What really matters in life is the capacity to be. The capacity to actually be is everything – without it we are nothing. Without actual ‘being’ everything becomes an empty game, a joke, a protracted exercise in futility…
We are brought up to see things very differently, however – we are brought up to believe that it’s all about doing. When we meet someone, the first question we generally ask is “What do you do?” I want to know what it is you do, not who it is that does the doing!
Our overwhelming bias in favour of doing is illustrated by our language, by our habitual terminology. We talk in the most favourable terms possible about being ‘a winner’ and in the most unfavourable about being ‘a loser’, which shows how very important we count it to be a successful ‘doer’. Again, the question as to who it is that is being the successful doer is not stressed – it’s as if we think that merely being a winner is enough, that this fact alone says everything that needs to be said, that this fact alone defines everything about us that needs defining. “Success” in some field or other is like a badge therefore – a badge that ‘says it all’, a badge that no one (least of all the wearer of the badge) need ever look beyond…
We are culturally conditioned to see being a winner as the important thing, not who it is that has been labelled as such. As long as I earn the badge this is all that matters! This – we might say – is evidence of the fact that we are a profoundly unphilosophical culture. A philosophical culture would encourage us to look deeper, to ask the question, “Who is it that wants to become a winner and not a loser?” A philosophical culture would encourage us to look beyond the label, the image, the role, the title, etc. It would encourage us to look at who is wearing the mask, rather than simply allowing ourselves to be automatically hypnotized by the on-going empty theatre of it all…
This whole idea is however pretty alien to us. We are not – most emphatically not – a philosophical culture. On the contrary, we are a ‘deeply superficial’ culture, a shallow culture, a trivial and ‘unconscious’ culture. We are a culture which is absolutely fascinated by the act, by the non-stop theatre of our social world, and completely uninterested in the actor. We most emphatically don’t want to look beneath the surface – we want to be ever-more distracted by whatever is going on in the outside world. What this comes down to is arranging to have our attention puppeted by whatever thoughts it is we’re having, by whatever images it is that are coming into our consciousness…
This is great in one way because it’s like watching a movie – if it’s a good movie then we get to have a great time, and get distracted in an enjoyable way. There is however a downside to it. What we are talking about here is the state of consciousness sometimes referred to as passive identification – this is the state in which we totally believe in whatever mental productions are being paraded in front of us. In other words, when we’re in this state we fall for every story that the mind tells us, we ‘swallow it hook, line and sinker’! We buy into it big time!
The problem with this state is therefore that we have to buy into the drama whether we enjoy it or not. We have to buy into it irrespective of whether it makes us feel good or bad. The whole point about being ‘passively identified’ is that we don’t have any choice, that we have to go along with it one way or another! So if I’m watching the movie and it’s a good movie, then I’m having a great time watching it, but by the same token if it’s a scary movie then I will be frightened. I am at the mercy of what is portrayed to me because I have handed over responsibility to whatever mechanical process it is that is unfolding… So with regard to thoughts and ideas (rather than movies), being in the state of passive identification puts me in a most unfortunate situation – the position of being helplessly puppeted by my own thoughts! I have a pleasing thought and I feel good, I have a worrying thought and I feel bad. I have an optimistic thought and I feel euphoric, I have a pessimistic thought and I feel depressed. One minute up, the next down, like a bit of driftwood on a choppy sea!
This constant helpless ‘up and down’ movement is often given as the prime symptom or sign of being psychologically unconscious. The pleasant thoughts generate euphoria and the unpleasant ones create dysphoria in such a way that ‘for every up there is a corresponding down’. The actual operation of the thinking mind is, as the Lankavatara Sutra says, like that of ‘machine or water-wheel’ – it just goes around and around, oscillating perpetually between the two polar opposites of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘yes’ and no’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and taking us with it…
But beyond the tiresome round of triumph and despair, elation and depression lies something even less inspiring – pure meaninglessness. How I feel is not determined by reality, as I think, but by blind mechanical forces that are ‘pulling my strings’! How undignified is this? The state of passive identification is making a fool out of me…
The process of ‘waking up’ and becoming free from the blind mechanical forces that are forever jerking me around involves getting better at ‘seeing through the obvious’ – which is to say, getting better at seeing through the appearances that are generated by our thinking process, by our thoughts, ideas and beliefs. What the rational-conceptual mind ‘knows’ are only appearances – it is incapable of knowing (or caring, for that matter) what lies beneath these appearances because its business is only with labelling or categorizing or conceptualizing the information what comes its way, and not going into the matter any further than it needs to in order to do this. So whilst the conceptual mind generates an ‘apparent world’ via its concepts, it is not capable of knowing anything beyond this world. So whilst this mind ‘knows’ the world that it has made up for itself out of its labels, out of its designations, out of its names, it is not capable of knowing what these labels, designations and names are really referring to!
The big problem with the labelling mind is therefore that we’re very liable to just let it get on with its job, so that it covers up the whole world with its labels, its concepts, so that we then get cut off from actual reality completely. As it says in Verse 32 of the Tao Te Ching (Trans. Stephen Hodge 2002) –
When we begin to regulate, there is naming,
But when there has been naming
We should also know how to stop.
Only by knowing how to stop can we avoid danger.
See for an alternative translation.
If we don’t know how to stop naming everything in sight then we become the hapless slaves of this mechanical mind and get lost in the two-dimensional world that it has created for us! We can look at this process in terms of a deceptive type of ‘freedom’ – we’re free to designate reality in any way we wish, just as we are free to ‘be anything we want’ within this designated reality. P.D. Ouspensky explains this by saying that the more we are able to ‘forget ourselves’, the more ‘transformations’ we are able to undergo. We can thereby become anything we can think of, but the invisible snag here is that ‘what we can think of’ is necessarily very limited – so limited, in fact, that it actually comes down to nothing at all!
Although we never see it, the ‘realm of choice’ is by no means as marvellous as we might think it is because it is such an extraordinarily superficial type of freedom. I can be a winner or I can be a loser and there seems to be a huge difference between the two possibilities, but in reality both come down to the very same thing – ‘the realm of choice’, which is ‘the realm of names’.
Beyond the realm of choice lies the realm of choicelessness, the nameless world which has not been created by the conceptual mind (which as we have said always operates between the two polar extremes of YES and NO, GOOD and BAD, RIGHT and WRONG, etc, and beyond which it has nothing further to say).
Beyond winning and losing, good and bad, right and wrong – beyond all opposites – is the capacity to be.
By Nick Williams | Staff Writer