Why this Shit Matters: Notes on the Last Few Essays

hall of mirrors

Goofy as it might sound, I’ve been trying to do something for 40 years that is almost impossible. I’ve been grinding my teeth on this thing against all good advice, pouring all my energy into what probably looks like an obscure and meaningless (or maybe just confused and confusing) thing.

The Buddhists say that the truth can’t be spoken; that words are a distraction from what is real, because language is a virtual reality that convinces us that it’s not virtual. So language is essentially a delusion, which can never help us encounter what is real. Reality is found off the page, not on it.

And the same goes for thought and feeling and imagery. It’s all a kind of curtain that pretends to be showing something beyond the curtain, where in fact nothing at all is found. We make up everything.

Look, the Buddha knew his shit. And I’m not disputing what the Buddhists say above. In fact, it was my starting point, not as an idea or belief (because I’d never heard of Buddhism), but as a terror. If for some reason you suddenly learn that you’re trapped behind a film of language, feeling, thought and imagery and that everything you experience is imaginary, then there is no “getting off the page” into reality. It’s like being stuck in a hall of mirrors. It’s not a choice.

Those around you may think you can choose to be practical and load hay or build a house or get a job or raise children to remain “real.” To them the film of thought is just another idea. They don’t recognize how lost in illusion the practical world really is. Delusion is an endless onion. In your calm encounter with nature you don’t notice the film of thought framing your enthusiasm, limiting your perception to what you believe.

I could never explain this fear to those who haven’t experienced it. It’s far worse than the fear of death. It’s an isolation chamber of solipsism. Every hand that tries to reach you is unreal. Your mother and father are illusions; you’re alone in an empty universe of yourself and there is nothing you can touch that is proof of reality, because everything is just a sensation emanating from your own brain. And this is true. That’s the worst part of it. It’s utterly true and you can’t dispute it. Nobody can without resorting to arguments, which are words and images and feelings that are only sensations onto which you have projected hopes and illusions. You are alone in an empty world.

When I was 30 years old I found a passage in a book that finally described this fear that nobody else in my life understood. It was in a book called Beckett and Zen:

“Watt (a Beckett character) has perceived the fact that the I-as-object has no validity and that the subject of such perception is thereby implied. He admits that the discovery is a distressing realization – often, when that fact is discovered accidentally, the experience can be a considerable shock – for nothing could be affirmed as real, that is, not bearing the stamp of the conceiving part of the mind. He describes the moment of realization as “false” and adds that he finds the experience more disturbing than anything else that had affected him” (page 42).

So how does one emerge from this black box?

There are no outer doors. Every door is made of another illusion leading deeper into the prison.

This isn’t just my problem either. It’s the problem of people in general, whether the horror behind the curtains is recognized or not. A fear deeper than death. Humanity can’t sit still, and is torturing itself with war and competition and hatred, because it can’t find anything but Isms and Beliefs and false Truths and other positive answers that are never satisfying, because they are all only more illusions piled on illusions; mirrors leading to more mirrors.

Oh, the scientist thinks he or she is touching a real surface. But even as physicists dig deeper into matter, the atoms themselves dissolve into mostly empty space. And behind this curtain there are only fields of energy. And beyond that nothing, no form or shape, but only what might be called a field of information that holds infinite potential.

But this is also a story.

Has science really embraced its core insight that theories can only replace theories, and that no dogma can form? It was a brilliant confession, freeing us from the dogmas of religion. But does science embrace this original insight? It would mean embracing the fact that science tells stories – honest stories, but not True ones.

Or is science still trying to pin the world down in conclusion, which is dogmatic and reductive, just like religion was or is? Does it play in metaphor and perspective, does it embrace its roots as a natural philosophy, or does it try to achieve “objectivity”, which is the dead certainty of Literalism?

Answers make the world conform to the description. That infinite potential takes the shape of our imagination, but not necessarily the surface imagination of wishful thinking. I mean the deeper assumptions that have created this economic system, or the ones driving us to value status and competition. Those so-called practical realities people drown themselves in are realities created by the way we imagine the world; they are artifacts of imagination, not solid, inevitable facts of life. There are no inevitable facts of life. It’s wholly open, which is the secret terror of people.

It’s especially terrifying for a kid to see his own experience as nothing but imagination, a lone consciousness that fools itself into being separate things. And if he sees that everything is only an artifact of imagination, then he can find no proof of anyone, even himself. And he’s right, that’s the worst part.

How does one emerge from this black box and participate in a world that you never really trust is there? How do you love an illusion?

We’re getting out of this illusion. Or rather, the illusions are ending. That’s always very painful. And it’s also a tricky thing. Illusion doesn’t end by continuing to do what we’ve always done, which is to go through the doors marked Exit towards the supposedly solid ground of a positive answer. We can’t rely on answers – they’re all quicksands of bullshit. The solidity they offer is the illusion itself. To this extent the Buddhists were right. All attempts to use language to posit understanding is the illusion itself.

But language does offer solid ground, a way out of illusion. However, the solid ground isn’t positive. It isn’t where we want to find it. It hurts too. It isn’t an answer, or a belief or anything graspable or comforting. It’s energizing, which is not what an enervated population wants. Tired people busy escaping reality turn towards everything that tires them more, which is comfort and safety. The only solidity is error, and that is disturbing and renewing simultaneously. But negative knowledge can expose the illusion of underlying assumptions (the hidden imagination that passes itself off as a Literal and “practical reality”). It can expose and negate this delusion.

If, for instance, I say “the map is not the territory” or “everything is a story” this doesn’t replace one dogma with another; it strips the mind of a debilitating assumption and leaves it in a pregnant void, a null position of infinite potential, which is self-awareness, or self-transparency, which is honesty, which is the highest intelligence. And in that state of intelligent uncertainty there is no Literalism. It’s dead. And the hall of mirrors is gone. And stories cease being attempts at pinning the world down but immediately transform into playfully, tentatively posited stories – honest stories, not truths.

I find this astonishing. People have demonstrated leaving this hall of mirrors for thousands of years, but either most people aren’t recognizing this exit or they don’t realize how it happens. Or, more likely, they don’t even realize they’re in a hall of mirrors, and that they’re hiding their head in the sand (which is another mirror). You can’t leave the halls of language and thought and find reality by trying to leapfrog language into a transcendent state, into a posited image of peace. You’re only escaping into a silent illusion. There is another way in which language and thought can be used; a way to turn them against their own illusions. Language can kill Literalism, which assists meditation. (Meditation and the clarification of language (which is often dismissed as intellectuality, but is in fact its destruction) work together seamlessly in the way liberating and conserving thought work together if they are coherently understood).

Till now, there was an implicit hypocrisy in talking about problems from the writer’s high horse, and then immediately falling off the horse in a pile of horseshit when the writing was done. But here is a way to write actively, by dissolving reductive visions and changing your mind.

This is what only a few Buddhists and Taoists have mentioned. Language isn’t merely capable of positing bullshit answers. It can also negate bullshit. Error is the only solid ground that a person trapped in a hall of mirrors can find. They are the breadcrumbs that our own illusions have left behind. Nobody can really fool themselves forever.

8 thoughts on “Why this Shit Matters: Notes on the Last Few Essays

      • I’ve been reading and re-reading David Bohm recently and what I’ve found in his solo work is very much along these lines. For me, Krishnamurti’s insistence on an instantaneous, and I guess permanent, transformation was a stumbling block. These insights, Bohm’s and yours, come across as honest and connect with my own experiences.

        When we see where language leads us astray, along with the fact that the only reality we know is a product of language, we can begin to explore how else language can be used and how these changes let in light.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The commonality with K is that there is an element of abruptness and “permanance” in this, which is the bedrock elimination of Literalism. That marks a change. So I don’t think it’s one or the other being more on target, but both doing slightly different things. Bohm was a metaphorical thinker; K a negative observer. K must have felt his calling in confronting this Lilteralism. It’s not easy to end. I’m still under its sway, but like all of us we’re getting visions through the curtains of how this ends, and experiencing moments when it ends. And when it ends metaphoric thinking can start. But I do think K’s time has not quite yet arrived. It’s still the thing that is most pressing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jeff,

        I wrote that last comment with the hopeful expectation that you would illuminate K’s position in a way that would keep me from falling into an either/or here.

        This dance between them following parallel courses but exhibiting distinctive responses to their common, our common, situation is what I refer to as sailing in company. These become the first stirrings of being able to go beyond an imprisoned interiority and being able to navigate together along with others.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s great! You’re a blessing to have as a co-worker, friend, kind of a collaborator also, on parallel courses, with the spice of difference that spurs learning. Thanks for living.

        Liked by 2 people

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