In fact if anyone comes along and starts suggesting that there is a bigger reality than the one we are stuck in we will either be indignant and angry with them for being so wrong-headed, or we will be contemptuous of them because they are so obviously stupid. Or perhaps we will simply ignore them and carry on with what we are doing, which is the clever tactic, the tactic that seems to work best of all.
When we restrict ourselves to the surrogate reality of our game we are necessarily ‘closed down’ to the bigger picture – we have ‘turned our backs on it’, we have made ourselves ‘profoundly disinterested in it’, and this closed down or disinterested modality is very much our normal, everyday state of being in the world. That’s pretty much all we know. That’s ‘life as we know it’. What we are dong when we shut down our consciousness by playing some game or other is that we are ‘substituting one thing for another’. If the domain to which I am attending is ‘bounded and defined’ then this is another way of saying that there is nothing radically uncertain in it – there is no way in which anything strange can enter into the picture. It’s all known territory and it’s going to stay that way! Strange stuff is not where it’s at – it simply means that there is some kind of mistake or malfunction going on in the system. Strange stuff gets translated as ‘error’ (or, in more old-fashioned religious terms, as ‘heresy’).
When my attention is preoccupied with what is going on in the domain of the known (which is the realm of ‘trivial uncertainty’) then it is as if it is glued or cemented there. I am fixated, I am frozen, I am held fast in the one position. I am locked into the one rigid mental posture and no matter how fatigued or strained or starved I might be on another, less conscious level, my preoccupation with ‘what is going on’ in the goldfish bowl of my trivial everyday mind is so intense that I simply can’t let go of it. It’s a mechanical attachment.
Compulsively attending to the realm of trivial uncertainty automatically induces a state of mental stasis because there is never any actual movement here. All that can ever happen here in this world is that things will hop from one known category to another, and so the only mystery is over which category ‘the thing’ is going to show up in next. This type of movement is no movement at all since nothing ever changes – it’s always just the same old thing. It is absolutely guaranteed to be ‘all the same old thing’ no matter how long I pay attention to it, just as the stories in the daily newspapers we dutifully glue our attention to are ‘all the same old thing’, just as all the events and dramas that unfold on our favourite TV shows are ‘all the same old thing’. There is a kind of high-speed flickering movement that just goes back-and-forth and back-and-forth and back-and-forth endlessly and this high-speed vibratory type of movement effectively substitutes for the real thing. ‘Oscillation between known categories of thought’ substitutes for genuine change! Our attention gets caught up (or trapped) in vibrations, in other words.
If anything radically unexpected were to happen then this would challenge our fixated attention beyond what it is able to cope with. This is like the situation where we have become habituated to playing a particular game (so habituated that it has all become totally automatic) and then something happens to take us totally by surprise, something that is not a move in the game. Anything that is a legitimate move within the game (no matter how rarely it is encountered) would not be a problem for the ‘automatic’ state of mind because it has had a lot of experience in the game and it has an appropriate response for every eventuality, a conditioned reaction that always ‘fits the bill’ no matter what sequence of moves it is hit with. If on the other hand something happens for which we do not have the right response, something which is not part of the game at all, and yet which we nevertheless become aware of, then the effect on us is as if we have experienced some kind of frankly paranormal phenomenon – we plunge immediately into a state of ‘non-coping’ shock. It freaks us.
In short, when our consciousness is automatonized (or ‘robotized’) anything that we perceive that does NOT correspond with the conditioned world that our programming normally allows us to perceive becomes anathema.
Anything that is not the programming has to be suppressed or stifled or denied or blocked out at all costs; normally there is a mechanism which has the very important task of instantly dismissing all incoming information that does not relate to the game I am playing but if this mechanism were to fail and ‘alien information’ were to be somehow allowed entrance into the system then this singular event would be experienced as some kind of psychotic breakdown. It would be seen as (and treated as) some species of ‘brain malfunction’ rather than being recognized as an extraordinarily important intimation that the world I have been living in all this time isn’t the real world at all, but some kind of astonishingly shrunken, horrendously dull and painfully grotesque parody of the real thing.
In the unconscious state all that I care about is the game that I am playing. That’s it in a nutshell. The game is ‘my interest’, it’s ‘what I am into’, whilst the unconditioned reality – the open-ended realm of the radically unknown is not just ‘of no interest to me’ – it is something that has to be denied at every turn. The unconditioned reality is something that has to be denied at every turn because if it isn’t denied then my game – which is the thing I am interested in – will straightaway be shown up as being ‘infinitely trivial’ and if it is shown up as being ‘infinitely trivial’ then clearly I will not be able to use it as a means of shutting out reality any more.
Suppose however just for the sake of the argument that I don’t want to have all my attention soaked up the whole time – suppose that I want it back from wherever it has gone. Suppose that I don’t want to play the crappy game any more. It is only at this point that I can appreciate the sheer enormity of the task that lies in front of me – the whole world (or at least the whole human-constructed world) is one big wad of ultra-absorbent blotting paper and I have been trained for as long as I can remember to unquestioningly hand over all my attention to it. It is as if my consciousness does not belong to me – it belongs to the games it has been trained to play, it belongs to the tracks that it runs on, it belong to the operating system that runs and regulates all the games. I don’t want to hand my attention over to all these games but I find that I am doing so all the same, and whether I want to or not makes not the slightest bit of difference. This is what unconscious living is all about!
So all of a sudden I tune into the fact that the whole world is all just a device to capture and lock up my consciousness, with no release date in sight. And the thing is, once consciousness is locked up in this way then there is no one left to see that it has happened. I am no longer there to see that I’m not there. I am caught up in the game that I don’t know to be a game. I’m all soaked up in the blotting paper and there’s no witness to the fact…
Something might happen from time to time, some sort of a shock, some sort of a dramatic change in circumstances, that will unceremoniously pull me out of my unconscious state – which is the state of being fully engaged with and caught up in matters which are of interest or importance only to the ‘token identity’ that I have haphazardly identified myself with. If the shock is great enough then I may find that I ‘come back to myself’ and the question I would then ask myself would probably be something along the lines of “How did I get here?” or “What am in doing here?” At times like this I might feel as if I were reliving the lyrics of the Talking Heads song – ‘You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house, You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful wife’…
We might wonder – if we happen to have enough free or uncommitted attention left over to wonder about such things – what happens to consciousness when it gets all soaked up? Just what is it doing when it is in the fully automated and fully identified state? The answer is of course, as we have said, that it is fully occupied all of the time with all the infinitely trivial tasks that it has been allocated with. It is fully engrossed in, and preoccupied with, all the distractions that it cannot see to be distractions, with all the games it cannot see to be games. We might imagine, by way of a handy illustration, a football fan who has taken his fanaticism to the nth level and who will not, on this account, pay any attention to anything that is not football or football-related. If there is a match on then he is there sitting in front of the telly and no matter what you might say to him (of a non-football nature) he can’t hear you. If you interrupt his viewing of the match by standing in front of the screen he will in all probability give you a shove to move you out of the way. Or if you are too persistent in being a nuisance to him he will sort you out by giving you a swift punch to the head, before returning immediately to the game and forgetting all about you.
Or we could say that the situation of the attached or identified mind is like that of an incorrigible alcoholic or heroin addict who is completely given over to his addiction and has not even the slightest genuine deep-down intention of trying to become free from it. As an addict, my life revolves around my addiction and this is frankly all that I care about – if I do have any sort of a relationship or interaction with anyone else then the one thing you know for sure is that this relationship or interaction is conducted solely in terms of how the person I am interacting with can help me service my addiction. If they can’t help in this regard, then there is no relationship. If I am a junky then, as William Boroughs says, everyone else becomes to me merely a tool to enable me to obtain more junk.
For the attached (or ‘identified’) consciousness, separation from the game which we can’t see to be a game is the worst possible thing – an outcome so terrible we can’t even bring ourselves to think about it. The game is all we know, it is how we obtain everything we want out of life (as well as everything we don’t want). The game is the teat upon which we suck, and even if the milk we obtain thereby is tainted, it is still the only type of milk we believe in. Any other kind of milk is, as far as we are concerned, is pure moonshine, pure bullshit, and we aren’t going to waste our time talking about it. When we are miserable or anxious or frustrated we cling to the game even more, we suck away on the teat harder than ever because we are hoping that if we suck hard enough we stand a chance of obtaining the remedy to our unhappiness.
The game is where we hope to find our salvation, the ultimate ‘pay-off’ that means we don’t have to play the game any more. This is the paradox that James Carse refers to as the ‘self-contradictoriness of finite play’ – we play in order to bring all play to a close, we play to reach the ultimate goal of not having to make any effort any more… It is this undying hope (the hope of finally catching the dragon that we’ve been chasing so long) that keeps us glued in place, like our football fan is glued to the match, like a bar-fly is glued to his stool, like a chronic gambler is glued to his spot in the bookies or in the penny arcade.
In a kind of a very limited way the game (whatever it is) does give us what we want, although it would be more accurate to say that it tantalizes us with a taste of it, a promise that is never quite delivered. This is comparable to the way in which, when we first start taking a recreational drug (just to give one straightforward example of the principle), there is a ‘honeymoon period’ in which it really does seem to be delivering the promise. As time goes on however it becomes harder and harder to approximate that original golden experience – which is still clear enough in our memories to keep leading us on and on, in the hope that we will get there again. Eventually – and inevitably – this deeply familiar example of the ‘law of diminished returns’ means that we get to the point where our investment in the game has become prohibitively huge and the return on our investment has become so scanty, so superficial, so very much a pitiful shadow of what it used to be, as to be virtually non-existent.
Another way of putting this is to say that the game does give us what we want, but there are conditions attached, small-print in the agreement that – being in the rush we are – we never bother reading. The product that we are being sold is not quite what it seems, not quite what it promotes itself as being, in the sense that the manifestation of the much-desired goal-state is essentially transient, forever either ‘approaching’ or ‘receding’ – just as the minute hand of a working clock is forever either approaching midday or receding away from it again. The consequences of this situation are that all the pleasure we obtain as a result of looking forward to the arrival of the goal-state gets to be reversed later on in the negative phase where we are forced to see what we prize so much slipping through our fingers, just like the golden grains of sand in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem Dream within a dream.
Thus we can say that the good feeling we get as a result of ‘nailing it’ is exactly compensated for by the bad feeling we are left with when we lose it, since loss follows gain as surely as death follows birth. This very much tends to be seen as a manifestation of some kind of basic rotten unfairness in life but really the problem lies in the fact that when consciousness is ‘attached’ (i.e. identified with a static position) life is forever either coming or going, but never where we want it – which is in the abstract, closed-off ‘formal-system’ of the static mind. Life is movement but conditioned consciousness is not, and so this is what jinxes everything for us.
When life is translated into the terms of the static mind what we get is a collection of strictly defined goal-states. Each goal-state represents a value that we wish to seize hold of but because the value that we are trying so diligently and so persistently to acquire is now a conditioned value (i.e. a value that has been translated lock, stock and barrel into the terms of the static mind) it has assumed a nature that is essentially deceptive. The conditioned value of the goal-state is deceptive because it is dual in nature, whilst we perceive it to be not dual at all – we perceive it to be ‘what it says it is on the label’, we perceive it to be what it ostensibly presents itself as being. Every goal-state in other words has TWO sides to it, PLUS and MINUS, YES and NO, HEADS and TAILS, and we only focus on the side we like, the side we feel attraction towards. We chase one side of the coin without realizing that we are also chasing the other!
Taken together the net result is always zero because the euphoria of getting the side that we like is always nullified by the dysphoria of getting what we don’t like, but because we are short-sighted (or, as Jung would say, one-sided in our vision) we keep on playing the game, over and over again, hoping to come out with cash in our hand. The problem is as we have said that unconditioned value, when translated into the definite terms of the game of the static mind, always turns into a +/- pair of conditioned values, always turns into a pair of ‘opposites’. Only the unconditioned (or transcendent) value is nondual, or ‘non-self-contradicting’. This is why the Buddha’s First Noble Truth is that all conditioned existence is dukkha (the suffering associated with eternal unrelenting frustration, the suffering associated with ‘the cyclical mind of illusion’).
The pre-occupied or ‘absorbed’ state of consciousness is therefore nothing more than a constant vibration between pleasure and pain, hot and cold, good and bad, hope and fear. This is the very essence of what the unconscious state is, even though we are not, when we’re in this state, able to see it, or in any way appreciate it. The reason we’re not able to see or appreciate it is because, as we have said, we are afflicted with a special type of blindness, a short-sightedness that causes us to focus on the pleasurable half of the vibration in such a way that we do not see it to be inextricably coupled to the painful half.
A vibration is a vibration – it goes back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, for ever and ever, but we do not see it to be a vibration, we see it as something else. In our one-sidedness we imagine that we can obtain for ourselves the state of being ‘an all-time winner’, which is a state of being in which there is only one half of the vibration, the half that we value! It is the self-deluding belief that this trick is possible that keeps us committed to the game, caught up in the self-nullifying state of unconsciousness, after the fashion of the legendary ‘monkey trap’. The monkey trap is a bottle full of peanuts and it works (so it is said) because of the monkey’s greed – when the monkey grabs a handful of the nuts it cannot withdraw its hand from the bottle and since it is so stubbornly unwilling to relinquish its prize it is very effectively caught in the trap.
The situation we have set our hearts upon is a truly bizarre one. It is the situation of a sea in which all the waves have crests but no troughs, the situation of a pond covered in ripples which have only a positive displacement from the equilibrium – a ‘front but no back’. If we were through reflection to become aware of this bizarrely unrealistic nature of expectation then we might think that the answer would be to settle for a wave-less sea, a pond without any ripples on it – a flat, perfectly undisturbed surface. In a way, this is true, the only problem being that this ‘tranquil’ situation cannot be brought about on purpose. We can’t make the Unconditioned Reality part of our paltry strategies; we can’t make it serve our ends. The lack of conflict we desire only comes about when there are no more strategies – when everything is honest and simple and ‘above-board’, as Chogyam Trungpa says. What we seek only comes about when there is no more ‘attachment’ but attachment is something that is so fundamental to us we can’t imagine how to let it go. Attachment lies at the very root of how we see and act the world – whenever we do something ‘on purpose’ we do it out of attachment, whenever we have a thought, it is attachment driving that thought.
The agitated, self-cancelling situation made up of crests of euphoria and the compensating troughs of dysphoria comes about because of our attachment, because of our desire to control, because of our unexamined and therefore compulsive need to enacting our ideas about the world. Controlling – we might say – inevitably involves trying to obtain an outcome which benefits the controller and this is true even if I am trying to obtain an outcome that is for the benefit of others. Inasmuch as I am trying to obtain the result that I want to obtain then I am still ‘benefiting myself’ – if controlling is enacting one’s ideas then no matter what I do I am trying to ‘benefit myself’ in the sense that it is my ideas I am enacting. Even if I am actively trying to obtain a disadvantageous outcome for myself (if I am an ascetic or a self-flagellator, for example!) I am still seeking to benefit myself since it is still me I am performing the act for. The self cannot ever escape the self through controlling, therefore, no matter how clever a game it plays.
The connection between the controlling self and the vibratory, self-nullifying situation of alternating euphoria and despair is of course clear to see – when we get what we want we feel good and when we don’t get what we want (which is the same thing as getting what we don’t want) then we feel bad. One scenario is a triumph, the other a disaster. One is called ‘winning’, the other ‘losing’. In its essence, as we have said, controlling is all about confirming our viewpoint as being ‘the right one’ and so we can also say that – on the most fundamental level – euphoria is what happens when we receive confirmation that our perspective is the right one, and dysphoria is when we do not receive this all-important confirmation.
We could say that ‘the fixed viewpoint’ equals euphoria and dysphoria, right and wrong, etc or we could say that the self equals euphoria and dysphoria, good and bad, right and wrong (i.e. duality); it all comes down to the same thing – it all comes down to the principle that whatever is represented within the polar realm which is conditioned reality must be, in its essence, fundamentally self-contradictory, being composed of one opposite just as much as the other. A location on a single linear axis, for example, ‘is equally composed of UP and DOWN, just as a point on a defined boundary is inevitably going to be equally composed of INSIDE and OUTSIDE. Somehow we get away with assuming these opposites are safely separated, but the truth is of course that they never can be. And when they are not safely separated, then they are of course always going to cancel each other out…
The irreducible paradoxicality of all definite values or measures means that all attempts to do anything on this basis is also going to turn out to be self-contradicting and therefore futile. With regard to what we were talking about earlier we can say that because it is impossible to grasp at what we want without simultaneously creating what we don’t want, the act of control in which we impose our ideas upon the world always results in the creation of the dualistic world, the world of good and bad, right and wrong, crest and trough. So if I get the idea that I want to iron out these ripples to produce a tranquil situation (because this will offer me a release from the ongoing interminable frustration of the conditioned state of being) all that happens as a result is that I get caught in an infinite regress. What I have done is that I have created a situation in which ‘seeing the world as being divided into good and bad’ is bad, and ‘not seeing the world as being as divided into good and bad’ is good, which is plainly an absurdity. This regress, this absurdity simply demonstrates the incapacity of our thinking to free us from our thinking, or the incapacity of controlling ourselves so that we stop controlling ourselves. The only way peace can come about, and the constant pointless interminable conflict come to an end, is when the very root of the conflict is dug up, and that root is of course the conditioned self.
When we try to ‘fix the conflict’ and regain the state of harmony that we sense ourselves to have lost, all that is happening is that the conditioned self (which is the ‘token identity’ that has been created for us by the system of thought) is trying as ever to produce the optimum situation for itself. Trying to secure the optimum situation for itself means controlling however and controlling means being in the state of ongoing irresolvable conflict. Just as controlling and the conditioned sense of self are inseparable, so too is the self and conflict (or as Krishnamurti says, division) are inseparable, since controlling is only ever successful (at best) in the short term. Or we could say, to get the idea across more clearly, that controlling is only successful at one point in time to the extent that it will be unsuccessful at another!
The glitch in everything we do (and think) is quite invisible to us because it is the one thing that we always take totally for granted – namely ourselves (or our thinking, both of which comes down to the same thing).
It is this invisible glitch – the invisible glitch behind all logic – that creates the monkey trap. The thing we can’t let go of (the handful of nuts that we can’t eat but which we can’t release either) is the conditioned self; what sucks us in, and keeps us in, is the promise that the false sense of ourselves which the system of logic gives us is going to receive the validation it craves – a validation that is not going to be duly cancelled out at some future date, a validation that is not ‘on loan’ from the system.
We can’t free ourselves from the interminable pointless sterile vibration that is psychological unconsciousness, we can’t extricate ourselves from it no matter how hard we were to try, and the reason we can’t escape it is because the ‘me’ that wants to escape is a product of that same vibration. The ‘me’ that wants to escape from the vibration is the vibration!
So no matter how tired out and beaten up we get in the interminable vibration process we can’t escape because we are mortally afraid at the thought of losing this false sense of self – even though being identified with it in the way that we are never gives us anything but grief and frustration. The only answer we can find to our predicament is to plunge ever more deeply into the game, to drink ever more deeply of ‘the Liquor of Forgetfulness’, the Nepenthe which is spoken of in the ancient stories.
The only answer we can come up with therefore is to keep our awareness tied up as much as we possibly can in the various complicated and convoluted systems of self-distraction that are available to us, to give it away like a present we don’t want. Our answer is to ‘throw our attention away’ as unreflectively and vigorously as we can so that it will be safely soaked up by the super-absorbent blotting paper world.