The Greatest Paradox: Why Change is Possible but Why We Can’t Change on Purpose

Let me clarify the last essay, I think we can emerge from this trap of thought in time for the earth to heal. I do believe it, for what it’s worth. I’m not saying this as a spur to change, but as an observation of the nature of the problem itself. It’s not unresolvable.

We can change because the problem driving the world to the brink of collapse is a runaway imagination, thought that has no sense of itself as a creative fiction, which means we get fooled by all the red herrings that this imagination produces. Not just the usual evils such as status, power, money, but also suckered by all the well-intentioned solutions that are invented to counteract these evils.

However, we aren’t even coming close to realizing what this change demands from us. This is not the usual crisis we’re facing.

Every previous crisis in human history could be surmounted by applying our extraordinary capacity for imagination. This time we can’t.

Any species that develops this far in this direction would face the same dilemma. It’s a dangerous new power and we haven’t learned to use it in proper measure.

These dangers weren’t obvious over the vast course of human history. Population pressures weren’t enough to incite the imagination into hyperdrive. But as these pressures grew, more complicated products of the imagination appeared, such as agriculture, cities, governments, writing, and on and on. Products of the imagination became increasingly complicated, causing new problems faster than the imagination could be used to solve them. [Note, I have somewhat changed my mind on the inevitability of this problem, see comment below and “Notes on Closed and Open Views of Evolution”].

Essentially we entered into a predator/prey developmental relationship with our own imagination, inventing new forms to solve the problems caused by unforeseen complications arising in previous forms. And this has led to a logarithmic increase in products of the imagination and in the kinds of problems we face.

So up to this point we could say that we’ve only faced problems that the imagination was capable of solving, albeit by kicking the can of ever more complicated problems farther down the road. We are keeping one step ahead of a shadow that keeps growing larger and more menacing.

But now that road has shortened to a dead end. There is no room to kick the can anymore.

In other words, we’re beginning to realize that this two edged sword of imaginative development has grown into such a large sword that it’s going to kill us on the next swing.

Some don’t realize the implications of this development yet. They either fail to see the double-edged quality of so-called progress, concentrating only on the promises and not the perils of every new development of the imagination; or they can’t wrap their heads around the fact that this is not a problem like previous problems. They can’t see that we’re engaged in a logarithmic growth in products of the imagination, and that this has become a momentum that imprisons us. Technology is a steroid in this development, but not the real problem. The problem isn’t merely that we work for machines now, and not vice versa. The underlying reason why we’re susceptible to this enslavement is because we were already trapped within the products of our imagination.

We were endowed with this profound gift, and it made us giddy and blind. We’ve entered a candy store and proceeded to gorge ourselves to death. We have no proprioceptive sense of fullness, no awareness of the limits of the imagination. The momentum of growth has become its own end. Our best interests have been forfeited to growth for growth’s sake. It’s a cancer, a predator, a mass psychosis.

We’re pursuing daydreams to the point of self-destruction. Daydreams such as countries, companies, races, tribes, religions, money, status, etc, all deriving from the imagination of a Self at the center of everything. We’re lost in these hallucinations, essentially schizophrenic, and can’t even recognize the reality of the earth and its primacy over everything else.

This is a categorically different situation, not merely a larger problem.

We’re caught within a compulsive momentum in the adoption of new products of the imagination, not just technologies, but conspiracies, witch hunts, anything that erases a human being’s capacity to be honest with themselves, which is wisdom; to step out of the momentum and see things as they are, not as our imagination wants them to be. To merely posit a new imaginative answer would be to create a new swing in momentum, attracting followers, who are then led towards another false Answer, or towards a new idol of Prophet or profit. Now the solution is the problem itself.

This time a new capacity is being demanded of us, one that most of us don’t even realize is available yet, though some have already named it; and with these names it easily devolves into yet another product of the imagination, becoming utterly worthless. The imagination co-opts everything it can; this is part of the predatory energy that has been released by constantly kicking the can down the road for millennia. A reckoning has come and this reckoning requires a new kind of intelligence, one that is not based in the imagination or cleverness or inventiveness.

What this means from another angle is there’s nothing we can DO to stop this momentum towards extinction. Every plan, every scheme and strategy, adds to the momentum. The imagination is useless in saving us from the imagination itself. The only thing that business, science and government seem capable of doing is imagining ways of kicking the can down a road that no longer goes anywhere.

Here’s why it’s easy to misunderstand what I tried to say in the last essay. Yes, we can change, because the problem is a mirage of thought. Nothing serious hinders us. But No, we can’t change ourselves intentionally. We can’t organize or pursue this or teach this, or provoke this change, because intention is the excitation of an imaginary exit from the problem itself.

Nevertheless change can happen, and that’s not wishful thinking, but a quality of the problem itself.

This is the strangest and most astonishing paradox we’ve ever faced.

The reason that it’s not possible to intentionally create this change in ourselves or in others is because that intention itself establishes an imaginary center or Self who leads the charge away from the problem, towards the exit of a solution. And this driven sense of Self or Purpose traps us in the imagination even more. So it won’t work. It’s like trying to run away from a shadow. All we do is make the shadow faster. The intention to change, no matter how spiritual or subtle, binds us tighter to the old ways of fight and flight. So there is nothing we can DO to change, and yet change is still possible.

I still can’t see it. How?

Look how fleetingly we tend to look at the nature of this problem. We look just long enough to get a new idea for a solution. We haven’t learned to See this problem beyond a surface appraisal. But looking away is the problem itself, there is no other issue at stake. The solution is the problem.

It’s so easy to be confused here. We see “all these different problems” in the world and wonder how in hell NOT looking for imaginative answers can possibly help. But hunger, war, corporate power, etc. etc. — these are all merely consequences of the problem of an imagination run amok, not the actual problem itself. Yes, we’ll have to analyze and rationalize some responses to these consequences, but to focus solely on “solving” the symptoms of the problem, rather than looking more intently at the nature of the actual problem is absurd. At present we waste all our energy making minor improvements to millions of symptoms of this underlying problem and utterly reject any attempt to address the source, because fighting external symptoms is a great distraction from the real problem, which is our own personal enslavement to thought and imagery. All our great works are essentially escapes from ourselves, and this is the source of the problem, not war, hunger, greed. All that is a consequence of busying ourselves to avoid the real problem, which is avoidance itself.

When some people encounter this underlying predicament for the first time (with sufficient earnestness) they flee “inward” and try not to busy the mind with symptoms. They intentionally meditate or do good works, anything to keep the mind from being too active, too ambitious. These good people tend to be the ones who are least likely to understand this, because they don’t think they’re being imaginative anymore. They think they’re quieting themselves when all they’re really doing is trying not to notice their own more subtle turmoil.

Trying to stop trying is a futility we refuse to face. Intentional meditation is still the excitation of intention, which is the imagination. Yes, we can find personal gifts by this tactic, because we’re awakening a more subtle power of the imagination. But it’s all still far too positive in focus, too solution-oriented. We don’t want to fail, and that’s our greatest failure.

Futility is the realization of our mistake, but we treat it as a problem to be avoided, and so we’re trapped in a circle of not learning.

Most people give up at this point because they can’t imagine proceeding in the absence of the imagination. It’s a tautological irony. If they can’t imagine solving it, they imagine giving up, which is another way of escaping the wall, not hitting it. They don’t see the hidden gem in all this.

We can’t seek to end this problem because that very intention IS the problem. The realization of this futility is precisely what happens without our intention, without any will. Futility forces us to give up the ghost of a problem-solving Me, who is perpetually trying to avoid facing anything in the flesh.

“There is no psychological evolution,” (K) because the Me can’t evolve past the imagination. It will never gradually become real. There is an infinite limit in personal development. We can’t just keep gradually “improving” ourselves without ending up in a vicious circle, because the Self can’t evolve into a selfless state. It only strengthens our commitment to living in an imaginary world.

This focal point of the imagination can grow and develop and become more subtle for eternity, in other words, but it will never arrange its own irrelevance. It will never cross that line separating illusion and reality voluntarily. Its aim in life is to perpetuate an imaginary world and remain the center of it. It’s a structure built to resist reality, so we can’t save ourselves from illusions.

The sense of Self has to hit this futility and dissipate into irrelevance or we will remain lost in this vicious circle of schizophrenia until we run amok and destroy the world, which is happening.

This is not cajoling, this is the nature of the problem. I don’t want anything from this problem other than to appreciate its beauty. And if it looks like a horrible nightmare of a problem that’s only because we’re acting like children running from a bad dream. If we could see that it’s only a dream the fear dissipates, the problem dissolves. But we have to stop running.

No cajoling, no encouragement, no practice of any sort, can possibly get us past this dead end. But we don’t need to get “past” this dead end. The dead end is the answer.

This is the magnitude of the problem. Small in one sense, because it’s only an imaginary problem. But monumental with respect to the change in orientation this implies.

If we can’t see the magnitude then we can’t see anything. This is a simple fact, not a promise or spur to self-development. This is not business as usual. This is not a call for new ideas. This is a demand from life itself that we hit the dead end like dummies in the wreck, not like the white-coated know-it-alls watching from an ironic distance.

This merely amounts to not resisting the inevitable defeat of the imagination. But watch, we’ll try not to resist (which is resistance). We’ll try not to imagine, which is the imagination. We have so much to learn about proprioceptive movement, feedback systems, and we’re trying not to learn. The resolution of our problems is to be defeated utterly. And that can happen with or without the destruction of the world coming first. .

The people I’m writing are not turned off by this news. To them the trap is the most spectacular tragicomedy in human history. They find our predicament vibrating with a new world in utero.

Footnote: A clearer and more thorough presentation of the problem of the imagination is presented in “Imagine the Limits of the Imagination (parts 1 and 2) and What Is Real?

12 thoughts on “The Greatest Paradox: Why Change is Possible but Why We Can’t Change on Purpose

  1. Suppose you were just a body in the world: sensing, interacting, but not reacting from memory, or working from representation. Could you even imagine what that would be like? (You see what I did there.) The poet Rilke spoke of animals as being in “The Open”, in a state of simple clarity, a state of being without mental baggage.
    On a more micro level we can relate meditation. Not the sitting in a posture, but simply in daily living reaching a point where thought ends. Where you can’t stand it any more, the going round and round, the conflict. And you say, “I must meditate, I must observe my thoughts.” Can you see how right there you have gone too far? Imagination has taken over and put you right back onto the thought treadmill. It sets up an idea, and you try to act from that idea, and you are lost in a realm of imagination, either small or immense. No! Can you act from the original impulse, before thought begins? Or if it begins, just let it be observed. It’s like pulling your hand from a hot stove. You don’t begin thinking, imagining how you should do it. Nobody is that stupid. You just act!

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  2. I’m questioning my assumption that these problems were inevitable at a certain point in development. Here I’m assuming that evolution is closed, that it has a destiny, which is precisely what I’m doubting now in the recent essay “Notes on Closed and Open Views of Evolution.” This is partially the result of listening to conversations with Wengrow about his book (with Graeber ) “The Dawn of Everything.” But it also made intuitive sense that nothing is inevitable, simply by watching the evolution or development of an essay itself. They end up looking more or less like direct approaches to a particular topic. But in fact they grow out of a cloud of uncertainty that has buried within it a problem that needs to be resolved. Once we started going down the (non-inevitable) path of top-down control, of excessive individuality and fetishes of the imagination — once these became too important — we seemed to head directly to this crisis. But still it wasn’t inevitable, we could have resolved this crisis before it became deadly to the world, as evidenced by what Graeber and Wengrow reveal — a wild variety of approaches to living, tens of thousands of years of human experimentation and creativity in living together, including massive cities hitherto unacknowledged, of hunter gatherers, without top down controls, living in planned societies with no leaders, far freer than our own societies, lasting for hundreds of years without war or significant conflict. This is also a potential of human beings that we failed to pursue.

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    • “The Dawn of Everything” is biased disingenuous account of human history that spreads fake hope (the authors of “The Dawn” claim human history has not “progressed” in stages… so there’s hope for us now that it could get different/better again). As a result of this fake hope porn it has been widely praised. It conveniently serves the profoundly sick industrialized world of fakes and criminals.

      Fact is human history has “progressed” by and large in linear stages, especially since the dawn of agriculture. This “progress” has been fundamentally destructive and is driven and dominated by “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room” .. https://www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html

      A good example that one of the authors, Graeber, has no real idea what world we’ve been living in and about the nature of humans is his last brief article on Covid where his ignorance shines bright already at the title of his article, “After the Pandemic, We Can’t Go Back to Sleep.” Apparently he doesn’t know that most people WANT to be asleep, and that they’ve wanted that for thousands of years (and that’s not the only ignorant notion in the title). Yet he (and his partner) is the sort of person who thinks he can teach you something truthful about human history and whom you should be trusting along those terms. Ridiculous!

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      • Thank you for your comment. I haven’t read the book yet, but have listened to several conversations with the surviving author and earlier ones with Graeber. Their vision is a refreshing alternative to Harari’s linear projections. It looks at evolution as a creative endeavor, open-ended, a call and answer between people and the land, provoking endless experimentation, and no certainties. They untie the false inevitability in the connection between increasing complexity in society and increasing top-down controls. We managed differently here and there now and then. There were even hunter-gatherer “cities” that survived for hundreds of years without leaders and without significant conflict. A bubbling primordial soup of human experimentation rising and falling. This is a good reflection of the evolution of any work of art. We don’t follow a plan so much as enter into a conversation with the material itself, and follow leaps of insight that are never predictable. Now we’re locked into this dull-minded certainty that our way of life is the culmination of an inevitable movement towards controls and AI, which is a kind of plodding sleepwalk down a narrowing branch of evolution. I’m not going to debate the book because debate is silly and because I haven’t yet read it, but it’s a far more nuanced perspective I’m hearing from them so far than the dull plodding of Harari in his books. OK, thank you.

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