I wanted to write because I needed to bring some order to the swirling fog of my own experience. Not a belief system that pins thought down too tightly, but a lattice of sorts it can safely grow, so it knows its place and doesn’t keep sprawling chaotically like Kudzu over every aspect of life, drowning out the world in this relentless voice, which is perpetual self-deception.
It’s not easy to look for the source of this restlessness. It’s easier to find a job or some other way of occupying our thoughts at a safe level of magnification. It’s easier to focus on the practical necessities of navigating this crazy highway of life, a perpetual state of semi-emergency that becomes routine, but a tenuous routine that can’t afford to be interrupted by larger questions about the underlying infrastructure of belief we’re riding upon. Accept the crazy beliefs, the nationalism, the war-state, the cut-throat economic system, the values and goals this emergency approach to life forces on us — accept all that at face value and call our subjugation to this mad system of thought “a practical approach.”
(By the way, some people like to say that they’re not philosophers. Still, we’re all running on vast infrastructures of metaphysics unconsciously, in the same way that anyone driving on an interstate is unconsciously following the infrastructure of road-building ideas. We may not consciously reflect on why we’re heading in this or that direction, but our lives are following patterns of an infrastructure of belief nevertheless. So we may not be capable of understanding the descriptions of these philosophies, but they’re still under-girding the way we live).
The restlessness is the same for me, but the practical approach wasn’t helpful. And leaving behind the highway metaphor, the practical approach constructs a solid floor to everyday life, and all the restless energy of a constantly swirling brain gets kept in the crawlspace. Then it becomes a taboo or “simply uninteresting and pointless” to look beneath the floorboards at one’s own churning mind. And this is a clever tactic if all you want from life is the kind of happiness that remains circumscribed by a repressed turmoil. And what goes missing in life isn’t missed, because nobody misses what they don’t notice.
But still they compensate themselves for everything that gets left out by making an art out of the minutiae of life, appreciating the “little things” as you would admire a knick-knack shelf, but always remembering that what’s important are the practical necessities of maintaining this bubble of unconscious repression wherein happiness can reign. In fact, the rule is, don’t indulge in any larger questions, which tend to pry open the floor boards and release all sorts of religious and political demons that ruin dinner parties.
Now and then, of course, a few pressing questions and confusions nevertheless erupt from the floorboards and circle the brain in repetitive patterns all night like giant mosquitos. And until a distraction is found (a way to nail the boards down again), the person is forced to see themselves as powerless victims of these escaped thoughts. And this reinforces the conviction that our own turmoil is something external to us, a fact of nature that can’t change. That’s one of the strongest nails keeping the flooring in place: we’re helpless victims of our own brains, so ignore the brain and just focus on this nice little space we’ve created.
If any readers have made it this far then they also probably can’t ignore the racket from beneath the flooring any more than I can. The pursuit of happiness begins to feel like a shallow sitcom, devoid of all real adventure and danger.
So you and I (the nervous ones essentially) couldn’t follow their lead and rest comfortably while the floor kept popping and creaking all day. Every belief that was designed to nail down those loose boards — whether it was religious or patriotic or careerist beliefs — included the same taboo against questioning the framing, which made them feel deceptive.
This is what turns a person off on the pursuit of happiness. There’s no integrity in any of it. It’s all based on lies of omission and a kind of dogmatism that doesn’t look dogmatic, because it conflates its own framework with “how things are” and laughs off every other possible angle of view.
But you and I still need some kind of structural integrity, because the chaos remains real. But it can’t merely be another repressive floor to reality, which is fake integrity.
I was oddly terrorized by this unreal bubble of a world we had made, even more than I was terrorized by the demons below. That’s because I kept falling through the floorboards, which is terrorizing admittedly. But it’s worse to get stuck between the two worlds, because then there’s no integrity anywhere and everything is unreal. But on rare occasions you and I obviously must have fallen all the way through the floorboards (out of sheer incompetence in staying above board), and in those rare instances we lost our resistance to what was happening. And in this honest state of mind the fear and chaos subsided, and that was odd. It stood out as something exceptional, as a larger and more honest way of living.
However, there was no way for thought to recognize these momentary eruptions of slapstick integrity. Thought needs a structure to at least counter-act the lying structure of everyday life or the integrity disappears like a dream of its own.
So honesty quelled the chaos, but it didn’t lead to a structural integrity in thought itself, which immediately scrambled back to the surface structure built on lies of repression and omission.
So integrity emerged from the swirling fog only to get swallowed again. I’ll call it smoke instead, because it’s intoxicating too, and part of the whole smoke and mirrors jive. But integrity isn’t really there when it’s obscured by the smoke. It’s a potential at most, maybe like a seed lying dormant, and then growing suddenly when the smoke subsides; and dying again when the smoke returns. So I can’t speak of this integrity as if it were real. I can’t speak as someone who HAS integrity. I can only speak in a way that faces the lack of integrity honestly, provoking its germination. Maybe everybody has to germinate this capacity from scratch. Maybe integrity has to be “invented” (so to speak) each time.
That’s why this subject is so hard. No sincerity exists until the smoke is realized to the point of clarity. It’s the smoke that needs attention, the lack of integrity, not the imaginary ideal of integrity. The necessary structure, in other words, wasn’t found in conclusive certainties. It emerged now and then through honest reversals, failures, the realization of dead ends, which would trim and lattice the kudzu, allowing it to flower and set fruit, without the heavy-handed force of dogma. It suggested a shadowy, shifting structure, not a static, assertive one.
The Predatory Machine
So here’s a fairy tale. There is a little smoke-machine buried in this sleep-inducing chaos. It’s a mechanism relentlessly spewing out the twisting shapes of thought. Discovering this machine is very different from naming it or thinking about it. Because the machine itself sends up smoky acknowledgements of itself. When I see the machine itself in operation there’s no mistaking it. And it can’t fool me then, because seeing unmasks the deception. The machine becomes a piece of junk when its tricks are exposed.
But when I’m dreaming it’s impossible to realize that even my knowledge of this dream is a red herring. The machine is constantly fooling me with replicas of waking reality.
The machine is tremendously clever. It wants to get caught in the act of fooling me. It wants me to realize I was fooled by insights (subtly altered insights, but I don’t see this at first). It does this so I’ll reject these insights as deceptions, concede the impossibility of clearing the smoke, of discovering integrity.
For instance, when I realized that an uncertain or inconclusive state of mind remains free from the mechanical traps of dogma, it acknowledged this truth, but emphasized it differently. It said, yes, there’s no certainty, and this means you can’t put your trust in anything — the world is inherently untrustworthy. By phrasing it like this, it instilled a fear that wasn’t there in the original insight; and it planted the subtle assumption that trust is an absolute necessity that can never be fulfilled. It blamed the world for this alienating contradiction. And this is a brilliant bait and switch, because the original insight negated any need for trust, because trust blindly leads us into the trap of dogma. The original insight implied the need for a suspended state of inconclusive awareness, feeling the presence and absence of honesty in every action, where trust would be a stupefying distraction.
So it allows an insight to form, but exchanges the central realization with one that contradicts the insight, making it worthless, and discouraging any further inquiry. It lures us from an infinite depth to an infinite shallows, and says “see, the view is the same.”
An infinite shallows is an infinite machine intelligence. If pushed too far it can even cleverly acknowledge the possibility of a non-mechanical wakefulness, but only if I’m constantly alert to my own deceptions. There is integrity in smelling falsehood. It will concede this machine-destroying fact, because it knows that we can’t stay alert when we’re already asleep.
This is a “stupendous maneuver” (as Don Juan would say) that almost exceeds language’s capacity to trace the twisted logic. The mind hypnotized by the deceptions of the machine will flail forever trying to stay in a condition it does not yet even know.
I saw a quote from Gurdjieff the other day that said, “You wish to know yourself as a man but you are not a man yet, only a machine.”
The original insight wasn’t to “stay” awake, but to awaken to our profound sleep, to realize that we’re the smoke of deception, not in a conclusive sense, but in an actively alert sense. This is the hardest thing to face. We’re not yet real.
It exchanges an alertness to the trap with a desire to avoid the trap, and so we end up trying to maintain a state of mind that doesn’t even exist. The mentality of maintenance presumes the preservation of a clarified state of mind, which is disinclined to face the reversal of self-deception that integrity reveals. It represses deception, rather than meeting it with undeceived vigor. It’s too focused on “retaining” clarity to notice the smoke. So the machine has slipped into our pockets its own desire for perfection, which makes us groggy with frustration.
So how do we think clearly if all our thoughts are subjected to machine distortions?
One night, age 24, ecstatically alone for the first time in my life (a great relief), I realized that thought, dreaming itself, has a natural immunity to being deceived, which I hadn’t noticed before. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but suddenly it was possible to “see through” my own thoughts as they formed (through the floorboards, you might say), relating to them as mechanical chain reactions of emotions and prejudices (not as demons). There was no intelligence IN the thoughts, but only in the capacity to see through them without analysis (without an added layer of thought itself). It wasn’t analysis, but I didn’t have a word for it until I read Bohm’s invention of “proprioception of thought” (although it’s also what Krishnamurti seemed to mean by unintentional meditation).
But this ability to see through thought would disappear, and when it was gone there was no “intelligent me” trapped by stupidity. That intelligence simply vanished and did not exist in the world from where I was left stranded. So I couldn’t claim it as my own.
But this word “proprioception” hit like a psychedelic pill. I mean, it was mind-manifesting, integrity inventing. The intelligence seemed to spring out of this word as if for the first time, each time. Because until then there had been no way to allude to a meaning or intelligence superseding thought. Till then, thought was assumed to be the evidence of intelligence itself, and so everything in life funneled into conclusive thoughts that were dead ends. But with this word it was possible to recognize that thought itself was mechanical (hence suitable to the manipulations of the little smoke machine), and that another intelligence erupts out of an unlocatable and un-self-conscious dimension more elusive, but also more real than thought.
It’s a strange word, proprioception, the first of what I’ve been calling “odd words,” or holes in language, like the hole in the window in the Fly Fable. (In truth, the word “nowhere” is what hit me first. Nowhere is an example of a word that can’t mean what it claims to mean, because an image of nowhere contradicts the real emptiness of nowhere. It misleads. And life has become populated with words that we don’t actually know. We live in a kind of hazy gloss that never penetrates the surface of the page. But “proprioception” was an even better example than “nowhere”).
Proprioception refers to relating to the movement of thought without thinking about it, an immediacy of illumination within the movement of thought itself, not as a thinker analyzing the movement from the outside.
So the word proprioception — the letters, the sound, the dictionary definition — these are only thoughts, which can’t carry the actual meaning that this word is trying to convey, or maybe “provoke” into being. The word Proprioception is a stop sign to thought, or maybe an event horizon, into which thought steps and finds itself face to face with its own limited reach, its own death. The word “proprioception” could be said to carry instead a “negative meaning”, a provocative inability to reach a meaning, which can trigger a transformation in our relationship to reality, but only if the dictionary meaning is recognized as smoke and mirrors, and dissolves as an end in itself. Then we walk through the pages of the closed book that is our dictionary certainties into a real world for the first time.
If the meaning of proprioception is realized (not merely thought about), it stops thought at the border between map and territory. Its actual meaning is not an idea, but a change in being (paraphrasing Bohm).
And the machine substitutes the real transformative power of the word with false dictionary accuracy and traps us between the covers of a closed book. In this way it can survive the irradiation of any insight.
At any rate, this natural immunity is what Keats apparently called a “negative capability,” although I didn’t realize that then. But from my angle it meant that thought can’t seek positive conclusion without ending in dogma. But thought can extricate itself from this trap by utilizing its hidden negative potential to identify the deceptions in thought itself, negating the closed certainties, and opening the mind to larger frameworks of perception.
In other words, thought may be mechanical in its behavior, but it’s not necessarily deceptive. Thought doesn’t only emanate from the black box of the machine as the smoke of deceptive positivity, but also emanates from the balanced human being as a language (for one) that calls attention to its own limits, shining a light on the dark tricks of the smoke itself. Let the natural smoke of thought negate the deceptive smoke of the machine.
So this was the second discovery (again, not original to the world, but a discovery to me). Thought isn’t the problem, it has a natural immunity to deception that works negatively, reversing itself. There’s another element that needs to be mixed with thought to make it deceptive, and this element is what the machine generates; a kind of artificial thought, poisoned with Literalism.
Literalism makes thought sticky, by convincing us that our thoughts are little windows into reality. So then we mistake the metaphors of thought for real things, clutching them idiotically, fighting over them.
Without this machine a sane and lusty human being remains a chimney of sorts, but the light smoke of thought that slowly twists its way out the head of even the sanest human being is a profoundly psychoactive substance, enhancing, concentrating, helpfully distorting awareness by forming momentary, shifting images, like Gandalf’s smoke rings, metaphors that don’t pretend to be real. And because they don’t pretend to be real, only metaphoric, these images don’t put us to sleep with certainty. They’re not seen as the source of intelligence, but as stories that need an intelligent reading, or proprioceptive filtering, which is the capacity to see through our metaphors, recognizing their limits and distortions, as well as their insights, enhancing the senses without hypnotizing them. Or as Krishnamurti said, seeing the truth in the false and the false in the true. That action is proprioceptive, and if this realization is not activated, then the word is gibberish. Its meaning is false.
Building a Lattice for Thought
I felt the need for a lattice that thought could climb. Otherwise it begins to cling to everything. It needed to know its place in the world.
To build this lattice three distinctions needed to be made, because it was too easy to confuse all this: The first distinction is between (1) the mind-numbing smoke of an excessively positive thought emanating from the machine, contrasted with human thought, which is balanced between (2) a negative and (3) a positive capacity, where the positive here is metaphoric, responding swiftly to negative realizations without resistance, without Literalism keeping it stuck in dogma.
Two and three (our natural born thought) work hand in glove. A negative awareness provoking shifting, metaphoric visions.
With these distinctions words like proprioception wouldn’t get lumped together with the kind of mechanical language found in a dictionary, where the machine is able to dismiss these insights as merely ideas, as if no reality existed apart from thought. as if everything was only opinion. Oh, how the machine loved to twist the logic of opinion until it looked like the antidote to dogma. If it’s not “only an opinion” then you must think you own the absolute truth, it said, creating a tautology to make us forget that life itself (undocumented, unnamable life) is neither an opinion nor a certainty, but a simplicity of being that is more real than certainty or opinion.
So negative language was the only kind that could dissolve the machine’s smoke. It’s a form of language that loosens its own grip. And a machine can’t operate negatively, only towards the dead ends of certainty. But we can, and it’s through these event horizons of a negative language that the black box of mechanical thinking is opened.
Nobody, anywhere, in any class, was teaching this difference in the categories of language and why they were needed. The entire educational system had essentially written off actuality as a mere idea, running along an infrastructure laid down by the dogmatic machine itself, all tracks ending in staked opinions and conclusive certainties, where learning is pronounced dead.
But in trying to show how everyday life leads to a black box of ideas, shutting out reality, the essays themselves got blamed for the unreality that they revealed. In other words, if someone tries to tell me I’m sleepwalking I’ll accuse them of making me feel sleepy.
And now I realize why all this matters so little to almost everybody. I think people are generally far smarter than they need to be to understand this new structure, which only involves three simple distinctions. But almost nobody is stuck in this particular backwoods range of assumptions where I am, with the same peculiar requirements for reaching a clearing that I need. This distinction isn’t everyone’s remedy for extricating themselves from the machine (or whatever you end up calling it). Only those in my general neck of the woods will find this distinction helpful to them. The others will have to invent their own language. But once we’ve all started to build our own linguistic or visual or mathematical tools to dissolve our own entrapment in machine thinking, all the various dissolutions of this trap will be instantly translatable, becoming a shared intelligence spanning perspectives, which is what I tried to call a “prismatic perspective.”
In other words, to any honest inquirer this will make sense, but maybe only later. And vice versa for me.
But the machine responded to these discoveries. Yes, OK, it said, you can dissolve me using the very substance in which I’ve hidden. Clever lad! But you’ve only found evidence of my existence in your precious little metaphors. Try to find me in the smoke itself. I dare you.
For some reason I’m not afraid of going crazy (“short trip,” my wife says), so I took up the challenge. (I’m sounding heroic now, but let it run its course. The egoic gases need to be released. If I bottle them up and refuse to appear like an egotistic fool now and then I can’t laugh through myself and learn. But if I let the egoic gases rise, then the bubbles of humorous stupidity drift away from the field of perception, carrying off and metabolizing portions of the poison. That’s why we need to let ourselves make mistakes. We’re not “maintaining” anything but resistance).
At any rate I had two tools now, negative language, an ability to detect the poison of Literalism in everything I think; and my own natural-born smoke of thought, which rises directly, let’s say, from the uncensored world of dream. These two tools are hopeless if they can’t be melded into one seamless two-edged sword of integrity, cutting through the poison with one side of the blade, while hinting at new worlds with the metaphoric side. If I can learn to handle this instrument, the machine would be reduced to a toaster.
But of course, the machine sensed my bravado and fed me enthusiastic ideas that made me too drunk to wield this instrument properly.
So what is my next move? I’ll tell you quickly before the flash of insight gets turned against me. My next move is not to move at all. See, the whole drama that’s unfolding is entertaining enough to keep the machine churning, making me think so much that the thinking begins to become an end in itself. And then I say, these were not real discoveries, because they only led to an inflated self again.
So the machine has set up this ironic context whereby to merely fall off the high horse of grandiose delusion I would be doing something unique enough to put me right back up on that high horse. So fucking clever, this machine. Honestly, if I can get my hands on it I’m going to rip it a new one.
Oh, I know, I sound batshit crazy. But what’s the worse that can happen? I discover my error, big deal, it’s always an error of one sort or another. That’s the point. The machine invented the idea of perfection, not the natural born human being.
The point is, it’s not a question of eliminating deception, that’s another desire for perfection that comes from the machine. The real insight here is learning to see the deceptions of smoke, both our own and the machine’s. The deceptions don’t stop even if the machine is eliminated, because thought is never literally true. Even the natural-born smoke remains a stream of fictions that requires an intelligence larger than the frames of the fiction itself.
But now we’re living in a poisoned stream, and the only immunity is realizing that every thought is poisoned by this foreign source, this mechanical predator. We know it’s foreign because it carries us along on its own momentum. We didn’t create the momentum into which we’re born, nobody did. We simply embody it. And the only possible immunity is to live with it, without frustration, because frustration implies the expectation of perfection. Living with it means discerning the difference between deception and honesty, until we stop hating the machine, until it stops being a beast, and proves to be our teacher, our goad, the shell out of which we had to peck our way to integrity.
This is confusing admittedly. An integrity that rises up, but which I can’t identify as Me or Mine, because it even sees through these deceptive identities, which the machine itself produces to capture the immature mind in a vicious circle. This integrity is a human potential, not my personal quality. It’s as if the individual drop of water realizes the broader river it momentarily embodies. A shared or an impersonal destiny of integrity, not mine, not this ego’s.
The Lattice As a Blade, and Learning to Wield it
In other words, these negative and positive blades can be wielded by everyone. They belong to the human body, and every human being hones them for his or her own peculiar task of unmasking themselves, which adds that drop of learning to the intelligence of the whole, for we’re all unmasking a different aspect of the same deception. So no insight is a duplication, but they rhyme.
So I want to take these discoveries seriously before I hear too many people say with practical reasonableness, you’ve gone too far this time. You can’t seriously believe that we can live radically differently within our own lifetimes!
Well, I’m not going to sit on the sideline and imagine that it’s only the pedestaled human beings who can stand up to this monstrous machine. I’d rather go down as a fool than stand “humbly” in line while being consumed by a predator.
Oh, this cajoling voice makes me puke. But I listen to it anyways because it is embodying a spirit of rebellion and fury that is not to be denied. For thousands of years we’ve been held in limbo by this inorganic predator of a machine mentality.
Yes, the machine is saying this also. You can hear both voices in rare agreement, but that’s a trick too. It wants me to get over-enthused and make a fool of myself, and then it wants me to repress this enthusiasm and keep me in the circle of Self. So be it, but it’s also true. That’s the part that can’t be thrown out with the bathwater, it’s also true. The machine can be stopped. It needs only a subtle swing of the blade to sever the tricks from the truth, even when they’re superficially the same.
Pick up the fucking sword and kill this beast, I tell myself with machine-like bravado, but so be it, and let’s dance this motherfucker down, even if the machine picks up the tune. Let’s unleash our power to laugh in the face of hell, let’s laugh the machine into a teacher and guide. Oh, man, I want to say shit like this. I want to feel the moment when the human being realizes their power, and we all simultaneously throw off these invisible chains and start dancing the ecstasy of a reviving planet. You can feel the pent-up energy in human beings way below, way way below the political chaos. We’re boiling deeper than these symptoms. It’s a secret rebellion that is smarter than we are. The crazy thing isn’t believing we can do this, it’s that we don’t do this. I don’t mean this as rabble rousing, I mean this as a simple fact. It’s absurd to believe we’re helpless.
So here’s my less intoxicated, and final acknowledgement of this completed cycle of Negative Geography, which I started when I was 21, or actually earlier in trying to extricate myself from a terror of unreality that may have been schizophrenia, I don’t know. But it was a long haul and from this challenge tools appeared that were needed to face a hell of smoke and mirrors without horror and confusion.
I’ve hit this realization from many angles now, but I want to end with a final attempt to distinguish these two human capacities that make together a blade subtle enough (stealing this term from Philip Pullman) to open a new world where the machine is weak and stupid.
Ending and Beginning
I’m identifying this essay as the last in line, having completed its 35 year task, which was to ride language to the limits of language, not in some superlative sense, but to the dropping off point, where territory begins and map stops. A clear recognition of this limit is what I was driving at on a rational level. And I wanted the chance to explore how thought and language change after fully realizing this limit — change into a suspended balance of negative awareness of limits and sparks of metaphor.
This is a form of structural integrity that stands without the need for dogmatic support or any positive certainty at all. What’s left by default, in other words, isn’t a metaphysics, or recommended philosophy, but a record of what is not true in our everyday, unconscious metaphysics, a negative imprint in the subtle mud of mind, a record of deletions and subtractions and shadowy, shifting metaphors of a greater world. Imprints such as The map is not the territory; certainty is not possible; the thinker is the thought, etc.. A negative structure opens the mind by negating hidden assumptions that blinded us, and they don’t conclude by closing the mind around a new certainty.
“The thinker is the thought” is not an assertion of dogma, for instance, but a realization that the assumption of a Me or thinker residing inside our heads like a little body within the body, is itself only a thought, leaving the question of who we are far more open-ended. It’s the body that produces thought, not a little person inside the body. “I” am not the reality of being, but only the body’s smoke.
These negations are a kind of certainty themselves, to be sure, but the only kind of certainty that doesn’t end in conclusion. The shadow structure has integrity because it doesn’t deny reality in order to preserve itself. It surrenders to reversal.
I don’t think I can make this distinction any clearer at this point.
And I understand why so few will be interested in what has kept my interest for 35 years. The rest have traumas to work out that will seem unrelated, so this insight will lie dormant in them until it’s needed, and it won’t come from these little essays on the fringe of the Internet.
Nevertheless, these distinctions and structures will accommodate a new world in whatever form they eventually emerge.
But finally I understand why I kept falling into a teacherly tone, which I don’t like because it makes me feel like a hypocrite. I was only trying to teach people how to hold the prism of perception in a certain way so that these peculiar insights become visible, which is not the same as trying to convince you to adopt a singular vision. I merely felt obligated to add this vision to the mix as clearly as possible. After that, it’s not my business.
And one last note: when you come across something that is true it burns you inside until it’s out. In that burnt state of mind what you’re working on becomes all important. But now that I’m done the importance is receding a little, and I can see that this is indeed a missing piece of the puzzle of thought, but a piece that only a few people here and there will find essential for now. Three simple distinctions that would benefit some of us right now. These distinctions don’t help clarify life itself, because life itself is not a puzzle to be solved. But thought has made itself into a chaotic mess and needs to assemble itself in a structure without dogma, and these distinctions serve that smaller necessity.
(A saner version of this structural presentation might be found in Negative Knowledge and the Eruption of a Metaphoric Mentality).