The Heteronomous Mode

We could very easily spend decades (or even centuries) discussing what is right with society and what is wrong and still not get anywhere. This is a ‘hoary old chestnut’ – we each have our own opinions on the subject of ‘what’s wrong with the world’ and we are generally more than happy to talk about it pretty much ad infinitum. All of the ways that we commonly have of looking at this question miss out on something fundamental, however; we almost always fail to take into account what might be called the ‘psychological factor’ (which is to say, the question as to whether the social system we’re in favour of will help us to fulfil our true potential or whether it won’t). This – needless to say – turns out to be THE crucially important question to ask; the only thing here however being that we never do ask it. For the most part, we don’t even think of asking it.

We don’t know enough to ask the question because we don’t know anything about our ‘true potential’ (as is generally the way with potential); what’s more, we are being constantly fed all sorts of societal propaganda about what life is supposed to be, and what we’re supposed to be, which (inevitably) has absolutely nothing to do with our actual nature. This is what present day civilization excels at – persuading us that ‘we are what we aren’t’, persuading us to adapt ourselves in ways that will bring us nothing but misery. It’s ‘good to excel’, we might say – our culture adores excelling in whatever form it may take (since this is how we ‘distinguish ourselves from the masses’) – but excelling at whatever society tells us we should be excelling at is simply a sneaky way of controlling us, a sneaky way of enforcing social adaptation.

This line of reasoning brings us closer to an understanding of what we mean by the ‘psychological factor’ – the all-important psychological factor that we don’t ever (in our headlong stampede in the direction of progress) stop to consider, which has to do with the ‘wholesomeness’ (or lack of it) of the way of life that we are so busy creating for ourselves. We are led by ideas or trends that – for whatever reason – get amplified by society and which, as a result, go to form the basis of our way of understanding things. This is a classic positive feedback mechanism and we can explain what this means by looking at the phenomenon of celebrity. What positive feedback means in relation to celebrity may be expressed by saying that ‘the more famous you get, the more famous you get’. Whatever random fluctuation it was that started the ball rolling doesn’t really matter here since the phenomenon of fame doesn’t necessarily depend on anything outside of itself (which is to say, it’s perfectly possible to ‘become famous for being famous’, in which case, if I do become mega-famous, then this doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with any virtue on my part.

Another good example of this sort of thing would be fashion – things become fashionable (we might say) simply because they’re fashionable. If – for whatever reason – enough people take an interest in some nascent trend then, purely because of this interest, lots more people are going to become interested as well and so in no time at all the whole thing (whatever it is) is going to ‘take off’, is going to ‘skyrocket’. Again – as in all such positive feedback phenomena – there doesn’t have to be any good reason for what’s going on; the phenomenon feeds on itself (as we see illustrated in the ancient symbol of the self-eating serpent, the Uroboros). From the standpoint of sociology (or social psychology) we can say that this is a fundamental principle, i.e., we can say that, in a group (where everyone is necessarily ‘externally directed’), positive feedback loops are how things get to happen.

We might imagine that this process can be controlled (or ‘directed from behind the scenes’) but the whole point of positive feedback processes is that they aren’t controllable; they are – on the contrary – out of control. Control is on the contrary always a negative feedback mechanism; positive feedback – in contrast to this – is ‘the system running away with itself’. If it were the case that positive feedback loops could be deliberately engineered, then we would be doing that already. Anyone finding a way to get some sort of promotional material to ‘go viral’ would be able to sell this trick for billions – this is advertising’s ‘holy grail’ and no one has as yet found it. There is no such thing as ‘a formula to predict whether a meme is going to go viral or not’. What we’re saying here therefore is that there’s simply no such thing as progress in the way that we tend to think there is; what we call ‘progress’ is merely movement in the direction of ‘optimizing whatever it is that happens to be trending at the moment’, and when we say this then it does not of course sound quite so inspirational. It’s ‘utter garbage’ (albeit garbage that we are all pretty much obsessed with).

All of this is inherent in the nature of social groups – when we are members of a group then, as we have been saying, we are necessarily ‘externally directed’, we are necessarily in ‘Heteronomous Mode’. We are – in other words – orientated towards the ‘outside of us’ rather than ‘the inside’. We take our cue from the ideas that are circulating in the social matrix, not from our own insight, not from our own unique perspective on things. If ideas arise within us that aren’t congruent with the ideas that are circulating on the outside, that do not make sense in relation to the official viewpoint then we will disregard them, we will repress them, in fear of being embarrassed, in fear of making fools of ourselves. In order to be valid, an idea must be agreed upon by the collective; in order for society to hold together, we have to suppress our own creativity. To quote James Carse –

It is a highly valued function of society to prevent changes in the rules of the many games it embraces… Deviancy, however, is the very essence of culture. Whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past, is culturally impoverished.

Just as we become culturally impoverished as a result of ‘following the script’, so too do we become personally impoverished as a result of being ‘heteronomous rather than autonomous. When we are always deferring to ‘what’s on the outside’ then this means that we are ‘neglecting what’s on the inside’, and that means that our ‘inner life’ becomes impoverished. It doesn’t just become impoverished, it becomes non-existent; it gets so we don’t even know what ‘an inner life’ is.  We now have the outer (or generic) life in place of the inner one but the thing about this is that the generic life isn’t actually life at all – it’s merely a mechanical formula, a meaningless script to be endlessly repeated. We can come back to the idea of potential here – merely living the generic (or socially prescribed) life then we are of course merely what we have been defined as being and this means – quite simply – that we don’t have any potential. The game we’re playing denies our potential – it automatically denies our potential since because the game (or the script) doesn’t recognise anything but itself and ‘itself’ doesn’t have any potential. It is only what it is defined as being; ‘what you see is what you get’, so to speak – there is no more.

Instead of potential (which is the same thing as depth) the prescribed life has ideals which we are continuously being pressurised to accord with. The better we are at reflecting society’s ideals (which on the level of the individual are quite meaningless) the more we are rewarded; far from realising our potential therefore we are ‘mimicking some sort of external standard’, some sort of ‘artificial template’ that has nothing to do with us. The more effort and time we put into actualising the societal template the further away we move from realising our potential; these two things – ‘optimising our game’ – and ‘personal growth’ are absolutely incompatible. One does not grow as a person by striving mightily to ‘be what society wants us to be’, in other words (which, when we put it like this, would seem to be pretty much undeniable). The social world – despite all its protestations to the contrary – doesn’t care one jot about our personal growth or well-being; on the contrary, its continued integrity depends upon us not growing, us not realising our potential. Its continued existence depends on our obedience, not our growth! The social system can hardly be blamed for this either, since it is functionally incapable of being otherwise; The responsibility lies squarely with us, not the collective which we hand over all responsibility to.

Our mental health can’t be ‘handed over for the collective to take care of’; Other things can be – the transport system, the water or electricity supply, the distribution and storage of foodstuffs, the treatment of sewage, and so on – but this thing that we call ‘mental health’ absolutely can’t be – mental health has nothing to do with arbitrary standards (or parameters) that have been set by a collective! Mental health has nothing to do with ‘conforming to an ideal’ – when we conform to an ideal this benefits the system that we are conforming to but it sure as hell doesn’t benefit us! We’re the ones who suffer here, not the system. We can’t expect a system that is made up of fixed rules or regulations to help us grow as the individuals we (potentially) are; we can’t expect this any more than we can expect it to somehow ‘cure’ us of the malaise that itself has brought about in us. And yet we do expect it to – it simply never occurs to us that there might be something deeply wrong with this bland assumption of ours…







Image credit – The New European

The Question You Mustn’t Ever Ask

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 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)….







Image credit – pxhere.com




No Pain, No Wisdom

There is no wisdom without pain, no growth of the individual without pain, no ‘freedom from the pattern of habits that we’re caught up’ in without pain. This is something that the ancients knew but which we do not! We’re entirely clueless in this regard…

In our age no value is seen in pain – the meaning that it might have had for us in the past (the meaning it has to ‘traditional’ cultures) has been debunked as a bunch of irrational hocus-pocus. For us, if we find ourselves in pain that we cannot do anything about, then this is wholly negative – this is a disaster, this is shameful, this is something to feel bad about. This attitude – whether we want to admit to it or not – is inherent in our culture – to be suffering from pain that we can’t do anything about is to be a loser. We won’t necessarily go around saying this, but it’s what we think nonetheless.

In our paradigm / worldview the only value is ‘doing well’ or ‘succeeding’ – we only value what seems pleasant and progressive to us. We don’t want anything difficult, anything that can’t be understood as ‘a positive’. We understand it to be the case that to be not ‘living your best life’ (i.e., to be falling short in some way) is to be failing, is to be unworthy – we are not deserving of any respect from anyone, least of all ourselves. We haven’t been able to ‘make the grade’ and that’s de-validating for us. We consider this to be a healthy attitude, a robust attitude that will – we feel – weed out weakness and result in a better (more fruitful) future for the human race (or some sort of vague nonsense like that).

In whatever way it has come about, this deeply pathological attitude somehow makes sense to us (and it certainly doesn’t bear much in the way of serious scrutiny), it has become the template for the way in which we are supposed to be looking at life. This template (or paradigm) doesn’t work out for us in the way that we think it should however – instead of making us stronger it makes an awful lot weaker. It makes us infinitely weaker – it is the ruination of us. Our determinedly positive philosophy backfires on us in a big way because by doing our very best to avoid the unattractive side of life (where everything isn’t just ‘plain sailing’) we have denied ourselves any opportunity to actually grow. We have completely overlooked that side of things, which isn’t very smart of us.

As a result of this superficial attitude we have ended up with the phenomenon of what Ivan Illich calls the anaesthetic society, which is a society where pain is seen as a type of ‘error’ that needs to be eliminated. ‘Eliminating the pain’ is the ideal, it’s the way things should be, and our medical / pharmaceutical technology is directed exclusively towards this end. If we’re left in pain (for whatever reason) and our medical ‘know how’ can’t fix that for us, then we’re an embarrassment. No one wants to know in this case – suffering from chronic pain isn’t very ‘positive’, after all! It’s not something anyone wants to be focusing on.  If we don’t respond to the pain management techniques that we have been given (which is often the case, since such techniques never work as well as we’d like to believe they do) then this is something that no one wants to deal with. If we can’t fix it, then we don’t want to know – we’re going to ‘turn our backs’ on anyone who happens to be in this situation. The problem – as Illich says – is that we are ‘adopting a purely technical approach to pain’ and this has proved to be a terrible mistake –

Traditional cultures confront pain, impairment, and death by interpreting them as challenges soliciting a response from the individual under stress; medical civilization turns them into demands made by individuals on the economy, into problems that can be managed or produced out of existence. Cultures are systems of meanings, cosmopolitan civilization a system of techniques.



If there is no meaning in pain then the suffering of this pain is going to be a meaningless thing too, and so the fact that we are there in this position of ‘suffering unnecessary pain’ – as we see it – is profoundly undermining for us, which is what Ivan Illich is saying. We have therefore shot ourselves in the foot.  This is the hideous spectre of ‘meaningless pain’ which we have made a reality for us; by turning our backs on pain in the way that we have done then – far from empowering ourselves – we have become ‘the helpless and deluded victims of our own avoidant attitude’, which will eventually bring us into a very dark place. This is something we just can’t see, however. We just don’t get it (and we don’t want to get it either) …

On the one hand therefore our ‘anaesthetic-seeking sensibilities’ mean that we will suffer far more than we would do if we weren’t embracing this half-baked self-punishing philosophy, and on the other hand we have deprived ourselves of the conditions that allow growth – the conditions that allow us to develop in a healthy way, to mature, to find genuine meaning in our lives, and so on. Instead, we end up in a helpless dependent state which is no good for us at all (although – all the same – we have to note that it is wonderfully convenient for the spurious authorities that wish to control us). There is a very great fear in us – namely, ‘the fear of growing up’, ‘the fear of taking responsibility’, the fear of leaving the playpen’, and the system is exploiting this fear of ours to the maximum.

We are only too happy to hand over all responsibility to the experts, to the rulers, to the officials, and it is always going to be the case that if we are in the grip of this fear (whilst of course not admitting this fact to ourselves) then forces are going to arise in our environment that will take full advantage of this unacknowledged weakness of ours. It is the lack of acknowledgment regarding this fear that puts us at the mercy of society’s mechanisms of control – if we don’t want to take responsibility then we’re putting an open invitation out there for anyone who wants to take our freedom away! What we’re looking at here is a kind of a natural ‘law’ or ‘principle’ – if it secretly suits us to be exploited then we are – when it comes down to it – conjuring up the mechanisms by which we will be exploited, by which we will be controlled, by which we will be hoodwinked. We always get the type of society we deserve, in other words…

Our attitude – as has often been pointed out – is that we want one aspect of life (the ‘feel-good’ aspect, the ‘euphoric’ aspect) whilst at the same time not wanting the difficult part. We want the rose petals but not the thorns. To this end we have come up with a philosophy of life that validates this, a way of life that ensures that ‘keeping it superficial’ is the road we go down. We’re not given the freedom to behave otherwise, we’re not permitted the freedom to see things from any other angles – our way of interpreting pain and responding to it is codified in the very structure of society. Society becomes the means by which we are facilitated in turning our backs on our own pain, facilitated in our denial of there being any sort of problem. What we call ‘mental health care’ isn’t about supporting us in witnessing our suffering (i.e., ‘bringing it to light’), it’s about managing the symptoms of our neurotic avoidance so that it becomes possible to carry on with it. Our idea of mental health is that it is ‘successful avoidance’, in other words, even though successful avoidance doesn’t really work. Our approach is a purely technical one – it’s about finding techniques for managing pain, not mounting a philosophical inquiry, not going deeper into life…

This is a classic vicious circle – we need to be wise in order to spot our own fear of maturity (and so not fall victim to the hidden need to avoid this fear) but without wisdom we will always put our money on the facile philosophy of life that tells us we don’t need to experience pain or difficulty and this ‘philosophy’ will to do nothing but engender ream upon ream of misery for us. We seek comfort and ease in all things and this idealisation of comfort (this idealization of happy / positive / cool stuff) means that we have put ourselves in a position where we aren’t going to become wise. We’re going to stay dumb! We’ve cut ourselves off from the core of life – which is its difficulty, which is the suffering and turmoil that comes with it – and as a result we’re just going to become more and more helpless, more and more deluded, more and more dependent and the forces that we have made ourselves dependent on don’t have our own best interests at heart, no matter what we might like to think…





Image credit – xxicollective.com



The Negative Approach

The negative approach doesn’t reveal to us what is true or right, it doesn’t give us a path to follow, or ‘list the steps we need to take’. It gives us no map of the terrain, no metaphysics, no overview of what’s going on, or ‘what it’s all about’. It doesn’t do any of these things and that’s the whole point of it – the whole point of the via negativa is that it takes away whatever it is we think we know and gives us nothing in return.

The via negativa has never had very much in the way of mass appeal, therefore. It has never figured in any list of ‘what’s trending right now’! For most of us (for almost all of us) what we’re looking for is the exact opposite of this – we want to be given a path to follow, we want to be told what the steps are that we should take, we want an explanation of what’s going on and instructions as to what exactly we should be doing. We want it spelled out for us in nice black and white terms so that everyone can clearly see what’s true and what isn’t true, what’s right and what is wrong. We want all of that to be taken care of for us so that all we have to do is conform to whatever system it is that has been laid down for us.

In one way this seems reasonable enough, the desire to be guided in this way seems eminently prudent – think about all the mistakes we could make otherwise! Surely – we say to ourselves – there are wise people (or experts!) out there who can do this for us. It doesn’t (or at least it shouldn’t) take too long however for us to work out that there is a very big problem with this implicit demand of ours however, the implicit demand to be ‘guided’ or ‘shown the way’! It shouldn’t take us too long to spot the big problem with this because this is what has been going on for the whole of human history and it hasn’t ever done us the slightest bit of good. The desire to be guided by someone else translates – when it comes down to it – to the unhealthy willingness to hand over responsibility to someone (or something) else. We want someone else to ‘tell us what our lives should be about’, and that’s asking for trouble!

If we were to look at human history in psychological terms (rather than focusing on tedious accounts of the reign of Kings and Queens, or the dates pertaining to this battle or that battle) we would see that is only ever been one thing happening (albeit in many different guises) and that ‘one thing’ is the ongoing struggle to convert everyone else to seeing the world in the same way that the group we belong to does. This has absolutely nothing to do with any concern that we might have with that inconsequential little thing called ‘the truth’, and it has everything to do with the pursuit of power. Being the one ‘who gets to say what reality is’ is the ultimate expression of power, it’s the ultimate expression of power because it’s the ultimate form of control. If I get to be the one who defines how you perceive (or understand) the question of ‘What is reality?’ then I control you absolutely. Control doesn’t get any more ‘total’ than this…

Friedrich Nietzsche makes the comment:

All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.

When we have the power to determine which ‘interpretation’ is the official one (the only one that people ever get to hear about, the one we all have to go by) then we have complete control and – from a psychological perspective – this is what we all want. Control – we might say – is the ultimate commodity from the POV of the idea that we have about ourselves (i.e., the ego) because it is only because by being in control of how things are seen that this idea appears to be actually real. This makes ‘control’ not just important, but essential. If I have control (with regard to how things are to be seen) then I can use this to give myself high status, and anyone who is against me low status – within my own subjective sphere I can always make myself out to be ‘the good guy’ (or ‘the one who is in the right’) and this self-serving distortion of the truth is of course the classic hallmark of the everyday ubiquitous ego! We see it going on all the time…

On the personal level therefore, we have the power to tell ourselves whatever lies we want to and ‘get away with it’, and so this is what we – generally – do. We would like to extend this sphere of power if we could however and be able to control other peoples’ subjective reality too (if we could) and this is what lies behind the drive to wield power. This is why we (as egos) are forever playing nefarious ‘power games’ with those around us – it’s the natural progression of what we are already doing. Not everyone can succeed at this however and so we get this situation where we band together in groups, which vastly amplifies our ‘ability to distort reality and get away with it’. The bigger the group the greater the ‘power’ the group has and so our motivation – as ‘group members’ – is always to convert everyone else to see things the way we do, in ways that can be either subtle, or extremely crude. History bears witness to our ongoing attempts to control how reality is seen, therefore.

There are two complementary things going on here, we might say – there is the drive to be the one who defines ‘what is real’, and there is also the drive to conform to a convenient group identity so as to have our lives defined for us. In a crude way, we could say that there are ‘those who want to have reality defined for them’ and ‘there are those who want to do the defining’ (and enshrine their elite status within the set up that they themselves have thereby created). There’s not as much difference here as we might think, however – it turns out that it’s ‘all the one game’ (which is ‘the game of thought’, ‘the game of defining and being defined’). If I get to make up the rules of the game myself, which will of course be to my own advantage (as we all understand); if I define reality then you can be sure that I will do this in order to suit myself.

We might for example think of the Christian Church over the last thousand years or so – what better position could the Church put itself in than the position of being able to authoritatively say what life and death is all about, and cast themselves (conveniently enough) as ‘the exclusive mediator between God and Man’? It’s no surprise that the Church held on to this position for one thousand years or so or so – they were ‘the definers of reality’ and this brings serious perks. The Church Fathers thus demonstrated themselves to be consummate masters of the power game, and all in the name of saving souls!

The advantage gained here is entirely illusory, however. The one who wields power is just as hopelessly trapped as those who have been ‘disempowered’; the use of power is an evil to everyone concerned and there is no good outcome in it for anyone, despite what we all think. We think that this is the key to everything but it isn’t – the winner of the game is every bit as much a victim of the game being played as the loser is. That’s because the winner is – of course – just as much ‘defined by the game’ as the as the losers are; everyone playing the game imagines that playing successfully will allow them to ‘escape the game’ but it doesn’t. There is no ‘liberation’ to be had as a result of game-playing, no matter how well we play!

Power means that we get to take away the freedom of those less powerful than we are, the ones who are not as clever as us (or as lucky as us, perhaps) – they have to dance to our tune then. We’re in the coveted position of ‘being in control’; but the benefit here is an illusion, as we have just said – it’s an illusion because we’re tied into the arrangement just as much as everyone else is. We are being controlled by our own ‘need to be in control’, and so we have (paradoxically) given away our own freedom in the act of taking it away from others. The idea that there is this ‘supreme benefit’ in being a winner is ludicrous – the benefit in question is only nominal (which is to say, it only exists within the terms of the game). There is no freedom in a game, not for the winner or the losers! The only thing that benefits us – the only thing that’s worth anything – is freedom and no one ever became free as a result of exercising power!

The mediaeval Church got to say what reality is for everyone else, and it made sure to take up a privileged position in the hierarchy that it was responsible for creating, but when we look at it we can see that the members of the religious elite closed down reality for themselves just as much as they did for the population as a whole (who were given no autonomy, no voice, no influence, no ‘say so’). In recent times the game is changed of course – superficially, at least. Now, those with power have defined what life is all about in a different way – it’s not about God and the devil (or Heaven and Hell) anymore (and doing everything according to ‘religious rules’) but rather it’s about ‘buying and selling’, it’s about consumerism, it’s about ‘the law of the marketplace’. [The basic idea here being that happiness (or ‘well-being’) is a product to be bought and if we want to be able to afford it then we have to engage with the social game, and – essentially – sign our lives over to it.]

This is therefore another way of oppressing people therefore, and a very clever one at that. This is another way of having our freedom taken away from us without us realizing it. The ‘freedom’ we’re talking about here isn’t some vague wishy-washy metaphysical notion but something very concrete, something very down-to-earth, something very real. The freedom that has been taken away from us by having reality defined for us is quite simply the freedom to be something other than what we have been defined as being.

The freedom that has been taken away from us (via the masterful exercise of power) is the freedom to be anything other than what we have been defined by our society as being. But the rub here is that what we’ve been defined by society as being isn’t a real thing at all – it’s just a fiction that we have been persuaded to believe in. We might therefore think of various shortcomings or problems in society and tried to come up with ways to fix these problems, but this is beside the point entirely, once we see what ‘the collusion which is society’ is really all about. Society exists to prevent us from having any awareness of who we really are, any connection with who we really are. It just wouldn’t work otherwise – we wouldn’t have any interest in this artificial system of relations if it hadn’t sneakily substituted itself for real life (which is not and never could be defined or regulated). As Alan Watts says, “To define means to fix, and, when you get down to it, real life isn’t fixed.” The Defined World – and who we supposed are in that Defined World – is made up purely of ideas. It is purely and simply a manifestation of hyperreality and hyperreality operates by eliminating (or ‘denying’) the genuine article.

Any positive approach – without exception – does this; by their very nature, positive approaches always function by taking away our freedom. That’s why they are called ‘positive’ – that’s what ‘positive’ means, philosophically speaking. That’s how hyperreality functions – hyperreality functions by taking away our freedom and then telling us that it has given us something great. Positive reality – therefore – gest to exist by providing us with the illusion of freedom in place of the real thing. It gets to exist by ‘substituting itself for the real thing’ (which is to say, by substituting itself for ‘the negative or unstated reality’), by – in other words – ‘controlling us without us realising that we’re being controlled’.

Positive approaches are all about dislocating us from reality. To be guided or defined by any authority is to be hoodwinked, is (without exception) to be sold a fake reality. To be defined is to be the victim of aggression; it is to be exploited down to the nth degree. This business of ‘seeking to be told what life is all about’ (or ‘wanting to be the one who tells others what life is all about’, which is the same thing backwards) has been going on for as long as human beings have existed, and no one has ever benefited in the least bit from this. As we said at the beginning of this discussion, allowing ourselves to be hoodwinked by ten-a-penny ‘positive worldviews’ is what we absolutely ALWAYS do. It’s the only play in our playbook. The negative approach however is very different – the negative approach doesn’t take our freedom away, it returns it to us. The via negativa doesn’t compel us to identify with the social fiction – on the contrary, it shows up that cheap and unpleasant fiction for what it really is…




Living The Stereotype

We live our lives in a world that is made up of other people’s thoughts, other people’s thinking. This is an idea which we can all relate to on a more-or-less superficial level, but which actually goes far deeper than we might imagine. We generally believe that thought ‘sheds light on the world’ and that each idea (once it has been scientifically approved of and added to our store of knowledge) takes us a little bit further in the direction of the truth, but that just isn’t how thinking works! We don’t – as a culture – validate thoughts or ideas for ourselves because they are true, but because they fit what we want to hear, because they provide us with ontological security. Each additional thoughts or idea about reality takes us further and further away from the truth, not closer to it. We claim – both individually and personally – to be interested in knowing the truth, but this doesn’t actually turn out to be the truth! We lie when we say we’re interested in the truth…

Living in a world that is constructed out of other people’s thoughts (which is what Robert Anton Wilson refers to as ‘our consensus reality tunnel’) turns out to be a total disaster because it takes something very important (or rather something essential) away from us and that is the chance that we have to live our lives ourselves, ‘first hand’, as it were. When this possibility is taken away from us this leaves us nothing with nothing at all – just a faded copy of life, just a poor shadow of the real thing. We are left in the position of having been cheated out of life itself and yet – despite this – we never protest. We don’t take to the streets in outrage – we don’t even see anything wrong with this way of doing things. As G.I. Gurdjieff says,

This strange trait of their general psyche, namely, of being satisfied with just what Smith or Brown says, without trying to know more, became rooted in them already long ago, and now they no longer strive at all to know anything cognizable by their own active deliberations alone.

Not only do we see nothing wrong with this setup, we see it as an opportunity for us to advance ourselves, an opportunity for us to do well in life and prove our worth. What we don’t stop to consider in our mad rush to make something of ourselves (and to avail ourselves of whatever is out there to to be availed of) is that there is something essential which we’ve quite forgotten about. We’ve forgotten to ‘check things out for ourselves’ rather than taking everything on trust and this means that we are in great danger of proceeding on a totally false (if not to say totally ludicrous) basis. And if our starting-off point is wrong then it doesn’t matter how much effort we put into what we’re doing, it’s all going to be ‘precious drinking water poured into the parched desert sands’ -we’ll never get it back and it won’t do the slightest bit of good to anybody. This is what J.G. Bennett refers to as the principle of Waste.

It’s as if we’re handed a parcel upon entering this world, and we’re told that it contains something very valuable in it (namely life) which we must be sure not to waste or throw away, but then we never bother to take a look at so as to see what it really is. Other people have told us what’s in it, what it entails, and how should go about living it, etc., and so we never bother to find out for ourselves. We take what we have been told on trust, just as those who are telling us took it on trust, and as a result of this misplaced trust we enter into the Circle of Confusion which is what ensues when ‘everyone copies everyone else’. We are provided – in effect – with The Book of Rules and all the emphasis is on correctly following these rules. No emphasis at all is placed upon investigating the rules and checking out their provenance. Quite the contrary is true – we are actively discouraged from doing so. We will be punished most severely for questioning them, for daring to think that we know better…

There are rewards for believing in the Presented Reality (in the same way that Jung says that there are rewards for pretending to be identical with our societal roles or masks) and this is what causes us to adapt to the template that is being offered to us. We’re getting on board with the story that’s being told us (because that story seems to be ‘where it’s at’, ‘where it’s all happening’) but it turns out that this is a path that takes us nowhere at all since it’s not actually our life we’re living but someone else’s second-hand idea about what that life should be. ‘Agreeing with the idea’ brings approval and acceptance and all that sort of stuff, but because the idea we’re agreeing with is what we might call ‘a hollow cliché’ or ‘blank stereotype’ this act of reckless identification it’s hardly going to pay out any dividends for us further down the line, which we’ve been told we can expect. We’ve been told that if we follow the rules then we’ll go to heaven but that just isn’t true – it’s just a device to sucker us, it’s just a trick to get us to play ball…

It’s not that anyone is deliberately deceiving us (although this can happen too, of course) there’s nothing deliberat a about what we’re describing here since everyone else is in exactly the same boat as us. Everyone else is doing exactly what we’re doing, which is ‘trusting the story of things that is being put about’. We might feel that we’re different and individual and not like every other random person on the street but inasmuch as we are buying into the same story of things that everyone else is buying into we are just another version of them. We’re another version of them because ‘the story of things’ we buy into defines us (rather than vice versa) – it tells us who we are and we can’t help believing it. ‘Heedless social adaptation’ is a mistake that we’ve been making for as long as human beings have existed; it’s a mistake that everyone makes, a hole that we all fall down, and – what’s more – it’s a mistake we don’t ever seem to learn from, a hole that we never climb out of. We just keep on repeating the same old mistake over and over again.

We’re drowning in a sea of ontological insecurity but instead of helping each other we’re pulling each other down (in our panic) into the mire of false identification; it isn’t the ‘sea of ontological insecurity’ that’s the mire but rather our attempted solution to it. Just as a drowning man might drown someone who comes to try to save him (unless they are cautious) so too we make matters worse for ourselves by trying to hold onto (and thereby ‘make real’) stuff that isn’t real. The only thing that can save us from our fate – the fate of ‘unquestioningly holding on to the official-but-untrue narrative of things’ – is the courage to go it alone, the courage not to grasp on to the framework of ideas that everyone else has grasped onto in the attempt to save themselves. Trying to save ourselves doesn’t work – trying to save ourselves is how we sink ourselves! The only thing that does work is for us not to attempt to save ourselves (which means not compulsively buying into some convenient narrative’). When we try to save ourselves we enmesh ourselves in thought all the more and thought – like a heavy iron chain – unfailingly sinks us. Thought is ‘our attempt to hold on’ and the problem with this – as we’ve just said – is that there’s nothing there to hold onto. This means that it is our ‘attempted holding on’ that is the problem, and not the lack of anything to hold onto.

There is – we might say- a ‘psychological principle’ here that we can’t afford to ignore, a principle which states that a generic, virally-propagated idea of ‘what our life should be’ isn’t a legitimate substitute for us discovering, first hand (in a totally unique fashion) the truth for ourselves. Ignoring this principle means that we will pay a very high price in the form of suffering and while it’s easy enough to say the word ‘suffering’ and talk about it as if we actually know what we’re on about, when the thing itself comes along it’s a different story. The mistake we make is to ‘go along with a cheap copy for the sake of not having to make too much effort’ which – as everyone knows – is always a false saving. If I were to have an operation to replace a valve in my heart with a prosthetic unit then you can be sure that I won’t go for a ‘knock-off copy of a reputable brand’ just for the sake of saving a bit of money, and yet – when it comes to life itselfit seems that we couldn’t care less! It looks very much as if – for us – ‘saving money’ is the only consideration that matters…






Identity Politics

In our mass-minded culture we are completely obsessed with this thing called ‘identity’ and the problem with this is that the identities which we are so obsessed with have nothing to do with who we actually are. They couldn’t be further away from it. No matter what identity we might pick to take shelter behind it’s never going to be anything even remotely connected with our actual nature. We’re talking about fake identities therefore; we’re talking about mistaken identities, misleading identities, manufactured identities – anything thought identifies as ‘us’ is always going to be a ‘false identity’ and – therefore -it is always going to be a dead end. As Alan Watts has so often said, ‘who we are’ is a negative thing not a positive one. We can only say what we’re not, not what we are – to say ‘what we are’ is to hand ourselves over to the tender mercies of ‘the Great Labelling Machine’! When I identify myself as this, that or the other then I confuse myself with an image, with a category of thought…

When we say what something is (or what we are) then this is simply the action of thought. We’re ‘identifying with the label’ in other words, we’re identifying with a mind-created description, we’re fitting in with a purpose-made category. We don’t get this at all however – our understanding is that the label or description stands for something in the real world. This is the very essence of what it means to be ‘unconscious’ – that we relate to our thoughts, our ideas as if they were the things that they supposedly represent. This is Baudrillard’s ‘realm of the hyperreal’ in a nutshell. This is the world of abstract ideas, the world of ‘dissociated or disconnected literal signifiers’ that we are compelled to adapt to if we are to be taken seriously by our fellow human beings; it is the game we’re obliged to play along with if we’re not to be shunned by all the other game players.

When we talk about ‘playing a game’ this doesn’t necessarily sound like such a bad thing but in psychological terms playing a game translates as ‘avoiding reality’, which – as we might suspect – isn’t a move that’s going to do us any good. There are consequences to avoiding or denying reality – burying one’s head in the sand doesn’t mean that ‘everything’s going to be fine’, it just means that we’re convinced everything’s going to be fine when – actually – it isn’t. This isn’t a playful game, therefore – there’s nothing cheery or light-hearted about it. It is – on the contrary – deadly serious; there’s no humour here at all, only ‘obeying the rules’, only ‘doing what you’re supposed to do’. This is – in other words – The World That Fear Made. We’re not denying or avoiding reality ‘for fun’ but because we are frankly terrified to do otherwise. We’re following the rules like machines because that’s the only way safety is to be found. It’s the only thing we can do, if we are to escape our fear.

The other way of putting this is to say that the social game is all about control – things have to be controlled because otherwise they will stop being what they’re supposed to be and they will start to be something else instead. And this is the one thing that can never be allowed to happen – not when we are afraid of ‘the unforeseen circumstance’. Life has to be controlled every step of the way; the basic gist is that our lives have to be strictly regulated to prevent ‘the bad thing’ from happening. We don’t exactly know what this bad thing is, but that only makes it more frightening! It’s a nameless fear and nameless fears are by far the worst kind…

If we didn’t control then then things wouldn’t get to be defined anymore – the meaning things have for us would drift and who knows where this could end? ‘Out of control’ is scary precisely because it is ‘out of control’ – it’s scary because we are no longer in the position of being able to say what will happen next… For us – in our everyday mode of consciousness – the meaning of things is very much something that needs strictly controlling at all times, therefore. It can’t be allowed to get away from us. This is absolutely crucial – the world must be a blank canvas for us to paint our meanings onto, it cannot be allowed to turn the tables on us and tell us that what we think is true isn’t. When we’re in Unconscious Mode and the world starts manifesting its own meaning then this is very disturbing for us – we don’t in the least bit like it. No one likes to wake up, as George Gurdjieff says – no one likes their dream to suddenly start falling apart…

Definitions (or literal descriptions) are another way of talking about the control of meaning therefore – we ourselves say what things mean, we ourselves impose the order that we wish to see in the world. We speak ‘on behalf of nature’, as James Carse says. We have silenced the gods and put ourselves in their place. If we were not to control the meaning of things then this artificial setup of ours would disappear without a trace, and so this is where the necessity for ‘joined up controlling’ (controlling with no break or pause) comes in – once nature has been successfully subjugated then we’re left to take charge of everything ourselves…

We end up therefore in this position where we are obliged to be controlling all the time – thought has created the world that is made up of rigid narrow literal meanings and it is our job to maintain it. We’re obliged to maintain the artificial world that thought creates precisely because it is artificial, precisely because it isn’t a naturally occurring thing, and the driving force behind our incessant controlling is fear. Fear doesn’t represent itself as fear however – represents itself as ‘free, volitional activity in the service of a genuinely good cause’ (i.e., the upholding of some extremely important principle or value). There is no important principle of value here however – only the undeclared need to hide away from the truth.

Identity or self is thus our way of hiding from the truth, curious though this may sound. This ‘truth’ includes the truth about ‘who we actually are’ of course, and the truth about ‘who we actually are’ is just as frightening to us as the truth about anything else! It’s the same truth, it’s what Buddhists call ‘the truth of emptiness’. This doesn’t mean that there is ‘no content’ involved but rather that this content, which is endless, can never be defined. Our labels are hollow (or empty) but the potentiality which they arise from isn’t – potentiality isn’t empty or limited, but anything that is pulled out of the undefined state of potency (or latency) inevitably is. To reify a phenomenon is to make it redundant – we end up with appearances which seem to be solid, but which have nothing at all behind them. Things don’t have to be said to be true in order to be true, in other words; the irony is that when we assert our truths in a concrete or literal fashion (as we very much like to) then they automatically become lies – to seize hold of something is to lose it.

Our longing for identity is our fear of our own incomprehensible potential therefore – we’re fleeing from the nameless unspeakable depths, we’re fleeing from the ‘infinite bewildering expansiveness of reality’ for all we’re worth and we find refuge from it by latching limpet-fashion onto some two-dimensional identity or other and ingeniously claiming that this ‘ten-a-penny cheap-ass identity’ is ‘the whole of who we are’. We could also say that our obsession with identity (which is our fear-driven avoidance of our true nature) is our way of ‘not taking on any responsibility’ but instead of seeing this dereliction of responsibility as being the result of fear we see it as a glorious achievement, we see it as something to be proud of, something to shout out triumphantly from the rooftops…

To live in a culture which is all about identity is to live in a culture where consciousness has been outlawed and where everything is seen backwards. We’re putting all our money on the wrong thing – we are energetically promoting the causes of misery, ignorance and confusion whilst at the same time claiming to be experts on everything under the sun! We could say many things about ‘the failings of society’ – we could say that it is based on the principle of inequality and exploitation, we could say that it’s full of corruption and power games, we could say that it’s all about striving for superficial values like money and status, but we are missing the point when we make these arguments. The point that we’re missing is that – as a culture, as a society – we are 100% dedicated to promoting distractions and avoiding the truth. That’s our game, that’s what we’re all about, and the thing about this is that when we are ‘100% dedicated to promoting distractions and avoiding the truth’ then there is clearly no way we are ever going to admit to this!






Image – 4kwallpapers.com




Bringing Forth What Is Within You…

It comes across as something of a cliche to say that society is rotten, superficial, morally bankrupt, etc., – any statement we make to this effect is bound to fall flat as soon as we utter it; it’s bound to fall flat because it has been said so very many times before. To say that society is a rotten kind of a thing has become a hollow platitude; we might absentmindedly agree with it when we hear it but we’re hardly going to take much notice all the same. We hear people saying things like this all the time but it never makes any difference – we are all very much ‘creatures of society’ after all and so we don’t really want change. Complaining is one thing, change another…

This is precisely the problem of course – we can’t see the system that we live in ‘from the outside’ and as a result we can’t for the life of us see how there could be any other way of doing things. And in addition to this incapacity to comprehend that things actually could be different, when we do go against the grain in any way peer pressure automatically swings into action and we find ourselves being ignored or side-lined (and thus ‘excluded from the debate’) on account of our reprehensibly eccentric views. We are tacitly ignored by the Collective, which has already made up its mind with regard to what type of truths it wishes to hear. There’s nothing more conservative than ‘the Collective’, after all!

Because of our adaptedness to the Collective Mind, to the Generic Mode of Existence that we have been inducted into since birth, we see our way of life as being unquestionably normal (which by definition it is, of course) but this isn’t actually good news.The fact that our way of life is being mirrored by millions of other doesn’t mean there’s any actual virtue in it – there’s nothing healthy about being psychologically normal, after all. It doesn’t matter what sort of conditioning we subscribe to, it’s always going to be detrimental to us; it’s always going to be detrimental because conditioning means repressing our actual unique or idiosyncratic nature. Society compels us to be normal (by expelling us from the club if we aren’t) but it is the system that benefits from all this standardisation, not us…

A deal has been done – for the sake of agreeing upon a convenient way to organise ourselves we deny who we really are (which is – as we’ve just said – ‘unique rather than regular’). The mechanism that enforces this transformation from ‘who we naturally are’ to ‘who the system requires us to be in order to perpetuate itself’ is brutally obvious, and yet we tacitly agree never to mention it. We turn a blind eye to the ugly process whereby we are converted from playful children (who are full of creativity and potential) into dull old ‘adult-machines’, capable only of performing our allotted functions. We will of course protest upon hearing this, but that’s only because we haven’t the stomach to confront such a harsh truth. We object in the strongest possible terms, not because what we’re hearing is untrue but because it’s true. It’s true but we absolutely don’t wish to hear it…

A Great Lie is being perpetuated and the lie in question is that ‘what is good for the machine which is society is also good for us’. It is this lie that allows the status quo to continue; we are obliged to swallow it because everything will become very difficult for us otherwise. The actual truth is infinitely less palatable, and even our most revered experts in the field refrain from grabbing this particular bull by the horns. We insist – ludicrously – upon looking assiduously for the answer in all the wrong places, just in case we might do the unforgivable and ‘upset the apple cart’. We never question our way of living, our way of doing things, but rather we imagine that we can find the answer to our mental health problems in our brain chemistry or in our faulty DNA.

We fail – across the board – to acknowledge the price we pay for the convenience of social adaptation and this never-mentioned price is simply our mental health. At the risk of stating the obvious, there’s no way that we can be who a standardized external authority tells us we are, and yet be in any way be well in ourselves. We can’t deny our own nature and yet at the same time also experience genuine well-being. The one thing life requires of us – so to speak – is that we fulfil our potential, and this is absolutely, fundamentally impossible just so long as we are allowing the machine to tell us who we are. Life’s demand’ on us that we realize our potential comes across with great force and clarity in what Jesus says here in the Gospel of Thomas,

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

If we insist – as we do insist – that ‘we are who we aren’t’ (and ‘who we never could be’) then we have in this way ensured our own destruction. The successes or triumphs we enjoy within the social world are ‘victories against ourselves’ in other words; ‘success’ is – therefore – the very worst thing that could ever happen to us! If we wanted a succinct way of explaining what the ‘downside’ of being a socially-adapted human being is, we could simply say that the downside in question has to do with the fact that in society we have to spend all our time pretending to be who we aren’t rather than realizing who we are and that we are – as a result – shunted down a sterile cul-de-sac that we will discover to be such only when it is too late. Who we take ourselves to be within the context of the social game is a purely arbitrary type of thing – it is a purely abstract type of a thing and for this reason it has no potential for anything! The abstract mind-created identity contains zero potential – it is precisely what it is defined as being as and that is all it is…

Our whole approach to mental health is predicated upon the idea that the suffering we are experiencing isn’t telling us anything real, or anything important, and that the thing to do – therefore – is get rid of these troublesome symptoms by whatever means we can so that we can then carry on with the type of life that we have been told is ‘the right and proper one’.  That we are able to do this is fairly amazing – clinical depression is a ‘message’ that is so extraordinarily forceful and blunt that no one can possibly ‘ignore’ it, and yet this is precisely what we – as a collective – do do. We say that it doesn’t mean anything and that it’s merely a technical malfunction of sorts which we should try to fix as quickly as possible that we can get on with ‘what we were doing before’, but the trouble is that even if we do manage to repress the feelings of meaninglessness and futility that prevent us operating in society this is actually creating extra suffering for us to contend with in the future. We’re going back to the same way of living that made us sick in the first place, which means that the all the terrible neurotic pain that we had to endure was in vain…





Image – wallpaperflare.com





The Generic Self

There are, we could say, two paradigms, two ways of seeing or doing things, one of which is very familiar to us and the other much less so. The ‘unfamiliar paradigm’ is counterintuitive in nature and this explains why it is so rarely heard of; we can relate it to the ‘spiritual principle’ which says – ‘What you hold onto you lose, and what you give away comes back to you’. This is contrary to our common sense and as a result no one is going to take it seriously – if we hear this idea articulated we will scoff at it. This is why our whole way of life, our whole modus operandi, is based on the other paradigm, which is the obvious one – the one that does appeal to our common sense.

The other (obvious) paradigm is predicated upon the premise that ‘if we hang onto something tightly enough then we will get to keep it, whilst if we give it away, then someone else will have it and not us.’ This paradigm is super-obvious and everyone understands it, but at the same time it puts us completely wrong. It totally ‘wrong foots’ us. The whole of our civilization is based upon this premise, and it has been for a very long time, but this way of doing things has never resulted in anything apart from interminable violence, confusion and misery. From a psychological point of view, it couldn’t be clearer that living life in this narrow, self-orientated way is an utter unmitigated disaster, both for the individual concerned and for the community as a whole. This is the recipe for a thwarted and unfulfilling life, and yet we all still worship and admire billionaires, as if they have somehow uncovered the very secret of life! We hang adoringly upon their every word… Living life on the basis of ‘the unexamined idea that we have of ourselves’ is absolutely the least wise, and most suffering-producing thing we could ever do, and yet – on the positive side – it does drive the economy.

Were we to be a culture that is based on psychological insight (and if we were therefore possessed of a certain degree of wisdom), then we would be organised along very different lines – an infinitely greater value would be placed upon our mental well-being in this case! As things stand however we organise ourselves along the lines of ‘how we might best perpetuate the dysfunctional modality of existence that we have evolved for ourselves’. We pay lip service to the idea that we value human freedom and happiness, but this couldn’t be further from the truth – we value the system that we’ve been indoctrinated into and we will sacrifice whatever we have to in order to keep it going. It is – we might say – the ‘dark idol’ that we worship and sacrifice our children to. We pay lip service to the idea that we value human freedom and happiness but that’s just an empty formula. We claim to have psychological understanding but what our so-called ‘psychology’ comes down to is how to keep us functional whilst at the same time working strictly within the restrictive system. Working strictly within the system makes us unwell however and so our interest in psychology is all about keeping us on our feet by ‘managing’ this unwellness one way or another, in whatever way we can.

This is why we are as fond of the word ‘management’ as we are; in the world of mental healthcare we are continually talking about ‘managing this’ and ‘managing that’, and what this comes down to is keeping the distress within tolerable limits. We even have a type of psychological strategy that we call ‘distress tolerance’. In one way it could be said that our problem is that ‘we want to have our cake and eat it’ inasmuch as we want to maintain and perpetuate the system that we are part of at the same time as having the sense that we are leading meaningful lives, and feeling that we’re living autonomously (which is of course the only way to live!), but in another way we could say that this isn’t really a dilemma for us at all since our allegiance has already been decided – our allegiance is very much towards ‘perpetuating the established setup no matter what the cost might be’. It might be said that it is something of a marvel that no one ever seems to see this but – on the other hand – maybe it isn’t so much of a marvel once we consider that we are completely dependent upon the set-up that we have unwittingly created. We’ve lost our natural resilience and so we have to rely on the ‘artificial life-support system’ that is society instead. We are ‘dependent upon the Matrix’, even though the Matrix is a prison-system that is ruthlessly exploiting us and making us unwell.

We come across this idea in many places – we could go so far as to say that anyone who has ever looked into it has come to the same conclusion. Johann Hari for example, quotes Professor Tim Kasser as saying – ‘…we live in a machine that is designed to get us to neglect what is important about life’. According to Gabor Mate, to give another example, ‘Illness in this society, physical or mental, they are not abnormalities. They are normal responses to an abnormal culture. This culture is abnormal when it comes to real human needs.’ In the following passage taken from her book Psychology with a Soul (1987. P 185-6), Jean Hardy, surveys the history of this discussion –

The idea had long been current in the nineteenth century that the ‘benefits of civilization and morals… had been acquired at the cost of man’s natural happiness… that civilized man remains forever an unhappy creature.’ (Henri F. Ellenberger) It is possible to see the growth of therapy as a response to the effects of industrialization and materialism on the inner life of individuals – the personal and collective load that every child in touch with feeling and not fragmented has to bear in a society with such meaningless injustices and horrors, known to all though more and more efficient communications, is considerable; this is the impact of Foucault’s writing, tracing the relationship between civilization and madness. ‘Look hard enough at reason,’ Foucault seems to be saying, ‘and you will find madness.’ And again, ‘madness came to be seen as the reverse side of progress: as civilized man became further removed from nature, the more he exposed himself to madness.’

The point is that society places no value on genuine human potential – it’s only interested in running the machine (which it conflates with ‘our own best interest’). Society makes us into the way it wants us to be, and then it takes care of us – after it has moulded us in its own image. It’s not really ‘taking care of us’ therefore, any more than social adjustment therapy (as Alan Watts calls it) is taking care of us. ‘Social adjustment therapy’ is all about looking after society’s needs, not ours (and the same can of course be said regarding our education system). Odd as it might sound to say, nothing in our collectively agreed-upon way of life is for the benefit of who we really are who or what it is for the benefit of is our collectively agreed upon idea of who we are, which is – to be perfectly blunt about it – a ‘phantom entity’. It’s not a real thing. The whole setup is there for the sake of this phantom entity, every little bit of it, and so our efforts might be compared to ‘throwing money down the drain’, or ‘pouring precious drinking water onto parched desert sands’. It’s a ludicrous, pointless exercise, and yet it is one we take very, very seriously. We’re putting all the resources at our disposal into the task of ‘making life as good as possible for the phantom entity which is the ‘Generic Self’ whilst totally and shamefully ignoring and neglecting who we actually are. Who we actually are has been entirely forgotten about…




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age – imdb.com








Glorifying Our ‘Aims’

When we’re greedy for the desired outcome, or fearful and worried about the unwanted one, then what happens as a result of this preoccupation is that we miss out on life itself. We miss out on life itself because life has nothing to do with either the ‘wanted’ or the ‘unwanted’ outcome – it has nothing to do with my fears and nothing to do with my hopes and desires either, which would be a very strange thing to consider were we ever to do so.

We understand this the other way around, however. Our understanding is that we will lose out unless we get to be good at obtaining the outcomes we want, and avoiding all the other ones, and this is of course why we put as much effort into our purposeful activities as we do, why we take the attitude that unless there is a reason for what we’re doing then we are essentially wasting our time. ‘Activity without purpose is the drain of your life’, legendary motivational speaker Tony Robbins tells us. Or – even more to the point – from Pastor Sunday Adelaja we learn that ‘Life becomes a dilemma when you are living a purposeless and goalless life.’ This is the unashamed message of our era – the message which glorifies the simple-minded purposeful strivings for our goals. Here lies our fulfilment, we are led to believe, and nowhere else. But if our goals have nothing to do with life, and take us in the opposite direction (if such a thing were possible) then the question we are bound to ask ourselves (if we have any curiosity about ourselves at all) is “What on earth are we playing at?”

The answer turns out to be very simple – the reason for our perverse orientation in this matter is because our rational-purposeful culture is an exercise in denial, not an exercise in exploring (or celebrating) life, which is what we would like to believe. Our hopes and fears are our own private projections and if we weren’t the fully paid-up members of such a profoundly unconscious culture we would see this without the slightest bit of difficulty. How could we not see that our hopes and fears are our own projections? This is the most basic psychological insight there is and it is also the insight that is least likely to ever come our way – we’re kept far too busy on the Wheel of Purposefulness for that. We’re always too fixated on the goal (and the next goal after that) to ever get philosophical about what the hell we think we’re doing…

If all I care about are my projections then this means that I am very effectively ‘cocooning myself from reality’, just as Jung says. This is the best way of ‘cocooning ourselves from reality’ there is – it’s totally fool-proof! The other way of putting this is to say that our goals – precious as they are to us – are only thoughts, and thoughts aren’t real. The thought is not the thing and it never can be, and so to see the world purely in terms of our ideas about it is to very effectively remove ourselves from it. To be focused exclusively on our goals is to be concerned only with those things that make sense to our logical categories (since if something can’t be represented in terms of these categories then it simply doesn’t exist for us). When we are constantly enthusing about our plans and intentions we are creating the impression that we have a full-blooded relationship with the ‘wider world’ (or at the very least that we aspire to have such a relationship) but this is just a ploy – the only ‘relationship’ we have is with our own private version of reality, which is of course a complete cop out.

Controlling only ever relates us to the sterile domain of our well-worn thoughts, our jaded and flavourless preconceptions, and so no matter how successful we might be in our purposeful endeavours, that is never going to get us anywhere different from ‘where we already were’. Just to reiterate this point – because it’s a point we miss every time – when we concern ourselves only with outcomes (either of the good or bad variety) then this means that we are in Control Mode and being in Control Mode necessarily limits us to ‘the domain of what we already know’, ‘the domain of our preconceptions’, ‘the domain of what we have already decided is true’. We don’t ever see things this way but what it essentially means is that we are trapped in the Prison of Purposefulness. We’re lifers in this most doleful of institutions and there’s no hope of parole, no matter how well we behave…

The reason we don’t ever see things this way is of course because we take it as read that the Known World – the world that is made-up entirely of our thoughts and concepts – is pretty much equivalent to what’s actually out there in reality. We never stop to reflect on what a ludicrous assumption this is; we might be familiar with our own description of the world, but we certainly shouldn’t go around assuming that what we are so familiar with is actually ‘the world itself’. Thought is a purely quantitative business, whereas in reality no quantities exist, only qualities; we all know that sugar is sweet, but we wouldn’t know what sweetness is just from the word. There’s no sweetness in the word ‘sweet’ and – what’s more – there’s no way there ever could be! There is a gulf between our descriptions and ‘the world that is being described’ which can never be bridged, not by any logic that we might be capable of putting together. We’ll never bridge it, and so rather than allow ourselves to get curious about what might lie on the other side of the abyss, we resort to ignoring it and pretending that it isn’t there.  

Because the Known World has no correspondence to (or no connection with) ‘reality as it is in itself’, it is perfectly appropriate to speak of us as being prisoners of thought. It is perfectly accurate to speak of the thinking mind as a person. “You are in prison”, says Gurdjieff, “all you can wish for, if you are a sensible man, is to escape.” The thing is however that we’re not sensible in this way – we’re not in the least bit ‘sensible’! We are preoccupied with anything else but escaping – anything interests us apart from the one thing that isn’t interesting (i.e., our trivial games). As Gurdjieff also says somewhere else, “our fate is to be forever turning around in a circle of insignificant interests and insignificant aims.” We ‘carry this off’ by getting excited by our aims as if they really do have some relationship to ‘the Wider Reality’. They don’t though and so no matter how much we invest in our fantasies, they are never going to bear any fruit. We devote ourselves to our distractions as if they weren’t distractions, in other words. “Are we not wasps who spend all day in a fruitless attempt to traverse a window-pane – while the other half of the window is wide open?” asks Wei Wu Wei.

Life itself (or reality itself, if we want to put it like that) exists at right angles to all our concerns, to all our interests and preoccupations. This is what Wei Wu Wei means when he says that we operate on ‘the horizontal’ dimension and ignore ‘the vertical’; the vertical dimension – we might say – is the dimension of depth, which is the ‘mysterious dimension’- it is ‘mysterious because we’re constantly moving beyond the veil of appearances. In the horizontal dimension however we never go beyond appearances and so everything we engage in here is guaranteed to be vanishingly trivial, vanishingly superficial, vanishingly inconsequential. The only difference between one outcome and another in the Realm of the Vanishingly Inconsequential (i.e., the Realm of our Games) is ‘the difference indicated by the mental boundaries which we ourselves have invented’, and so this is the type of difference that we contrive to get excited by in our games. This is the difference between one category and another (or between one idea and another) and this is an imaginary difference, a difference that is ‘only there because we say it is’. When we ‘glorify our aims’ – as we always do – it is this ‘imaginary difference’ that we are getting feverishly excited about and when we allow ourselves to get ‘excited by the imaginary’ this always happens at the expense of anything that is actually real….



Image – wallpaperflare.com







Techno-Intoxication

The world we live in is not run for the benefit of actual human beings, but – rather – it’s run for the benefit of who we mistakenly think we are. We think that it is ‘designed for our benefit’, but it isn’t. If we could understand this then we’d be fine, we would finally be waking up – we run around in our day-to-day lives fondly imagining that all of this is for the benefit of actual people when it absolutely isn’t. As we’ve said, that isn’t the case at all – that is very far indeed from being the case.

This world is run for the benefit of the idea that we have about ourselves and the one thing we can say for sure is that what might benefit an idea is not going to have any helpful ramifications when it comes to the actual reality of the situation. The two things just aren’t the same. When our ideas or models don’t properly match reality then this is called incoherence and incoherence has the inevitable effect of causing unwanted and unforeseen consequences – unwanted and unforeseen consequences that are the exact opposite of beneficial. When the theories that we act on don’t match reality then that spells trouble with a capital ‘T’ and our theories can never match up with reality.

This is the great lesson that we have yet to learn – the lesson that the purely rational approach to life will always have unforeseen and unwanted consequences. Our ideas about what’s going on are over simplistic and as such they’re guaranteed to miss out a lot of stuff; they miss out stuff that’s going to come back and bite us when we least expect it. We take one or two steps forward, which we will congratulate ourselves for ad nauseam, and then we’ll take six steps back. We’ll get one stop closer to creating a perfect system, and then some gremlin or other will appear to wreck our precious rational dreams.

What we’re looking at here – seen from a mythological POV – is the motif of the Trickster; often personage, often appearing in animal form, who delights in causing our best laid plans to come unstuck. From the perspective rationality there is of course nothing more infuriating than this – nothing annoys us more than having our best laid plans overturned. We don’t have any sense of humour about this at all. Were we to take a wider perspective however we’d be able to see that there is no harm in this and that – actually – the danger is more that we would actually succeed in our rational plans since, as Alan Watts has said, ‘Nothing fails like success’.

The rational approach to life doesn’t work and this – as we noted earlier – is a lesson that we haven’t even started to learn, for all our pretensions to scientific omniscience. On a superficial level, the level of appearances, we can point to all our scientific and technological achievements, which would seem to be very impressive. These achievements of ours don’t seem so impressive however when we look beneath the surface of what’s going on the technology might be amazing for the quality of our lives as human beings is most definitely not. The type of world we’ve created for ourselves with our exclusively rational approach might look good from the outside, but it doesn’t support our mental or psychological well-being. The technology doesn’t exist that can support our mental and psychological well-being, however odd this statement might sound to us.

Machines – no matter how sophisticated – can only ever function ‘on the one level’. They are linear, in other words. What makes a machine ‘a machine’ is its logical consistency from beginning to end; without this consistency a machine cannot deliver what we want it to deliver, what it’s supposed to deliver, and a machine that can’t deliver what it’s supposed to deliver is of no use, no interest to us at all. What’s the point of a pencil sharpener that can’t sharpen pencils, after all? There’s no market for machines that can’t do what they’re supposed to do because – very obviously – this one very specific function is the only reason we have any time for them in the first place, the only reason we place any value in them. A machine is its function, we could say. There’s nothing to a machine other than its stated function and this is odd because it means that machines always have this curious blank ‘literality’ to them.

This argument might seem somewhat obscure since it sounds very much like stating the obvious; stating that ‘a toaster is a toaster only because it toasts’ sounds like stating the obvious but there is nevertheless something we can’t for the life of us see in this obviousness, which is that the premise that the machine is built on is being acted out in everything it does. The structure of the machine is faithfully reproduced in its output, and this is a blatant tautology. We don’t see the fact that all mechanical processes are tautological as being ‘a problem’; on the contrary, the fact that what it says on the label is exactly the same as what’s in the tin is very much what we want to hear. We wouldn’t be in the least bit interested otherwise – it’s not ‘surprises’ that we’re looking for when it comes to machines but the concrete realisation of our goals, of our desires.

To be aware of the tautology inherent in the actions of machines is the same thing as having an awareness of the tautological nature of purposeful activity therefore, and to have an acute awareness of the tautological nature of our purposeful activity is – in turn – to be aware of the redundancy (or ‘hollowness’) of the Purposeful Self, which is the one thing we definitely don’t want to know anything about. Knowing this would spoil everything for us; after all, we define ourselves in terms of how effective we are in obtaining our goals, which means that the act of obtaining a goal has to be meaningful to us, not meaningless. The highest accolade of all belongs to the one who is supremely effective in achieving their purposes, obtaining their goals. That’s why we admire billionaires and hang devotedly on their every word in the way that we do – we think that becoming a billionaire is a meaningful accomplishment! This is also the reason we find technology to be so exciting and so glamorous – because of the promise of having our goals met quickly and in a highly efficient way. What could be better than this, after all? No one is going to question the meaningfulness of having our goals met…

Technology induces a state of out-and-out euphoria in us, it induces euphoria because of the implicit promise that if our technology is advanced enough then all our dreams, no matter how wild, no matter how fanciful or far-fetched, can finally be turned into reality. There is as we know an excitement that comes with technology and this is an excitement that we all share in, but the thing about it is that it is entirely misguided. Our perception is that we are progressing, that we are, with a type of glorious inevitability, drawing close to our overall goal, a goal that is going to prove marvellously beneficial for us all; our cherished dreams are finally going to come true and the perception that all of our dreams are finally going to come true is the most potent intoxicant there is! The result of this intoxication – unsurprisingly – is that we lose every last bit of sense that we have and get completely carried away. We embark upon disastrously stupid projects. This is what ‘being intoxicated’ is all about, of course – we all know that!

Tech doesn’t to know ennoble us, however and it certainly doesn’t make us any wiser – all it does is give us greater and greater powers of control, and that isn’t a good thing. We might naively believe it to be a good thing but of course it absolutely isn’t – all it does is ‘magnify our dumbness’, so to speak. Technology gives us greater scope and greater capacity to do foolish or harmful things. The progression of our technology comes down to one thing, as Alan Watts has pointed out ‘It comes down to eliminating, to a greater and greater extent, the gap between the conception of our goal and its realisation. If the two things (our wish and the fulfilment of our wish) could be made to happen instantly that then then that would be the ultimate – we would be in heaven then (or so we think). From a psychological or philosophical point of view, what’s valuable to us is not how quickly (or how easily) we can obtain our goals, but the degree of difficulty we experience along the way, which is to say, the severity of the obstacles that lie in our path. We only need to think about how it is with children – to give children what they want as soon as they want it is hardly an approach that’s going to result in making them happy! We all know this very well – we all know very well that this isn’t the way it works when we are children, so what makes us think the same principle doesn’t apply when we’re adults?

This comes down to the familiar adage about the journey being the thing rather than reaching the destination. The value of the destination doesn’t lie in the destination, but in the fact that it facilitates us in undertaking the journey. What happens in the journey is that we meet unsuspected difficulties and challenges, and it is these difficulties and challenges that change us, that allow us to grow, not ‘the fulfilment of the goal which was only attractive to us in the first place because of our naive way of looking at things’. The goal was a projection of our foolishness, nothing more! Or as we could also say, the value of the goal isn’t ‘the goal’ but the fact that when we finally obtain it, we discover that it’s no longer meaning for us. As Israel Regardie says, ‘the magician who attains to the summit is not the same magician who started off on the journey’. But if the journey is instantaneous (i.e., if there is no journey) then this isn’t going to be true; in this case the one who sets off on the journey is that same one who arrives. It’s all too easy, in other words, so no growth occurs. This is precisely what technology does, therefore – and it’s only the fact that we make a huge amount of money out of technology that prevents us from seeing this. It would be very inconvenient for us to see this, to say the least.

When the one who arrives at the destination is the same one who sets off in the first place then this is what is meant by ‘tautology’. In our culture we are all about identity, not personal growth – personal growth means ‘letting go of that identity’ (or seeing that it isn’t who we are) and this is exactly what we don’t want. We have an idea of ‘who we are’ and we make our plans on the strength of this idea, which means that we have to do our best to keep that idea intact. That’s the crucial thing. If we were to drop this idea then who would realise the all-important plans? Who would obtain the goals? Technology thus becomes a means of ‘safeguarding the image or idea of who we are’, and so the more advanced the tech the more neurotic we are going to become (as we are in the process of collectively discovering).

It goes further than this, however – our idea of who we are is encoded into the systems and institutions that make up society, such that any deviations from the established pattern are going to be penalised. Those who grow will be punished for it, in other words. The defining characteristic of a system is of course that it regulates – which is to say, that it continually acts so as to bring everything back to the baseline or equilibrium level of ‘how things should be’ (according to the system, that is). In the case of society what is being regulated is us and so we can say that the essential function of the systems and structures that we have created is to ‘preserve the tautology’. Linear change is the only type of change that is allowed by our systems, and the thing about linear change is that it isn’t really change at all.