When we say that ‘society creates the generic self’, (or that society ‘only values the generic self’) we are making a very straightforward point. Who could ever deny this, after all? And yet even though this is so very obviously true, we never pay any attention to psychological or philosophical implications of this observation. Society’s part in creating the generic self is as we have just said nothing if not obvious; we all know what happens to people in a group – their actual individuality is submerged in the generic identity. Everyone in the group tacitly agrees to conform to the way of thinking that everyone else has conformed to and the result of this is that no one has any responsibility for anything! We hand over responsibility to the group but the big problem with this is that a group is not a real thing. A ‘group’ is the result of ‘an agreement that has been made’ and this means that it is only ‘real’ because we have agreed for it to be so. This means that it isn’t real, in other words. A group is ‘a collection of people in lock-step’ who have all tacitly agreed to let their individuality be subsumed by the ‘common blueprint’ regarding ‘how to think’ or ‘how to be in the world’. It is very rare that we confront this truth head on and even rarer that we allow ourselves to see the full implications of this agreement of ours; this great reluctance on our part to bring any awareness to the ‘predicament of socialisation’ doesn’t spare us from its impact on our mental health however. As Jung says, just because we don’t know of our ‘sin’ (the ‘sin of unconsciousness’!) this doesn’t mean that nature won’t punish us for it! Put very simply, adhering as we almost always do adhere to the societal blueprint for ‘how we supposed to be in the world’ means that we can’t grow, and this is a very good price for the privilege of ‘getting on with everybody’! It’s not just the case that it is a shame (or ‘a sad thing’) that we don’t ever realise the potential that we’re capable of realising, but that the unrealised potential turns toxic and becomes a destructive force in its own right. 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 can also quote from the writings of Erich Fromm in this connection:
The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life.
Our social environment can only do one of two things therefore: it can either support us in our growth by providing a cultural milieu in which the idea of ‘moving beyond ourselves’ is not a thoroughly alien concept, or it can thwart our growth by creating a world in which the static ego-identity is implicitly seen as the ultimate statement of ‘who we are’ and ‘our passport to a joyful, exciting and fulfilling life’. These are the two possibilities and there is no midway point – it’s either ‘the one or the other’. Without any doubt whatsoever it can be said that the particular social milieu within which we find ourselves comes under the second category – we are inundated from all sides with the basic ‘subliminal message’ that says the ego-identity is most definitely our passport to a meaningful and fulfilling existence. This message is inbuilt into our language, into our very way of thinking about things. All commercial advertising is based on this premise as is the entire structure of our capitalist/consumerist way of life, which exists purely for the benefit of the static, two-dimensional ego-identity – without our unquestioning acceptance of this hypothetical abstract entity the whole thing becomes quite meaningless.
The unreflective identification with the static identity (or the concrete ‘sense of self’) absolutely prohibits ‘growth’ however – very clearly it does! Growth isn’t the name of the game at all, something else is – something that does not involve growth or transcendence in any shape or form! What the game is about is the glorification of this abstract, static-or-concrete ‘sense of self’ and this is another kettle of fish entirely. This is what James Carse calls ‘a finite game’. When we glorify (or obsess over) the abstract or ideal value only one thing can ever happen and that is that we get caught up in an oscillation between ‘exaltation’ one extreme end and ‘despair’ at the other. There is no real movement taking place – certainly no ‘growth’ – just this internal swinging back-and-forth between the two extremes, both of which are just as unhealthy as the other! We swing back and forth between these two unhealthy extremes and that’s the end of it! That’s our existence in a nutshell. It’s a circle. And what’s more, for most of us it isn’t the case that we even ever hit these two dramatic extremes – we merely vibrate somewhere in the middle range, somewhere in the murky grey zone, so to speak. ‘Growth’ – or ‘real change’ – means not fixating on the self and its obsessive concerns’ it means moving beyond the static ego-identity, as we royally said, and it is precisely this type of movement that we have no concept for.
‘Going beyond the self’ does not mean ‘being unselfish’, which is something that we might quite understandably assume. It is the self that ‘acts unselfishly’ – this mode of behaviour that we call unselfishness is when the self strains to go against its own innate inclinations, this is where the ego represses its own innate inclinations. Unselfishness – from a moral point of view – is where ‘the self struggles mightily to be what it is not’ – the leopard is striving heroically to change his spots. From the point of view of the ego-identity, behaving altruistically is always an uphill struggle and when it does this for any length of time it naturally expects to receive a medal for it! Going beyond the self is not a purposeful thing however; it is not something that happens as a result of striving and straining. It’s certainly not something that happens as a result of us making goals (and this is always a deeply disappointing for us to find out because we think that goals are the answer to everything). Goals are the projection of the self, not the means by which we can go beyond it. If someone were to ask how we could ‘go beyond the self’, one answer would be to say that it is our innate curiosity that takes us beyond the self – the concrete ego-identity can never be curious about anything, it just doesn’t have it in it! The concrete ego-identity has only two ways of relating to the world, one being attraction and the other aversion; either it likes something and wants to get closer to it (or – ideally – engulf it completely) or it dislikes something and wants to get as far away from it as is possible (or destroy it, if it can). The ego-identity is mechanical in its nature therefore – which is to say, it never looks beyond itself. It has no concept for ‘looking beyond itself’.
Another way of putting this is to say that the thinking mind is ‘mechanical’ (because all it does is follow rules) and the result of identifying with this mechanical mind is that we lose the ability to go beyond ourselves – the rational mind can’t take us beyond ourselves any more than it can take us beyond itself. All thought can ever do is extend itself, after all. To understand this is to understand is that ‘going beyond ourselves’ is not a problem that can be sold by the application of logic – methods embroil us in thought further rather than free us from it. Curiosity has nothing to do with logic however; to be curious about the world is not the same as to be thinking about it. ‘Being curious about the world’ isn’t as innocent as we might think either – being curious about the world is very short step from ‘asking questions about the status quo’ and the one thing the social system can’t take is someone who asks questions about the status quo! The ‘agreement’ only gets to be ‘an agreement’ by us not asking any further questions; that’s what as agreement is – the tacit understanding that no one is going to ask any further questions on the subject. The ‘game’ only gets to be played when no one asks any questions about the rules of the game, and why we should carry on playing. That is the one question we must never ask in a game – why we are continuing to play it! ‘Why?’ and ‘the mechanical modality’ just don’t go together; the mechanical modality is based on obeying rules not questioning them.
There is more to curiosity than we might think therefore – although we all like to think of ourselves as possessing a fair degree of healthy curiosity about the world the truth of the matter is that very few of us have any real curiosity at all. If we did then we would be questioning this way of life that we have, this way of life that society has given us, this way of living that we have somehow created for ourselves, and if we questioned it in this way then we wouldn’t be able to carry on pursuing the goals that society tells us we should be pursuing. Curiosity – if truly followed – will always result in us asking ourselves why we are playing the game that we’re playing (or why we are living life in the very narrow way that we are living it). There is absolutely no way that we will be able to carry on running on the very narrow tracks we used to be running on; that’s no longer going to be a possibility for us because we have now seen what we are not supposed to see. What we are ‘not supposed to have seen’ can be explained in two ways –  that our goals, aims and values in life are not truly ours, and  that ‘who we take ourselves to be’ is not actually us either. Insight into this fundamental confusion between our ‘actual inalienable nature’ and ‘who or what we are told we are’ cannot fail to upset our view of things in a very big way; even if we do carry on pretty much the same as before (and the fact remains that we will still have to exist and make a living in some way within the system as it is unless we can somehow sprout wings and fly away) what we now see life being about has radically changed – we no longer see our ‘fulfillment’ as being synonymous with the attaining of the standards or benchmarks that society so authoritatively supplies us with. Instead, we see our fulfillment as something that is to be found within the journey from ‘who we automatically understand ourselves to be’ to ‘somewhere else’, somewhere that exists ‘at right angles’ to everything we know and are familiar with, and which is – on this account – completely incomprehensible (or ‘completely invisible’) to us. Instead of seeing the meaning of our lives as something that is to be found within the journey ‘from one known to another’, we come to realise that life itself is ‘the movement beyond’, and that it has absolutely nothing to do with our hopes and fears, our theories and beliefs, our goals and intentions.
As soon as we come to see that there is this incomprehensible movement going on (Krishnamurti’s ‘movement from one unknown to another’ or David Bohm’s Holomovement) then the mechanical process by which we enact certain goals or intentions ceases to hold the utter fascination for us that it used to have; the mechanical aspect of the world still exists and cannot be gotten about, but it is no longer seen as being ‘where life lies’, it is no longer seen as being crucially important in the way we always used to think it was. We no longer ‘hung up’ on it, as Alan Watts would say; we no longer fundamentally anxious about it in the way that we used to be. When we are in the mechanical (or generic) mode of being then we are like a person with a bad gambling addiction – we live in the big wide mysterious world the same as everyone else does, but all we are ever interested in is looking to see which way the dice will fall when we throw them on the ground. A lot hangs on that, after all! If three ‘twos’ come up for us then that’s bad news and we will feel gutted; if on the other hand we get three ‘sixes’ then we will be jubilant, we will be ‘over the moon’. Nothing new ever happens in the game (which is precisely why it is a game) but we remain utterly transfixed by it all the same. We are 100% hypnotised, like the legendary ‘rabbit caught in the headlights’. The game is the only thing of interest to us; if we are to find any fulfilment in life it is to be here, located within the prosaic process of obtaining a high score rather than a low one.
The ‘great wide world’ lies all around us, to be sure, but we couldn’t be less interested in it. We are profoundly uninterested in it and this is the ‘lack of curiosity’ that we spoke of earlier. When we are caught up in what we are calling ‘the mechanical mode of being’ then all we can ever care about is ‘obtaining the right outcome’ – obtaining the right outcome means everything to us. When we are in ‘the generic mode of relating to the world’ then all we are interested in are ‘generic outcomes’; we couldn’t care less about the ‘non-generic’. We couldn’t care less about the non-generic and yet the ‘non-generic’ is reality itself! Anything that doesn’t ‘fit the bill’ with regard to ‘what we think it should be’ is dismissed instantly, it is dismissed without us even knowing that we have dismissing anything. Life itself is automatically dismissed; life itself is automatically dismissed without us even realising that we are dismissing anything. It is dismissed in order to facilitate us ‘playing the game’.