What we want in our mental health workers is not ‘technical smarts’ but actual wisdom. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement – in this the most difficult area of human experience actual bona fide wisdom is surely what is required, not just a fancy vocabulary and a few ‘off-the-shelf’ therapeutic protocols. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it is! It’s a very controversial statement…
The reason that this is a highly controversial territory is because, unbeknownst to ourselves, we have collectively put all of our money on a different horse entirely; instead of putting our money on the horse called ‘wisdom’ we have put it on ‘technical know-how’. The reason for this isn’t hard to understand – technical know-how has served us so well (or it would appear) in other areas that we assume it should serve us equally well here – the only thing being that it doesn’t! There’s no ‘technical fix’ for mental health difficulties and if we think that there is, or that they could be, then we are simply deceiving ourselves.
What we’re talking about here is part of a much wider problem – we don’t value wisdom at all in this modern world of ours! Even the word itself doesn’t fit anymore; it sounds quaint, like something from a fairy story, like something from a bygone age. There were wise men and wise women in a bygone age perhaps but now we have specialists, now we have experts. Specialists are produced on an assembly line – admittedly a lot of hard work is required, and more than just a bit of native ability, but the process is nevertheless one in which ideas and theories are passively absorbed from the outside. This is how the academic world works and there should be no doubt about it – it is ‘conformity on a global scale’.
There is a place for this type of process, which we can most accurately call ‘training’. There is a very big place for it – our world wouldn’t run otherwise! It would break down and there would be no one to fix it. If your computer develops a glitch and crashes on you then you need a proper IT specialist to get it up and running again, and if you sustain a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula then you need an orthopaedic specialist to get this sorted out for you. In both cases we will be very grateful for the specialist knowledge, skill and experience. With difficulties that occur in relation to our mental health it is a different matter entirely however. This is a whole different ball-game. Highly trained therapists and psychologists might sound as if they possess a hard technological knowledge like the IT expert or the consultant orthopaedic surgeon but they don’t. They don’t for the simple reason that no such ‘technical knowledge’ exists.
We just don’t have that type of black-and-white knowledge and that isn’t because we haven’t yet acquired it; it’s because the nature of what we are looking at here is far too complex to allow for the possibility of black-and-white theories or black-and-white maps. We can come up with theories, we can come up with maps and models for sure, but they aren’t going to be of any help to us. Why they won’t be any help is easy to explain – the rational mind works by taking a very narrow slice of the ‘complex whole’, and because the slice of the pie we are taking is so narrow this makes it possible to have a ‘sharp focus’ on the world. The narrower the slice the sharper the focus! This is why people who have a very blinkered view of the world find it possible to have very definite, very black-and-white beliefs! Those of us who aren’t blinkered aren’t able to be so very sure of ourselves, as Bertrand Russell has pointed out.
By the same token then (going back to their rational intellect and its capacity to come up with theories and models) when it comes to thicker slices of the pie (the pipe being reality itself, we might say) our sharp focus goes and we are no longer able to say definite things, no longer able to make definite statements about the world. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Relation is one example of this, complexity theory is another. The very essence of complexity theory is that in a complex system the future trajectory of that system bifurcates not just once but many times and we aren’t able to predict which path the system is going to go down. The bigger the slice of reality we take the more uncertainty comes into the picture; hence the science of ‘limitology’ which looks at necessary limits to knowledge that it is possible to have about a system.
We could of course try to argue that the human psyche isn’t a ‘complex system’, but who is going to buy that? Intuitively we all know that the psyche is a very deep phenomenon indeed, and no one has ever shown otherwise, despite the best efforts of the behaviourists! To try to argue that what we are is, at root, is no ‘big deal’ (i.e. that it is something that is could be very easily explained away by science) is a most peculiar impulse, and actually has nothing to do with science. True science isn’t afraid of irresolvable uncertainty – it isn’t about ‘explaining things away’. That’s not science, that’s what ER Schumacher calls ‘degenerate scientism’, which is a kind of substitute for fundamentalist religion, i.e. something that gives us all the answers so that we don’t ever have to think about anything. Really, when we come up against what we may term ‘mental health difficulties’ what we are looking at is the core question of what it means to be a human being, as the existential psychotherapists have pointed out. This is therefore not some kind of trivial problem that can be disposed of by the judicious application of CBT or ‘emotional regulation’ or ‘anxiety management’ or ‘distress tolerance’ or anything of that ilk. The greatest philosophical minds in history have wrestled with great question of what it means to be a human being yet we superficial moderns come up with CBT and emotional regulation techniques and think that we have done something clever!
What we really need our mental health workers who are genuinely wise, who have their own, hard-won insight into what it means to be a human being but our educational system is entirely wrong for this. Our system of training demands conformity, as we said earlier; it demands that we become the passive receptacles of some generic form of knowledge it is not our own, and which we are not allowed to question. Whoever got on well in training by questioning stuff, after all? At the end of the training process we know lots of ‘stuff’ for sure but it isn’t our stuff. It’s stuff from ‘the outside of us’, it’s ‘external content’. If you happen to be training as an electronic engineer or an organic chemist this is fine – you can hardly be expected to recapitulate the entire history of the discipline from scratch, all by yourself, in order to ‘make it your own’! With therapy however things are different – we really do need to have ‘discovered it for ourselves’, so to speak. What we are saying has to be a ‘living truth’ for ourselves, otherwise we are merely repeating empty phrases that we read in a book, or learned on a training course. Intellectual knowledge by itself is utterly useless when it comes to therapy – it is an insult! What is needed is ‘visceral knowledge’, ‘deep knowledge’, wordless knowledge, knowledge that we have won ourselves through personal work and which comes from the very heart of us.
In most types of psychotherapy this is – to some extent – how it works, but even here there is – almost always – the straitjacket of models and frameworks which prevent us from ‘seeing things for ourselves’. And even more significantly it is still the case that most psychotherapists, even with all the experiential work that they have done, are still constrained by deeply ingrained societal assumptions about what life is ought to be. We come out of our experiential work learning something about ourselves perhaps but still unconsciously subscribing to the Generic Mind. It’s as if we can be the two things at once, without any conflict at all – it’s as if we can be ‘mental health workers’ and ‘the products of our society’ at the same time. We imagine therefore that is possible to be socially conditioned and yet genuinely helpful to other people at one at the same time. This is obviously quite ridiculous. There are, as Alan Watt says in ‘Psychotherapy East and West’, two distinct types of therapist: the one who stands with society (and all its unconscious assumptions) and the one who stands with his or her client against society and all the blind senseless aggression that is inherent in it.
This doesn’t mean that we have to ‘fight’ society or be continually attempting to ‘destabilise’ it, it just means that we see through it and no longer take seriously what it takes seriously. More than just regular personal work is needed for this however, we actually have to ‘wake up’ somehow and there no ‘recipe for waking up’ that we can apply in any sort of a training course or programme. As Bruce Lee said (not in exactly these words) towards the end of his life to someone who wanted to learn from him, “I have no system to teach, so how can I teach you?” Only systems can be taught, and all systems are equal conformity to a set of rules. Systems equal unconsciousness, in other words – consciousness has no system that it needs to conform to!
This brings us to the nub of the problem – the reason that the type of suffering that comes about when our mental health is compromised has become such a pandemic is because we live in a world where (as we have said) ‘wisdom’ no longer has any value. Or – as we could also put it – it is because we live in a world which no longer places any stock in the value or importance of the individual. We think that we as a society value the individual but this is absolutely not the case. We don’t even know the meaning of the word! We are brought up not to value the individual but rather to cherish the mind-created ego or ‘self-image’ and that isn’t the same thing at all as the individual. The ego or self-image are nothing more than a collection of desires and fears, likes and dislikes, attachments and versions, and these – by their very nature – are always generic. They are ‘off the shelf clothes that everyone can wear’, they are a ‘one size fits all’ garment. As Jung says:
The more you cling to that which the whole world desires, the more you are Everyman, who has not yet discovered himself and stumbles through the world like a blind man leading the blind with somnambulistic certainty into the ditch.
We become the individual we are really under this ‘cloak of the generic’ not by believing in our own opinions, not by allowing ourselves to be trapped by our own likes and dislikes; we become ‘who we truly are’ not by passively allowing ourselves to be helplessly imprisoned by our own preferences and biases, but by discarding them. Being an individual is not about having opinions about everything under the sun, contrary to popular belief; it’s not about defining oneself in terms of our lifestyle, friends or tastes – it’s about standing alone and not having any beliefs or opinions that we can share with other people, or fight with them about. Being an individual means that we have not identified with the Generic Mind in other words. It means that we are ‘travelling in our own motorcar rather than being the passive passengers on the public transport system’, to use Gurdjieff’s metaphor.
The cause of our malaise lies precisely in our loss of individuality, precisely in the loss of our genuine interiority. So the answer isn’t to ‘carry on as we are’ and have a corps of highly trained specialised professionals standing by in the wings to give us generic therapy when we need it – the answer is for all of us, therapist and non-therapist equally, to struggle heroically to regain our individuality in the face of society’s relentless and ceaseless mechanical pressure on us to give it up…