Working Via Pressure

Our default operational mode is to work via pressure. Not to work under pressure that is, but by means of pressure. Pressure means that the reason we are doing this or doing that lies outside of ourselves — we are trying to obtain what has been defined by thought as a ‘desirable outcome’ or we are trying to avoid an ‘undesirable outcome’. We are always either seeking advantage or sidestepping disadvantage but either way the reason for our activities lies ‘outside of ourselves’. We’re fixated upon a world that is external to us.

We can’t really see this properly because it’s so very normal for us. We don’t understand what’s being said here because ‘the outside’ is all we know. The point is however that the motivational force acting on us isn’t really ‘an expression of who we really are’ — is not intrinsic, it’s extrinsic. Something else — our thinking, our ideas about ourselves and the world — is telling us that such and such an outcome is good, or that such and such an outcome is bad. What extrinsic motivation means (when it comes down to it) is that we are compelled to act based on what our thinking tells us and our thinking isn’t us. Thought is always ‘an external mechanical authority’: we are compelled to act this way or that based upon what we see as necessity; we are under pressure to act and — more than this — we’re under pressure to succeed within the terms that have been given to us.

The difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation couldn’t be greater therefore — how could there be a bigger difference than that between a force that is acting on us from the outside (which has nothing to do with our true nature) and the free expression of who we actually are? What we are actually asking here is of course ‘What could be a bigger difference than the difference between slavery and freedom?’ We can hardly hope to smudge the distinction between these two things! And yet despite the complete lack of similarity between these two forms of motivation we very rarely make any distinction — the gulf between freedom and slavery is glossed over as if it doesn’t exist. In short, we don’t see the difference between being acted upon by forces that come from outside of ourselves and acting in accordance with our intrinsic nature (without there being any ‘compulsion’ involved whatsoever).

The reason we can’t ‘see the difference’ is of course because we have internalised these external forces — we have been doing this since an early age. This is what happens when we are brought up in environment that is based on controlling, as is almost always the case. Most families are controlling, and our ‘collective’ families — which is society — is always controlling. Society functions on the basis of conditioning — not on the basis of freedom, not on the basis of encouraging everyone to think for themselves and be whatever it is in their nature to be. Another way of putting this is to say that we are ruled by belief, and our beliefs are forced upon us from the outside. Beliefs are always denying of individuality/autonomy and yet we persist in thinking that belief — the enforcement of ideas upon people from the outside — is a good thing.

We think that ‘passing on belief’ is a good thing because we feel that what we are believing in is actually true, but the thing here is of course that we only think that our beliefs are true because we ourselves have been have already been conditioned by them! We are being ‘obedient to the belief’ in thinking that ‘the belief is true’ — all beliefs require us to accept them as being actually ‘true’. No matter how palpably foolish or preposterous a belief might be it will always require us to accept it as being absolutely true. So because we live in, and have been brought up in, a ‘coercive environment’ which doesn’t allow us to think for ourselves (or be ourselves) we can’t tell the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, despite the immense gulf between the two. We have no ‘inner life’ of our own, only the beliefs and opinions and viewpoints that have been put into us. We dream what we have been told to dream, and that’s what makes the (consumerist) world go round. We all have to value and desire the same stupid things; we all have to be walking down the same well-worn path.

Having no genuine life of our own means that we have to ‘run on pressure’ — that’s all that’s left to us in the absence of ‘interiority’. Not knowing who we really are, all we can do is rely on various types of pressure — pressure to do this, pressure to do that, pressure to do the other. This very easily gets to be all too much for us and so then we become candidates for stress-management, candidates for anxiety-management (or perhaps anger-management). This is a very great irony, if only we could see it. All over the world stress-management programs are being taken seriously and staff are being sent to them by companies, hospitals, organisations of all sorts, all of which institutions operate in the first place only by ‘putting pressure on their workers’. When the pressure gets too much we are told to go on a stress-management course, which involves us ‘putting pressure on ourselves not to be so pressurised’. Anything that is based on a generic way of doing things, a ‘one size fits all’ method, is pressure. We learn ‘skills’ it is true, but skills are rules: ‘skills’ equals ‘rules’ and ‘rules’ equal ‘pressure’. Rules are of course the very quintessence of pressure.

We are a certain way (stressed out, anxious, or angry) and so then we put ourselves under pressure (however subtle) to be a different way. Whichever way you look at it is still pressure — the only thing that wouldn’t be pressure would be where we are able to give heartfelt permission for that pressure (stress or anxiety) to be there, but in order to do that we would have to have a sense of genuine interiority, we would have to have an ‘inner life’. Or to put this another way, we would have to have ‘inner freedom’ (which means ‘freedom from rules’). We would have to have inner freedom since without it we cannot give permission for anything — without inner freedom we can only ever ‘control or be controlled’.

The same is true for CBT and all cognitive therapies — my thoughts are putting pressure on me one way or another (they are putting the ‘big squeeze’ on me, so to speak) and so I use the techniques of CBT to prevent these thoughts from controlling me in the way that they are. I am using the ‘pressure’ of the techniques in order to counteract the pressure that the negative thinking is putting on me, and so I’m ‘using pressure to counteract pressure’. This may offer temporary relief (and then again, it may not) but the end result is not going to be good for me either way, since I have merely been drawn in deeper to the web of control and counter-control. There is no freedom here, for sure! What would help me is (again) for me to find it within myself to unconditionally allow these painful or worrying thoughts to be there; then — with no more resistance to feed on — the thoughts would lose their power over me. Without inner freedom (or inner peace) I cannot do this however, and the one thing CBT can never teach me is how to find inner peacefulness.

Anything we do in the name of therapy — if it does not result in the development of a sense of our own interiority, or connection with our own ‘inner life’, is a farce. If I’m troubled in my mind then teaching me strategies to ‘manage’ these troubles just adds to my burden — that just adds to my bondage, my slavery to thought — and it is this slavery that lies at the root of all my problems. We don’t even know the true meaning of the word ‘freedom’ however — all we know methods of control, and control — no matter how successful it might be it seem to be at first — always leads to more dependency upon control (which is a loss of freedom). The greater our initial ‘success’ therefore the more dependent (or ‘enslaved’) we are going to become later on. The root of all our psychological problems lies in the fact that we are running entirely on pressure (entirely on extrinsic motivation) and that — as a consequence — we know nothing else. We don’t have any concept of what intrinsic motivation is; for us to know that we would first have to have some sort of genuine ‘inner life’, a life which is by its very nature ‘independent of what happens on the outside’, and which does not — on this account — need to protect itself by investing more and more in control…

The System Can Only Ever Do One Thing

The system can only ever do one thing and that is to keep imprinting on itself on everyone. This is the only action of which it is capable. In the field of mental health, therefore, it is inevitable that our understanding of what mental health means will always come down to the question of ‘how well has the unit taken the programming?’ (although we will not of course frame it in quite these terms).

If the unit concerned has taken the conditioning well then this equals ‘being mentally healthy’ and in cases where there is a problem with the conditioning therapy naturally consists of reinstating it, reaffirming it, ‘reinstalling’ it. Insofar as the individual therapist has himself or herself been socially conditioned this is — as we have just said — quite inevitably going to be the way of things. As a conditioned person, how can I do otherwise than pass on my own conditioning? How can I do otherwise other than assume that the conditioned state is the healthy one, that my way of seeing the world (as a conditioned person) is the right one. That’s what we all do, all of the time. That’s what it means to be ‘conditioned’.

How could I even find work within a healthcare system if I did not show myself to be subscribing wholeheartedly and unreflectively to the viewpoint that everyone else has dutifully subscribed to? This is how it is with all groups — we have to ‘subscribe’ in order to be accepted — and mental healthcare systems (or professional bodies) are of course no exception. Far from being an exception, healthcare systems are even more rigorous about the norms because they have the added excuse of ‘ensuring standards of care’. This sounds highly commendable on the face of it of course and it is on this account well-nigh impossible to challenge — if we do take it into our heads to challenge the norms then we are simply excluded. That’s how we get ourselves excluded, by challenging the norms — that’s the mechanism. Our prospects of future employment in our chosen field immediately become very doubtful indeed, and who is going to risk that? Furthermore, who isn’t going to doubt ‘their right to challenge’ (or ‘their right to question’) in the face of the very solid front presented by everyone else in the field, who — we may be sure — are not going to risk their status (or livelihood) by publicly agreeing with us even if they do happen to have their own reservations about ‘the official line’. We all know that this is the way things work — ‘the day you start working for a big organization is the day you stop thinking’!

The bottom-line is that if we are part of a group, then our allegiance is to the group norms, or to put this another way, insofar as we have been conditioned by the system, we see promoting the values of the system as being consistent with (or as being ‘the same thing as’) good practice. Or as we might also say, if our allegiances to the everyday mind, and the way that it necessarily understands things, then all we are ever going to be able to do is to impose this particular brand of order on everything and everyone we meet, through all of our rational evaluation and all of our purposeful activity.

Mental healthcare can never come about as a result of the successful acting out of our conditioning however. It can never come about as a result of enacting approved procedures and protocols. All that’s going to happen this way is the perpetuation of the particular brand of order associated with our (unexamined) looking at things. All that’s going to come about this way is the reinforcement of the status quo. Genuine mental health means that whatever process it is that is happening is allowed to show itself for what it is. Whatever is emerging is allowed to emerge, and our ‘mental health’ lies precisely in this. Our ‘mental health’ lies precisely in our ability to relate honestly to whatever it is that emerging, and what is emerging will never accord with ‘what we all think it should be’. If there’s anything at all that we can be certain of in this world, it is this.

This principle goes beyond the world of mental healthcare — reality itself (we may say) can be relied upon to never accord with what we can collectively agree for it to be. Our relationship with what is real can’t be decided via a committee, or via any kind of ‘group think’ — this is a matter for the individual alone, unaided. Who can aid us in this matter of establishing a relationship with reality, after all? The more we are ‘aided’ in this regard the more we are put wrong, the more we are led astray. This is the one responsibility that we can’t put onto anyone else, no matter how unequal we might feel to the burden. Reality will always fall foul of the expectations or requirements of the collective and this is just another way of saying that ‘consciousness is always unwelcome in the group’. Only people who agree with the group are welcome in the group, as we all know very well.

When consciousness appears on the scene this is always as a result of the programming failing — the ‘unit’ has failed to take the conditioning. Consciousness is in one sense the enemy of the socially-adapted person because it means that they cannot be socially adapted anymore! When consciousness arrives on the scene this is generally unwelcome to the individual just as it is unwelcome to the collective and so we will all agree to do whatever can be done in order to remedy the unfortunate situation that has come about. Certainly no one is going to be happy about what is going on and look upon it as a precious opportunity for growth. Instead of ‘growth’, we like to talk in terms of recovery, which is a kind of a buzzword at the moment. Recovery means ‘going back’, it means ‘going back to the way we were before’ which was ‘being socially adapted’ (i.e. unconscious).

When we are in the ‘socially-adapted mode’ then we can’t help seeing things this way. The fact that we are socially adapted provides us with a ‘baseline’ and this baseline is — needless to say — what we want to come back to. The baseline is always what we want to come back to when our normal mental functioning has been challenged; the baseline doesn’t offer us any ‘opportunities for growth’ it is true (it was of course never its business to do this) but it does provide us with great sense of security. We want the return of the brand of order that we are familiar with — growth is a very frightening thing, after all. The crux of the matter is therefore that’s what we generally call ‘therapy’ or ‘mental healthcare’ is actually social readjustment therapy, as Alan Watt says. We are being ‘returned to the way we were’ (or, at least, that is the idea). To quote Alan Watts (from Psychotherapy East and West) –

Whenever the therapist stands with society, he will interpret his work as adjusting the individual and coaxing his ‘unconscious drives’ into social respectability. But such ‘official psychotherapy’ lacks integrity and becomes the obedient tool of armies, bureaucracies, churches, corporations, and all agencies that require individual brainwashing. On the other hand, the therapist who is really interested in helping the individual is forced into social criticism. This does not mean that he has to engage directly in political revolution; it means that he has to help the individual in liberating himself from various forms of social conditioning, which includes liberation from hating this conditioning — hatred being a form of bondage to its object.

In practice things don’t always work out so well when we try to go down this road. Things often enough don’t work out so well because it’s not a ‘healthy’ thing to try to go against the movement of growth (which is the ‘movement away from the known’). The impulse towards ‘returning to the way we were’ is not a healthy one; the conservative impulse is not a healthy thing — being driven by ‘avoidance of the new’ as it is, how can it be said to be ‘healthy’? By definition we can say that readjustment therapy is not a healthy thing because to be healthy is to be whole and the life of the socially adapted person is a fractured and alienated one and can never be otherwise. We all crowd together in large numbers but the lives that we lead are never any less ‘fractured’ and ‘alienated’ as a result — we just have company in it, that’s all. We have company in the fractured and alienated life and we can thus validate ourselves, which we do all the time. Society itself is a mechanism for the validation of the group norms!

The journey towards mental health is the journey towards wholeness and wholeness means that we are manifesting our true individuality. The individual is always whole and the whole is always ‘individual’! Naturally wholeness is always individual (or ‘unique’) — what is there to compare it to, after all? The life of the socially adapted person on the other hand is always generic in nature, as we can easily see if we think about it for a moment. If we weren’t ‘generic’ then we wouldn’t be accepted within the group — that is precisely the price we have to pay in order to be accepted within the group. If we weren’t generic then we would be ‘different’ or ‘strange’ and if we were ‘different or ‘strange’ then there would be no place for us in the group.

Just as the journey towards mental health is the journey to wholeness (i.e. the journey to ‘who we really are’) it is also the journey away from all that is familiar and comfortable, and this is why we tend very much not to like it. ‘Growth’ is a word that we all bandy about freely and are generally very comfortable about, but the reality itself is far from comfortable. ‘Comfort’ is not a word anyone in the throes of growth would ever use. Growth is something we have to do alone, without the assistance of anyone else, as we have already intimated. We have to break away from our ‘support system’. No one can tell us ‘how to grow’ or provide us with any handy suggestions or advice. There are no ‘hacks’ for growth! What we can do however is provide an environment which is supportive of growth, rather than being inherently critical of it.

To be pushed right out of our comfort zone and at the same time to have this process universally regarded as ‘something pathological that needs to be reversed’ makes the situation so much harder — the experience becomes actually punishing. The experience of those of us who are going through a mental health crisis is generally a ‘punishing’ one of course, but this is because the attitudes that exist in society, both within ourselves and society at large. Our experience is punishing (as opposed to being simply painful) because it is being negatively evaluated on all sides — it is punishing because we understand that we are ‘wrong’ to be feeling this way. We may not be overtly criticised or blamed or judged (although on the other hand we might well be) but implicit in the response of everyone we meet is the deeply ingrained idea that what is happening should not be happening. This is the attitude of everyone concerned — it is my attitude and it is also the attitude of all the mental healthcare professionals I meet, and this is not helpful. ‘Negative evaluation’ is a ‘mechanical reaction’ and mechanical reactions are never helpful when it comes to mental health!

The Purely Conceptual World

We have been given a ‘purely conceptual world’ to live in. Because it is a world that is ‘purely conceptual’ this means that there is nothing at all in it. A purely conceptual world is a world with absolutely nothing in it and yet that’s all we are being given. It’s not worth sitting around and waiting hopefully for ‘something else’ to come out of this world because nothing is going to come out of it no matter how long we might wait! It is absolutely the case that we have been given a purely conceptual world to live in and it is also absolutely the case that we are sitting around waiting for something good to come out of it even though nothing good ever can. This is exactly our situation. We go through life thinking that we’re up against this problem and that problem and that we have got this issue and that issue to contend with, and in a (subjective) way this may indeed be said to be true. The underlying problem however – the problem that we can’t ever see – is that we’re stuck in a purely conceptual reality.


To talk about ‘a conceptual reality’ is of course an oxymoron – it can be the one way or it can be the other but it can’t be both. We have reality or we have the concept of it but we can’t have both because the two things are as far apart as any two things ever can be. The conceptual reality is like the reality of a film set that, from a certain angle, looks like the real thing, but which can’t ever be investigated from any other angles without it being instantly revealed for what it is. The whole point is not to investigate it from other angles. ‘Life in the conceptual reality’ means making very sure indeed that we only ever do look at things from the proper prescribed angle therefore. If we look at it any other way then the illusion is abruptly shattered; the ‘magic’ that keeps the film real is lost and then we are confronted with the distinctly un-magical nature of the situation.


Our allegiance is always to the reality that is being created by the rational mind rather than anything else and we show our allegiance by feeling cheerful when our thoughts indicate that we should be cheerful and being downbeat and morose when they indicate that this is the appropriate reaction. If I think that I’m doing well then my mood improves, and if my thoughts tell me that my prospects are poor then my mood is correspondingly down in my boots. Such is our loyalty to thought that we were put ourselves through all this on a daily basis. We will suffer all sorts of indignities rather than doubt that what our thoughts are telling us about the world.


So if our loyalty to thought causes us to make fools of ourselves by becoming elated or depressed at the drop of a hat, bobbing up and down meaninglessly like corks floating in a choppy sea, then our loyalty to the conceptual mind causes us to devote our attention to a superficial pseudo-reality that has nothing interesting about it at all. So on the one hand we’re making a big song and dance about nothing at all the whole time, and allowing ourselves to be serially transfixed by banalities (when we could be paying attention to something that was genuinely interesting instead, i.e. the real world as opposed to the theatrical one) and on the other hand we are obliged to be very rigid and controlling with our perceptions in case we discover that the drama which is keeping us entertained (or ‘transfixed’) is nothing more than a hollow sham.


When we tease these two ingredients apart – the inherent dullness of the pseudo-world that we are compelled to believe in and the (usually) invisible anxiety that is attendant upon the maintenance of this fragile artificial world view – we can see something very significant, we can see two elements of depression and anxiety clearly revealed. What else is depression other than the discovery (the unwilling discovery) that the life which we have placed so much stock in (the life which we have been encouraged to place so much stock in) is utterly devoid of any worth or meaning, and that the ‘sense of self’ which has been constructed in relation to this artificial life is fake and lacking in any genuine sincerity or integrity? And what is anxiety apart from this invented – but all too believable – need to make something work that is never going to work?


Our encultured response to depression is to say that it is some kind of mechanical defect and that the life which we construct in relation to the ‘purely conceptual world’ which we have been provided with is authentic and meaningful and interesting and all the rest of it. That this is the case is not up for negotiation; that’s not on the table at all, and so any intimation – no matter how convincing it might be to the individual concerned – is inevitably going to be dismissed out of hand. The possibility of not dismissing it out of hand is something that never even crosses our threshold of consciousness. It never makes it that far, it’s shot down without any further ado, and so the message that the condition is screaming so loudly is roundly ignored by everyone concerned – everyone apart from the sufferer themselves, that is (who can’t really ignore it). This denial of the very obvious message behind depression suits the rest of us very well therefore but it doesn’t help the sufferer at all. Far from helping them, denying the reality of what they are feeling makes their suffering even worse – it is made worse because we – in our professional cleverness – have arrogantly denied the meaning of their most intimate personal experience. This experience – far from being pathological in nature – is actually profoundly healthy and this is the possibility we can never allow for.


In the case of anxiety our response is exactly the same. We are receiving a message against our will, we are receiving a message but we are fighting against it every step of the way – we are fighting against it for all we’re worth because it is so very inimitable to us. What the anxiety is telling us – in no uncertain terms – is that the endeavour which we are engaged in is untenable, that it is just not going to work out for us. It’s not going to work out for us because it is all taking place on a false basis; everything is always taking place on a false premise in the purely conceptual world because it is in the nature of concepts to be false. It’s a false basis because ‘the concept of me’ is trying to achieve ‘the concept of something else’; ‘the concept of who I am’ is trying (inevitably) to achieve some goal or other and goals are concepts just as anything else in the PCW is!


Anxiety is the same story as depression because the message is so strong, and because it hits us on such a deep level that we just can’t override it, or ‘conveniently reinterpret it’ as everyone else can. We feel it in our bones, so to speak. We feel it on a level that is deeper and more profound than the level of our thinking and so even though thought has been our master up to this point, it has finally being trumped stop trumped by reality (albeit a reality that we don’t like). It can’t stand up to our deeper intuition, even though it tries its hardest to do so. Thought isn’t really the master after all – it only pretends to be. Wisdom comes about as a result of suffering, Aeschylus says. Aeschylus also says that wisdom comes about ‘against our will’.


Naturally wisdom comes about against our will – what we are learning undermines everything we believe in, after all. It undermines everything we have invested ourselves in so deeply. If only we are able to understand what Aeschylus is talking about here deeply the process that we are undergoing would be so much less punishing for us. If we were able to have some insight into this timeless truth that would make such a profound difference to our experience, even though the process would continue just the same.


If we were supported in this crucial understanding (which could only happen if we as a culture were more psychologically aware, or even psychologically aware at all) we would have a far better chance of having this insight ourselves and then as a result of this insight we would still be mechanically struggling against the awareness that it brings us but we would be at peace with our own struggling. We would be ‘at peace with our own struggling’ (as strange as this might sound) because we would understand it but the problem is that the social milieu within which we are enfolded in is profoundly dismissive or denying of any such insight. We cannot after all – as we have already said – countenance for a second the suggestion that the PCW is devoid of any worth or meaning, or any actual reality. We couldn’t get our head around this suggestion even if we tried – that isn’t a thought that we are able to have.


Suppose that I do have the thought that ‘all my thoughts are devoid of substance’ – if I were to entertain this thought (the thought that ‘my thoughts are hollow’) then I would be ‘trusting my mental process in order to discount that very same mental process’ since ‘my thoughts are devoid of substance’ is itself a thought. The thinking mind never really sees through itself, even if it does play at it. When we talk about ‘the hollowness of the PCW’ we are of course talking about the hollowness of thought and so this ‘blankness’ or ‘emptiness’ is something that can never be known about on the basis of the PCW. We can talk about it, as we just have done, we can intellectually play about with the idea quite easily, but it’s a sham – not something that is actually helpful. It is very likely to be ‘helpful in reverse way’ because the more we intellectually play about the concept the more we become trapped in the intellect that is doing the ‘playing about’! We can as a culture field any number of intellectual heavyweights capable of discussing the hollowness of thought but that’s not going to help anyone, least of all them.


What does help is to focus solidly on two points: [1] that society provides us with a purely conceptual world to live in, a world that we are almost incapable of ever questioning, and [2] that the invisible hollowness that is inherent in the PCW ultimately manifests itself as neurotic suffering (which is displaced suffering, suffering which we cannot see for what it is, suffering the origin of which is entirely obscure to us. As a culture, we see ourselves as being very resourceful, very practical, and very capable; we also see ourselves as having an unprecedented amount of knowledge at our fingertips  – more knowledge than human beings have ever had available to them throughout the whole course of our history. That is unquestionably how we see ourselves. The thing about this however is that it is all a joke if we can’t see that being adapted to a purely conceptual world renders our lives completely sterile, completely meaningless, completely futile, and that this is the ‘Soul Sickness’ that Jung warned about over 80 years ago now:

Deviation from the truths of the blood begets neurotic restlessness, and we have had about enough of that these days. Restlessness begets meaninglessness, and the lack of meaning in life is a soul-sickness whose full extent and full import our age has not as yet begun to comprehend.

As Jordan Peterson says in one of his lectures, psychologists these days are strongly discouraged from mentioning Jung’s name in academic circles; to do so would be the kiss of death because everyone would then realise that you are ‘soft in the head’, so to speak (which is to say, not appropriately rigorous and therefore scientific enough in your demeanour).  No one would ever take anything you say seriously again after this fatal faux pas. No one would ever heed your words ever again. This fact in itself tells us everything we need to know about contemporary psychology! By trying so hard to be ‘scientific’ (whatever we might imagine that to mean) we have departed from our subject. Modern psychology is – at best – a source of confusion. It is a source of confusion because it traps us even more in the purely conceptual world under the pretext of somehow ‘illuminating’ us! Rational ‘therapy’ does the very same thing – under the guise of ‘freeing’ us from our thought-created suffering it compounds that suffering further. All rational therapies do this – there is no way that they can’t, of course…








Discovering Our Wholeness

The whole emerges when we look at something from all possible angles, when we ‘circumnavigate’ it, so to speak. This is the circumambulatio of the alchemists and it is also the way our dreams develop when we pay attention to them, as Jung says here in Psychology and Alchemy:

The way is not straight but appears to go in circles. More accurate knowledge has proved it to go in spirals: the dream-motifs always return after certain intervals to definite forms, whose characteristic is to define a centre… As manifestations of unconscious processes the dreams rotate or circumambulate round the centre, drawing closer to it as the amplifications increase in distinctiveness and scope.

It doesn’t come naturally for us to perform the alchemical circumambulatio, however. That’s not our way – our way is the ‘linear path’, our way is to delve ever deeper into our subject from the same point of view and grow increasingly dismissive of all other viewpoints. Our authority derives in other words from our ‘ignorance of all viewpoints’, which is what academic specialism always comes down to. As has often been noted, the huge amount of detail that needs to be mastered when we study a subject means that we simply don’t have the time to do any broader reading. In some fields of study this doesn’t seem to cause any immediate problems, but when it comes to our mental health most certainly does. The word ‘health’ comes from the old English word for wholeness which indicates straightaway that our approach to mental health has itself become unhealthy!


It is not in the nature of the thinking mind to ‘circumambulate’ the topics that it is considering. As we have said, it does the very opposite of this – it ‘digs in’, it entrenches itself, it wilfully ignores all other perspectives. Thought works by ‘excluding the irrelevant’, and irrelevant is whatever it doesn’t happen to be focusing on at the time. The psyche itself however (if we may be permitted to use that currently unfashionable term) always ‘circles’ – it appears to move around in a random or accidental fashion. It is not logical as the thinking mind is. It hops about on its own accord, going where it will, and there’s no ‘plan’ to what it’s doing at all. The psyche has no gender in other words, whilst the rational mind always does. Thought can’t not ‘have an agenda’! All artists and writers and poets know this and have a very deep appreciation of this apparently whimsical or flighty quality of the psyche, which is like the wind which ‘bloweth where it listeth, as Alan Watts says. This is where very life of the psyche comes from and if we put a stop to this then we put a stop to all creativity, all spontaneity, all intuition, and what is life worth then?


What this comes down to is the difference between ‘directed’ and ‘spontaneous’ movement. As a culture we value directed activity pretty much to the exclusion of all else; we want to be ‘in charge’, in other words. We can equate this quality of ‘directedness’ with the rational ego – it’s actually the feeling that we are in control and that we are ‘directing the show’ that creates the phenomenon of the rational ego. If the ego didn’t feel that it could make things happen the way it wanted them to happen then it would start to lose its integrity as you go’. The fact that we value what Albert Bandura called ‘personal self-efficacy’ so much clearly shows that we are making the assumption that ‘life’ and ‘the (so-called) life of the rational ego’ are one and the same thing, and that there is therefore no life outside of the life of the ego, that – outside of this – there is actually nothing of any interest going on. Our society (our ‘collective way of life’) – very obviously – completely embodies this assumption.


Investing heavily in directed activity (and therefore using this as a way of defining who we are) – causes us to perceive ourselves as ‘being the rational ego’ and this mode of existence actually precludes spontaneity – we always act according to our agenda (which may or may not be conscious) and, furthermore, always has this quality of ‘self-consciousness’ going on whereby everything we do and say is always related back to the image that we have of ourselves. We can’t escape from our own image of ourselves, in other words – we’re actually ‘stuck to ourselves’ and this state of affairs constitutes a type of ongoing suffering or torment that we just can’t see as such. We are the prisoners of the rational ego and we ‘suffer from it’ rather than ‘benefiting from it’ or ‘enjoying it,’ which is what we imagine to be the case. The deal isn’t really as good a one as we might imagine being the case therefore.


Even though the situation of ‘perceiving ourselves to be the rational ego’ is a thinly disguised state of suffering we are tied into it by the way in which we value our perceived self-efficacy efficacy so much (we don’t just value it, we use it to construct our identity, as we have just said). Because willed action, or ‘making things happen on purpose’, is so supremely important to us we aren’t ever going to experience the exhilarating sense of freedom that comes from not having to make things happen on purpose (or rather not having to make ourselves happen on purpose). We have actually got it completely backwards because we understand ‘freedom’ as being the same thing as ‘the freedom to get things to happen the way we want them to’, which comes down to ‘the freedom to believe that we are the rational ego’. The rational ego is a painful prison, and yet we implicitly define freedom in terms of believing that we are this arbitrary sense of self and this – obviously enough – means that it is a prison we can’t ever question. ‘None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.’ says Goethe.


We don’t want the freedom of not having to be the one who gets anything to happen according to the dictates of their will or intention because when we discover this freedom we also discover that we aren’t the rational ego, that we aren’t any sort of ego! We discover that there is no one there ‘making it happen’. We discover that life is ‘a happening’ without any self or ego behind it all, ordering things according to whatever petty agenda it might have. This is what ‘spontaneity’ actually means – it means that there is no self there making things happen. Spontaneity isn’t ‘the rational ego being free and easy’ – which is what we like to believe  – it means that it means that there is no rational ego and that is why, in our culture, we have no genuine interest in spontaneity, any more than we have a genuine interest in being whole. Going back to what we were saying earlier therefore, this also means that we have no genuine interest in being mentally healthy, which is a truly astonishing thing to consider.


Our mental health industries are staffed and run by ‘specialists’ – working within the field means training as a specialist and the thing about this, as we have already said, is that the demands of this training almost inevitably preclude us broadening out in any other direction. ‘Narrow’ rather than ‘broad’ is deemed to be the helpful thing, despite the fact that there is no absolutely evidence to show this to be the case. To work within a mental health care settings to work within a pyramid of control (or power), those at the top of the pyramid being the most specialised and those at the bottom (the ones with no power in system) being the least specialised. Therapeutic modalities such as art therapy or music therapy are accorded very little weight or status – the fact that they are ‘creative’ in nature rather than being strictly logical count against them as we don’t see creativity or spontaneity as being in any way key to our mental health! Creativity and spontaneity seem utterly frivolous to us in this respect.


In some (but not all) areas of physical medicine specialism can be exactly what we want – when we are undergoing thoracic surgery it’s not going to help those of the surgeon is able to read Homer in the original ancient Greek, or if they happen to be familiar with Native American folklore, or with the work of the existential philosophers. When it is psychology or psychological therapy that we are talking about however then it’s a different story – mental health means one thing and one thing only and that is the manifestation of wholeness in a person’s life. This might sound a bit airy fairy but it isn’t – all we’re saying here is that we are not focusing narrowly on ‘fixing the rational ego’ (by building up a false sense of ‘being in control’) but rather we are developing a relationship with the widest possible aspect or manifestation of the psyche. We are working towards – in an ‘accidental’ or ‘serendipitous’ way rather than the purposeful, goal-orientated way – finding out what it feels like to be living life as the totality of who we are (mysterious as that ‘totality’ might be) rather than always insisting on the supremacy of the ‘unreal fragment’ which is the rational ego…








Unconscious Living

The positive or asserted self is hard work, and not in a good way either. It’s a futile type of work, like the type of work where we keep having to push a boulder up a hill only to see it roll right back down again every time. The work involved in maintaining the positive self is Sisyphean, therefore – it is the task of Sisyphus, which none of us will envy him for. Who would be foolish enough to envy Sisyphus, as he labours away fruitlessly at his hopeless task?


The positive thinking brigade would have us believe that this task, the task of getting the positive self over the brow of the hill, can be achieved. ‘Never say never!’ is the battle cry. Success is only just round the corner. Success – that magical word! This word can mean lots of different things but the ultimate type of success, the type we’re all looking for, is successfully getting the positive self ‘over the brow of the hill’. That’s the big payoff, that’s the payoff we are all gunning for. Unconscious living is all about chasing this particular payoff. We try and we try and we try, and when we fall flat on our faces – as we often do – then (when we feel able) we dust ourselves off and continue on with our quest. And all the while the positive thinking brigade is cheering us on…


Unconscious living is fuelled by the staunch refusal to see that the task upon which we daily labour was doomed to failure right from the start. Seeing this is despair, and ‘despair’ is a dirty word, just as ‘depression’ is. The whole point of unconscious living is to keep on believing that success is just around the corner, and keeping ourselves upbeat on this account – we have to be positive because anything else is a disgrace, because anything else is ‘letting the side down’. We are required to be remain upbeat and be of a generally optimistic disposition, but – in order that we might maintain this bright and shiny attitude – we also have to make sure that we stay stupid. Being wilfully stupid is the key to the whole endeavour. The world of unconscious living corresponds to Chogyam Trungpa’s ‘Realm of Intelligent Stupidity’ (or ‘Animal Realm‘) therefore. We’re not really that stupid, but dumbing ourselves down is the first requirement of this particular game, which is ‘the game of the positive self’. How could we play it otherwise?


Maintaining the positive self was always going to prove to be the ultimate in futile tasks – it is the archetypal futile task. Our belief is that if we put enough energy into it (and if we get a bit of luck coming our way as well, perhaps) then our labours will one day come to an end – we will have reached the top of the hill and it will all be downhill from then on. Everything will be just ‘plain sailing’ from then on. We will have reached ‘Success City’ and there be no looking back. It’ll be time to party. This is why Gurdjieff says that we are like men rowing feverishly around a lake, hoping to reach that point where we never have to row any more, hoping to reach the point where we don’t have to strive and strain anymore. This is the ego’s idea of heaven or paradise – the place where its existence will be eternally validated (or vindicated), thus relieving it from the wearisome task of having to validate and vindicate itself the whole time. Nothing is sweeter for the ego than this vision. The very thought of it is maddeningly sweet, and that’s all it is – a thought…


In order for this ‘dream of escape’ to remain as maddeningly attractive to us as it is we need to make sure to stay dumb, as we have already said. If we were actually examine our thinking in this regard then we would see though it straightaway. The positive or asserted self only gets to exist because we are continually asserting (or validating) it – it is the result of us straining towards some kind of artificial ideal – the sort of ideal that can never come to anything in reality. It’s like a face that pull, or a role in a play that we step into – the face that we are pulling can’t continue to exist unless we keep on contorting our face muscles, the role which have taken up will vanish in a puff of smoke the moment we stop acting. Neither ‘the face that has been pulled’ or ‘the role that is being acted’ has any existence of its own, obviously! The problem is however that we can’t see the positive or purposeful self (the self we say we are) as being an artificial construct, as being the result of sustained effort or intention on our part. It’s a ‘deliberate act’, but we got so caught up in it that we can’t see that it isn’t real. We have been making the effort so long that we no longer register the fact that we are making an effort. The effort (which is us taking ourselves as seriously as we do) has become our baseline – it’s all we know.


Alan Watts says that the rational sense of identity (or ego) is like a chronic knot a tension in our muscles – we are tense the whole time, although we don’t usually know it. We have identified with the knot of tension – we think that the painful knot of tension is ‘who we are’ so we don’t want to let go of it. We would be deadly afraid of letting go of it – what else have we got, after all? What else is there? We have been in the purposeful realm so long that we think purposefulness is all there is. If something isn’t done purposefully, we say, then how can it happen? If we don’t deliberately make it happen, then nothing will happen. We have got so immersed in the purposeful world that we think it’s the only world there is; we are so identified with the purposeful or positive self that we think ‘this is all that we are’. We have forgotten entirely about the spontaneous side of our nature, which is so much faster in its remit. If we say that the purposeful self is like a small rock rocky island that is constantly being battered by the surf, then the spontaneous aspect of who we are is like the ocean itself, which knows no boundaries.


When we live the life of the positive self then we aren’t living life at all but only our idea of it. The positive self is our idea of who we are and our ‘idea of who we are’ can’t live life! Only we can do that, as we really are. Whatever else we are doing when we live on the basis of the positive or asserted self, it’s not living. What we are actually doing – when it comes down to it – is spending all of our time (or most of it) validating the arbitrary ideas that the PS is based on. The ideas won’t stand up by themselves of course – ideas never do! Needless to say, we aren’t aware that we are constantly engaged in validating (or seeking to validate) our ideas about the world. If we saw ourselves doing this and the game will be up straightaway! Instead, we see ourselves as defending or promoting ‘what is right and true’ and fighting against ‘what is wrong and false’. Every belief there ever was sees itself as being ‘the right one’; every belief there ever was sees all other beliefs as being false. We play this game tirelessly, refusing to see the obvious, refusing to see that no belief is ‘the right one’. Beliefs are only there to prop up the false idea we have of ourselves, after all. They are there to back up our cover story…


Deep down we don’t care a jot about what is true or not true. Deep down, we haven’t the remotest interest in the truth; we are actually deadly afraid of it. Truth is the enemy of the positive self; the truth (like the mighty ocean) is very broad, whilst the PS (which is the rocky island) is very narrow. In order to survive, the PS has to live in a very narrow world; it has to live in the very narrow world of its own ideas, which it has to defend all the time. It has to police the borders constantly, it has to maintain the artificial limits that it has itself created, and which wouldn’t exist otherwise. The ocean has to be denied at every step of the way therefore. The truth has to be denied every step of the way – the truth is far too rich for our blood! The truth is too generous and we survive as the ‘mind-created self’ by being mean, by being narrow in our outlook.


We might sometimes ask ourselves why it is that we human beings love so much to create such narrow, restrictive beliefs about the world and this is the reason – because we wish to protect the integrity of the false, thought-created view of ourselves, which is the rational self or ego. This self, as we have said, doesn’t get to live life – hasn’t got time for that (and it’s too afraid, anyway). All the purposeful self has time for is validating and vindicating itself and this is a ‘full-time job’, as we keep saying. We put up for what is essentially ‘a miserable parody of life’ (what else would we call a life that is made up of constant futile self-validation?) because we have the belief (unconscious as it might be) that one day this cherished inauthentic self won’t need validating any more – that one day we will have achieved some a lasting state of glory. That’s the dream – no matter how absurd it might be – that keeps us going. That’s the magic battery that never runs down. If we could only see what we were doing then we’d drop it in a flash but we can’t see it. We don’t want to see it…