Acting Dumb

We’re all a lot better than we realize at ‘ acting dumb ’!

Our main strategy in life is the one which Chogyam Trungpa  calls ‘intelligent stupidity’: here Chogyam Trungpa associates this strategy with the psychological world known in Tibetan Buddhism as the ‘animal realm’ –

“The animal realm is associated with stupidity: that is preferring to play deaf and dumb, preferring to follow the rules of available games rather than re-define them. Of course, you might try to manipulate your perception of any given game, but you are really just following along, just following instinct.”

We aren’t really stupid – it just suits us to pretend that we are. It’s a game we play without admitting to it because not acknowledging that we’re playing the game is part of the game. We could of course question what we’re doing if we wanted to! But why would anyone want to act dumb anyway? What’s the pay-off? What’s the advantage? As soon as we start asking questions like this however all sorts of answers come to us. Playing dumb is a very well-known tactic. We play dumb in order to be left alone. We play dumb so we won’t have to do something we don’t want to. We play dumb because there’s something we don’t want to know about. We play dumb because there’s great security in it! We play dumb because no one makes any demands on us that way…

Using Chogyam Trungpa’s terminology we could say that ‘the thing we don’t want to know about’ (and which will make uncomfortable demands on us) is space. Space can be related to perspective so we could also say that we act dumb in order to avoid having any perspective on things. Perspective allows us to have ‘more than just the one way of looking at the world’ – when we have other ways at looking at something then what we invariably discover is that the thing we’re looking at isn’t what we originally took it to be! Perspective always leads to a ‘change in perception’ and so this is a big challenge to our whole world-view. Gaining the capacity to look at things in ‘more than just the one way’ is opening a whole big can of worms! And these worms aren’t just the little pink wriggly things we find when we dig the garden, these are dangerous things, these are more like the wyrms of Norse mythology – these are fully-fledged dragons! These things we don’t want to let out! Once the lid comes off our normal safe everyday way of seeing things then anything could happen, anything could jump out…

There’s a tremendous security in things being what we think they are, in things being what they’re conveniently labelled as being. We know where we are then! When we look at the elements that make up our world in a different way then they stop being ‘what we had thought they were’ and become something else, something unknowable. The world then loses its reassuringly predictable, ‘matter-of-fact’ literal (or concrete) quality and shifts into an altogether less familiar dimension. What happens when perspective is permitted is that the world around us starts to reveal itself as not being what we had previously thought it to be and for the conservative mind-set this is the most disturbing thing there is!

The experience of shifting unexpectedly from the familiar to the unfamiliar is simultaneously a fearful and a wonderful thing. It’s a wonderful thing because we now start to be aware of an unaccountable and deeply poetical quality to the world, a mythic quality, a magical and mysterious quality. These are all aspects of life that are conspicuously absent in our everyday experience. The shift is fearful on the other hand because this unaccountable movement into the poetical, the mythical, and the magical is at the same time a movement away from everything that’s known to us, everything that’s familiar to us. To be abruptly separated from everything we know creates the most extraordinary feeling of existential vertigo – the very ground has been snatched away from under our feet and there’s no way that this isn’t going to feel strange!

Acting DumbIn ‘The Concept of Anxiety’ Soren Kierkegaard states that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”  This sounds odd because it isn’t our usual way of understanding anxiety. But when we ‘gain freedom’ what’s happening is that we’re losing the security of our prison, the security of our ‘limited view of reality’. When we gain the freedom to see reality in an open-ended way rather than ‘just the one way’ we discover that we no longer know what we used to think we knew, and so the other side of this freedom is existential anxiety. Whilst this astonishing electric uncertainty is the gateway to the greatest adventure we’ve ever been on, it is at the same time potentially the gateway to the greatest fear that we’ve ever known. The moment this gateway opens, therefore, is the moment we find out what our true colours are – do we love adventure more than security, or is it the other way around?

Whilst deep down it’s true that the love of adventure is always stronger and more essential to us than the fondness for security, it’s also true that we’ve been ‘institutionalized’ over the years by the limited type of life that’s been given to us to lead, and that as a result of this habituation to an over-civilized life-style our innate love of adventure has been sadly buried – buried to such an extent that there isn’t really any sign of it left! If therefore that gate (the gate of radical uncertainty) opened by even so much as a crack our reaction would be terror rather than joy, and for this reason we’re compelled to play ‘the game of intelligent stupidity’ to the best of our ability. Playing this game means that we show absolutely no interest in anything that happens to lie outside our routinized existence. We act like there’s nothing else apart from this. When we’re playing the game of intelligent stupidity only one thing matters and that is to pretend that all the stuff outside of the game simply doesn’t exist…

We all know how this works – certain things are on the menu to talk about (or think about) and anything else isn’t! This is like ‘polite conversation’ – there are things that are spoken of and things that aren’t, and the penalties for stepping over the line and mentioning what shouldn’t be mentioned is that you get ‘blanked’. As a result of this type of negative reinforcement occurring (in a rigorously consistent way since early childhood) we fall into the pattern of looking at the world in a particular narrow way, just like everyone else. This is another way of talking about social conditioning – we all wear the same blinkers, we all develop the very same mental blind-spot! This is even true for supposedly ‘open-minded’ scientists – it’s not ‘the done thing’ to research (or even talk about) telepathy, for example.

We consistently wage war on any form of perspective; we consistently wage war on our own inner space. The result of this hostile action on our part is that we’ve been successful in eliminating our ‘enemy’, and are now living in a world without any perspective in it! What this means is that all the structures in our world become unquestionable – they seem ‘self-evident’ because we’re flatly incapable of imagining how they could be any other way. The result of ‘having no space’ is therefore the everyday concrete world we see all around us!

So what’s the outcome of ‘acting dumb’ in the way that we do? What sort of a situation do we find ourselves in as a result? As we’ve said, what we’re initially attracted to is the security and predictability of the concrete world. This means that everything stays the same, stays the same, stays the same… It may not be much good of course, it may be downright lousybut at least it’s reliable! So the ‘positive’ side of security is that it doesn’t challenge us at all but then as soon as we say this we also have to say that this isn’t so positive at all really because life itself is a challenge and so the lack of challenge means the ‘lack of life’. A concrete reality is no more than a kind of ‘living death’!

The whole endeavour is counterproductive – I avoid life’s essential challenge and end up as a result living a life that’s no life, and the unremitting misery this creates is itself a terrible challenge! Acting dumb as a strategy doesn’t work, therefore. It creates far worse problems than it supposedly solves. It’s a disaster. The only thing is however that when we ‘act dumb’ we’re terribly stuck because we play the game so well that we become as dumb as we act, and so we can’t see that, as a strategy, acting dumb is just about the worst idea ever!

By Nick Williams | TNP

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