The Question You Mustn’t Ever Ask

Nick Williams
9 min readApr 28, 2024
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Reflect Mode is where we take a break from what we’re doing and ask ourselves what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It’s not that we have to literally ask ourselves the question — that would be too formulaic, too mechanical to do us any good. That’s not being reflective, that’s just ‘ticking the boxes’, that’s just ‘going through the motions’. Reflecting isn’t a mechanical process…

Reflect Mode isn’t something that we do, it’s ‘not doing’, it’s leaving a gap or a space and then seeing what comes to us (if anything). The value of RM is that we aren’t doing it ourselves (i.e., we’re not in control), which means that it’s not just ‘more of the same’. Reflect Mode is like being in conversation with someone and then pausing so as to see what they have to say on this subject. Reflect Mode involves what we might call ‘the other’, therefore. It takes a degree of awareness (or detachment) to step out of the frame in this way; in the absence of awareness (or in the absence of detachment) we will stay in Doing Mode, when there isn’t any detachment then what we get is guaranteed to be ‘the same old ding-dong’, is guaranteed to be just ‘the same old story, on endless replay’…

Our culture doesn’t support Reflect Mode — it claims to do so (since ‘never stopping to question what we’re doing’ is clearly pathological) but it absolutely doesn’t. We are — as small children — allowed to go around asking annoying questions all day long but we’re supposed to have got that out of our systems by the time we hit double digits, age-wise (or if we haven’t got it out of our system, then it is expected that we will at least have learned to suppress our irritating pointless question-asking and ‘get on board with the programme’. As adults, we learn that asking too many questions is an unprofitable thing to do (and that it is quite possibly even dangerous into the bargain). ‘Adaptation to a system’ and ‘wondering if we actually need that system’ don’t go together!

What human institution ever welcomed too many questions? If one is a member of a gang, a group, a religion, a particular political affiliation (or whatever else) then the key thing is that we don’t going around asking questions all the time. To question the rules that lie behind a group is to challenge that group’s existence; no group is going to tolerate this in its members. The only way a group gets to be a group in the first place is for everyone to tacitly agree not to question the core tenets by which it all hangs together. ‘Having an agreement not to question stuff’ is how groups are created, whilst persistently asking awkward questions is how we bring them to the end. No agreement ever made will stand too much scrutiny since all agreements are compromises.

When an institution (or organisation) claims to support reflection on our part this is very ironic, therefore. It’s a transparent pretence, and yet we’re loathe to admit this, even in the privacy of our own thoughts. It would be too uncomfortable for us to allow ourselves to realise just how much we have had to compromise ourselves in order to be accepted into whatever group it is that we have joined and ‘compromising ourselves’ is what being a member of a group always comes down to. As Philip K Dick says in Do Androids Dream…’ –

You will be required to do wrong the matter where you go. It is a basic the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life.

To exist within the artificial (or man-made) world is always to do wrong, therefore; we won’t get anywhere in society (or in the organisation in which we work) unless we first bite the bullet and agree to ‘sell out’; we all know this on some level or other even if we don’t like to dwell on it too much! When the artificial world to which we have become adapted claims that it wishes to encourage or facilitate a ‘reflective state of mind’ in its members then this is just a trick — it’s a trick because this is the way the organisation gets to prove that it’s ‘not at fault’, that — far from exploiting us — it is giving us all the opportunities; it does this so it can argue that if there is a problem then it must be our fault for not bothering to make use of the help that it has given us (which would have prevented the problem). This is how this system washes its hands of any culpability, therefore — the system takes care of itself by pretending to take care of us. It doesn’t really need to do help us — it just needs to put on a superficial show of doing so.

It might sound unreasonably cynical for us to say something like this but it isn’t cynicism, it’s realism. We just don’t like to hear it. From the POV of the system, the POV of the organisation or institution, it is providing us with what we need, it is ‘ticking all the relevant boxes’. The POV of the system is always skewed however — there’s no way that it can’t be skewed (which means that ‘being biased’ isn’t something we can blame it for). We can’t blame it for being what it is. An organisation such as a hospital or a factory might for example introduce weekly mindfulness sessions for its staff as a means of supporting them, as a means of reducing the stress that they’re experiencing. No one can reasonably argue that this isn’t the beneficial and helpful thing to do. What we can’t see however is that this is inevitably done for the sake of the institution, for the sake of the organisation. There’s no way that this can’t be the case; the system can’t ever do anything that isn’t ultimately for its own benefit. This isn’t cynicism, it’s straightforward mechanics — that’s how machines work.

If a giant supermarket chain does its bit for the community when it builds a new outlet by building playgrounds for the local children, or by making regular donations to various worthy charities, then whilst this might superficially look like altruistic behaviour (i.e., behaviour that is driven by something else other than self-interest) but of course it isn’t. The entity behind this apparently altruistic action is simply ‘improving its profile’, which is for its own good, not anyone else’s. This may sound like splitting hairs, but it isn’t — a system (or collective) can never see things the way an individual can. Even with the best will in the world they couldn’t do that (and they don’t have the best will in the world, they only have self-interest). The reason a system or a collective can’t see things the way an individual can is because whilst an individual can let go of its agenda, a system or group can’t. It’s not mechanically possible for a system to ‘let go of its agenda’ because it is its own agenda, and its agenda won’t let it let go of itself. A machine is driven by rules and there’s no such thing as ‘a rule that says there should be no rules’ — that’s like ‘having the firm intention that there should be no more intentions’.

Suppose — just to give an example — I am working in an organisation and I’m availing of all the mindfulness sessions that are being offered. The organisation I work for necessarily sees mindfulness in a distorted way — the act of ‘dropping all rules and seeing what happens’ isn’t something that it is capable of comprehending. The idea is of course that by practising mindfulness I can significantly reduce my stress-levels, which will make me both happier and more productive. The system however is only interested in my happiness or well-being to the extent that this will allow me to work better; happy workers who aren’t totally burnt out are always going to be more productive. This is the system’s ‘blind spot’, therefore — it can’t help seeing everything in its terms. If I drop my agenda (which is to say, if I take an unprogrammed break from my non-stop mechanical doing) then I might realise that I don’t want to carry on working there. It might come to me that I just don’t want to work in that organisation anymore (since — as we have said — ‘adapting to the machine’ always involves compromising ourselves). In this case — therefore — mindfulness helps me by allowing me to see that the job is no good for me; this is ‘stress reduction’ for sure, only not quite in the way that the organization in question understands it…

The organisation absolutely can’t understand this — it can’t appreciate how it could be the problem! It can’t see how it could be the problem any more than the everyday ego can see that it is not ‘the centre of the universe’. This illusion of centrality is its blind spot and this means that Reflect Mode isn’t a possibility — no organisation (and no ego) ever reflected honestly upon itself and then voluntarily dissolved itself. That would be like a government voluntarily stepping down from office when they don’t need to, when they aren’t forced to, or even more to the point — like an infectious virus deciding one day to stop infecting people. A genuine individual — on the other hand — can let go of themselves — the possibility is there. This is the great benefit of Reflect Mode, after all the benefit is precisely that we can reflect on what we’re doing in the world and then — potentially, if we see that what we’re doing is nonsensical, harmful, or absurd (or all three) — drop it. A machine can’t do this however — a machine can’t ‘drop itself’. A machine — which is to say, a system or organisation — is permanently ‘stuck in Doing Mode’. A machine is always going to be ‘locked into DM’ because it is its own doing. If a machine were to stop ‘enacting its agenda’ (which it can’t do voluntarily) then it would render itself irrelevant — it wouldn’t be anything then. It would have written itself out of the story.

When we talk about our mode of societal organisation as being machine-like hi has been rigid, based on rules then it’s relatively easy to spot it for what it is; it’s not easy as in ‘falling off a log easy’ but it’s easier than spotting the machine on the inside (which is the Thinking Mind, which is who we take ourselves to be). The TM isn’t who we are, the TM is simply who we think we are. ‘Who we think we are’ is of course just another thought, and most of our lives are spent firmly believing that we are this idea, this thought, and acting accordingly (which is to say, acting in a purely ‘machine-like’ fashion). To quote Gurdjieff –

Man is a machine, but a very peculiar machine. He is a machine which, in the right circumstances, and with the right treatment, can know that he is a machine, and, having fully realised this, he may find the ways to cease being a machine.

We have the potential to reflect upon ourselves and see that we are functioning as machines, see that we are repeating futile / dysfunctional behaviour patterns over and over again for no good reason and to see this is to let go of it. The ‘letting go’ is in the seeing. There is no intention to drop the Machine Self (or to let go of the state of identification), no pressure / coercion / control is used to ‘make it happen’ — all that is needed is to see it and the rest happens by itself. The thing is that a machine can’t see that it is a machine so if I can clearly see this then I can’t be! We are convinced in the West that therapy should be a matter of purposeful doing — clinical psychology at this point in time appears to be obsessed with doing (which includes thinking) to the exclusion of everything. We might argue that therapy is a mixture of Doing Mode and Reflecting Mode — which is to say, first we get the insight and then we act on it (or first we obtain the insight and then we think about it and come to some conclusion about it) — but that’s not how it works. Doing isn’t the thing — there are no conclusions to be drawn and anything we come up with in this line is never going to be any more than a convenient lie. It’s ‘convenient’ because we don’t want to look any further and then have to deal with whatever it is we might learn. We might learn that we aren’t machines but that we act as if we are, and what an upset to the all-important status quo that insight would be! As far as the ‘status quo’ is concerned, that would be an utter disaster (no matter how marvelously beneficial being freed from the Machine Mind might otherwise be)….