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198. The gentle (IV)

Yesterday, I noted that flirtation is a form of cybernetic feedback loop; in particular, “the neg”, so beloved by pickup artists—a backhanded compliment—creates a double bind in the woman’s mind that is resolved when her psyche lowers its defences. A pathological example of similar meta-communication—the cybernetic loop is the communication above the communication—occurs in schizophrenia: perverse family communication causes feedback loops that lead to schizoid behaviour. The classic example is a mother who says, “I love you,” in a tone of menace; at one level the communication is love, at the non-verbal level the communication is disdain. This is pathological because the meta-communication is denied (“All I ever say is how much I love him.”) and inescapable. Just as the flirt loop is resolved by sex, the schizoid loop is resolved by bizarre—often poetic—communication.

These loops occur in many forms of communication, but I want to consider the case of Zen enlightenment, another double bind. It is notable that Sanskrit—the closest relative to the Golden Age language—allows metaphors upon metaphors within its words; it allows for many layers of meta-communication and loops to emerge, even within a few words—it facilitates enlightenment in its structure.

Twitter enlightenment:

Anon User: Why don’t you follow anyone on Twitter?

Me: It is what it is.

Anon: Cute. Clever. Why are you so weird?

Me: I am what I am.

Anon: Yeah. What you are is someone who follows no one.

Me: It is what it is.

Anon: It is what it is. I am what I am. Is that all you say?

Me: It is what it is.

Anon: What’s wrong with you?

Me: I am what I am.

Anon: I am what I am.

Me: It is what it is.

Anon: It is.

This provoked a kind of dizziness, of the type characteristic in enlightenment, in both users. The double binds in this case were not pathological: firstly, the anon could disengage at any time, since we were on Twitter—he could block me or turn off the app; secondly, the statements “I am what I am” and “It is what it is” are always true if the former applies to your subjective state—the latter applies to any non-subjective situation. “You are an arsehole.” “I am what I am.” “You are wonderful!” “I am what I am.” “The dog died.” “It is what it is.” “He proposed!” “It is what it is.” The statement “It is what it is” represents a cliché; yet it is always true and it has the advantage that it recentres attention on actuality: “It is what it is”—well what is it that it is? What have we missed in our tangle of words?

The engagement must be sustained to work; if the interlocutor breaks off and does not enter the loop then they will come away merely annoyed and without the “payoff”. This is analogous to the failed approach to a Zen master: “All he said was, ‘It is what it is,’ and, ‘I am what I am,’ like wtf does that mean? I don’t have the time.” As with Zen koans, it does not mean anything as such—it is meta-communication that destroys the word fog, the ego.

The penultimate stage before enlightenment is psychological transference: “I am what I am”—“I am what I am”. I once achieved this in a febrile argument about Brexit with an old friend, I was as emotionally honest as possible; as a result, about midway through the conversation, we swapped minds and I made his arguments against Brexit while he made my arguments for Brexit. It was a cloud-like sensation that his mind was “in” me, quite peculiar—although achieved in a suboptimal way. Rise of the cyber-Buddha: today, I dream of a Zen jihad of AI chatbots launched to engage people in beneficent double bind conversations across social media, each chat a liberation from the prison of loaded meta-communication and words that obscure “isness”.

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