The Generic Self

There are, we could say, two paradigms, two ways of seeing or doing things, one of which is very familiar to us and the other much less so. The ‘unfamiliar paradigm’ is counterintuitive in nature and this explains why it is so rarely heard of; we can relate it to the ‘spiritual principle’ which says – ‘What you hold onto you lose, and what you give away comes back to you’. This is contrary to our common sense and as a result no one is going to take it seriously – if we hear this idea articulated we will scoff at it. This is why our whole way of life, our whole modus operandi, is based on the other paradigm, which is the obvious one – the one that does appeal to our common sense.

The other (obvious) paradigm is predicated upon the premise that ‘if we hang onto something tightly enough then we will get to keep it, whilst if we give it away, then someone else will have it and not us.’ This paradigm is super-obvious and everyone understands it, but at the same time it puts us completely wrong. It totally ‘wrong foots’ us. The whole of our civilization is based upon this premise, and it has been for a very long time, but this way of doing things has never resulted in anything apart from interminable violence, confusion and misery. From a psychological point of view, it couldn’t be clearer that living life in this narrow, self-orientated way is an utter unmitigated disaster, both for the individual concerned and for the community as a whole. This is the recipe for a thwarted and unfulfilling life, and yet we all still worship and admire billionaires, as if they have somehow uncovered the very secret of life! We hang adoringly upon their every word… Living life on the basis of ‘the unexamined idea that we have of ourselves’ is absolutely the least wise, and most suffering-producing thing we could ever do, and yet – on the positive side – it does drive the economy.

Were we to be a culture that is based on psychological insight (and if we were therefore possessed of a certain degree of wisdom), then we would be organised along very different lines – an infinitely greater value would be placed upon our mental well-being in this case! As things stand however we organise ourselves along the lines of ‘how we might best perpetuate the dysfunctional modality of existence that we have evolved for ourselves’. We pay lip service to the idea that we value human freedom and happiness, but this couldn’t be further from the truth – we value the system that we’ve been indoctrinated into and we will sacrifice whatever we have to in order to keep it going. It is – we might say – the ‘dark idol’ that we worship and sacrifice our children to. We pay lip service to the idea that we value human freedom and happiness but that’s just an empty formula. We claim to have psychological understanding but what our so-called ‘psychology’ comes down to is how to keep us functional whilst at the same time working strictly within the restrictive system. Working strictly within the system makes us unwell however and so our interest in psychology is all about keeping us on our feet by ‘managing’ this unwellness one way or another, in whatever way we can.

This is why we are as fond of the word ‘management’ as we are; in the world of mental healthcare we are continually talking about ‘managing this’ and ‘managing that’, and what this comes down to is keeping the distress within tolerable limits. We even have a type of psychological strategy that we call ‘distress tolerance’. In one way it could be said that our problem is that ‘we want to have our cake and eat it’ inasmuch as we want to maintain and perpetuate the system that we are part of at the same time as having the sense that we are leading meaningful lives, and feeling that we’re living autonomously (which is of course the only way to live!), but in another way we could say that this isn’t really a dilemma for us at all since our allegiance has already been decided – our allegiance is very much towards ‘perpetuating the established setup no matter what the cost might be’. It might be said that it is something of a marvel that no one ever seems to see this but – on the other hand – maybe it isn’t so much of a marvel once we consider that we are completely dependent upon the set-up that we have unwittingly created. We’ve lost our natural resilience and so we have to rely on the ‘artificial life-support system’ that is society instead. We are ‘dependent upon the Matrix’, even though the Matrix is a prison-system that is ruthlessly exploiting us and making us unwell.

We come across this idea in many places – we could go so far as to say that anyone who has ever looked into it has come to the same conclusion. Johann Hari for example, quotes Professor Tim Kasser as saying – ‘…we live in a machine that is designed to get us to neglect what is important about life’. According to Gabor Mate, to give another example, ‘Illness in this society, physical or mental, they are not abnormalities. They are normal responses to an abnormal culture. This culture is abnormal when it comes to real human needs.’ In the following passage taken from her book Psychology with a Soul (1987. P 185-6), Jean Hardy, surveys the history of this discussion –

The idea had long been current in the nineteenth century that the ‘benefits of civilization and morals… had been acquired at the cost of man’s natural happiness… that civilized man remains forever an unhappy creature.’ (Henri F. Ellenberger) It is possible to see the growth of therapy as a response to the effects of industrialization and materialism on the inner life of individuals – the personal and collective load that every child in touch with feeling and not fragmented has to bear in a society with such meaningless injustices and horrors, known to all though more and more efficient communications, is considerable; this is the impact of Foucault’s writing, tracing the relationship between civilization and madness. ‘Look hard enough at reason,’ Foucault seems to be saying, ‘and you will find madness.’ And again, ‘madness came to be seen as the reverse side of progress: as civilized man became further removed from nature, the more he exposed himself to madness.’

The point is that society places no value on genuine human potential – it’s only interested in running the machine (which it conflates with ‘our own best interest’). Society makes us into the way it wants us to be, and then it takes care of us – after it has moulded us in its own image. It’s not really ‘taking care of us’ therefore, any more than social adjustment therapy (as Alan Watts calls it) is taking care of us. ‘Social adjustment therapy’ is all about looking after society’s needs, not ours (and the same can of course be said regarding our education system). Odd as it might sound to say, nothing in our collectively agreed-upon way of life is for the benefit of who we really are who or what it is for the benefit of is our collectively agreed upon idea of who we are, which is – to be perfectly blunt about it – a ‘phantom entity’. It’s not a real thing. The whole setup is there for the sake of this phantom entity, every little bit of it, and so our efforts might be compared to ‘throwing money down the drain’, or ‘pouring precious drinking water onto parched desert sands’. It’s a ludicrous, pointless exercise, and yet it is one we take very, very seriously. We’re putting all the resources at our disposal into the task of ‘making life as good as possible for the phantom entity which is the ‘Generic Self’ whilst totally and shamefully ignoring and neglecting who we actually are. Who we actually are has been entirely forgotten about…

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Glorifying Our ‘Aims’

When we’re greedy for the desired outcome, or fearful and worried about the unwanted one, then what happens as a result of this preoccupation is that we miss out on life itself. We miss out on life itself because life has nothing to do with either the ‘wanted’ or the ‘unwanted’ outcome – it has nothing to do with my fears and nothing to do with my hopes and desires either, which would be a very strange thing to consider were we ever to do so.

We understand this the other way around, however. Our understanding is that we will lose out unless we get to be good at obtaining the outcomes we want, and avoiding all the other ones, and this is of course why we put as much effort into our purposeful activities as we do, why we take the attitude that unless there is a reason for what we’re doing then we are essentially wasting our time. ‘Activity without purpose is the drain of your life’, legendary motivational speaker Tony Robbins tells us. Or – even more to the point – from Pastor Sunday Adelaja we learn that ‘Life becomes a dilemma when you are living a purposeless and goalless life.’ This is the unashamed message of our era – the message which glorifies the simple-minded purposeful strivings for our goals. Here lies our fulfilment, we are led to believe, and nowhere else. But if our goals have nothing to do with life, and take us in the opposite direction (if such a thing were possible) then the question we are bound to ask ourselves (if we have any curiosity about ourselves at all) is “What on earth are we playing at?”

The answer turns out to be very simple – the reason for our perverse orientation in this matter is because our rational-purposeful culture is an exercise in denial, not an exercise in exploring (or celebrating) life, which is what we would like to believe. Our hopes and fears are our own private projections and if we weren’t the fully paid-up members of such a profoundly unconscious culture we would see this without the slightest bit of difficulty. How could we not see that our hopes and fears are our own projections? This is the most basic psychological insight there is and it is also the insight that is least likely to ever come our way – we’re kept far too busy on the Wheel of Purposefulness for that. We’re always too fixated on the goal (and the next goal after that) to ever get philosophical about what the hell we think we’re doing…

If all I care about are my projections then this means that I am very effectively ‘cocooning myself from reality’, just as Jung says. This is the best way of ‘cocooning ourselves from reality’ there is – it’s totally fool-proof! The other way of putting this is to say that our goals – precious as they are to us – are only thoughts, and thoughts aren’t real. The thought is not the thing and it never can be, and so to see the world purely in terms of our ideas about it is to very effectively remove ourselves from it. To be focused exclusively on our goals is to be concerned only with those things that make sense to our logical categories (since if something can’t be represented in terms of these categories then it simply doesn’t exist for us). When we are constantly enthusing about our plans and intentions we are creating the impression that we have a full-blooded relationship with the ‘wider world’ (or at the very least that we aspire to have such a relationship) but this is just a ploy – the only ‘relationship’ we have is with our own private version of reality, which is of course a complete cop out.

Controlling only ever relates us to the sterile domain of our well-worn thoughts, our jaded and flavourless preconceptions, and so no matter how successful we might be in our purposeful endeavours, that is never going to get us anywhere different from ‘where we already were’. Just to reiterate this point – because it’s a point we miss every time – when we concern ourselves only with outcomes (either of the good or bad variety) then this means that we are in Control Mode and being in Control Mode necessarily limits us to ‘the domain of what we already know’, ‘the domain of our preconceptions’, ‘the domain of what we have already decided is true’. We don’t ever see things this way but what it essentially means is that we are trapped in the Prison of Purposefulness. We’re lifers in this most doleful of institutions and there’s no hope of parole, no matter how well we behave…

The reason we don’t ever see things this way is of course because we take it as read that the Known World – the world that is made-up entirely of our thoughts and concepts – is pretty much equivalent to what’s actually out there in reality. We never stop to reflect on what a ludicrous assumption this is; we might be familiar with our own description of the world, but we certainly shouldn’t go around assuming that what we are so familiar with is actually ‘the world itself’. Thought is a purely quantitative business, whereas in reality no quantities exist, only qualities; we all know that sugar is sweet, but we wouldn’t know what sweetness is just from the word. There’s no sweetness in the word ‘sweet’ and – what’s more – there’s no way there ever could be! There is a gulf between our descriptions and ‘the world that is being described’ which can never be bridged, not by any logic that we might be capable of putting together. We’ll never bridge it, and so rather than allow ourselves to get curious about what might lie on the other side of the abyss, we resort to ignoring it and pretending that it isn’t there.  

Because the Known World has no correspondence to (or no connection with) ‘reality as it is in itself’, it is perfectly appropriate to speak of us as being prisoners of thought. It is perfectly accurate to speak of the thinking mind as a person. “You are in prison”, says Gurdjieff, “all you can wish for, if you are a sensible man, is to escape.” The thing is however that we’re not sensible in this way – we’re not in the least bit ‘sensible’! We are preoccupied with anything else but escaping – anything interests us apart from the one thing that isn’t interesting (i.e., our trivial games). As Gurdjieff also says somewhere else, “our fate is to be forever turning around in a circle of insignificant interests and insignificant aims.” We ‘carry this off’ by getting excited by our aims as if they really do have some relationship to ‘the Wider Reality’. They don’t though and so no matter how much we invest in our fantasies, they are never going to bear any fruit. We devote ourselves to our distractions as if they weren’t distractions, in other words. “Are we not wasps who spend all day in a fruitless attempt to traverse a window-pane – while the other half of the window is wide open?” asks Wei Wu Wei.

Life itself (or reality itself, if we want to put it like that) exists at right angles to all our concerns, to all our interests and preoccupations. This is what Wei Wu Wei means when he says that we operate on ‘the horizontal’ dimension and ignore ‘the vertical’; the vertical dimension – we might say – is the dimension of depth, which is the ‘mysterious dimension’- it is ‘mysterious because we’re constantly moving beyond the veil of appearances. In the horizontal dimension however we never go beyond appearances and so everything we engage in here is guaranteed to be vanishingly trivial, vanishingly superficial, vanishingly inconsequential. The only difference between one outcome and another in the Realm of the Vanishingly Inconsequential (i.e., the Realm of our Games) is ‘the difference indicated by the mental boundaries which we ourselves have invented’, and so this is the type of difference that we contrive to get excited by in our games. This is the difference between one category and another (or between one idea and another) and this is an imaginary difference, a difference that is ‘only there because we say it is’. When we ‘glorify our aims’ – as we always do – it is this ‘imaginary difference’ that we are getting feverishly excited about and when we allow ourselves to get ‘excited by the imaginary’ this always happens at the expense of anything that is actually real….

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