When we live in the Defined World, then we live in it as the ‘defined identity’ and there are absolutely no other possibilities than that – the one implies the other. Moreover, we can also add that the defined identity is the only sort of ‘identity’ there is! In the absence of definition there is going to be no identity. In the absence of the Defined World there can be no identity…
This kind of statement doesn’t really tend to make much of an impact on us for the simple reason that we automatically assume that the Defined World is the only sort of world there is. How could the world not be the way we have defined it as being? As soon as we ask this question however (which is something we practically never do) then we can see that it is very naïve. If the world is defined then that is only because we ourselves have defined it – certainly didn’t come that way! This means that we could equally well have defined it differently or – even more significantly – we could have not defined it at all…
We define the world according to the uses we have for it and this is a perfectly legitimate and perfectly reasonable thing to do. As biological organisms we have needs that cannot be denied and so we are obliged – by the nature of this ‘survival game’ that we are playing – to define or conceptualise the world in terms of these needs. The ‘use’ we are putting this world to is the ‘use’ of having our biological needs met therefore – this is what we are necessarily ‘tuning into’. Other stuff – stuff that is not important for our ongoing survival – is not really going to be of any concern to us. So, just to give a very general example here, if I am an animal of some sort then I’m always going to be on the lookout for either ‘things that I can eat’, or ‘things that can eat me’! If I don’t stay on the lookout for aspects of my environment that fall into either one or the other of these two categories, then I’m not going to last very long.
My environment also contains a lot of stuff that doesn’t fit into either of these categories, but because it’s neither significant to me as ‘something I can eat’ nor ‘something that can eat me’ I can afford to ignore it. It doesn’t help me any pay attention to it and so I don’t – the game of survival is too pressing for that. Irrelevant details are necessary invisible to me.We do of course have more needs and the need to find stuff to eat and the need to avoid being eaten but it’s the same principle; no matter how many needs we have it’s always the same principle – when we have needs that we have to tune into then that makes us blind to whatever isn’t relevant to our needs. This is just another way of talking about what is called ‘conditioning’. Or as we could also say, when we are playing a game then we are necessarily going to be blind to anything that isn’t part of the game. So we define the world in accordance to the uses which we are putting it to, and then the world becomes – to us – what we have defined it as being. The rest of the world – the part of it that isn’t important to us with respect to our needs – has become completely invisible to us, after all.
It’s probably fair enough to suggest that most members of the Animal Kingdom are too hard pressed by the necessities of playing the biological survival game to have much time left to them to give any attention to ‘inconsequential’ matters, matters that are entirely relevant to the all-important agenda of ‘staying alive’; human beings – however – do have a degree of freedom in this regard, at least potentially. If this were not the case then there would never have been any artists, poets, philosophers or mystics. There are of course a lot of people around that have no time for such matters and consider all of that type of thing to be a foolish waste of time – the old Soviet Union is a good example of this type of thinking – art, in the view that was prevalent in that system, was only of any value if it helped to glorify the values of Soviet-style socialism. Heroic workers had to be depicted doing their part for the state, for the collective, and so on. The only problem here being that such ‘art’, since it all has an agenda, is very superficial and can’t properly be called ‘art’ at all. Ideology yes, propaganda yes, but art no! As Oscar Wilde has noted, the nature of art is to be useless. If it had any use then it would be trivial, if it had a use then it would be all about preserving equilibrium, preserving the status quo. Art that serves the state isn’t art but merely conformity to a predetermined pattern.
We all know that art isn’t a utilitarian type of thing and that if it does no more than reflect current social values or fashions then it isn’t art at all; we might still however be hard put to say what exactly its value might be. To say that art has no purpose or no agenda is enough however – if it had a purpose or gender then it would define the world for us but it doesn’t and so, through art, we get to live in an undefined world. The trouble with the Defined World, as we have said, is that it fosters a very pernicious type of blindness in us. We have become blind to anything else other than our purposes and the deterministic ‘pseudo-world’ that has been called into existence as a result of us looking at things only in this very narrow way (and which is an echo of our purposes). We are trapped within this world that is made up of our unexamined or taken-for-granted ‘agendas’ and these very same agendas being reflected back at us. We are trapped in the Defined World, in other words, and the reason we can say that we are ‘trapped’ is because there is no freedom here. All there is are our purposes (which are not really ‘our’ purposes at all but purposes that have been imposed upon us) and because ‘all there is are our purposes’ we live in a world that contains only two possibilities – either ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’. And these aren’t actually two possibilities either because both ‘succeeding’ and‘failing’ only ever equal ‘our purposes’(or rather our purposes that aren’t really ‘our’ purposes at all because we can’t question them). Both succeeding and failing equal the rule because it is the rule which we succeed or fail in relation to. Both winning and losing equal ‘the game’ and the game is a trap because when we’re in the game we don’t have the freedom not to play it.
To live in a world that is made up solely of our purposes and the two ‘polar possibilities’ of either succeeding or failing at them is a world with zero freedom in it and saying that we are living in a world that has zero freedom in it is the same thing as saying that we are living permanently under compulsion. We’re told what to do every step of the way in other words, even though we don’t see this to be the case. We don’t see this to be the case because we think that the purposes that have been forcefully imposed upon us are our purposes (because we have identified with them). Struggling to fulfil our purposes doesn’t feel like a trap, therefore. We might of course feel constrained and hemmed in by the necessities of the struggle but because we are orientated towards the possibility of succeeding we feel that ‘freedom from the struggle’ is only just around the corner and this of course has the effect of making our situation bearable for us. What we don’t see however is that ‘success’ in fulfilling our purposes isn’t anything different from ‘our purposes’ but is in fact only our purposes reflected right back at us. We are living in a closed world therefore, but we can’t see this because we are constantly orientated towards an illusory form of freedom.We’ve got an eye on the prize but ‘the prize’ isn’t real!
The Defined World is always a closed world – it is always ‘a world with no freedom in it’. For it to have freedom in it there would to be something in it that is ‘other than it’, something that is ‘not it’, and ‘something that is not it’ means something that is not defined. The Defined World however cannot contain ‘something that is not defined’ in it – if it did then it would no longer be ‘the Defined World’. If the Defined World led on to ‘something else’ then it would be open not closed, and in an Open World definitions don’t mean a thing. We can still have definitions if we want them but they are only ever going to be provisional, they won’t be final and so they won’t really ‘say what anything is’. Our definitions would then be ‘ways of looking at the world that we could drop at any moment’ (or that can be revised at any moment) and so there will be no solidity to them. We won’t be able to rely on them. What we are saying here therefore is that the Defined World can’t be made up of provisional definitions only absolute ones because if it was made up of provisional definitions then it wouldn’t really be defined at all!This is the same thing as saying that the DW can’t have some parts of it that aren’t are defined and some other parts which are – if the thing is to work at all then it all has to be defined, there cannot be any gaps or cracks in the structure. Or if we wanted to express this in terms of games, we can say that a game can’t have any freedom in it – if it did then it wouldn’t be a game. Once we are playing the game then there can’t be any such thing as ‘the freedom not to play’ (or ‘the freedom to see that the game is a game’); in order to play the game we have to veil our own freedom from ourselves, as James Carse says in Finite and Infinite Games.
Human beings, as we have said, have the possibility of not being purposeful or agenda-driven the whole time. This means that we don’t have to spend our entire lives living within the deterministic or mechanical Defined World – we have the chance to avoid that grim fate, we have the chance to live in the Undefined World which is the only real world. The DW claims to be the real world of course – that is exactly its claim. It makes its claim implicitly rather than explicitly by virtue of our conditioned blindness with regard to anything that isn’t relevant to our purposes or agendas. The truth of the matter is that the DW isn’t a world at all – it isn’t a world because it isn’t ‘other’, because it doesn’t actually go anywhere. What the DW actually is is a mere vibration or reverberation, a mere echo of our assumptions. So even though it seems perfectly acceptable and perfectly ‘as it should be’ to be living in the Defined World as the defined identity (or defined self) it’s not actually such a great situation at all, not if the truth be known… It’s not such a great situation because all we are ever doing is mapping out the same tired old possibilities over and over again and – what’s more – the one who is wearily mapping out (or acting) out these tired old possibilities isn’t actually us at all. It isn’t actually us at all because just as the Defined World isn’t the real world, so too the defined identity isn’t a real identity. The Defined World is a projection, and the defined identity is the ‘back projection’ of the projection. Both are echoes of each other, and neither are real.
Our woes originate in the fact that the generic or conditioned identity is an impoverished state of being. Living on the basis of this identity is never going to be much fun – as we can plainly see when we look at things this way. It might seem to us that we are having fun – from time to time – but this is only because we are buying into the deluded perception that we are shortly to become less impoverished and this is cause for great jubilation, naturally enough. This can never actually happen however, conditioned identity – by its very nature – can never not be impoverished and so any pleasure that we might have felt when it seemed that we were getting someone is always going to be counterbalanced by the pain and disappointment that we feel when we discover that this happy eventuality isn’t going to happen after all.
It’s far, far worse to be impoverished in ourselves (so that who we are is the impoverishment, as Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas) then it is to be living in an impoverished environment – this constitutes a very particular type of predicament however because if my identity is impoverished (which is to say, hugely restrictive in terms of the possibilities that are open to us) then we going to have no direct no way of knowing this; we can only know that if we have something else to compare our situation with and we don’t. We can think of this in terms of perspective – if I happen to have very little perspective then I also have no way of knowing that I have very little perspective. And yet at the same time there is no getting away from the suffering that is inherent in our impoverishment, invisible though it might be to us. The cause of the suffering may be unknown to us, but the suffering itself is not – we get to know it very well…
All of this is very well of course but how do we know that the generic or conditioned identity is so very impoverished? How can we justify such a sweeping statement? And what exactly do we mean by ‘the generic or conditioned identity’ anyway? There is after all no point in going on at length about the consequences of having an extremely limited or constrained identity if it hasn’t anyway been established that this is or could be the case. This turns out to be thorny subject to get to grips with and that is because our subjective perception of ourselves (or of others for that matter) is not of ‘extremely limited beings’. We don’t perceive ourselves like this because we don’t see what we ‘lack’. Moreover, it is of course true that this idea is highly objectionable to us, if not to say downright offensive. We are happier saying how great we human beings are and what wonderful things we have achieved. We are much happier talking ourselves up than we are in saying how limited we are, in other words!
It is not however disrespectful to humanity to say that our ordinary situation in life is extraordinarily restricted and – when it comes down to it – entirely unworthy of us. It is actually far more respectful to say this than it is to say that the way we currently is the only way we could be, and that this is our true, undistorted nature. In the first case we are reminded not to get to get complacent and as a result enter into some sort of sentimental love affair with ‘the idea that we have of ourselves’ (which is clearly a healthy thing) whilst in the second case we have been given a totally false sense of security which – far from benefiting us – prevents us from becoming what nature secretly intends us to become, so to speak. In his Guide to the Perplexed E.F. Schumacher makes this point by saying that we have celebrating acorns as ‘an end in themselves’, so to speak, rather than seeing them as a kind of vehicle that leads to something inconceivably greater – the tree itself:
Our ordinary mind always tried to persuade us that we are nothing but acorns and that our greatest happiness will be to become bigger, fatter, shinier acorns; but this is of interest only to pigs. Our faith gives us knowledge of something better: that we can become oak trees.
If I was informed that I was a very, very limited kind of a creature then this could of course be taken as a terrible putdown that should not be tolerated even for a moment, but this is of course plainly ridiculous – this is actually the most valuable information that I could ever receive! To learn this is to have my horizons opened wider beyond anything I could ever have imagined possible. I am however very likely to resist this ‘widening of my horizons’ and stick fast to the small (or restricted) world that I know. By celebrating (or validating) who we think we are, we effectively deny who we really are and this is exactly what ‘the collective of us’ – more known commonly as society – always does. This is not a particularly familiar idea it is true, but ‘the collective of us’ is in this way the implacable enemy of every single individual making up that collective. Society – which presents itself as our friend, our ally, our ‘life-support system’ – is actually our greatest enemy, as Carl Jung pointed out eighty years ago or so.
This gives us a very good way of talking about the generic or conditioned identity therefore – we can say that what we are looking at here is a kind of ‘social fiction’ that we are required to identify with if we are to be taken seriously (or even acknowledged at all) by all the people around us, and by the social system as a whole. In a way, this is like having a Social Security number or something like that – if we don’t have a Social Security number then the system literally has no way of recognising us, as far as it is concerned we simply don’t exist. In another way what we’re talking about here isn’t like a Social Security number because it is who we actually experience ourselves as being! We obediently experience ourselves as being ‘who we are told we are’. This is similar to identifying ourselves with our social role, which is something that Jung talks about, but there is more to it than just this because the collectively constructed template (or image) of ‘what it means to be human being’ covers everything, not just what we do or how we behave in certain specific social situations. It covers every single aspect of us, such that if we ever started to become aware of an aspect of ourselves that was not congruent with ‘the socially approved image of what it means to be human being’ then we would experience this as being weird or strange and we would be very likely to be majorly worried about what was happening to us.
It might sound rather absurd to suggest that he could be so socially conditioned to such an extreme degree but if we think this then that is because we have underestimated the power of the consensus reality! When something out of the ordinary happens to us then what we generally do is to tell our ‘friendship group’ about it, or anyone else who can be persuaded to listen to us. If however something happens to me that is so ‘out of the ordinary’ that no one I meet has had any experience with it, nor knows anyone else who has, then obviously I can’t share it – I can try to tell people about it but that just won’t work in this case. The question is therefore, if something happens to me but I can’t tell anyone about it then is what happened actually real? Our inclination is to say yes it is!’ When this sort of thing happens to us (and particularly when it happens consistently enough) we always find that we start doubting ourselves, wondering if perhaps there might be something wrong with us. We might doubt our sanity. Consensus reality isn’t just something that is ‘convenient for communication’ therefore, it defines reality for us. The real purpose of the consensus reality is to define reality. It might have started out as ‘a convenience’ but it has ended up very much more than this. It has ended up being a world. ‘We all say it so it must be true,’ says a spokesman for the Monkey People in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
It is a matter of common experience that if we go up against someone in a debate who happens to be considerably more confident in themselves than we are then we will start to feel that they are right, not because of the sense or otherwise of their arguments but purely as a result of the force of their confidence (which in turn might be said to be a function of their ability to ‘not question themselves’). If this is true in a one-to-one situation (as it obviously is) then how much more true must it be when we are going up against the consensus reality, which is constituted of millions of people all joined up together in one tremendous ‘power block’? The consensus reality never questions itself – it is actually functionally incapable of doing so – and so its power is absolutely immense. The ‘false logic of the monkey people’ rules supreme and it always has done. The coercive power of the ‘collective reality tunnel’ – to use Robert Anton Wilson’s phrase – determines what is real for us and what is not and what it ‘allows as being real’ (what we are actually allowed to talk about or think about) is very, very narrow indeed and, as we have said, ‘narrow’ is just another way saying ‘impoverished’. It isn’t just our picture of what reality (supposedly) is that is extraordinarily impoverished either; it is our conditioned understanding of who or what we are.
The Western world has turned mindfulness into a form of grasping – we are grasping at peace, we are grasping at ‘stillness’. Grasping is grasping however – it doesn’t matter in the least bit what we are grasping for. Naturally, grasping at peace or grasping at stillness isn’t going to work – we’re going wrong straightaway. We’re off on the wrong footing: striving for peace is a perfect self-contradiction, just as making ‘stillness’ into a goal is. Striving (or strategising) is the antithesis of peace and stillness (we might say) is when we stop having goals and trying to reach them!
We spend so much time striving (or ‘conceiving and chasing goals’) – it’s a full-time activity and so we’re fed up with it, exhausted by it, drained by it. The prospect of blessed peace, of abiding serenely in stillness, invokes such yearning for us, therefore. We know on some level that it’s what we need. Who wants to be ‘struggling for results’ the whole time, after all? When it comes down to it, this translates into suffering and nothing else. Striving is always suffering. We are constantly tantalised and unsettled by the thought of ‘something better’ and this keeps us striving and straining, but really this feeling we have that ‘one day we’re going to get there’ isn’t a good thing (even if we think it is); it isn’t a good thing because this mind-created mirage is the reason we’re striving and straining all the time.
We are fed up on a very deep level of struggling and striving the whole time because struggling and striving the whole time is really just a sort of illness. It’s an itch and the more we scratch at it the worse it gets. Constant, never-ending purposeful behaviour is a burden for us and so the prospect of finding relief from it is very attractive indeed – we want a break, we want a holiday from it. What we do then however – without realising the irony of what we’re doing – is to start striving to achieve the state of ‘non-striving’, struggling desperately to reach that place where we don’t have to struggle any more.
‘Not grasping’ is an alien concept to us, in other words – we think we get it but we don’t. We think that ‘not grasping’ is the kind of a thing that we can – as a concept – utilise to benefit ourselves and this sounds reasonable enough to us. Why wouldn’t it seem reasonable? We have discovered that meditation, when regularly practiced, reduces stress and anxiety and produces feelings of well-being and peace and so why wouldn’t we utilise this discovery? It wouldn’t make sense not to do so! This is very obvious logic but because it is so obvious we miss the more subtle point, which is a point that we really need to understand.
The ‘more subtle point’ is the understanding that if we have any notion at all in our heads that we are doing something that is going to benefit us then we are grasping and if we are grasping then we can’t be meditating! As Krishnamurti says [Quote taken from awaken.com] –
Every decision to control only breeds resistance, even the determination to be aware. Meditation is the understanding of the division brought about by decision. Freedom is not the act of decision but the act of perception. The seeing is the doing. It is not a determination to see and then to act. After all, will is desire with all its contradictions. When one desire assumes authority over another, that desire becomes will. In this there is inevitable division. And meditation is the understanding of desire, not the overcoming of one desire by another. Desire is the movement of sensation, which becomes pleasure and fear. This is sustained by the constant dwelling of thought upon one or the other.
‘Trust Krishnamurti to be awkward,’ we might think but it’s not Krishnamurti that is being awkward here (of course) but life itself. Life is insolubly awkward in this regard; we can’t obtain it by trying to obtain it – the ‘trying’ is precisely what messes it all up! ‘What we cling to we lose,’ as the Buddhist saying goes, and this is a formidably difficult lesson to learn. It’s no hyperbole to say that this is the most difficult lesson to learn full stop. It’s as difficult as it is because it goes totally against the grain, because it is so completely and utterly counterintuitive. It goes against our common sense big time.
‘What we cling to we lose and what we give up we gain,’ we might say, and even though this principle is very easily stated it’s not so easy to put it into practice. The understanding is not so easy to put it into practice because we automatically try to exploit it – we automatically try to exploit all of our insights. We understand that ‘if we give it away then we will gain it’ and so – being clever as we are – we change our tactics to ‘deliberately giving it away’!). This is what happens to so many religiously-minded people – they are being ‘good on purpose,’ but being good on purpose isn’t being good. It’s not the same thing at all. Being ‘good on purpose’ is grasping; all purposeful behaviour is grasping! All purposeful activity is grasping and all we know is purposeful activity. Take this away from us and what have we got left?
Coming back to mindfulness, it is of course perfectly reasonable, perfectly understandable that we would sign up for a course, or start learning by practising on our own, with the idea that this is going to be helpful for us, or that some of our problems may be addressed in this way. We can hardly be blamed for this; if it were not with this particular idea then the chances are that we would have never started practising in the first place! Pain, and the hope of being free from it, is what causes us to go looking for an answer; it also provides us with ample motivation to keep working at it and not give up. The idea that mindfulness is a strategy or tool that can help bring about the desired outcome of more peace (or less suffering) in our lives is therefore absolutely OK, but what needs to happen later on is for us to gain the understanding that meditation is not a sophisticated form of purposefulness and that it cannot be used to bring about some goal or other that we have in mind. The necessary learning is that ‘we cannot have a purpose behind our practice’, in other words.
It is only natural that this awareness will come about (all by itself) as a result of our increasing familiarity with the practice of meditation. What we are learning in meditation is precisely that grasping is counter-productive and that the more we grasp the less peace we will have. We get to see this by observing the mind and we also get to see that ‘grasping at non-grasping’ (or ‘trying to do not-doing’) isn’t going to work either. We can’t intend to have no intention and we can’t have an agenda to drop all our agendas. What are we doing in meditation is cultivating awareness and awareness is the state of non-grasping. It’s the thing that has ‘nothing to do with us’, in other words. Within the context of the particular type of culture that we are part of (which is a rational/purposeful culture) this understanding gets jinxed however. It gets jinxed because it is so very hard to separate ourselves from the society that we are part of and which duly determines our implicit understanding of life and who we are.
So because of the way in which we as a culture do over-value purposefulness (and it can hardly be doubted that we do so; all we have to do is look at all of our talk of tools and strategies and of managing this, that or the other and of beating depression and combating anxiety, and so on and so forth) those of us whose job it is to run mindfulness courses don’t appreciate how vital it is to give up our agendas and goals, and give up our desire for things to change as a result of practising meditation. As a result of this lack of insight what happens is that we end up being bizarrely split in two – we work harder and harder at ‘not grasping’ in a meditation practice but behind it all we have this big rational agenda for ‘things to change’. Mindfulness has become the tool of the rational mind in other words, and that’s getting it the wrong way around.
If we are using mindfulness as a tool then it is never going to work for us. It can’t work because we are putting thought in the driving seat when it was overvaluing rationality that created all our problems in the first place. This isn’t to say that ‘using mindfulness as a tool of the rational mind’ won’t result in any benefits because it can but rather that any benefits obtained will be paid for later on in terms of other difficulties that have not yet made themselves known to us. All systems are like this – they take us around in circles, they provide short-term benefits at the cost of long-term snags. They create new problems as they solve the old ones. This is a double-bind, as Alan Watts says. It is what Gregory Bateson refers to as ‘the cybernetic paradox’) and what Ivan Illich – speaking from a sociological viewpoint, calls specific counterproductivity. We’re trying to get somewhere and yet at the same time hang on to our ideas about the world and this isn’t ever going to work. We’re chaining ourselves to our underlying assumptions and so how is anything ever going to change?
The only way we can genuinely change is if we let go of control completely, and this happens to be the one thing we don’t want to do! We don’t want to ‘go all the way,’ even though we might like to pretend to ourselves that we do. We’re dipping our toes in the water but that’s as far as we’re ever going to go! We’re ‘playing at embracing change’ but that doesn’t mean a thing. The bottom line (which we very rarely own up to) is that we are terrified of letting go of control (this is what being ‘over-invested in purposefulness’ always means, of course) and so we put on a good show even though our heart isn’t really in it. Meditation – Krishnamurti says – is ‘a movement happens all by itself’ and just as long as we (however surreptitiously) are trying to ‘have a hand in that movement’ it is never going to happen.
The true nature of who we are isn’t what we say we are, it’s what we don’t say. And yet just about all we ever do is go around saying who or what we are! We weave a dense and sticky web of identity, and then get caught up in it. The more we try to say who we are (and the more we believe in what we’re saying) the more tangled up we get.
The culture that we are part of may be described in lots of different ways – it has been described as a rational culture, a technological culture, a consumer culture, a materialist culture, and so on but what it really is – most essentially – is the culture of the positive self. The ‘positive self’ is the known self, the self that can be described and communicated to others. Our culture is all about the positive self and the reason we can’t see this to be true is because we take the positive self so very much for granted that it’s just not an issue for us. It’s not an issue for us any more than the fact that the sky is blue is an issue. The only time we do get our attention drawn to the limitations of the positive self is when it starts to develop ‘aches and pains’ (so to speak) and then of course we become painfully aware of it, just as we become painfully aware of our kidneys when we have a kidney infection.
This analogy is fine up to a point but where it breaks down is in the fact that the positive self isn’t legitimately part of us. The positive self is a construct, or as we might also say, it is ‘an artificial implant’; just as Carlos Castaneda says that our mind is not our own but a ‘foreign installation’, so too is the thought-created identity that this mind has provided us with. Inasmuch as ‘who we are’ and ‘what we are about’ makes sense to our fellow human beings (or to society in general) then who we understand ourselves to be is an arbitrary mental construct or ‘foreign installation’. We have been tricked in a very fundamental way and there can be no two ways about this. If we are to understand anything in life it ought to be this. If we don’t understand it then everything we do is in vain!
What this means is that ‘the need to exist’ or rather, ‘the need to be recognised as existing’ becomes the same thing as ‘the need to identify with the societal construct of who we are and what we are about’; if we don’t do this then we just won’t be acknowledged as existing. We will be ‘unpeople’. The need to exist and have a place in the world is very strong of course; just as it is natural for a tree to grow and put out roots and branches, it is also natural for us to want to be acknowledged as existing and find our proper place in this world, to ‘belong’, as it is said. But what’s happening here is that this natural urge is being subverted so that all about energy goes in the ‘wrong direction’, so to speak. It’s the wrong direction simply because it benefits the positive self; it benefits the mask we are wearing, and not the one who is wearing the mask. What is beneficial to the image is harmful to us.
The whole of society is nothing more than a game for benefiting the positive or stated self, when it comes down to it. It’s true that our bodies benefit from improved health care, improved sanitation, having an environment to live in which is relatively free from danger and disease, but we never pause to wonder who it is that is routinely inhabiting this body of ours, and whether that inhabitant is us. We never stop to wonder whether it is us, or whether it is some cuckoo-like pretender that been implanted and has somehow taken over! This is of course such an outrageous suggestion that no one is ever going to take it seriously. It’s extremely unlikely that anyone is going to give this idea the time of day – the notion that I might have made the mistake of identifying with false persona, a false self, a false idea of who I am, is not one that is ever going to occur to me, not in the usual run of things. And yet this is precisely the danger that Carl Jung warned of over seventy years ago, the danger that the social persona will ‘grow onto our flesh’ and end up living our lives for us, ‘on behalf of us’, so to speak. After talking about how we can be ‘possessed by ideas’, as strange as this may sound, Jung, in Collected Works 9(1) p, 123, goes on to say this:
A common instance of this is identity with the persona, which is the individual’s system of adaptation to, or the manner he assumes in dealing with, the world. Every calling or profession, for example, has its own characteristic persona. It is easy to study these things nowadays, when the photographs of public personalities so frequently appear in the press. A certain kind of behaviour is forced on them by the world, and professional people endeavour to come up to these expectations. Only, the danger is that they become identical to their personas – the professor with his text-book, the tenor with his voice. Then the damage is done; henceforth he lives exclusively against the background of his own biography. For by that time it is written: “…then he went to such and such a place and said this or that,” etc. The garment of Deianeira has grown fast to his skin, and a desperate decision like that of Heracles is needed if he is to tear this Nessus shirt from his body and step into the consuming fire of the flame of immortality, in order to transform himself into what he really is. One could say, with a little exaggeration, that the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is. In any case, the temptation to be what one seems to be is great, because the persona is usually rewarded in cash.
The writer Colin Wilson approaches this from a different angle when he says that we hand over our responsibility for living our lives to a collection of habits and reflexes which he calls ‘the robot’. (For the sake of convenience) I don’t have to answer the front door myself – my butler will do that for me. Similarly, I don’t have to live my life for myself – the robot will take care of that! As Colin Wilson says here (in a quote taken from a conversation Jeffrey Mishlove on intuitionnetwork.org):
Yes, well, you see, the basic point about the philosophy of Gurdjieff, and I suppose about my own basic ideas, is this recognition that we have inside us what I call the robot — a sort of robot valet or servant who does things for you. So you learn something like talking French or driving a car or skiing or whatever, painfully and consciously, step by step. Then the robot takes it over and does it far more quickly and efficiently that you could do it consciously. However, the important thing is not to interfere with the robot once he’s learned it, because you completely screw him up if you do. Now, the robot does all these valuable things like talking French and so on for us. The trouble is he also does the things we do not want him to do. We listen to a piece of music; it moves us deeply the first time. We read a poem, we go for a country walk, whatever, and it moves us. But the second or third time you do it, the robot is listening to the music or reading the poetry or doing the country walk for you. I said I’ve even caught him making love to my wife. And this is our real problem — that the robot keeps taking us over and doing the things that we would rather do.
Convenience is of course a great thing as we all know, but when things get this convenient (when convenience gets taken to the logical extreme and we don’t actually have to be there any more) then it stops being ‘convenient’ and becomes something else entirely! It stops being a good thing becomes a very bad thing indeed – after all, who wants to get to the end of their life and only then realise that it wasn’t them that lived it, but rather that the ‘captain at the helm’ was a mere collection of habits and reflexes? That is like having a ghost live your life instead of you because you couldn’t be bothered to step in yourself, because you were ‘otherwise engaged’. Or we could say that it’s like being banned by the authorities from attending your own birthday party – what’s the point of having a birthday party if you yourself are not invited, or if you yourself are a ‘persona non grata’?
This turns out to be exactly the case when cuckoo-like positive self gets to manoeuvre itself sneakily into the ‘prime position’ – the first thing it does is to get rid of any remaining traces of who we really are and thus our true individuality becomes the unwelcome guest, the one who is unceremoniously shown the door every time they put in an appearance. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead there is a line that says something to the effect that if we spend our entire lives being interested in nonsense that has nothing to do with us (and which we’re not even really interested in any way) then at the end of our life we will find that we have been our own betrayers! We’ve done the dirty on ourselves and sold ourselves up the river as a result of identifying with the ‘false or shallow sense of ourselves’, and constantly seeking benefits for this false idea of who we are at the expense of our true nature. In Christianity this is equivalent to the idea of selling us soul to the devil in return for paltry material advantages in this brief lifetime. It might seem like a good time at the time (because we’re not really thinking it through) but when we discover that we have been cheated of the only thing that is actually worth something this is going to be a very hard awareness to have to face up to.
The positive self most definitely is something that we adopt for the sake of convenience. It is convenient because it is known to us, and thus no work is needed to investigate it (as a philosopher or mystic might do) and it is also convenient because this is how we get to be ‘optimally adapted to the social world in which we find ourselves’. This process (which is very much akin to the ‘slippery slope into addiction’ that is talked about by recovering addicts) starts at a very early age, as we all know. It starts when, as a result of the need to be accepted and loved, we try to become the sort of people that our parents want us to be rather than remaining true to really are. Then at school we are under further pressure to fit into the crowd and be the sort of person who is popular rather than unpopular (or at least, the sort of person who is inconspicuous rather than the sort who sticks out as being somewhat odd and is liable on this account to be given a hard time). This process – needless to say – doesn’t stop at school but continues throughout our adult life too – just as long as we are part of a collective then are going to be under pressure to conform to that collective and this is a process that (as Jung says) brings material short-term benefits at a terrible long-term cost. We spend all our time grasping at tacky phantoms, and missed what was really there.
This cost is – then – that we end up cheating ourselves out of our own lives and the awareness that this has happened (the awareness that this is what we have unwittingly done) is one of the most painful awarenesses is that it’s possible to have, if not the most painful. In our decidedly unphilosophical culture we tend to label this sort of terribly painful awareness ‘depression’ and we think that it is something that can be cured by pills or a dozen sessions of talking therapy, which is rather an odd idea to say the least. As in all the neurotic conditions, we don’t tend to understand our experience in this way when we ourselves happen to be suffering from depression – our social milieu doesn’t support an insight such as this, as we have already said. It is seen as a pathological manifestation, a sickness, and because our experience is so very painful we tend to see it this way too. We certainly don’t think that there is anything good about it. We think that there is something wrong with us, possibly something organically wrong but we also believe that we are suffering from some kind of very serious moral failing (or character failing) as well. We might feel like bad people – undeserving of happiness, and undeserving of life itself. We might feel deserving of punishment or death.
These feelings are real and the pain that is in them is real, but our interpretation is distorted because of our identification with the false self that has been so conveniently created for us by our thoughts, and by the insidious process of socialisation. If I feel undeserving of happiness, undeserving of life, and that there is something terribly wrong with me at my core, this is just a distorted version of the awareness that the positive or defined self is not who I am. I feel like a fake or phony or if I feel that I am not truly alive (but am only a hollow shell) then this too is a distorted echo (or inversion) of the insight regarding the false nature of the positive self, and the way that it functions by passing itself off as what it isn’t. By association with the false self, we are guilty of the crime of taking what never belong to us, and disenfranchising the true heir (so to speak). As soon as we stop confusing who we are with the positive self these feelings of guilt and self-loathing or self-condemnation will pass, but this can only happen when we see through the superficial culture that surrounds us, which endlessly and pointlessly celebrates the tawdry ‘known image’ in place of the mystery which it obscures.
Mental health is a state of non-adaptation to our environment. This is of course totally contrary to our usual way of understanding things because our automatic tendency is to see mental health as a state of adaptation, not non-adaptation. To say that someone is ‘maladapted’ is prejudicial, not complimentary. It’s like being a misfit, oddball, or eccentric – who wants to be seen as a misfit, oddball or eccentric?
The thing is however that being a misfit is actually a healthier state of affairs – generally speaking – because there is more autonomy in it. There is no autonomy in being perfectly adapted to whatever society or culture we might happen to be part of – there is zero autonomy here because when we are perfectly adapted to the society we are part of then we are that society and there’s nothing else there ‘in the mix, so to speak. We are a ‘perfect expression of our cultural milieu’ and that doesn’t leave any room for this little thing called ‘individuality’, which happens to be a rather important thing, easy though it is to lose sight of.
Individuality is ‘important’ (if we can use that rather inadequate word) because it’s who we are. We are in our essence ‘non-adapted’, in other words. How can a genuine individual be adapted, after all? When we are socially adapted then we are exactly the same as everyone else who is socially adapted – if we weren’t then we wouldn’t be adapted! We’d be ‘odd’ instead, we’d be ‘unique’. We pay a lot of lip service to the notion that everyone is unique and that we every human being is precious on this account but that’s all it is – empty lip service. Our latent individuality is denied right from the word go – the process of socialisation is by its very nature one in which we are all adjusted to a common template. This truth is too ugly for us to want to face.
To be ‘adjusted’ to our environment (which is, for almost all of us, the same thing being adjusted to society) is to be defined by that environment and – as we have just said – to be defined by our environment (or to be defined by society) is to be that environment, that society. We fit into it and so we are it. Instead of being unique and therefore ‘irreplaceable’ (which is the ideal that we are always paying lip service to) we are regular and thus completely irreplaceable, completely interchangeable. We become generic human units. We don’t like to confront the fact that this is the case because the fact in question is particularly appalling, but this is nevertheless the truth of the matter, as Carl Jung pointed out seventy or eighty years ago, when the world was considerably less uniform than it is today. The more connectivity there is in the world the more we are compelled to adjust ourselves to the ‘mass template’; we’re compelled to adapt to the system because if we don’t then we’re straightaway ‘out of the loop’, and so – in a very real sense – we’re out in the cold.
This is a very straightforward trade-off, therefore – either we go for adaptation to the common template and the chance of success within the terms of the game that is being played, or we ‘go our own way’ in life, in which case we are no longer on the same page as everyone else and do not subscribe to the same value system. We have become ‘irrelevant’ to society (which also means of course that society has become irrelevant to us). This isn’t a particularly hard idea to grasp and neither is it something that will be regarded as being overly controversial, but all the same we have failed – on a very large scale – to apply this basic understanding to the much talked-about topic of mental health. We stop short of seeing the obvious, which is that adaptation to mass society is always injurious to our mental health!
Social adaptation, just to repeat the point once more, means that we come to believe that we are who society says we are. The problem with this (mental health-wise) is that ‘who society says we are’ is not who we really are and so our actual individuality is neglected, ignored, sidelined, and ultimately relegated to the waste bin. Instead, we ‘celebrate who we are not’. Sometimes we don’t celebrate ourselves of course, sometimes we have a poor opinion of ourselves, but exactly the same is true here – instead of ‘celebrating who we’re not’ we ‘have a low opinion of who we’re not, but who society says we are’ and this is exactly the same thing. We are fixated upon a false identity either way. When I feel good about myself it’s because I’m comparing myself to the common template that I’ve adapted myself to and when I feel bad about myself (when I feel like a failure) it is also because I’m comparing myself to the common template, but this template is only meaningful because society itself says that it is. That’s just the game that we are playing, the game that we’re trapped in.
This means that both having good self-esteem and poor self esteem are both equally mentally unhealthy, therefore. These two states are both equally unhealthy because the ‘self’ in question is an arbitrary societal construct that has nothing to do with who we really are. If I seem from the outside to be doing really well in life then everyone will say that this is a good state of affairs but when the socially adapted persona is successful this is bad news from a psychological point of view; it is bad news for the psyche because the true individuality is being repressed suppressed for the sake of a societal construct, for the sake of a societal role! It has often been said that the only thing that really matters in life is ‘having a sense of meaning’ and there is zero meaning in pursuing the ‘false life’ of the arbitrary persona the expense of the actual individuality!
There is, we might say, a type of meaning in the life of the persona, but this is more of a surrogate for meaning rather than anything else. What we’re talking about here is extrinsic meaning, which is the meaning that has been given to us from some external authority. Society tells us who we are and – by the same token – it tells us what is meaningful to us (or to put this another way, ‘the system tells us what we like’). When we lead this life, therefore, we will perceive our goals as being meaningful, and we will perceive achieving these goals as meaningful, but this extrinsic system of meaning, when we buy into it, always causes us to lose sight of what really matters to us. We betray ourselves for the sake of getting a stake in samsara, as Sogyal Rinpoche says (although not in exactly those words). Extrinsic meaning causes us to forget about what is genuinely meaningful to us and so this isn’t ‘meaning’ at all but ‘the disguised lack of meaning’…
When the meaning I perceive my life to have for me is really ‘the disguised lack of meaning’ then this clearly isn’t good news as far as our mental health is concerned! It’s actually the worst news possible because what is happening here is that I’m moving deeper and deeper into an existential desert or wasteland and any impression that I might have that ‘things are going well’ or that ‘I’m getting somewhere’ are simply delusions designed to lure us ever deeper into the trap of disguised meaninglessness. Anything that matters to the persona or that is important to the persona is disguised meaninglessness! This social matrix is exclusively made up of stuff that matters or is important to the socialised persona – that’s the whole point of it after all. What else would the social matrix be made up of? When we live the life of the construct that is derived from the social milieu then this is not a ‘healthy’ situation, to say the least…
When we live life on the basis that identity that is constructed by reference to the social milieu then this is an artificial loop that ‘feeds upon itself’, so to speak. It’s an example of Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreality. It feeds on itself and so our actual individuality never comes into it, even though we don’t usually notice this because we have the ‘false individuality’ of the adapted self to trade on instead, which seems to be the real thing as far as we’re concerned. This has to be the case because – as we have already said – our actual individuality is, by its very nature, completely unadapted. Individuality is always non-adapted (or ‘out of equilibrium’) – that’s what makes it individual, or unique, after all!
In our ‘rush to belong’ we’ve lost sight of this and we’ve lost sight of it in a big way – the problem being that when we are ‘100% adapted to the presented reality’ then we have nothing else to go on. In order to see consensus reality for what it is – and not what it presents itself as being – we would have to ‘take a step sideways’, so to speak, and look at it from a non-adapted viewpoint, and that is that very thing we are most disincentivized to do. Who wants to look or be laughed at, after all? Who wants to be an outsider? This is a lesson we learn very early in life. We learn it for sure, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a healthy thing to learn…
What is winning and what is losing? What does it mean to be a success and what does it mean to be a failure? Usually – almost always – we are in far too much of a hurry to ask these questions. We are in too much of a hurry to win rather than lose, too much of a hurry to succeed rather than fail. That’s ‘the name of the game’, as they say.
As is the case with all games, unreflective action is the thing – we struggle to get it right and not get it wrong, without ever looking into the all-important question of why the one thing would be ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’. We never ask what should be the ‘all-important question’. The point of the game however is not to test the validity of the framework which we are operating within, or query the meaningfulness of our goals – if we did that then there would be no more game. The whole point of playing a game is to accept the framework unreflectively, to take it for granted that the goals are meaningful and see where this exercise gets us. We proceed on the given basis and that is what makes it possible to play the game, as we all know.
The thing about being a winner or loser, a success or a failure, is that we can’t for the life of us see that this is only a game! In everyday life, when I feel myself to be a success’ I feel very good and other people will envy me my success and want to be like me. When I perceive myself to be a loser or a failure then I will feel very bad in myself and other people will be glad not to follow my example – they will be happy not to be me. We look up to people who are designated as successes and down on those who are regarded as failures and this – whether we want to admit it or not – is what society is all about.
When we feel ourselves very strongly to be ‘failures’ in our lives this constitutes intense suffering and there is no way that we perceive this suffering to be merely ‘part of the game we’re playing’. There is absolutely no way in which we perceive ‘being a failure’ or ‘being a loser’ as merely being designations in the game, something that only makes sense within the context of the game that’s been playing. If we did, then we wouldn’t of course be feeling so bad. It’s precisely the fact that we don’t know that we are playing a game that makes the pain we are in so cruel. What is essentially happening here is that we have taken the game of society (for the game of ‘the social value system’) so very seriously that it is causing us great suffering. This is a type of sickness therefore.
In the same way, when we go around feeling good about ourselves because we have a high status in terms of the social hierarchy then we are basing this good feeling on an illusion. This too is a sickness, and it’s a sickness that we ‘enjoy suffering from’, so to speak. We think that we are enjoying it, at any rate, even though enjoyment that is based on an illusion can’t be worth very much really! It’s all just fantasy currency after all, just like the pretend-money in a game of monopoly. When we feel good about ourselves because of an illusory value system this isn’t just an empty hollow good feeling, a good feeling that has no basis or substance at all, it is also something that prevents us feeling good in a real way. When an illusion thrives, the real gets neglected.
When we feel bad because we have not made of ourselves what society says we should have, then this is clearly an affliction, this is clearly not a healthy situation. I might be feeling bad because of an illusory value system, but the fact that I am feeling bad is real all the same. So the curious thing about this social game that we are playing without knowing it is that when we ‘win’ this is bad for mental health, and when we ‘lose’ then this is bad for our mental health too! Both possibilities equal suffering – the suffering of not being true to who we really are, the suffering that comes when we neglect the truth in favour of an illusion. We make a big deal of ‘mental health’, and go on about it the whole time, but the unpalatable truth is that our collective way of life is itself a harmful or life-denying illusion!
To be mentally healthy – we might say – is to realise that being a success is just empty as being a failure, and that to believe in either label is to bring unnecessary suffering upon ourselves. One way we have a meaningless good feeling that effectively cuts us off from our true nature, the other way we have a meaningless bad feeling that just as effectively alienates us from who we truly are. When we realise this however what is more than likely to happen is that we will ‘redefine the rules of the game that we are playing’ and start playing for ‘spiritual development’ instead of ‘social status’ and ‘material gain’, which were the old milestones. This is what Sogyal Trungpa calls spiritual materialism and this is really just another (improved) way of trying to be ‘winners’ rather than ‘losers’.
When we play the game of ‘spiritual materialism’ then being a winner basically means ‘becoming more spiritual’, which is the greatest joke ever. We really do want this advancement for ourselves and we think that we will be better off in a real way when this happens. Straightaway therefore, we have the same old entrapping polarity of ‘gain versus lose’, ‘succeed versus pain’, ‘right versus wrong’. What does it mean to be a success rather than a failure in this new context, however? What does it mean to be ‘a winner’ within the terms of this particular game? To be a ‘winner’ – no matter what game we might be playing, no matter what goal we might be chasing – always implies ‘being a loser’; we could therefore say that ‘being a winner’ is defined in terms of ‘not being a loser’. This is a very strange tautological definition therefore – if I am a winner then that means that I’m not a loser and if I am a loser then that means that I am not a winner!
This may seem like mere verbal trickery but is much more than this. If we can understand this point then that immediately takes us to the very root of this whole issue. The point is that ‘being a winner’ (or ‘being a success’, or whatever) is merely a label, and all labels are by their nature ‘self-contradictory’, just as all ‘judgements’ or ‘definite statements’ are self-contradictory. This – in essence – means that they don’t actually have any reality to them. Labels or definite statements are so very superficial, so very ‘skinny’ that nothing at all separates the positive statement or the positive definition from its negative counterpart! As we have just said, ‘being a winner only makes sense in terms of ‘not being the loser’ and vice versa. A winner is a loser and a loser is a winner, therefore.
To feel good about being the one and bad about being the other is therefore quite absurd; to spend all our time chasing success and fleeing from the spectre of failure is ‘a theatre of the absurd’. This goes much deeper than we might imagine – when we ask ‘what does it mean to be a winner?’ or ‘what does it mean to be a loser?’ the answer is plain, if we want to see it. It means being a label, being a concept, being a ‘two-dimensional mental construct’. But more than this, we can apply this insight to the question of ‘what does it mean to be a self?’ The concept commonly known as the self only ever has two possibilities open to it – the possibility of doing well and the possibility of doing badly, the possibility of getting it right and the possibility of getting it wrong, the possibility of pleasure and the possibility of pain. The everyday oh-so-familiar sense of self is a polarity, in other words and it can never be more than a polarity. We don’t perceive it as such but such it is; the self is a polarity and polarity is a trap for consciousness.
To say that the self is a polarity might sound a bit odd but on reflection it is undeniable. The self gets to be the self via the all-important boundary that separates it from everything that is not it (which is to say, ‘the rest of the world’). This is a ‘co-dependent pair of opposites’ just as <winner/loser> or <up/down> is. As we have just said, each opposite is defined by saying that it is not the other, which is a closed loop of meaning. In the case of the boundary that separates ‘me’ from ‘the other’, ‘me’ is ‘me’ because it is not ‘the other’ and ‘the other’ is ‘the other’ because it is not ‘me’, and this is, as we have said, a tautological (or ‘empty’) definition. ‘Self’ and ‘other’ can only be defined in terms of each other and means that the two definitions don’t actually mean anything. It’s a game, a ‘closed loop of meaning,’ and yet we have been tricked into believing that it is real. Our sickness is therefore (as we have said) the sickness of believing that a game is not a game…
We worship purposefulness – motivational speaker and life coach Tony Robbins says that ‘activity without purpose is the drain of your life’. How great it would be if only we could be purposeful the whole time, without any wasteful (and pointless) purposelessness! What a splendidly meaningful life that would be, we might think.
The only drawback here – and this is something that conveniently never occurs to us – is that all of our purposes, no matter how splendid they might seem – are ‘made up things’. Because our purposes are ‘made up things’ (and how could they be otherwise, since there are no ‘purposes’ in reality itself?) they wouldn’t be there unless we said that they were, and because they aren’t there unless we say that they are we have to keep on saying that they are. We’re caught on a hook here. This means that not only do we have to keep on struggling gamely to realise the purpose in question, we also have to struggle to keep on confirming to ourselves that our purposes are real and meaningful and worth – on this account – struggling for!
This is a kind of tortuous knot therefore – the situation is not at all as straightforward as we might have thought it to be. ‘Having a purpose’, as everyone says, gives us meaning in life. That’s why we love goals so much. That’s why we love having a plan. But the fact that we ourselves have to maintain the meaningfulness of the goal or purpose takes this meaningfulness away again. If I have to assert that something is true in order for it to be so then this renders the whole exercise is meaningless. Truth that I myself have to agree upon is not truth and meaning that I myself have to ‘make up’ is not meaning. On the contrary, it’s a game…
If we want to enjoy the ‘meaningfulness’ of the purposeful life we have therefore to play a game with ourselves. What we have to do is keep the part of the exercise whereby we ‘maintain the meaningfulness of the purpose’ secret from ourselves so that we don’t know we doing it. We ‘arrange’ for the purpose to be a purpose (because it wouldn’t be one otherwise) but we keep it quiet from ourselves that we are doing this. This might on the face of it seem to be a neat trick (and on the face of it, it is a neat trick) but the long and the short of the matter is that we are deceiving ourselves, and so no matter how much effort we put into it, this isn’t really going tos get us anywhere! Progress in the game is not real progress, after all. and what’s more, we’ve ‘made an enemy of the truth’ with this manoeuvre – there’s always going to be this ‘unwelcome awareness’ waiting in the wings and that unwelcome or refused awareness is going to cast a shadow on us, even when we seem to be at our happiest. Life can’t be lived on the basis of secrets, after all…
If there is to be meaning then it cannot be created by us, it cannot be arranged in advance through the manoeuvre of having a plan or a purpose. We may choose for this, that or the other to be meaningful and society might designate this, that that or the other to have meaning, but this isn’t real meaning. It is ‘assigned meaning’. This is ‘meaning that is imposed from without’ rather than meaning that comes, all by itself, ‘from within’. What allows meaning from within (or intrinsic meaning) to arise within us is lack of pressure, lack of control, lack of intention; when we are busy being purposeful then this is like a brick wall keeping intrinsic meaning out. If we are under pressure to ‘achieve’ the whole time then this is going to starve us of any genuine sense meaningfulness in our lives therefore. We may not notice this deficiency because extrinsic meaning (which equals ‘rules’ or ‘pressure’ or ‘compulsivity’) has substituted itself for the real thing. When compulsion is in the driver’s seat then we will be oblivious to intrinsic meaning, which is a far subtler sort of thing. It is far subtler, and it does not push itself upon us. It is not a loud blaring foghorn voice – it does not bellow at us, it does not threaten or cajole us.
So far from it being the case that purposeless activity is a drain upon us, it is – because of its non-compulsive or non-coercive nature – leaving the door open for what used to be called grace. Without grace, life is graceless (needless to say!) and purposeful/mechanical activity, even though we can’t necessarily see it to be so, is graceless. Conventional ‘wisdom’ warns us that the devil finds work for idle hands and this is, we might say, ‘the dark side of the work ethic’. The dark side of the work ethic is that what underpins our so admirable industry is the fear of what might happen if ever we were to stop! Some forms of Christian evangelicalism hold that meditation is a dangerous practice for this very reason – if we cease with all of our wall-to-wall mental busyness then we are, in effect, leaving the citadel of purposeful selfhood unguarded, and when we do that then the devil can walk right in and take over. It’s not just prayer that protects us from Satan therefore – ordinary, run-of-the-mill thinking activity does too. This however constitutes a fundamental mistrust of life itself; it is reminiscent of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, which is a way of looking at things which means we even have to distrust our actual nature, which is said to be tainted with this thing called ‘Original Sin’. We have been warned of this inherited curse down through the centuries and so we stay busy out of our fear, not because of the worthwhile goals that we are to attain. To relax is tantamount to sinning!
Once we start off from this standpoint it will never occur to us that what might ‘come in’ if we lower our personality defences might actually be a beneficial sort of thing, and not satanic at all, notwithstanding the famous Protestant work ethic. Kierkegaard, himself a devout Christian, tells us that idleness, of the right sort (i.e. not mere ‘self-distraction’), is the divine life itself –
Idleness, we are accustomed to say, is the root of all evil. To prevent this evil, work is recommended…. Idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; on the contrary, it is truly a divine life, if one is not bored….
Our goals and purposes are our own affair – they don’t connect us with life, no matter what we might think to the contrary. When we are busy in this goal-orientated way then we are ‘preoccupied’, we are ‘closed’ with regard to anything that isn’t relevant to the goals that we have in mind. The same is true for thinking – when we are busy thinking then we’re not paying attention to anything other than our thoughts. In order to genuinely ‘attend’ – which is how we connect with reality – we have to drop our purposeful doing and thinking and this is precisely the thing that, in our rational-purposeful culture, we find so difficult to do. Somehow, doing has become so important to us that we no longer have any time for being. Saying this is not to dismiss the importance of doing, or purposeful behaviour. By grounding our doing in being it becomes more effective; the best action arises from stillness, as it is said in the East.
As Alan Watt says, when we think of the time then we have nothing to think about but our own thoughts and this very effectively disconnects us from reality. The same is true with our purposefulness: – if we are purposeful the whole time then this is actually ‘being busy for the sake of being busy’ – wall-to-wall busyness means that we never get a chance to come up for air’ and ‘check in with ourselves’ about what we are actually doing. We never refer to actual reality, in other words. It’s not our ‘purposelessness’ that’s the big danger when it comes down to it therefore but our dreadful ‘non-stop busyness’ – this is the real ‘drain’, this is the real plague. Because of the ‘insulating’ character of the goal-orientated mode (the fact that we can’t see the bigger picture when we’re focused on the details) it all too easy happens that – as we have said – we become disconnected from both reality and from our own true nature – which is ‘spontaneous’ not ‘purposeful’. We get so caught up in the ‘how’ that we lose sight of the ‘why’.
This is a phenomenon that is very prevalent in our culture, as we keep saying. It’s a contagion that we have all been infected with, to some degree or other. Extrinsic meaning is such a ‘bully’ that it never gives us any time to listen to anything else (any quieter or less forceful voices) – it gives us this task to do, then the next, and then the next after that and it never lets up. When people talk about ‘working to live’ rather than ‘living to work’ this is what they’re talking about: the healthy way of things is when we engage in purposefulness for a specific and practical reason, and so when we’re done we can return to our natural state of stillness, or ‘purposelessness’. As we have said, who we really are is not purposeful – we don’t exist for the sake of fulfilling purposes, after all! Idleness brings us closer to the divine state of being, as Kierkegaard says. Everything has already been achieved (so to speak) and so what’s our problem? What’s got into us to be constantly seeking goals without ever a break, as if there were some sort of virtue in restlessness? Once we go down the road of overvaluing rationality and purposefulness, then this very quickly turns into the sort of thing whereby we lose track of who we really are and what life is really about. Life isn’t really about ‘anything in particular’ of course; we can however say what it’s not about though – it’s not about being purposeful for the whole time like some kind of demented machine that doesn’t know when to stop!
If we distrust ‘not being busy’ or ‘not being narrowly purposeful’ what this means is that we don’t trust our own actual nature, which is – as we just said –NOT about being busy. Who we are in our essence does NOT need to be validated by having some ‘purpose’! This is however the very nub of the matter – when we exist full-time in the Purposeful Realm then we construct an identity for ourselves that is based entirely upon ‘how well we are doing at achieving our goals’. That’s the name of the game, after all. This conditioned identity absolutely does have to be validated by purposes – without some sort of ‘purpose’ this conditioned identity very quickly finds itself in bad shape. When I see myself purely on those terms which the Purposeful Realm itself provides me with then I have to seek validation (or ‘meaning’) via my effectiveness in achieving the specified goals, arbitrary though these goals might be. The purposeful realm is a game in other words, and when you are in a game you have to play the game – there’s no choice here! There are no other options…
Not that we know we’re playing a game of course. If we knew that then we’d realise that we don’t have to play; ‘whoever plays, place freely,’ says James Carse (or something to that effect). The Purposeful Realm doesn’t let on that it’s a game; it doesn’t let on that there is any other form of existence other than this – the ‘ceaseless doing’ type of existence, the ‘mechanical activity’ type of existence, the ‘chasing goals’ type of existence. The promise of ‘being’ is always being dangled in front of our noses but that’s all it is – a promise, and an empty one at that. In this world we get to exist via our goals, via our purposes, via our roles and it’s all very competitive. We always have to point to something outside of ourselves in order to justify as being here. The reason we have to do this is because this ‘identity’ is entirely hollow – it’s not actually real and so it continually needs to be propped up or validated. If we were rest to in our true, unconditioned nature, then we would not need this pernicious self-validating activity. We wouldn’t need to look anywhere else; we wouldn’t need to look to some spurious external authority for validation. We wouldn’t need to be forever trying to ‘prove ourselves’. We are however thoroughly alienated from our true nature and so we do have to go on being purposeful. The purposeful self is the ‘substitute’ for who we really are, but it’s not a very good substitute. It’s not a very good substitute because it’s got exactly nothing going for it!
We live in the ‘scientific’ age but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we know what science is! Very few of us will be able to say what the philosophy behind science is, or indeed know that there is such a thing as ‘the philosophy of science’. We would probably think that science doesn’t need any philosophy since the general perception of philosophy is of something rather wishy-washy and we all know that science is a very hard-headed kind of thing. Who needs philosophy and philosophizing and all that type of vague, inconclusive stuff when you’ve got science, after all?
But science does have a philosophy behind it and if we don’t know what it is then we also don’t know what science is. There is a spirit behind science and that spirit has to do with a complete detachment from belief, and a healthy distrust of our automatic thinking process. If I know what I’m looking for and I end up ‘proving myself right’ then this is highly suspicious, to say the least. If the results of my so-called ‘research’ fits in with the superficial fashions and ideologies of the age, then this too is deeply suspect – I am merely enacting my cultural template! The scientific spirit is to try to prove ourselves wrong to the very best of our ability and then – if we can’t do this – we grudgingly accept what we have established as being ‘provisionally true’ (which means of course that we are totally prepared to drop it when a better way of looking at things comes along). Science is not the ‘bulwark of certainty’ that we very much take it to be. If science were all about pursuing certainty then it wouldn’t be science – it would be the very same as what humanity has always done, which has nothing to do with ‘seeking the truth’ and everything to do with ‘trying to obtain a sense of ontological security’ by shutting down questioning.
Talking about ‘a scientific age’ is therefore entirely inaccurate – most of us have the same basic orientation in life that humanity has always had, which is to say, it is serviceable belief-structures that we are interested in, not the noble endeavour of ridding ourselves of all comforting delusions. And of course even to say that we are ‘interested’ in our beliefs isn’t the best way to put it since it’s not the belief itself that we are interested in but the fact that there is something there we can believe in. Any belief – held to uncritically enough – will provide us with the ‘sense of security’ that we are looking for, after all. The whole point of the frame of mind in which we are forever seeking security is that we’re not interested – we’re not interested in unravelling any loose ends because, on some level, we know that if we do this then the whole garment will as likely as not come undone! If the ‘garment’ came undone then we’d find ourselves standing there naked and that would be a ‘nightmare come true’ for us.
What ‘being naked’ means in this case is that we are face-to-face with the world in which we live without having any cognitive handle on it, without being able to find any ‘angle’ that we can use to understand or exploit or manipulate it. As soon as we say this we can see a source of big source of confusion; as soon as we think of ‘science’ we think of all the big changes that come about as a result of it. Science – we might say – has (for a significant proportion of us) changed our lives almost beyond recognition, and what this comes down to the exploitation of the insights that we have gained as a result of scientific investigation. What we talking about here therefore is technology, and science and technology are of course two separate things. It could easily happen that we get to the point where – for the most part – science is only valued because of the technologies it can spawn, but that still doesn’t detract from the unprejudiced nature of science itself. We – as a culture that is fixated upon ‘economic growth’ almost to the exclusion of all else – are inescapably prejudiced because our Number One Incentive is always about making money, but science itself isn’t prejudiced – if it was then it wouldn’t be science.
To say this isn’t to say however that what we call ‘science’ and teach as ‘science’ in our colleges, schools and universities isn’t all geared towards the exploitation of insights rather than ‘knowledge for its own sake’ because it clearly is. Governments and big businesses aren’t in the least bit interested in knowledge for the sake of knowledge and this is of course where the funding for our education system comes from. It also doesn’t mean that we as a culture don’t have a very distorted view of what science means and that we haven’ turned it into a belief structure to obtain comfort from, which is what we human beings have been doing since the beginning of recorded history, and doubtless long before that. This false ‘security-producing’ distortion of science is what EF Schumacher calls materialistic scientism. Materialistic scientism is a degenerate variant of science that serves the highly dubious purpose of ‘comforting us rather than challenging us’. This is nothing new of course because we’ve always done exactly the same thing with religion – religion was surely never meant to ‘put us to sleep’ and yet this is exactly what it has done. When Jesus said ‘He who is near to me is near the fire…’‘ he was not trying to comfort us and yet untold millions use the external form of religion to allow themselves to feel that they’re ‘doing the right thing’. We feel that our path is officially sanctified and so we don’t need to question ourselves. The Yiddish proverb tells us ‘God is not nice, God is an earthquake,’ and yet we have turned worshipping the Deity into a bland, insincere act of social conformity.
The meaning of ‘He who is near to me is near the fire…’ is clearly that everything we are holding onto will get burned up if we approach too closely and this is the biggest ‘test’, the biggest ‘challenge’ there is. Challenges don’t come any bigger than this. Religion is almost invariably used to validate ourselves and our way of life however, not rudely strip us of all of our spurious validation (and all validation is spurious). Generally speaking, we have not the slightest interest in examining ourselves in an unprejudiced way – we simply want ‘the seal of approval’ so that we can safely assume that we are on the right track, and carry on as usual. External validation feels good, as we have indicated, because it does away with the need to examine oneself. There is no such thing as ‘right’ however – <right> means that we have successfully adapted ourselves to some external structure and all this means is that we have sold ourselves for the sake of the illusion of security where actually no such thing and never could be. Life isn’t a matter of conforming to some social fiction; the challenge of existence isn’t resolved by finding some convenient rule to follow and then closing our minds to everything else. Religion doesn’t (for most of us) have the power that it used to and it is – without any doubt – science that is responsible for this. Charles Darwin’s death blow against the literal interpretation of the Chapter of Genesis and the theologian’s estimation of the age of the universe, is just one snapshot (albeit a significant one) of this process. The dogmatic utterances of organised religion no longer does the trick – what is needed now are the equally dogmatic utterances of science! The problem here however, as we started off by saying, is that science isn’t some kind of dogmatic authority – that isn’t its job at all. Science isn’t a system of beliefs but rather it is a method of ongoing inquiry. Beliefs tell us absolutely everything we need to know about life – once we have a belief in place then all we need to do is act in accordance with this belief no matter what the circumstances might be. This (and this alone) is the mark of the true believer: the more we are tested, the more we hold firm to what we believe to be true! This is living entirely on the basis of the thinking mind and what the thinking mind has thought and the key thing here is that the ‘evidence’ doesn’t count unless it confirms whatever it is that we want to believe in. Everything is solidly ignored unless it agrees with our pre-existing models and theories about the world, in other words.
Fidelity to our unexamined template is the only virtue here and this is what society always demands of us – just as it is what our master the thinking mind always demands of us. The fact that we are a rational/technological culture rather than a religious one makes not the slightest bit of difference here because, as we have said, we use ‘science’ as a cudgel in order to ensure the uncritical acceptance of whatever it is that science supposedly tells us. ‘Experts say’, ‘the science tells us’, ‘research has shown’, are typical phrases that are thrown at us on a daily basis. In the field of mental health therapies are brought out that are laughable said to be ‘evidence-based’, thereby ensuring that we don’t question them. Not that as workers in the field of mental health – where conformity to the template is particularly highly-valued – we are especially good at questioning our models at the best of times!
Mental health is – we could say – where our misunderstanding of what the word ‘scientific’ becomes particularly obvious. We have tried our best to turn mental healthcare into a technology and we seem to be quite incapable of seeing just how absurd we are being here. Technologies always run off templates – we know whatever it is that we want to obtain and we have a rule-based process that will allow us to do this. We want to make aluminium metal or carbon steel, or polystyrene, or fructose syrup, or whatever and we have tried and tested methodologies that will allow us to do just this. Technology isn’t a process of inquiry therefore, it’s a process of ‘applying known standards and getting specified results’ and what this means is that if we are to have a technology of mental healthcare then we need to know what ‘mental health’ itself means. We need to know the specifications of our product.
We need to be able to specify the desired outcome and we also need to be able to measure whether we have successfully achieved it or not. We have to say what ‘mental health’ is and yet to say this is to say what it means to be human being. We can’t separate the two. This is an intractable philosophical question therefore and not a narrow technical one, so how can we possibly presume to do this? We can make assumptions about what it means to be human (and what it is that life is properly about) and then try to enforce these ideas – that’s not a problem for us because we do that all the time – but trying to enforce our standards without ever properly examining the assumptions that they are based on is hardly a recipe for good mental health! It’s a recipe for nonsense; it’s a recipe for disaster…
As a culture we are ‘mentally unwell’ and so that’s our starting off point. We are mentally unwell because we are heteronomous rather than autonomous (i.e. we’re always looking for security from the outside, from an external authority) and this is the epitome of mental ill-health. We’re operating off ‘an external template’; we’re afraid to take the risk of being ourselves and so we copy everyone else! This been the case, how on earth can we be expected to have anything even remotely meaningful to say on the subject, still less be professional ‘experts’ on it? We even copy everyone else when we try to say what mental health (or the lack of it) is. We go to college to learn what to think about it. Our idea of what it means to be mentally well is that we have to be ‘fitting in to what everyone else thinks being mentally well means’, and that we don’t question what everyone else thinks it is, and tells us it is, and what this shows is that we’ve actually got everything completely upside down! We couldn’t have got it more wrong if we’d tried…
If society is supremely efficient at creating the generic self and if the generic self is not a ‘true basis for living life’ then this means that society is also supremely efficient at creating this thing that is sometimes called ‘unlived life’. Society manufactures unlived life by the gallon, by the cubic kilometre in fact. On the face of it society has one purpose or function, which is an apparently benign one, whilst on another level it has quite another, quite different function – the function of manufacturing ‘unlived life’!
‘What sort of commodity is this?’ we might ask, ‘what does unlived life even look like?’ This is a difficult question to answer because it doesn’t look actually like anything. It’s like dark matter – we can detect its influence but we can’t detect it. The effect of ‘unlived life ‘is to cause us to go around being less than happy, less than joyful. It’s a type of invisible misery. This isn’t to say that we are sad however – sadness is a different matter, sadness is actually a sign that we are living our life. Unlived life would be sadness that we deny, sadness that we can’t see to be there. We can’t relate to denied sadness, we can’t detect it, but its influence can be detected. Unlived sadness ‘loads onto us’ in a way that we can’t be directly aware of; it is like a weight or burden that we are carrying without knowing it. We don’t feel it, but from time to time it will dramatically show itself nevertheless. It will show itself on the individual level and also – as Jung says – very dramatically on the collective level. The pain of unlived life drives the collective.
A more general explanation of what ‘unlived life’ might be is to say that it has to do with possibilities that we turn away from, possibilities that we never explore. When we talk about ‘having regrets’ with regard to the things in life that we have never done and never will do, but which we would have liked to have done, this is getting close to the mark. When we don’t realise our potential then this is ‘unlived life’. And as Jesus says in Verse 70 of 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.
We started off this discussion by implicating society – society functions (we might say) by apparently offering us many opportunities, many possibilities whilst actually offering us ‘just the one possibility’ (which is to be a socially adapted human being). No matter which road we go down in society, if we let the requirements of this road define us then we are ‘a socially adapted human being’. We are being defined by a collectively applied template of ‘how we should be’ and what this means is that the only choice we are being offered is ‘the choice to do what we’re told’. Everything is ‘coming from the outside of us’ therefore and whatever comes from the outside always comes down to the same thing – loss of freedom, loss of autonomy. Fitting into a structure or system is always a loss of freedom, albeit a loss of freedom that comes ‘with benefits’. We have to be who we are told to be in order to enjoy these benefits, and that places a rather sinister complexion on things, if we were to take the time to reflect on it.
The more we adapt to the system, and take our role in life from it, the more benefits we are eligible to receive (assuming of course that we have the required capabilities to go with it). It is also true that the more we adapt, the more we are afflicted with ‘the curse of unlived life’. This is because we have had to make a sacrifice of our true inclinations and interests in order to progress within society’s terms – we are living a life, we might say, but is not our life. I our own life is unlived; no one has claimed it, no one wants it… It could be objected that we also have to make sacrifices in order to cultivate a gift that we might have, and forego the leisurely pursuits that our fellow human beings might be able to engage in, but this of course isn’t the same thing – it isn’t the same thing because we are not sacrificing our creativity and individuality. Adapting maximally to society, on the other hand, always involves sacrificing our creativity and individuality – society is a game (which is to say, it is all about following rules and regulations) and so creativity is the one thing does not go down well here. Creativity is the fly in the ointment as far as society goes. The process of social adaptation – as we have already indicated – is precisely that process whereby we sacrifice our creativity/individuality for the sake of fitting into the hive.
This isn’t to say that we can’t live within a community without forfeiting our souls but the ‘global megaculture,’ as E.F Schumacher calls it – which is the culture that has arisen in the technologically advanced nations – has now become so specialised (in terms of the employment niches that we can occupy) that a huge investment of time and energy is needed for us to make the grade to fit into it. A choice has to be made – do I can try to obtain the best possible job (i.e. the highest wage) that I can, which requires massive adaptation, or do I ‘go my own way’ despite the poor employment prospects that this would seem to entail? In addition, gaining entrance into the professional classes not only means that I be more or less guaranteed a good wage, it’s also a guarantee of high social status, so if that is important to me – as it probably will be – then that is something else for me to take into consideration. The cultivation of individuality doesn’t come into this, as we have said, there is an awful lot of training going on and training always comes from the outside and so – when it comes down to it – this is further enslaving and conditioning us rather than allowing us to actually grow.
There is an anomaly here that we just don’t spot and this anomaly is that whilst we are placing greater and greater reliance on technical expertise, we are placing no value whatsoever on wisdom. Wise human beings aren’t really of any use to the system; why human beings are actually a nuisance or an irritation to the system because they tend to disagree and criticise it! As Noam Chomsky says,
The whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on — because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions.
This overvaluing of technical expertise over wisdom is nowhere as poignant as in the mental health services – we get to be fully packed fully paid-up professionals in mental health by adapting ourselves assiduously to the given system, not by striking out alone. Wisdom – we might say – comes from ‘living our own lives’, not living someone else’s (or society’s) idea of ‘what our life should be’. Wisdom comes from ‘lived life’, in other words, not from the ‘unlived life’ that adapting to the social system creates. This is the only place it can come from, obviously enough! It is only through walking our own path that we can become wise, not through trading the well-worn collective path, motivated as we are by thoughts of profit, thoughts of personal advantage. ‘Unlived life’, as we have been saying, creates a form of suffering that we are disconnected from; unlived life IS a form of suffering that we are disconnected from. Given the fact that modern living is so invasive of our space, so undermining of our personal freedom (and who would be naïve enough to deny this?) it is perfectly reasonable to hypothesize that the state of absolute heteronomy that it engenders is what lies behind our neurotic suffering. It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that it is the mass of unlived life that our society produces (as a sort of ‘waste product’, as it were) that results in the ever-increasing burden of mental ill health in the technologically advanced nations that we are currently witnessing. The problem is – therefore – how do we imagine that we are going to remedy the situation by ‘throwing professionals at the problem’, when these professionals aren’t wise enough to understand that the bulk of our mental ill health is societally produced?
Mental health – above any other area, we might argue – requires actual human wisdom, rather than spurious ‘technical expertise’. How are we to produce wise human beings however, given that ‘education’ (or ‘training’) has the reverse effect actually producing wisdom? (Given that education is ‘imposed ignorance’, as Chomsky says). Anything generic that comes from the outside always undermines our true individuality and our true individuality, as we have been saying, is the only place wisdom can come from. This presents us with something of a dilemma therefore since, as a culture, we do not value ‘people going their own way’ (or people ‘thinking for themselves’) and yet this is the only way that we can be saved from our self-created neurotic misery. This is an old dilemma as it happens – all of humanity’s great artist and thinkers have come from the ‘undervalued fringes of society’. Very often they have been persecuted and reviled for daring to think outside the box (or daring to ‘live outside the box’); low social status has always been their lot. No respect is accorded them – more to the point. And yet it is from these social rejects (these ‘disrespected ones’) that almost all of our major creative or cultural leaps have come from. True creative thinking can’t come from those of us who are highly adapted for the simple reason that we have already given. ‘Adaptation to the given system’ and ‘creativity’ are two opposite things – the former excludes the matter. And yet without creativity and originality (i.e. ‘that which isn’t imposed from the outside’) how can we hope to survive? Our huge emphasis on conformity above all else isn’t just ‘shooting ourselves in the foot’ – it’s ‘shooting ourselves in the head’!