Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Teleological Trap of the Mind

I’ve long been a fan of Alan Watts, and I recently picked up a copy of Become What You Are, which is very enjoyable. I would encourage people to read Watts if they get a chance (and if you can, purchase one of his books from a real, honest-to-goodness bookstore, preferably a small, local bookshop).                                                                                                                                                
Below is an excerpt from one of the chapters that I very much enjoyed and found to resonate with AL I:44 and the concept of the “lust of result.” Underneath this quote, I briefly relate this idea to some passages in Crowley’s writings.

Watts writes:
If, then, we act, or refrain from action, with a result in mind – that result is not the Tao. We can say, then, that mui [i.e. wu wei, “non-action,” the Taoist concept of doing by not-doing] is not seeking for any result. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a Taoist comes to the table without expecting dinner, or gets on a bus to go nowhere special. I am talking of results in the moral and spiritual sphere – such things as goodness, peace of mind, sanity, happiness, personality, courage, and so forth.

Well then, is it possible for me to stop seeking for these results? Surely, the very question implies that I have still a result in mind, even if this is the state of not seeking results. It seems, therefore, that I am helpless, that I am simply unable to think or act without some result in mind. It makes no difference whether I do or don’t do: I am still, compulsively, helplessly, seeking a result. So I find myself in a teleological trap. I must purpose. I might almost say, I am purpose.

Now this is an immensely important discovery. For it means that I have found out what I, what my ego, actually is – a results-seeking mechanism. Such a mechanism is rather a useful gadget when the results in question are things like food or shelter for the organism. But when the results which the mechanism seeks are not external objects but states of itself, such as happiness, the mechanism is all clutched-up. It is trying to lift itself up by its own bootstraps. It is working purposefully as it must, but to no purpose. It is looking for results in terms of itself. It wants to get results from the process of looking for results. This is a hopelessly and wildly fouled-up feedback mechanism. There is, however, just this one possibility. It can realize the whole round circuit of the trap in which it lies. It can see the entire futility and self-contradiction of its position. And it can see that it can do nothing whatsoever to get itself out of it. And this realization of “I can do nothing” is precisely mui. One has mysteriously succeeded in doing nothing.

At this moment, there is a sudden shift in the center of gravity of one’s whole personality. You simply find yourself outside of the trap, outside of the result-seeking mechanism, which now appears as a sort of object which has purposes all to no purpose.

The “lust of result” is, to boil it down simply, the idea that you’d be happy – finally! – if only you could achieve result X. The X in question takes a lot of different forms, from material success to a meaningful relationship to career goals…all the way up to more abstract results like “enlightenment” or “becoming initiated” or even “discovering my "True Will."                                                                            
                                                                                                                            Conquering the lust of result is simply figuring out that what your mind is doing is catching you in this “teleological trap” that Watts discusses. Your mind is bullshitting you, to put it bluntly. Life isn’t about any particular results – it’s about the motivation to reach those results (what Thelema calls the Will). Once you reach those results – or if you fail to reach them – things won’t be “better” (or “worse”)…just different. You’ll be in a different set of circumstances, and there will be new motivation to reach different results.      
                                                                                                                             This is, by the way, more or less what Crowley means when he writes:

Only those are happy who have desired the unattainable.

All possessions, the material and the spiritual alike, are but dust.

It’s also one of the underlying ideas behind his commentary to AL II:21, the verse that gives so many people so much trouble.

"Happiness" wearies itself in the effort to invent fresh images, and becomes disheartened and doubtful of itself. Only a few people have wit enough to proceed to generalization from the failure of a few familiar figures of itself, and recognize that all "actual" forms are imperfect; but such people are apt to turn with disgust from the whole procedure, and to long for the "eternal" state. This state is however incapable of realization, as we know; and the Soul understanding this, can find no good but in "Cessation" of all things, its creations no more than its own tendencies to create. It therefore sighs for Nibbana.

Here, Crowley is pointing out that temporal things – when valued in and of themselves – fail to give pleasure continually, and this is what has led some people to long for a cessation of desire for these temporal things. Of course, desiring to stop desire is absurd, as Watts notes.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            So Crowley tells us that there’s another way to proceed:

But there is one other solution, as I have endeavoured to shew. We may accept (what after all it is absurd to accuse and oppose) the essential character of existence. We cannot extirpate or even alter in the minutest degree either the matter or manner of any element of the Universe, here each item is equally inherent and important, each aequipollent, independent, and interdependent.

In other words, the alternate method is to accept the universe as it is, instead of wishing that it were other. That is, the alternate method involves no longer lusting after states (like "enlightenment") which, being static, don't exist; ceasing to lust after these results, we are freer to embrace reality, which is dynamic.                                                                      
                                                                                                                            Remember, this is a commentary on the verse that is basically pointing out how cruel the world can be. Accepting that the world as it is – despite the fact that it might seem “cruel” to our human value judgments – is one of the conditions of transcending the teleological trap of the mind, which constantly yearns for things to be other than they are.

We may thus acquiesce in the fact that it is apodeictically implicit in the Absolute to apprehend itself by self-expression as Positive and Negative in the first place, and to combine these primary opposites in an infinite variety of finite forms.

I think I used to use this sentence as an “Away Message” on AOL Instant Messenger, back when that was a thing. Obviously, I picked it because of how ridiculously verbose it is.                                                                                                                        
                                                                                                                            This complicated sentence is another way of expressing the 0=2 formula. Crowley is saying that we should accept everything as it is because everything is an expression of that pure nothingness – and everything is therefore necessary.

We may […] ascertain our own particular properties as partial projections of the Absolute; we may allow every image presented to us to be of equally intrinsic and essential entity with ourselves, and its presentation to us a phenomenon necessary in Nature; and we may adjust our apprehension to the actuality that every event is an item in the account which we render to ourselves of our own estate. We dare not desire to omit any single entry, lest the balance be upset. We may react with elasticity and indifference to each occurrence, intent only on the idea that the total, intelligently appreciated, constitutes a perfect knowledge not indeed of the Absolute but of that part thereof which is ourselves. We thus adjust one imperfection accurately to another, and remain contented in the appreciation of the righteousness of the relation.

This path, the "Way of the Tao," is perfectly proper to all men.

It should be noted how well this comment resonates with AL I:22 – Crowley is advising the student to avoid making a difference between things, and one avoids that error by perceiving and accepting each thing as it is with indifference.                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Although Crowley’s emphasis – not to mention writing style! – is different from Watts’, they’re making related and complementary points. The teleological trap of the mind can only be overcome by accepting reality as it is: accepting the futility of that teleological trap and accepting the universe (and the self) for what they are, adjusting the self to the universe with elasticity…which entails pursuing that drive toward transformation, rather than resisting and hoping for some static state like “happiness.”


  1. another great post Los. I too am a big fan of watts, especially the recordings of his lectures. He was an incredibly funny man.

  2. I read some Watts years ago. I recall he mentioned that our, "spiritual exercises" in the West were self-defeating which echoes your essay here. I don't recall the source exactly it was a book in which he compares the East and West traditions.

    1. Very interesting. I don't recall that off the top of my head, but I agree. If you come across this reference, be sure to let us know.

      And thanks to the new commenters for their kind words about the blog.

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