The social life is one in which we are perpetrating a kind of hoax, with ever without ever focusing on the fact that this is what we are doing. We are perpetrating a hoax on ourselves, in other words. We very much tend to think that society (or the social life) is about something else, something eminently practical, but – primarily – this is the function that is being served. We are maintaining a fiction, we are validating a ‘purely arbitrary narrative’. No one who has ever studied society would ever claim otherwise.
One simple way to talk about this hoax is to say that we have been sold the idea that it is possible (and not just possible but highly desirable) to have a type of life that in reality it is just not possible to have. This is a rather big hoax therefore since, if we fall for it (as we generally do) then instead of living the life that it IS possible for us to live, we will be forever trying to live a life which we simply CAN’T live, no matter how hard we may try to do so.
As we have said, this is very far from being an obvious point; it’s so far from being obvious that most people wouldn’t get it no matter how much effort you were to put into trying to explain it. Of all the difficult things to explain this is right there at the top, and – not only is it challenging to explain and challenging to understand – the plain fact of the matter is that we absolutely don’t want to understand it anyway. We are very much invested in not understanding it; our whole lives – obviously enough – have been invested in this hoax and so can we really aren’t going to be open to this type of discussion.
One way that we could look at the hoax in question however is to say that it revolves around the idea that it is ‘good to be a narcissist’! This not ever stated like this of course, but that’s what it comes down to. We are presented with the idea or image of this type of life (the narcissistic type of life) and along with the image come all sorts of subtle (and not so subtle) incentivizations for us to conform to it. We are ‘sold the package’, in other words. We are sold the package and, as Sogyal Rinpoche says, we are sold it with superlative skill. Our great expertise as a culture lies precisely in promoting this particular illusion.
We are skilfully manoeuvred not only into believing that the narcissistic life is a very rewarding and satisfying one, but also into believing that it is the only type of life that there ever could be! Add into the equation the fact that everyone around us is also falling for this story hook, line and sinker, then the chances are that we will never smell a rat. The chances that we won’t fall for this hoax are microscopically tiny. There is a rat however and as it happens it is rather a big one. It’s a very big rat indeed! This is King Rat that we talking about here – the Great Granddaddy of all rats and there should be no doubt about that! This is the hoax of all hoaxes and no one seems to know anything about it. The problem is that we don’t know anything else – we don’t have anything else to go by. This is a lot like living in a dysfunctional family or being in an abusive relationship – we think what we going through is normal, we don’t realise that we are being taken for a ride. We mistake our prison for reality.
The nature of our prison (which is ‘the prison of narcissism’) is that it is entirely hollow, without any genuine substance (or ‘goodness’) to it at all. It is – we might say – ‘fundamentally unwholesome’. Our primary activity involves striving perpetually to bring in some kind of actual substance into our lives, or perhaps fooling ourselves into believing that there is some kind of substance there when there just plain isn’t. An example of how we cultivate this particular illusion is given by John Berger – the trick that we use (according to Berger) is that we go to a lot of trouble to create an impression or image of ourselves that makes it look as though we’re having a good time even though we’re not really, so that we can make other people envious of us. This is what Berger calls glamour.
It is true that in publicity one brand of manufacture, one firm, competes with another; but it is also true that every publicity image confirms and enhances every other. Publicity is not merely an assembly of competing images: it is a language in itself which is always being used to make the same general proposal. Within publicity, choices are offered between this cream and that cream, that car and this car, but publicity as a system only makes a single proposal.
It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more.
This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer – even though we will be poorer by having spent our money.
Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.
When we see that other people are envious of what they think we’ve got, then we can logically infer that there must have something there to be envious of! This then is John Berger’s explanation of what the hoax is. We might naïvely think that – in this consumer society – we invest all our energy on buying products so ‘the products will make us happy’, but this isn’t it – we are acquiring all the stuff and the status that goes with it in order that others might think we are happy, which then allows us to feed off the illusion that they have about us. Deep down we know that we can’t buy happiness but, what we can do is construct a believable illusion of us having a good time, having a meaningful life, so that we and others can believe in this illusion – the illusion that it is possible to live the type of conditioned life society promotes and actually benefit from this. The purest example of this is of course social media – why else would we spend so much of our time posting images of ourselves having a good time if we weren’t trying to construct a ‘believable illusion’?
Nothing we have so far said comes across as being too formidably difficult to understand, which is what we started out by saying. When the ‘difficulty’ comes in however is with the actual reason for the narcissistic life being so hollow, so devoid in substance or meaning. Why is the narcissistic life a life that is ‘impossible to live’? One way of looking at this is to think in terms of the Buddhist idea of ‘the good mind versus the bad mind’ – the good mind is the mind of compassion, and ‘the bad mind’ is the mind of self-interest or self-cherishing. If we live on the basis of the mind of compassion then there is meaning in our lives and we can actually grow; if on the other hand we live on the basis of self-interest or self-cherishing then our lives inevitably become sterile and joyless and there can be no growth. Who could possibly disagree with this?
All religions who have the function of teaching the compassion is better than selfishness (or at least they started out that way), but the point is that this is not merely a matter of ‘utility’; if we actually sat down and thought about it we would see this psychological truth very clearly – there can be no meaning in the life of the narcissist. We don’t of course ever see ourselves in this way; we have identified NPD as a designated psychiatric condition, it’s an ‘official diagnosis’, but this makes it even easier not to recognise that narcissism, to some extent or other, is pretty much the norm in our society. It also effectively distracts us from seeing that our consumer society actually relies on us falling into the trance of narcissism. We pathologize narcissism and promote it both at the same time therefore, which is rather conflicted of us, to say the least!
The ‘hoax’ that is being perpetrated in society (and very effectively too) is that it is possible to live in the Narcissistic Mode (even though we won’t call it that) and also at the same time lead a meaningful and fulfilling life, and because of the way that societal pressure works we feel obliged – without reflecting on the fact very much – to maintain the fiction that we are having that we are happy, that we are having the life we want to be living, et cetera. In this is what ‘living the life of the image’ is all about. This is where all the emphasis goes – into fooling ourselves (and others) that we are all having a great time having a great life. That however is quite impossible – obviously it’s quite impossible! What we are trying to do here is create the impression that everything is good is if the impression itself were the thing that mattered and not what the impression is about.
In very plain and simple terms what we’re doing here is to pretend to ourselves that the idea which we have (about ourselves or about life) is the real thing, and that therefore that this idea that we have (without realizing that it is only an idea) is the only thing worth concerning ourselves with. The idea we have about who we are and what life is all about is not just ‘important’ to us therefore, it is so overwhelmingly important that it obliterates all awareness of anything else. And even though it is very easy and very straightforward to make such a statement it doesn’t actually help us any to do so because we are all so totally convinced that ‘the idea is the thing’. This is our blindness. We are so convinced that we simply can’t be told otherwise, and this isn’t any sort of hyperbole – if you try to suggest to anybody that their idea of ‘who they are’ is nothing to do with ‘who they really are’ and you will be met with a blank look. Either that or the person you are talking to will automatically think that they know what you mean without really knowing…
There is a difference between the two things however and that difference is the biggest and most profound difference there ever could be. What we’re talking about here is the greatest gulf there is, no words exist that can express the enormity of this gulf and yet if you try to get this point across to someone you will almost certainly discover that you just can’t do it. If our mental health rests upon anything then it rests upon an awareness or appreciation of this gulf, an awareness or appreciation of this discontinuity, and – we keep saying – our awareness in this on this score is zero. We don’t appreciate that there is any fundamental / irreconcilable mismatch between the conceptual world which we are so very familiar with, and the world as it is in itself.
This is easy to show – if our ‘awareness of the discontinuity’ wasn’t zero, wasn’t nonexistent, then every time we talked about ideas or thought about the world then we would do so in an ironic way. Our entire language will change accordingly in other words – we would no longer be talking in such a dull, flat, ‘concrete’ way. This becomes particularly pertinent in the case of our approach to mental health. If you were (for some reason) to open up any psychology textbook or journal you will immediately see the dullest, flattest, most concrete pseudo-technical language you could ever possibly imagine. There is very little in the world less interesting, less vibrant, less ‘coma-inducing’ than this type of stuff. The same will be true if you were to eavesdrop on a bunch of mental healthcare professionals talking shop (CBT or DBT therapists for example) – the language being used in this type of setting is invariably concrete, technical and dull – you’d feel like yawning and going to sleep on the spot if you didn’t have your professional image to maintain!
What life comes down to when we have no awareness of the discontinuity between thought and the reality is ‘the worshipping of the image’. Everything is about the image; nothing exists apart from the image – so what else could we possibly do other than ‘worshipping the image’. This is what narcissism is – it’s the worshipping the image which we call ‘the self’. In terms of mental health care, and our whole societal approach to mental health, what happens is that we – very absurdly – get diverted into promoting and maintaining the idea of ourselves, the image we have of ourselves. We are trying to protect and perpetuate a construct in other words, and the health or well-being of the construct – needless to say – has nothing to do with actual well-being! The construct doesn’t have any well-being anyway – there is no way for a construct to be well or not well, healthy or not healthy because it is only ‘a construct’! Within the narrow terms of the game that is being played the health of the concept does mean something (just as it does in any regular role-playing game on a computer or game console) but this doesn’t translate into actual reality. It doesn’t translate into actual reality at all. The reverse is true in fact because the more we cherish the concept or idea of ourselves the more we deny our true nature, and ‘denying our true nature’ is a recipe for all sorts of mental suffering!
So in a way (a very narrow way) it could be said that our fixing-type therapies are ‘genuinely technical’ – the only proviso being that they are all about ‘maintaining the health of the construct’, which is an unreal and therefore irrelevant thing. The poor inadequate self-construct is under siege from reality and it urgently needs some sort of support if it is not to give way under the strain; when this happens then in colloquial terms we call it a ‘mental breakdown’. Our general understanding of a mental breakdown is that it is just about the worst thing that could ever happen to us – it’s the ultimate personal catastrophe. In real terms however to see that the mental construct or idea that we have of ourselves is not all that it is cracked up to be (i.e. that it is not as important as we think it is) the most helpful thing that could ever possibly happen to us. When this happens we have the possibility of establishing a relationship with our true nature and establishing a relationship with who we truly are (outside of the narcissistic game that we are playing) is what mental health really all about. The one thing that it isn’t about is repairing our narcissistic bubble, which is all our culture cares about…