The whole area of psychological therapy itself starts to look rather suspect at this point, not just this modern thing called ‘resilience training’. If our core problem is that we are ‘unreal people living in an unreal world’ (and if this is what lies behind our neurotic symptomology) then no amount of two-dimensional ‘fixing-type’ therapies are going to help us! Band-aids aren’t really going to be the answer here, no matter how hopeful we might be. When we are unreal people living in an unreal world then no type of ‘trivial, rule-based procedure’ that we might enact us is going to cut it when things really start getting rough. Rules can’t help us in the task of becoming independent from rules, after all!
What’s more, we don’t have to be a stereotypical selfie-snapping narcissist in order to qualify as being ‘unreal’; this is a general condition rather than being some type of exotic psychopathology. We’re all ‘unreal’ in this particular ‘psychological’ way when it comes down to it. We can pick the most normal-looking, well-adjusted, competent person we know and the chances are very much that they will qualify as being ‘unreal’ in the sense that we are talking about. The whole point that we are making here is that it is possible to be superbly adjusted to this consensus world of ours and yet at the same time be unreal. We are unreal precisely because we are so superbly adapted to the consensus reality – we are taking the illusion much too seriously, in other words. We are taking something seriously that we oughtn’t to be taking seriously and that is the whole root of the problem right there. We are taking our games, our conventions, our arbitrary preoccupations, more seriously than we are taking reality itself, and there is simply no way anyone can say that this very peculiar orientation of ours isn’t going to have major ramifications in the field of mental health!
When we are adapted to the socially-constructed world we immediately feel confident in ourselves and this is the confidence of a game player who is good at playing their game. Within the context of this game, this confidence is entirely justified; outside of the game however it’s not, and this is where the big problem lies. The ‘big problem’ comes about because we don’t understand the game to be a game; we don’t think that there is anything outside of the game in other words, but there is – outside of the game there is this little thing called ‘reality’!
When we see people who are confident, self-assured, socially integrated, well-adjusted, and all the rest of it this doesn’t mean that we are in a state of good mental health. The inference is unwarranted. In societal terms, we are mentally healthy’ (or saying’, or whatever term you might like to use) (or well-adjusted’), but these are – as we have just been saying – very narrow terms stop test’ – as always – is when things get difficult. When things get difficult do we ‘rise to the occasion’ or do you ‘lose it’? Do we ‘keep our heads’ (as in Rudyard Kipling’s poem) or do we freak out and become utterly useless to everyone concerned, including ourselves? But it isn’t so much about some difficult external situation that comes along unexpectedly to challenge us, that’s only a rough and ready indication, albeit a rather good one. Our mental health isn’t just a measure of our ‘degree of equanimity with regard to difficult external situations’, it also has to do with our ability to be non-reactive and non-judgement in relation to our own state of mind when that state of mind becomes painful or difficult for us in any way.
This is a more intimate gauge of our mental health (or ‘resilience’), we might say – how well are we able to stay present with our own difficult mental states?’ It ought to be noted at this point that our ability to stay present with ourselves ‘through thick and thin’, or ‘for better or for worse’ doesn’t mean ‘coping’ with our difficult mind states. This is one of the great absurdities of Western culture – the idea that we have that mental health consist of to a large extent of something as frighteningly superficial as ‘coping strategies’! We are told to be strategic with difficult states of mind; we are taught appropriate ways of ‘managing’ them. Good mental health thus becomes a matter of being a good manager of our emotions, or a skilful manager of our anger, stress or anxiety. The current fashion – and fashion is what it is – is to learn off a whole bunch of coping strategies that are seen as being ‘healthy’ or ‘adaptive’ rather than relying on mechanisms that have been shown to be ‘unhealthy’, ‘non-adaptive’ or ‘dysfunctional’. To say that this is ‘trivializing’ mental health is a tremendous understatement, but it is very hard to find anyone in the mental health services that we even come close to acknowledging this. No one wants to ‘buck the trend’, after all…
This approach sounds so eminently reasonable that we never think to question it. We can plainly see that our ‘normal’ response to recurring mental pain is to react in ways that make matters worse rather than better, so it makes sense that the answer must be to do helpful things instead. The only problem with this commonsensical way of looking at things is that nothing we DO in order to help us deal with difficult mental states is going to be genuinely helpful – nothing we do in order to be able to ‘cope’ is going to be healthy or helpful because all we are doing – no matter what strategy in question is – is avoiding pain. So what’s wrong with avoiding pain, we might ask, if we can get away with it? What’s wrong with this plan is of course precisely that we can’t get away with it; we can’t legitimately ‘escape’ or ‘fix’ our own mental pain – all we can do is find ‘new and improved’ ways of ignoring the pain, postponing the pain and generally ‘dissociating’ ourselves from it. All we can do is disconnect ourselves from what’s going on with us, in other words.
This is ridiculously easy to see once we actually look into the matter – if something is happening to make me feel that I need to use some kind of coping strategy then this straightaway tells me that there is something there that I need to look at rather than ‘cope with’. If I find a strategy that allows me to use over than the one thing that we can be sure of is that we are not we won’t look at it! After all not taking a closer look at our mental pain (whatever that pain might be) is the one thing that we don’t want to do! Jung makes the point (speaking from the undoubted authority of over half a century of clinical practice) no one ever changes unless their back is well and truly against the wall. If we have the option of not changing (which is to say, if we have the option of utilising some convenient coping strategy) then we are most definitely not going to change. We’ll make the situation more manageable instead.
We utilise coping strategies as an alternative to changing, as an alternative to developing resilience. The popular idea that accumulating a whole load of coping strategies (so as to be able to avoid being in that zone where we are ‘no longer in control’) is what being mentally healthy is all about is an extraordinarily obtuse misrepresentation of what being a genuine human being actually is. To be ‘in control the whole time’ – which we think is a good way to be – actually means to be hiding from life; if it were possible to have strategies to cope with every difficult situation that comes along so that they never becomes too difficult (and ultimately it isn’t possible) then we would as a result be permanently removed from life. We would then be leading a life that is ‘safe but sterile’ and that would to be no fun at all. More than simply ‘no fun’, this type of ‘safe’ or ‘managed’ life actually turns out to be a living death – it turns out to be ghastly parody of what life is meant to be.
We don’t see things like this because we imagine that it ought to be possible to avoid the more challenging moments in life by using clever strategies and yet at the same time not be insulated from the rest of life (which is to say, the part of life that we would like to engage in / not be disconnected from). We want to ‘cherry pick’ in other words – we want the sweet without the sour, the good without the bad. We want to be reliant on gimmicks and strategies some of the time (the knife is getting tough) but independent from them for the rest of the time, and whilst this idea might seem reasonable enough when we don’t focus on it too much, if we actually were to give it any real attention at all then we would immediately see it to be the purest hogwash! We’re trying to have our cake and eat it.
What we are asking for here – without admitting the fact – is the convenient situation in which we can insulate (or remove) ourselves from life with our thinking when it gets too difficult for us and yet not insulate or remove ourselves with our thoughts the rest of the time. Unfortunately for us it just doesn’t work like this – what actually happens is that we get insulated (or removed) all of the time. To be directly in touch with what is happening to us (i.e. not in touch ‘via the agency of the thinking mind’) requires a type of muscle – it requires the development of a type of strength. This strength or muscle grows through ‘weight-bearing’, and the weight in question is simply the inherent ‘difficulty’ of life. Life makes us strong when we don’t avoid it in other words, and to say this is hardly to say anything very new or revolutionary! There are – in life – two roads that we can go down – the road of getting better and better at avoiding difficulty, or the road of getting better and better at not avoiding difficulty! The first road involves control, and the second road doesn’t. The key thing to note here is that we have to put our money on one horse or the other – we can’t ‘hedge our bets’, we can’t ‘chop and change’ to suits ourselves. This is a bit like saying that we either have to decide on lying or telling the truth in order to get by in life. Or to put this another way, we have to decide between ‘finding the easy way round all of our problems’, or ‘doing the required work, whatever that work might be and however much we don’t want to do it’. This doesn’t mean that if we opt for the ‘honest approach’ we won’t ever cheat or tell lies, it just means that we don’t believe that cheating or lungs can really get us anywhere worthwhile, and so because of this insight we won’t invest in the total way that we would have done before.
The ‘default setting’ is for us to absolutely wholeheartedly believe whatever it is that the thinking mind tells us, so that when the TM tells us that we are ‘onto a winner’ we get foolishly excited, and when it tells us that we have ‘screwed it all up’ we become equally foolishly despairing. We are ‘one hundred percent gullible with respect to what the TM tells us’ in other words, and this is what lends that particular and peculiar ‘mechanical’ quality to our responses. We don’t have to be 100% gullible though (that’s only our ‘default’, as we have said) – we can learn to doubt the thinking mind and become perhaps only 98% gullible instead! We will still ‘react’ even when we have – to some limited extent – started to see through the thinking mind; we will still react because our ‘perceived well-being’ is still linked or coupled to what our thoughts tell us about ourselves and the world, but there is now a part of us that is not buying into it as much as we used to. The ‘buy in’ is not total anymore, and this changes everything – something else has entered the picture apart from ‘mechanical reacting’. Consciousness has come into play…
The point that comes out of this therefore is that it actually suits us to buy into what the TM tells us because if we don’t then we can’t use the thinking process to insulate ourselves from the difficult times in life. This is the argument that we are making here – that if we want to use ‘strategies’ to help us when things get rough then we have to ‘believe our thoughts to be real’, but once we take the step of ‘believing our thoughts to be real’ then we can’t simply go back to not believing in the reality of our thoughts once the need for a coping strategy is past! If we invest in games and game-playing to make ourselves feel more secure in life then we can’t just ‘exit’ our games a bit later on. This is the point that we keep on making – that what we are looking at here is strictly a ‘one-way street’, which is to say, the process in question is ‘irreversible’. Once we ‘start playing the game’ then we can’t just ‘stop playing it’; we can’t just ‘stop playing it’ because we have now lost the capacity to know that the game is a game!