The Conflicted Life
The thinking mind is ‘a machine for turning a profit’. It is there for solving problems, in other words. This is very useful at the same time as being (potentially) highly dangerous; it’s dangerous because unless there’s oversight with regard to the operation of this machine then everything straight away flips over and we find that thought now has a different role, a role we didn’t ask it to take on, which is the role of defining reality. It thought is left unattended, as it were, then the whole world becomes a problem to be solved. The defined picture of things become the ideal value from which every departure is seen as ‘an error to be corrected’, even though our ‘definite picture’ of things was never any more than an arbitrary imposition.
When the whole world or, as we might also say, reality itself, becomes a problem to be solved then we are pushed into this very narrow, very unsatisfactory and very rigid way of relating to the world and this is the way that we call ‘controlling’. When our situation is seen as a problem then controlling as a modality of existing becomes the only possible response, the only possible way to proceed. If we don’t control, if we don’t maintain the upper hand with respect to what is allowed to happen or not, then this equals ‘failure’, this equals ‘being defeated’. This is of course implicit in the word ‘problem’ – problems have to be fixed because of the very fact that they are defined as problems. Problems – just so long as we accept them as such – compel us to try to solve them fix them.
We can say therefore that when the machine which is thought gets to define our world, then straightaway we transition from the state of being in which we are not being compelled to embark upon any particular course of action (or any particular way of seeing the world) to the reverse scenario of this, which is where we absolutely do have to engage in some specific behaviour, where we absolutely do have to adopt some specific way of seeing things. We aren’t free anymore, in other words – the runaway operation of thought has – at one stroke – taken our freedom away from us. And not only this, our intrinsic freedom has been gotten rid of in such a way that we no longer know that there actually is such a thing; the type of world that the thinking mind provides us with is the ‘unfree’ type therefore, the type in which we always have to be ‘striving to achieve’. The set-up that we now find ourselves in doesn’t contain the possibility of not having to strive, not being obliged to bring about the correct outcome – this is no longer a thing. Peace or joy or contentment can only come when we have achieved the correct outcome; our well-being is completely dependent upon ‘achieving the correct outcome’.
In The World That Thought Creates freedom always exists at one remove from where we are; it always has to be sought after, it always requires the correct action on our part. It has to be won. Another way this is to say that, in this world (which is a made-up word that we cannot see to be made up) we can never disengage from the modality of purposefulness justice failure is not an option and neither is disengaging from the purposeful or goal-orientated mode of being. Purposefulness as a modality of existence is very dry, very humourless, very superficial. There is no actual sustenance in it; obviously there’s no actual sustenance in it – if there was then we wouldn’t have to be striving for the correct outcome all the time! If the prize were already in our hands and we wouldn’t have to keep reaching out for it. The Purposeful World is a quintessentially impoverished world therefore and the remedy for this impoverishment – so we are led to believe – is always just around the corner. Freedom always exists ‘at a remove’, as we have said – there’s never jam today.
It isn’t hard to see that when everything gets flipped over in this way (such that the nature of reality itself is now the problem) then this isn’t actually such a great thing – we have been very badly cheated, in fact. We are being taken for a ride. Thought has conned us into believing that life is something we have to earn, something we have to deserve, which raises the very grim possibility that we don’t deserve it, that we don’t have what it takes to earn it; others might, we think dolefully, but we don’t. We start off from a place of unworthiness, in other words, and so it’s up to us to try and remedy this situation. It’s up to us to redeem ourselves, to prove ourselves. In religious terms this means that we exist in a ‘fallen state’, a ‘state of sin’, and that we have to make the appropriate efforts, in strict accordance with the guidance of the Church, to make up for this. If we behave ourselves – if we are obedient rather than rebellious – then we can be saved, but the implicit (or explicit) threat that we could all too easily let ourselves down in this regard is always there. The yoke has been placed upon us and we are condemned to a life of struggling and striving, sometimes hopefully and sometimes fearfully. We have been very well and truly jinxed, therefore.
What thought does – when it is allowed – is to invert reality. We have been cheated out of our birthright, so to speak, and in its place we have been given a type of ‘surrogate reality’ or ‘pseudo-reality,’ and the nature of this surrogate pseudo-reality is such that (as we have just said) it makes the boon of existence into something that’s dependent upon a particular type of behaviour, a particular type of attitude or approach in life, that we have to get right. This is what makes the ‘conditioned reality’ a place of suffering, a place of frustrated or fruitless effort. As James Carse says,
If the purpose of a finite game is to conclude play as a winner, then play itself acquires a distinctively negative quality.
There is a coercive energy to everything here, a pressure that we can’t avoid, a pressure that will never go away until we finally manage to do what the authority wants us to do. Until that time however, we remain in jeopardy, just as the Church says our souls are in mortal jeopardy, and that we must on this account never be caught off our guard. The sense of being unworthy, a sense of not having been able (at least so far) to redeem ourselves or prove ourselves, is a profound form of mental pain – it’s a type of mental pain that causes us to keep hunting for something that we haven’t got, something very important that we have not yet obtained, and which – we may suspect – we might never obtain. The ‘pressure’ and ‘the sense of potential condemnation if we fail’ are one and the same thing – we’re being haunted by the threat of failure no matter how fast we run (or no matter how desperately we struggle) we’ll always bring it with us….
As Carse points out, the reason we strive as hard as we do is in order to prove to ourselves (and others) that we aren’t the losers that – deep down – we take ourselves to be. That’s our ‘starting-off point’, in other words, that’s our ‘default position’ – the default position of being unworthy, the default position of being – in some essential way – ‘on probation’. We envy those who have made it, who are ‘living their best lives’, who have proven themselves in the eyes of the world. We envy who have managed to become somebody, whilst at the same time being tormented by the fear that this may very easily never happen for us. Via the action of thought, therefore, life has been turned into a competition, a game we have to win. In a competition, no one is anything unless they can definitively show that they are somebody by succeeding within these very particular and narrow terms. It’s all or nothing, in other words – either we win the game and achieve unequalled glory, or we fail and are as a consequence condemned to a life of wretched non-achievement, to which attaches not glory but the reverse of that – blame and bitter self-condemnation.
‘If the prize for winning finite play is life, then the players are not properly alive’, says Carse; the curious thing is however that we very rarely see things this way, we very rarely see that we are ‘jinxed’, that we have been cheated in this most profound of ways. On the contrary, being constantly oriented towards achieving a positive or desirable outcome is seen as being a very good thing, an entirely commendable thing. We will clap somebody heartily on the back for this having this sort of attitude, we will be happy for them. Constant positive striving is seen as an indication of a state of good mental health – a state of being we would wish for everybody. We never pause to wonder if perhaps all this effort isn’t about struggling heroically for something good, but – rather – if it might not be running away from something grim that we really don’t want to look at.
If we had any psychological savvy at all then we’d smell a rat. The rat is right there in front of us, laughing in our faces. It’s having a field day at our expense – it’s pissing on our cornflakes and giving us the finger as it does! What we’re looking at here is denial – we’re in full blown denial of the situation that we’re in. We have been swindled out of everything that matters and we’re stubbornly refusing to hear about it. Instead, we’re ‘concentrating on the positive’, which is to say, we are buying into thought’s gimmick, which is to offer us rewards for our ‘conformity to the lie’, rewards that aren’t actually real (and which aren’t therefore rewards at all). Something good will happen for us if we believe the lie, but in order for that to happen we can’t see it as a lie. Denial, when it’s the Mind-Created Virtual Reality we’re talking about, comes down to being as uncritical as possible about ‘the official story’, no matter how obviously fatuous it might be. We cultivate an extraordinarily brittle attitude towards life, based on the half-baked cock-eyed belief-system that we have accepted, and we get very reactive if anything or anyone comes along to challenge this. We hold onto the official story as tightly as we possibly can and we get very nasty about it if we come across anyone who isn’t clinging to that position as tightly as we are, and this is of course a very familiar story in this world of ours…
In one way, the machine is merely facilitating us therefore – it is generating a state of euphoria for us. A positive spin is what brings about euphoria and thought is the Spinning Machine. Thought can only do this however by creating the opposite state of mind at the same time, which is of course the state of fearful anticipation. If I disturb the flat surface of a body of still water then I can readily create a positive displacement, a displacement above the median line, a displacement which corresponds to ‘euphoric excitement’, but I can only do this at the price of creating the corresponding negative displacement at the same time, which corresponds to dysphoric excitement, or ‘anxiety’. If I am dependent upon a particular picture of reality, a particular story about reality, in order to feel good then at the same time I have created something to feel bad about. To believe in this ludicrous thing called ‘winning’ is also to believe in that equally stupid thing we call ‘losing’.
Whenever we make a positive or definite assertion, we always create the (latent) opposite assertion at the same time, as Michel de Montaigne says –
We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.
The consequence of this is that we spend half of our lives feeling good because we are able to believe in the positive spin, and half the time feeling bad because of ‘the rebound’, because the positive has turned negative, as it always will. To believe in God is to be a secret disbeliever at the same time. If we are ‘dependent upon the spin’ then we are obliged to go with the negative variety just as much as we are with the positive. We get around this unsatisfactory situation by downplaying the flipside of the game and writing off the dysphoric states of mind by saying that these are aberrant states of mind that can be cured by either therapy or medication, or perhaps by some inspired combination thereof. And even if we can’t cure it, the fact that we have designated it as ‘a pathological state of mind that ought to be cured if at all possible’ stops us from seeing it for what it is – the flipside of our demand to have a definite picture of ‘how things are’ (or ‘how they should be’). What this means is that we are always going to be haunted by the spectre of dysphoria. Even when everything is going our way this spectre is only waiting around the corner, waiting for its cue to come and take centre stage. We can never ‘break free from the wheel’ because we can only ever get to feel good by fighting against feeling bad. What our constant effort to turn a profit comes down to – if only we could see it – is running away from something we can’t ever run away from. We’re actually running away from something that we ourselves have created.
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