The Hunger For Identity

Our neurotic pain comes about both because of the way in which we are compulsively driven to maintain a false and limited idea of ourselves and because of the tremendous constriction of possibilities that this false idea of who we are brings about.

We are ‘caught both ways’, so to speak, we’re caught because of the absolute need to go on maintaining the self-image, which is a job that just goes on and on, and we’re caught because we are forced to live in a world that is predicated upon the supreme importance of this self, the unquestionable centrality of this self. We have made our bed, which took (and continues to take) an awful lot of effort, and so now all that is left is for to lie in it, which turns out to be no fun at all. How can working away ceaselessly at maintaining and refining a situation that denies our true nature be ‘fun’?

The maintenance of the idea that we have of ourselves is a pain and being that self is a pain too, so this isn’t exactly a good situation to be in. It’s also not a situation that we will recognise as being ours – the only time we do start to relate to our situation in a more honest way is when neurosis starts to close its teeth on us and we really and truly start to ‘feel the pinch’. This isn’t to say that we automatically get to understand the nature of our predicament and where our pain is coming from when this happens – the suffering comes first and the understanding comes a lot later, if it does. It is entirely possible to continue suffering for years from neurotic pain without having the slightest bit of insight into what’s going on and this pain-filled delay between ‘feeling the pinch’ and ‘learning the lesson’ isn’t helped by the fact that we live in a society that is not ‘psychologically-minded’, a society that functions by alienating its members both from the natural world and our true (or ‘unprogrammed / spontaneous’) nature. We are after all a distraction-based culture, not an insight-based one!

The chance that we will learn something (learn freedom) from our neurotic suffering is there for sure but one big problem we face is therefore that as a collective we do not acknowledge this pain (or any pain) as being a necessary precursor of insight and that we are – moreover – absolutely dead set against doing so. Society most certainly doesn’ttell us that we should be careful about identifying with the act that we ourselves have put on in case we forget who we really are in the process. Of course we aren’t told this – we’re given the opposite message, we are encouraged to identify as much as we can with the image, the role, the act that we are putting on, in order to conform to the script.  This is only to be expected – society is a game and so we are encouraged to play the game (because the game is no good if we don’t play it). We are encouraged to ‘be what we are supposed to be’ within the generic terms of the narrative that has been provided for us and the narrative doesn’t warn us about itself.

This ‘encouragement’ (if we can continue to use that inappropriately mild word) is indirect rather than direct, implicit rather than explicit, hinted at rather than stated, since no one concerned wants to draw attention to the fact that the game is a game (which really means that the game doesn’t want to draw attention to the fact that it is a game, since we ourselves don’t actually know what we’re doing). We are shown images of adapted game-players (who are so well adapted that they don’t even know that they are playing the game) having a rich and meaningful life and as a result we take on board (quite unconsciously) the message that this is the way to find happiness and fulfilment. Just to give what is probably the most obvious example of this sort of thing, we might point to the advertising industry. We might think that adverts are there to promote the specific product that is being sold but what’s really being sold here is the game itself, as John Berger says in Ways of Seeing. The game is selling itself to us (because if it doesn’t sell itself to us no one else will).

When we look into it we can see that advertising and promotional activity are only a small part of the package, therefore. How people are presented in the media in general is a bigger part because that creates the template from which we unconsciously (or consciously) work. Another key element is what we might call ‘our own individual contribution to the essential lie’ – those of us who are doing well in the game (for example) are tacitly expected to cultivate ‘the mystique of success’ so that the other players will become envious and invest more in the game as a result. On the other hand, those of us who are doing badly according to the high standards of the social adaptation game have to be generally disregarded and – if possible – swept out right out of sight so that the negative side of the theatre doesn’t impinge on us any more than it has to. This accounts for the existence of the stigma attaching to those of us who are affected by mental health conditions. Neurotic suffering is an inevitable result, given our trivial and inauthentic way of life (which is nothing other than ‘the Generic Life’) and given the fact that all we ever do (when we’re in the Generic Mode of Living) is distract ourselves from feeling how we’re really feeling or from thinking what we’re really thinking, it is only natural (in a manner of speaking) that we should distract ourselves from seeing that we are a distraction-based culture. That’s not the image we want, after all.

Another aspect of this is the way in which we blame those who fail in the social game and ascribe that failure to personal shortcomings (or culpability) on the part of those who are conspicuously failing to make the grade, thereby saving ourselves the trouble of having to think any more about them. ‘Judging’ means that you don’t have to think about it anymore and that is of course why we love judging so much – that is the beauty of having a narrow judgmental mind! The fact that we don’t look at anything except in a purely superficial way means that we’re able to carry on playing the game therefore – the status quo can continue unabated (for all the good that this does) and we are – as we have said – all very invested in that. That is our conservatism – we want to ‘conserve the game’ at whatever cost. To play the game is to be invested in the game because when we play we fall into the trap of having to play; the social game is an addiction in other words, just like gambling or taking heroin. We commit to playing the game as much as we do because we think that it’s going to work out for us, even though it never can; the game never works out for anyone precisely because it is only a game. The fact that we continue to think that it’s ‘a good idea’ to carry on with what we’re doing is due to delusion and nothing more.

All of this comes down to one very simple thing – we are encouraged (or rather railroaded) into identifying with a particular limiting image of ourselves (‘limiting’ because all images are limiting). There is a definite or concrete identity there on the shelf and we are manoeuvred into believing that it is us, that it is who we are. Out of our hunger for identity a marriage is made, albeit an unhappy one. We are all too keen to find an identity for ourselves – in current times more than ever. There is a hunger for identity such has never been seen before, it seems, and it is a measure of just how much the all-defining Generic Mind has us in its pocket – effectively cut off from the inner life (which is the only thing we’ve really got going for us) we have no choice but to embrace the outer (or generic) life, which is an inauthentic and trivial life that faithfully reflects societal values but which – in doing so – utterly denies the individual.






Image – ways-of-seeing.com












Society Reifies Us

The official narrative always contains our own invisible hollowness. Whatever is done on the basis of this narrative is always going to be hollow – that’s the gift that it gives us. That is the gift that the official narrative gives us every time. What else would we expect, after all? If we are prepared to accept someone else’s account of what our lives are supposed to be about then we would surely expect for there to be some kind of downside to this. The official narrative is safe – or at least, it is safe inasmuch as following what some unquestionable external authority says is ever going to be safe. It is safe (we might say) in the sense that we won’t get caught out thinking or doing anything different to what everyone else is thinking and doing and so if the majority has good sense and is acting in a reasonably wise manner then we won’t make any terrible mistakes by foolishly venturing off on our own. It isn’t safe, on the other hand, if we consider that everyone else is just blindly copying each other just like we are! If everyone is blindly copying everyone else (and no one really knows what they are doing) then where is this going to lead us? Where is the good sense in this? Good sense comes from actual individuals, not from the collective. What comes out of the collective are dangerous psychic contagions, as Jung says. Nothing good comes out of the mass mind….

This obvious enough but all the same none of us are prepared to admit that this is what we’re doing. We all know that the strategy of copying what everyone else is doing so we won’t be caught out being ‘the odd one out’, or so that we won’t make some kind of terrible mistake by acting on our own untested and unproven impulses cannot really be expected to result in anything good but this is nevertheless what we are all doing. We’re going along with the social script, we’re living our lives in accordance with the formula that has been provided for us, and what this means is that we’re not taking any responsibility for our own lives at all. We’ve handed responsibility over to some sort of unexamined group instinct, we’ve handing over the reins to the consensus viewpoint, to the dubious process of mass-mindedness and collectives of people don’t have any sense, as Jung says. The bigger the collective the less sense there is! A very big collective has no sense at all! The collective has ‘everything on the outside but nothing on the inside’ – it is in other words ‘impressive but at the same time hollow’.

Contemporary culture as a whole is (we might say) ‘impressive but hollow’ – it can certainly look pretty amazing on the outside but were we to examine it we would discover that there is no actual content. Contemporary culture is ‘content free’ – it is ‘content free’ in the sense that it is all packaging and promotional frills with nothing behind it. It is composed of hyperreal fluff that pointlessly expands until it fills up all the available space; it is essentially a cul-de-sac that is being sold to us as a highway to somewhere great and meaningful. We are encouraged to see ourselves as a dynamic, forward-thinking civilization that is constantly progressing, constantly advancing and which embraces all the right values. This is the story that we tell ourselves – the only problem being that it isn’t a true story.

We are a culture, and we also say that we have culture. This is important for us to say because it shows that we have some sort of content. We will point to art, literature, theatre, poetry, ballet, dance and so on and we will say that this is our ‘culture’; There is something to us in other words, and so we are deserving of respect on this basis. We justify ourselves in this way and – being thus justified – we feel content to rest on our laurels. But if it is the case that the function of our ‘culture’ is to enable us to carry on as we are then this is nothing more than a joke. As James Carse says, the function of art is to destabilise society, not stabilise it. Art is always revolutionary and if it isn’t then it isn’t art or culture at all – it’s something else. If it isn’t revolutionary then it is merely ‘societal propaganda’, it is merely an advert for society dressed up as being somehow more than this.

This isn’t to say that art actually does have a function, which would be hugely demeaning of it! If something has some sort of function then this means that it is subservient to some idea or other. This means that art is serving some kind of ‘finite end’ and so it is nothing more than a ‘cog in the machine’. A cog in a machine is the machine and machines have nothing to do with art, nothing to do with ‘the transcendent’. Cogs and wheels and machine-like processes are the complete reverse of transcendence – cogs and machines are all about ‘locking onto the one concrete possibility’ and making that possibility to be the only important thing. A machine is always about facilitating the process of reification in other words, and reification is the exact antithesis of transcendence. What this means (of course) is that there can’t be any such thing as a procedure or strategy for growth or transcendence and procedures / strategies are what the machine is all about.

Society, as Ivan Illich says, is ‘a system of techniques’ – it is a system that is made up of ways of getting from A to B. The official narrative is that the movement from A to B is a meaningful movement, an important movement, a real and vital movement, and this is why we invest in the system as much as we do (which is to say totally). If we define mental health as the ongoing movement beyond the known, beyond the approved and accredited status quo, then we can say that society never enables growth, never enables mental health – the collective of us is a machine and machines are all about reification not transcendence, as we have just said, and what is being made concrete is the socially-conditioned self.

This socially-conditioned self is like culture, is like society – possibly very impressive on the outside whilst being utterly hollow on the inside. It is – like society as a whole – a ‘managed appearance’, an ‘act’, and so of course it can’t help being hollow. Being hollow, the socially-conditioned self is therefore always seeking, always striving, always searching, and what it is searching for is the remedy for this hollowness, this ‘blankness on the inside’. That is why we are kept engaged in the mechanism of society – because we believe that by playing the game which has been presented to us we are going to find fulfilment. It is the fact that the reified self is always going to be driven by the need to find relief from its own invisible hollowness that keeps the wheels turning and so we can say, uncontroversially enough, that the reason the process by which the self is reified is promoted so heavily by our culture is because this is essential for society (as we know it) to keep on thriving. Our invisible hollowness is thus ‘the battery’ that keeps the machine running.

Our hollowness is ‘invisible’ because we because the world we conduct our lives within is itself hollow – hollowness is all we know and so we can’t ever spot it. The narrative that we live by is itself nothing other than disguised hollowness – we’re always having our attention directed towards whatever drama it is that is going on and this prevents us from seeing that the one who is engaged in the drama (which is to say, ‘the reified self’) isn’t actually there, is only ‘an assumption that we have made and then forgotten about’. We are in other words convinced that life is something that has to be found ‘on the outside’ (which is to say, ‘the world of appearances’) and – because of our state complete absorption in (or fascination with) the outside – we simply don’t know that there is (or could be) an inside. As far as we’re concerned the outside is all there is and so – for us – it isn’t ‘the outside’ at all.

Our ‘invisible hollowness’ – which is a present from the Mind-Created Narrative – drives us to keep looking within the social game for fulfilment, we are driven to engage more and more in society (which is to say, to utilise the techniques and procedures which are society) but all that engaging in these techniques and procedures will do is reify us all the more, which causes us to be even more hollow, which causes us to throw ourselves into the social game even more. This is therefore a ‘perfect plan’, we might say, with the proviso that it is perfect as far as a system or machine itself is concerned. It certainly isn’t perfect as far as we as individuals are concerned – how can it be when the individuality which is who we are is thoroughly repressed in favour of the theatrical or reified self? When we allow ourselves to be guided in all things by the ‘official narrative’ then – in other words – we forfeit the ‘inner life’.  We forfeit the inner life and what we get instead is the outer life, the generic life, the life that is made up entirely of appearances that has to be constantly maintained, and this ‘outer life’, this life that takes place entirely within the Realm of Appearances, isn’t real.






Image: wallpapersmug.com










The Official Narrative

The ‘official version of things’ is both authoritative and compelling – it is both coercive and intimidating, and it is – strangely – immensely attractive to us at the same time. It holds power over us. It appeals to the weakest part of ourselves, the part we won’t admit to, the part we don’t want to know about. When we try to renounce the official version of things we feel bold guilty and afraid – we feel guilty of betraying our guardian and fearful about having to face life on our own. When we leave ‘the official version of things’ behind we are confronted with our own helplessness, our own vulnerability. We don’t know how to survive without the official narrative to help us – even though its rule over us is harsh and uncaring. The official narrative is the Dark Father who wishes to control everything and keep us all in the darkness of the perpetual ignorance that he promotes. Ignorance and fear are the two tools of the Dark Father – these are the means by which we are controlled. When we grow nostalgic and homesick after venturing out of the Dark Father’s Realm it is because we miss the cosy certainty of his lies. These lies are the drug to which we are addicted.


The ‘official version of things’ may for example mean the narrative that is spun for us by that strange thing we call society and this is undoubtedly the easiest way to understand it. The idea that society controls us by promoting a particular and very narrow view of reality is not an unfamiliar – this sort of thing gets talked about every day. Anyone who reflects on the matter knows that social control comes about as a result of the narrative that we have been fed on since birth. We are given this script which we have to go by and we can’t ever get away from it. We are given this script and we are promptly trapped by it. We’re prisoners of that script, which stunts our growth and limits our horizons, and yet at the same time we’re strangely fond of it and will always come running back to it, no matter how many times we might muster up the courage to make a break for it. Like any abusive relationship, the unhealthy connection we have with the official narrative is not an easy one to break.


The official version of things could also mean the thinking mind – society is the thinking mind writ large, nothing more and nothing less. Very clearly, the thinking mind provides us with the all-determining narrative of our everyday life. Where else do we look for guidance if not to the agency of thought? Thought provides us with all the information we need to know in the course of the day and if there is some other source that is operating (such as dreams, intuitions, feelings) we ignore it. We ignore all other possible sources of information because they haven’t been officially sanctioned. They haven’t got the official stamp on them and so we have to reject them as being heresy or superstition. When there is an official story then this means that all other stories, all other interpretations have to be dismissed out of hand – they have to be ridiculed, sneered at, or angrily denied. If one story is right then all the others must be wrong and the only way this isn’t going to happen as if the story in question is metaphorical rather than literal, as both Joseph Campbell and James Carse have noted. Because thought is always literal in nature it always takes us prisoner. The literal will always take us prisoner.


It’s much easier to see through the societal narrative than it is to question the story-line that has been provided for us by thought. The social script is a crude thing and a significant proportion of us will always be aware of this, even though there isn’t much we can do about it. When it comes to ‘thought’s story of what is going on’ then the percentage of us who have any insight into the unreliability (or outright deceptiveness) of the ideas that we have about the world is far smaller. It’s one thing to recognise media bias but altogether another to spot where the System of Thought is putting us wrong! This is the Big Lie principle working at its best! It is exactly this same principle in both cases – the official version of how things are bullies and browbeats us into believing it and it’s hard to walk away from it but seeing through the System of Thought puts us in a much stranger place than seeing through society does. If we through see through society this expands our possibilities hugely it is true – we are released from the societal script and are now free to be true to our own nature rather than serving the External Authority. When we see through the authority of thought the world changes absolutely, irrevocably, unrecognisably, however.


Thought is the agency that provides us with our description of the world and so when we lose it (when its authority no longer holds good for us) we lose what we thought the world was – we lose everything since the description we are clinging to is the world as far as we’re concerned. And it’s not as if we will be given another ‘improved’ description later on to hang onto (after the first one has been demolished) – once we through see through thought then we see through all descriptions. Only thought describes, only thought ‘says what things are’. When we see through thought then we have to ask ourselves (as Baudrillard says) what things look like when we don’t describe them and what we look like when we don’t describe ourselves. We live fulltime in a world of positive descriptions and for the most part we don’t have the slightest inkling that there could be any other sort! We are very far indeed from seeing that the true reality is the negative one, the one that cannot be described. We are also – by the same token – very far from seeing – as Wei Wu Wei says – that being comes out of our perfect absence (rather than out of our over-valued purposeful activity).



The Negative World is the world that we don’t judge or name – it is the world in which there is no official story-line or description. In this world there is freedom because we are not being compelled to see things in any particular way; we’re free from the All-Determining Narrative and so we are also free from who we think we are or who we said to be within the terms of that constraining narrative. This is why being can only come out of our profound absence, as Wei Wu Wei says. Being doesn’t come about as a result of us forcing ourselves to be who we think we are (or who we think we ought to be) – which is the identity or positive self – it comes about as a result of us not doing this, as a result of not us not asserting the positive self. It comes about when we stop playing to win, when we stop trying to maximise our advantage (which is of course but we’re always trying to do). ‘Maximising our advantage’ is the name of the game, after all – what else do we ever try to do?



We believe that the state of being – which is (we might say) where we get to genuinely exist – comes about as a result of us optimising our performance in the game and efficiently sweeping up all the advantages that are there to be had, whilst all that really happens when we try to secure the best position for ourselves (or ‘assert our defined existence’) is that we lose all our being and end up living an unreal life, a life that is made up of ‘appearances only’. When we live a life that his based on ‘appearances only’ then the only path ahead of us is the predetermined path of being forever driven by the need to control these appearances. Appearances are a fickle master however – to base our perceived well-being on appearances is like basing our mood on the direction the wind is blowing. It blows this way one moment and quite another the next and whilst we might foolishly put all our money on the project of ‘controlling the wind’, the actual truth of the matter is that this fickle wind is controlling us…






Art – wallpapersafari.com




The Error Of Technical Therapies

We start off on the wrong footing, and then put all our efforts into trying to make things better on this basis. This is our situation in a nutshell! All of the benefits, advantages and comforts that society provides us with are for the sake of assuaging the pain caused by us starting off on this ‘wrong footing’ and this – of course – means that we are quite uninterested in what would constitute our genuine well-being. The more work we put into compensating for the original mistake (so to speak) the less likely we are to ever become aware of it! We’ve headed off in the wrong direction entirely…

This is most poignantly the case when it comes to psychological therapy – our efforts in developing psychological therapies are all in the direction of ameliorating – as best we can – the suffering that comes about as a result of our ‘mistakenly assumed basis’. It is always possible that these therapies may be partially ‘successful’ within the terms that they themselves set out (i.e. the reduction of pain) but were this to be the case, this very success would be acting against us. When we are facilitated in starting off on the wrong basis and then in continuing on this basis without being able to experience the suffering and alienation that is the inevitable consequence of us taking the wrong starting-off point as ‘a legitimate basis’ then this is the exact opposite of helpful. We think we’re doing good work but we’re not; our misery is made more tolerable to us and – because of this – we are able to continue indefinitely with it. This corresponds to Gurdjieff’s evil inner god of self-calming.



‘Making mistakes’ is perfectly OK, we might say, that’s how we learn, that’s the process of life: we go astray, and then the pain of finding that we have ‘gone astray’ brings us back again with renewed appreciation for what we have gone astray from! This is of course the message of the parable of the prodigal son – the other sons in the parable – the ones who haven’t gone off the rails – are understandably annoyed, to say the least, by the joy which their father expresses at the return of the erring son. They didn’t stray after all, and yet no feast is thrown for them! The other sons undoubtedly feel that they should get the larger share of the credit therefore, seeing that they were good and dutiful sons who didn’t go off the rails. There is a subtle aspect to this story however, just as there is in all good stories. The point is that we can only know what we have when we lose it. This idea is illustrated very well by the story ‘Fetching water for Vishnu’, as told here by Devdutt Pattanaik. When we restrain ourselves from breaking the rules because we are afraid of what might happen if we do break them (or because we want to earn brownie points) then this is no good at all! We don’t become good merely by ‘refraining from sinning’, no matter what we might have been told in Sunday school – obediently following the rules just makes us sanctimonious and judgmental, which doesn’t do anyone any good.

According to William Blake, ‘the fool who persists in his folly shall become wise’ and we are all fools when it comes down to it. The way forward for us is to persist with our folly therefore and learn from what happens! If however we persist in our folly whilst at the same time insulating ourselves from the painful consequences of that folly then this is another matter entirely… What is happening here is that our folly is being enabled; our foolishness is being validated and so we can all go around being ridiculously proud of being the fools that we are. Instead of genuine well-being we have artificial well-being, the type of well-being that comes about as a result of the validation of the false idea of ourselves, which is what our culture is all about. There is zero support for the process of ‘going beyond the comfort zone of who we think we are’ in the world that we have created for ourselves, but there is plenty of validation for who we are brought up to believe we are, who we are told we are. Folly has thus become ‘the way to go’ and we are effectively prevented from questioning it. Questioning the socially-sanctioned form of folly is regarded as deviance and reprehensible wrong-headedness and is treated accordingly.

The ‘wrong footing’ that we are talking about here is the idea that we have about ourselves, therefore. What we are talking about is ‘the easy answer’ as regards the all-important question “Who are you?” – it’s the ‘easy answer’ because it takes no effort at all to come up with it! We will investigate other things in the world that we’re interested in perhaps, but whoever investigates their own assumed identity? We run with this without ever giving it a second glance and this is of course a very peculiar thing. Why we would we be so blasé and incurious about the perplexing question as to ‘who we are’ when this would seem to be the central mystery of our existence? What could possibly explain this? What could explain our lack of interest in the central mystery of our lives and our preoccupation with other, less profound matters, our undying obsession with superficiality and trivia? Although this in itself might sound like something of a mystery it turns out that it isn’t – ‘lack of interest’ is the very antithesis of consciousness, and the only reason we would go down the road of ‘embracing the antithesis of consciousness’ (rather than having anything to do with the real thing which has infinitely more possibilities in it, needless to say) is because we’re in the grip of fear. When we are in the grip of fear we fly from awareness, we don’t embrace it! When we are in the grip of fear then we’re not at all curious about the world around us; we don’t want to ‘find out about anything’, naturally enough. We don’t want to find out what’s going on; on the country, we want to not find out, we want to stay as dumb as possible. This behaviour is what Chogyam Trungpa calls intelligent stupidity.

Obviously, we all know that fear – if it is great enough, if it really has us in its grip – produces as a result a state of profound incuriousness, a state of concreteness that is characterised by us putting zero inquiry into our descriptions or ideas or theories about the world (which is to say, literal-mindedness); the problem isn’t knowing this, or being able to understand this, the problem is applying it to ourselves! That can’t be us, we say, we’re not like that, we’re not literal-minded and incurious about the world around us, or uninterested in going beyond/seeing beyond our drab and formulaic descriptions of reality. We are a scientific, progressive and above all dynamic culture so that can’t be us at all! But if this accusation of literal-mindedness isn’t true then why are we – as a culture – so single-mindedly invested in control and technology, and so ridiculously weak and feeble when it comes to investigating ‘who we are’ or what it means to be ‘conscious beings’? Why are we so extraordinarily unphilosophical in our outlook, after all the good work that has been done in this field by earlier, more philosophical eras? We’ve let the ball drop big time!

There are (we might say) two distinct possible modalities of existence that we can orientate ourselves from, one being the mode that is preoccupied by the ‘HOW’, and the other being the one which we consider the ‘WHY’ to be of supreme importance. In the first case we invest everything in technical knowledge (and the means of control based on this technical knowledge) and in the second case – whilst we will not be averse to technical knowledge – we are much more interested in the process of investigating and examining phenomena ‘for its own sake’, not because we want to exploit or utilise the insights that we might uncover along the way. There are no surprises for guessing which modality contemporary Western culture exemplifies. This isn’t exactly the hardest question in the world to answer – we are the ultimate masters of the ‘HOW’, we are the ‘Great Exploiters’.

So what happens when a HOW-type culture does psychology? What happens when a ‘technical/controlling-type’ civilization tries its hand at psychotherapy? We have already looked at this question of course; this is what we started off talking about at the beginning of our discussion – what this comes down to is the unfortunate business of starting-off on the wrong footing and then putting a whole load of effort and ingenuity into what is essentially ‘a lost cause’. What has happened to us is that in our haste to improve our situation (so to speak) we have completely failed to our examine our formulaic description of who we are, and as a result all of our efforts have gone into fixing – or at the very least ameliorating – the problems that beset this unexamined idea of who we are, of which there are plenty!

It just so happens that this is never going to work out for us since the mental construct we’re trying to fix is inherently jinxed  – it can be said to be jinxed on the one hand because all logical-constructs contain an inherent if invisible self-contradiction that can’t ever be ironed out (which comes down to ‘the paradox of self-reference’), and it is jinxed on the other hand because the self-concept has nothing to do with our true nature anyway, which means that we are ‘tilting at windmills’! Technical therapies can NEVER work therefore – at the best they can perhaps succeed at making life a little bit more comfortable for us, a little bit more tolerable for us, but this – as we said at the start of this discussion – is very far from being ‘a good thing’!







Fear Of Vastness

What brings about our suffering in life – when we get right down to it – is our terrible narrowness and rigidity, and identity is the narrowest and most rigid thing there is! Identity is so narrow and so rigid that it doesn’t actually belong in the real world at all – it belongs not to reality but to the world of names and designations, the world of definitions and evaluations. We like the world of definitions and evaluations however – we really are very fond of it. We’re fond of the world that has been defined for us by thought just as we are fond of having an identity – it’s all part and parcel of the same thing. We are fond of living in a defined world as a defined identity because this allows us to orientate ourselves, obviously enough – we can say who we are and where we are and what we are all about, and this feels good! This feels good – as no one will deny – but it also brings about unending suffering. There are two ingredients in this particular package, not just the one.

This is of course just another way of expressing the traditional eastern teaching-formula which says attachment causes suffering, which is more familiar to us but which at the same time tends to be understood in an overly simplistic way. It’s not so much that we are attached to things or people (although of course we are) but that we are attached to the type of orientation that we are talking about here – the orientation of knowing who we are and where we are and what we are supposed to be doing in life. If we can readily answer these questions then we are considered by all and sundry to be orientated and this is taken as a sign of good mental health. There’s no confusion here, we’re on the same page as everyone else, we are adapted to the world that we have been given to live in, and so on. This assessment of ‘orientatedness’ is only a measure of our mental health on a very superficial level however – it’s the appearance of good mental health only.

To be sure and certain of all our parameters in this way is actually a guarantee of suffering, as we’ve just said, and anything that is ‘a guarantee of suffering’ can hardly be said to be a measure of good mental health! We want to be defined in this way because that gives us our sense of identity, our sense of knowing who we are and what we are about, but this desire for security, when acted upon, prevents us from having any connection with who we are behind the narrative, behind the neat and tidy cover-story. We have been provided with an answer, an explanation, but it is a hollow one, a false or superficial one, and no happiness or well -can ever come out of it. No sense of meaning can never come out of this false understanding of who we are – how can a sense of meaning come out of this business of living life on the basis of who everyone else says we are, after all? That isn’t a recipe for a meaningful life, it’s ‘a recipe for mental unwellness’!

The problem is that we have, in our haste to have a sure and certain explanation of who we are and what life is all about, short-circuited the whole process of life – the idea (even if we don’t know it) is for us to quickly skip ahead to finding out the answers to the existential questions so that we can then get on with the important business of ‘living life on the basis of the sure-and-certain identity that we have thus acquired’. That’s where the real satisfaction in life lies, we imagine – not in this awkward feeling of not knowing ‘who we are’ or ‘what it’s all about’. That’s the basic idea but it just doesn’t work out as we imagine it should. It doesn’t work out the way we thought it would because there just isn’t any solution satisfaction or fulfilment to come out of living life on the basis of a spurious identity, an identity that ‘isn’t who we are’, an identity that is nothing more than a cheap gimmick. There isn’t any fulfilment to be had from this way of living life because being attached to a thought-created identity (of whatever sort) involves being fundamentally disconnected from what actually is true – which is clearly a situation that doesn’t bode at all well for us.

There is – undeniably – this very strong urge or desire to ‘say who we are’, or to ‘assert an identity’. When we do this then that feels good, there is satisfaction (of a sort) in it. This type of good feeling comes about not because we have achieved anything real however but because we have managed (successfully, it seems) to run away from something that frightens us. We are running away from ‘wide-openness’, we’re staging an escape from the Realm of Unlimited Uncertainty – which is what the philosopher Kierkegaard calls ‘the dizziness of freedom’. We want to be told who we are (or we want to believe in the story of who we tell ourselves we are) so as not to have anything to do with all those open-ended possibilities. Open-endedness isn’t good news as far as we’re concerned. We want to skip that, as we have said; we want to skip all that uncertainty and rush on to the logically unchallenging business of ‘living life on the basis of a defined identity’. We want the security of knowing what it’s all about so that we can just ‘get on with it’ in a mechanical or non-exploratory way, and the very big problem with this – which we are painfully slow to see – is that all of this business of ‘thinking that we know what we’re doing’ and then just ‘getting on with it’ is profoundly meaningless.

So there is this euphoric feeling of accomplishment or attainment when we assert who we are, or when we are rewarded by society by being given some honourable or prestigious identity, but the euphoria in question (which is the euphoria of winning at what James Carse calls ‘a finite game’) very quickly ebbs away leaving nothing behind but a dreadful sterility. The defined identity is always sterile – as we have said – it is always sterile because it’s an act of denial with regard to who we really are (or what life really is all about, which is ‘growth’). It’s nothing more than a convenient fiction that allows us to turn our backs on the ontological challenge that life is presenting us with. When we perform a manoeuvre that enables us to escape from whatever awareness we might have of how much bigger the universe is than anything we ever could have imagined then this feels good; we get great relief – but this isn’t the type of good feeling we get for any kind of a wholesome reason. Very clearly, this isn’t a ‘wholesome’ sort of thing at all! We get a rush of euphoria for sure but that is only the (very temporary) good feeling that comes from denying what we don’t want to know about. That type of ‘good feeling’ doesn’t really help us!

When it comes to identification then it’s very much a matter of ‘Marry in hast, repent at leisure’. We can’t live life when we are saddled with an identity – all we can do is go through the mechanical motions of asserting and reasserting that sterile identity over and over again in the forlorn hope that some good will come of it. All we can do is continue to move through the repetitive steps of ‘playing the finite game’ (which is consolidating ‘who we think we are’ when ‘who we think we are’ is a dull fiction) rather than exploring the possibilities of what we genuinely might be – uncertain though these possibilities may be. The possibilities that lie in store for us when we put all our money on consolidating the fiction of who we think we are add up to a big fat zero, whilst the possibilities that await us when we relinquish this comforting illusion (the comforting illusion of the Mind- Created Identity) are infinite. The possibilities here are infinite and that is precisely why we want to run away as fast as we can in the opposite direction, so to speak! We experience terror when faced with the unimaginable vastness, and comfort when we retreat into the pointless, tedious world of the small and the petty, and that’s why we continually engross ourselves in playing finite games in the way that we do.

Our fear of vastness is the same thing as our love of the mind-created certainties which we have surrounded ourselves, in which we have buried ourselves. Ontological terror drives us meekly into the welcoming arms of thought, in other words; the comfort we obtain from the act of believing our thoughts (however bland, however banal, however stupid or malign they might be) is the perfect remedy for the fear that holds us in its grip when we confront open-ended reality. Thought always creates a world in which there is no ‘open-endedness’ – the Mind-Created Virtual Reality is a world that contains no mysteries, no ‘discontinuities’, and that is precisely how we know it to be false (if we care to know such a thing, that is). How could we have ever put ourselves in this position where we have to accept the wretched banality of the thought-created world as being the same thing as reality itself? What kind of a trick is this to play on ourselves? Instead of life, we have to make do with a grey, pointless bureaucracy – the grey, pointless bureaucracy of thought – and that dreadful old bureaucracy won’t ever let us go (bureaucracies never do, after all). Because we are under the power of thought (which is the position we have put ourselves in) we cannot help believing that what the rational mind says is real actually is real, and so we are obliged to try our hardest to get thought’s bureaucracy to ‘work out for us’, which it never will. No matter what we do on the basis of the thought-created identity, things aren’t ever going to work out for us. We however are in denial of this; the conditions of the deal we have accepted require us to be in denial of this – if we are to continue believe ourselves to be this Mind-Created Identity then we obliged to ignore (or misunderstand) all the suffering that comes about because of this. We are obliged to ‘stick with our story’ no matter what, in other words, and this is of course always the way with denial…












Exploratory Mode

One definition of mental health could be to say that what is healthy (what leads to our psychological well-being) is when there is a movement away from the self, away from who we think we are. This of course is counterintuitive in a big way; we would tend to see mental health as being a measure of the robustness of the self, the robustness of who we think we are. This is what almost every mental health worker would believe to be the case – this is what we are trained to believe, after all. There is (whether we know it or not) an unspoken or taken for granted description of reality that we all buy into and ‘who we are’ (or ‘what it means to be a person’) is an important part of this official description. This is the ‘equilibrium view’ and the equilibrium view is kept in place by everyone who subscribes to it. It is therefore inevitable that any collective or agreed-upon definition of mental health (whether explicit or implicit) will be normative with respect to the equilibrium values.

In current times – when the criteria we use to gauge what is mentally healthy and what is not is collectively decided upon by groups of ‘like-minded’ experts, who can essentially be seen as an elite club who are even more homogenous in their thinking than the wider social group – we are moving very strongly in the ‘equilibrium direction’. The question is, therefore, how can we allow a tightly-knit collective to be in charge of how we understand mental health when this situation of ‘operating as a collective’ is itself profoundly unhealthy (which it clearly is when we look at things in a ‘non-institutional’ way)? Imposing implicitly-accepted group-norms on individuals suffering from mental health conditions is of course an act of aggression that we can’t see as such – it is an act of aggression disguised as ‘helping’.

Any independent viewpoint on the matter is always going to take issue with how ‘the club’ agrees to see things. A ‘club’ is made up, after all, of people who have tacitly agreed to put their individuality to one side in favour of how everyone else sees things. In a purely practical way, it is very hard (if not impossible) for a person to further their career within a profession if they don’t take the party line. The greatest danger facing humankind – we could say – is the danger of mass-mindedness; as Jung says, mass-mindedness (far from being a good thing) is the breeding ground for psychic illnesses and pestilences. As a breeding ground for psychic malaises of all descriptions mass-mindedness can hardly be expected to come up with a helpful or enlightened way of dealing with the problem that it itself has (at least in part) created! The non-equilibrium way of looking at mental health is, as we have said, to see it as being the movement away from who we think we are, which is also the movement away from who the consensus mind (i.e. society) says we are. Once we put it like this it is of course very easy to see why, as Jung very clearly states, the process of individuation isn’t exactly encouraged by the people and institutions around us. The ‘consensus mind’ – so to speak – is incapable of appreciating or valuing anything other than itself and since the process of individuation is a process which leads away everything that the consensus viewpoint values this process (which is the process of growth) is going to be actively inhibited. As far as equilibrium thinking is concerned, any deviation from normative values equals ‘error’ and nothing more and errors only exist to be corrected.

All of us have two distinct tendencies at work within us – one (we might say) is the conservative tendency and the other is what we might call the exploratory one. In the first case the values of the past are what matters and all change is regarded with suspicion; in the second case ‘the old ways’ are seen as a trap precisely because of our attachment to them and our subsequent reluctance to outgrow them and what is of interest to us (instead of repeating the established pattern forever) is seeing what lies beyond the known and the familiar. Or, as we could also put it, conservative mode is where we value security above all else and exploratory mode is where we value the truth more than security. ‘Truth’ and ‘security’ are always opposed for the simple reason that, in truth, there is no such thing as ‘security’! And if we were to put this the other way around, we could say that the only way we can find this supposed thing we call ‘security’ is by firmly turning our backs on what is actually true. It’s either the one way or the other, in other words. We can’t play it safe and yet be interested in the truth at the same time.

We can reformulate our definition of mental health at this point simply by saying that what is beneficial for us is to move in the direction of becoming more aware. From a conventional point of view this statement doesn’t make any sense of course because we are convinced that we are perfectly conscious already. We’re not however, that’s just an idea that we have – the idea that we are actually aware when we are not. When we are in conservative mode then we have thoughts about the world rather than being aware of it. We judge the world and have beliefs about it rather than taking a genuine interest in it. It is often said that thinking is how we make sense of the world, but it would be more true to say that thinking is how we protect ourselves against the real, and insulate ourselves against change. Conservative mode is essentially where we live in our maps or models of reality in preference to ‘the thing itself’ (which doesn’t offer us the security that our systematic representations of it do). If we were to ask why reality doesn’t offer us any security – which is of course a perfectly reasonable question to ask – then the answer would be because the real cannot be defined or categorized or modelled, since it is always infinitely more than the boxes we attempt to squeeze it into. If we value our boxes (or our maps) more than the truth, then the truth (or ‘reality’, if we want to put it like that) is always going to appear as an enemy, as curious as this may sound.

We have defined mental health or mental well-being as being ‘a movement away from what we know’ – anything else simply takes us into a stagnant cul-de-sac. Conservative Mode takes us into a stagnant cul-de-sac. What helps us is to question what we think we know therefore; this is helpful because when we question what we thought we knew then it inevitably proves to be not as true as we thought it was after all and – when we see this ‘what we thought to be true’ can no longer imprison us in the way that it did when it was unquestioned. This is a simple enough principle to understand but a problem arises just as soon as we start using a model to work with difficulties in mental health, and insist therefore that all mental health workers subscribe to this model in order to ensure ‘best practice’, as we say. The problem is that – without appreciating it – we have fallen into Conservative Mode ourselves, as if this were somehow a helpful or appropriate thing to do…





Purposefulness and Spontaneity

There are two modes in which we human beings can exist, so to speak – one being the spontaneous mode and the other the purposeful one. These are like the ‘two gears’, so to speak. These are the only two gears we’ve got. When we are in Purposeful Mode then everything has to be done deliberately, obviously enough – everything we do has to be done ‘on purpose’! Effort and intention is needed on our part and if we slack off at all then the job won’t get done.The job won’t do itself. In Spontaneous Mode there is no design, no calculation and no intention, as we all know very well. There is attention on our part, and our willing (but not deliberate) participation is needed, but it’s not like laboriously rolling a stone uphill. The project – whatever it is – has a life of its own and we are not driving it. Purposeful activity takes us to an known destination and so it has to be guided and kept on track every inch of the way; spontaneous activity on the other hand takes us somewhere unknown, and because it is taking us somewhere unknown we can hardly ‘guide’ it! This is a genuinely mysterious process, and that’s why so profoundly interesting.

There’s more to it than just this, however. What we’ve said so far is all well-known stuff, but the real nub of the matter is something that we very rarely stop to consider, if indeed we ever consider it at all. The truly remarkable thing is that in Spontaneous Mode there is no ‘actor’ all, no ‘causal agent’, no ‘doer’, and seeing as how this ‘actor’, this ‘causal agent’, this ‘doer’, is a pretty big deal for us, that is a rather significant fact. The purposeful doer is who we think we are, this is our identity and this is obviously very important for us. It goes without saying that our ‘identity’ is very important to us; it would be no exaggeration to say that – for most of us, most of the time – it is all about our identity. Identity is the name of the game, so to speak; identity is the star of the show. When we do something we want everyone to know that we are doing it (or have done it); we need to have ‘ownership’ of it. In our culture prizes are awarded for successful doing, status is accorded (how else would we know if we are winners or losers?) When we win this gives us a very special sort of identity, the sort of identity everyone wants… So it is clearly of the greatest importance that we can lay claim to the ‘doing’ in question so that everyone can know that it is our doing and no one else’s. It is the identity of the actor or doer in question that is being rewarded (or acknowledged), after all.

Where spontaneous activity is concerned this simply cannot be done however – I can be awarded a prize for a portrait or landscape I have painted or a novel or poem I have written but at the same time I know very well that there was no causal agent, no ‘doer’ behind it. It ‘did itself’ and so I can’t have ownership of it; legally I might be able to claim ownership, but in any real sense I can’t. Furthermore, when it comes right down to it, there was no right way to do what was done, and no wrong way either, and so there can be no winners or losers, no successes and no failures. There is no such thing as ‘getting it right’ when it comes to spontaneity because we don’t know where we were going in the first place; if what has been produced is unique then there can be no comparisons with what other people have done either and so there can’t be any competition, dear though that is to our hearts. Psychologically speaking, spontaneity is how we become free from the defined identity or purposeful self; it is how we find release from this cumbersome, awkward, limited and misrepresentative version of ‘who we are’ rather than being a means of consolidating and validating this supposed identity.

This is why we as a culture put such an overwhelming emphasis on games, goals and competitive effort – because it consolidates and validates the concrete identity. This is the real reason we value purposefulness so much – because it has the effect of making the self-concept seem real to us, because it verifies the defined identity. As a culture we are dedicated to the endless celebration of the idea that we have about ourselves and there is no other way of putting this – we are all about ‘the mind-created identity’, as we have just said. That’s the name of the game – creating and maintaining the ego, as if there with this were the best and most inspiring thing we could think of. We pride ourselves as being cultured, mature and sophisticated as a culture, and the best thing we can think of doing – as a collective – is endlessly validating the ego-construct!

From a ‘mental health point of view’, this turns out to be not such a great idea at all (as we might of course expect). To be emphasising goals and games and competitive effort (i.e. to be defining ourselves by ‘comparing ourselves with other people who are playing the same game as us’) is in no way what we might call ‘a healthy way to conduct our lives’. Everyone knows that this is not good news; it brings out the worst in us rather than the best, despite the hype that we are subjected to with regard to the wonderful virtues of ‘competition’ and ‘striving for excellence’, and all of that tiresome old stuff. It’s not really excellence as such that we’re striving for but ‘excellence that I can personally lay claim to’ (i.e. enhancement of the ego) which is how the narrow ‘sense of self’ gets to feel good about itself, however transiently. Spending all our time vainly trying to validate the ego-construct is ‘unhealthy’ in as much as it never leads us the direction of well-being or happiness or anything like that. Quite the reverse is true – we are travelling in the direction of becoming more and more self-engrossed, to the point where narcissism (whether we like to admit it or not) has now become an accepted social norm. When we put all emphasis on the idea we have of ourselves (when we put all our money on purposefulness) then this means – needless to say – that we are neglecting the other, more essential side of ourselves, which is spontaneous in nature rather than purposeful. Actually, even saying this is misleading since the purposeful self isn’t who we are at all, it’s just an act that we put on. It’s an act that we put on because we get rewarded for it; we get paid in cash for successful social adaptation, as Jung says.

If there is a situation where we put all the emphasis on the act we’re putting on then, as a result of ignoring who we are behind this act, this situation is not going to be one that is conducive to our mental well-being, obviously enough! Because of our dedication to the game that we (and everyone else) are playing we ‘forget who we are behind it all’, just as all the mystic traditions say, and in this forgetting there is nothing but misery and confusion; we have allowed our lives to be ruled by ‘wrong things’ and allowing our lives to be ruled by ‘wrong things’ (i.e. by mere mechanical impulses) is hardly going to result in our happiness or fulfilment. We say that happiness, peace of mind, creativity, compassion, well-being, freedom etc, are very important to us, but our overwhelming emphasis on the concrete identity takes us in a quite different direction. Our words and our actions have parted ways therefore, they have nothing to do with each other – we say that we value well-being and mental health and personal growth and yet we put all the emphasis on constructing and consolidating the defined identity and this means that our fine words don’t mean a thing!

The defined or purposeful self can never be creative, never be compassionate, or happy, or peaceful or anything like that. It absolutely can’t. The PS can never be sincere or genuine and if it can’t be sincere/genuine then how on earth is it ever going to find happiness or peace? How on earth are we (when we’re playing at being the concrete identity) ever going to feeling in any way well? If we’re not sincere then that is an impossibility; if we are ‘putting on an act’ the whole time then actual well-being (as opposed to ‘theatrical well-being’) is an impossibility; it’s an impossibility because the defined identity isn’t who we are. Just as long as we put all the emphasis on it we are always going to be fundamentally insincere, fundamentally ‘conflicted’. The purposeful self – no matter how many prizes it wins, no matter how much social approval/validation it gets – can never be genuine. No matter how much it wants to be genuine (and it really does want to be genuine, it wants this very much indeed) it never can be. The purposeful self can never be sincere no matter how hard it tries because it isn’t who we are, and what could be more straightforward to understand than this?

Just as long as we are identified with this narrowly-defined sense of ourselves then this is always the situation we are going to find ourselves in; the situation of wanting very much to be sincere (since that is how we get to know we are ‘a real person’) when this is an absolute impossibility for us is clearly not going to be conducive to any sort of well-being. It’s not actually going to be conducive to anything apart from ongoing frustration and suffering, and this isn’t in the least bit hard to see. Trying to live life on the basis of who we’re not (i.e. on the basis of the socially-approved identity) whilst ignoring our true nature (as if it had nothing to do with us) is not going to pan out well for us, no matter what the mental health ‘experts’ might tell us. The mental-health experts haven’t considered the possibility that we aren’t the ego-construct – if they had then they wouldn’t be advocating going all out to fix that ego-construct every time it starts to struggle. Our culture is simply not prepared to look at this possibility – it goes against everything we believe in.

That we should find ourselves in the situation is no accident however. Whilst being socially engineered to identify one hundred per cent with the purposeful self is not a recipe for happiness and well-being (and doesn’t do us any favours at all) it is very helpful for the system that we are operating in because the more alienated from our true nature we are the easier it is going to be for us to be manipulated or controlled to suit society. The more alienated we are from our true nature the more we are going to have to invest in whatever tactics it takes for us to find this thing called ‘external validation’ and it is our tireless striving for external validation that is driving the social machine and keeping it ticking over healthily. It might be good for the ‘health’ (if we can use that word) of the system that we are part of, but it is definitely not good for us!

To be perfectly blunt about it (and there is hardly any point in being otherwise), living in an overly rational or purposeful society pushes us inexorably in the general direction of becoming humanoid robots; androids without any sense of ‘interiority’. Who needs interiority, after all? And when we have no interiority we can’t know that we haven’t – we can’t know that there even is such a thing in fact. This means that we have no way of directly relating to the pain that comes about as a result of ‘lack of interiority’ and because we have no way of ‘seeing the pain where it belongs’ we go looking for answers on the outside, which only compounds our predicament…







Grasping At Peace

The Western world has turned mindfulness into a form of grasping – we are grasping at peace, we are grasping at ‘stillness’. Grasping is grasping however – it doesn’t matter in the least bit what we are grasping for. Naturally, grasping at peace or grasping at stillness isn’t going to work – we’re going wrong straightaway. We’re off on the wrong footing: striving for peace is a perfect self-contradiction, just as making ‘stillness’ into a goal is. Striving (or strategising) is the antithesis of peace and stillness (we might say) is when we stop having goals and trying to reach them!

We spend so much time striving (or ‘conceiving and chasing goals’) – it’s a full-time activity and so we’re fed up with it, exhausted by it, drained by it. The prospect of blessed peace, of abiding serenely in stillness, invokes such yearning for us, therefore. We know on some level that it’s what we need. Who wants to be ‘struggling for results’ the whole time, after all? When it comes down to it, this translates into suffering and nothing else. Striving is always suffering. We are constantly tantalised and unsettled by the thought of ‘something better’ and this keeps us striving and straining, but really this feeling we have that ‘one day we’re going to get there’ isn’t a good thing (even if we think it is); it isn’t a good thing because this mind-created mirage is the reason we’re striving and straining all the time.

We are fed up on a very deep level of struggling and striving the whole time because struggling and striving the whole time is really just a sort of illness. It’s an itch and the more we scratch at it the worse it gets. Constant, never-ending purposeful behaviour is a burden for us and so the prospect of finding relief from it is very attractive indeed – we want a break, we want a holiday from it. What we do then however – without realising the irony of what we’re doing – is to start striving to achieve the state of ‘non-striving’, struggling desperately to reach that place where we don’t have to struggle any more.

‘Not grasping’ is an alien concept to us, in other words – we think we get it but we don’t. We think that ‘not grasping’ is the kind of a thing that we can – as a concept – utilise to benefit ourselves and this sounds reasonable enough to us. Why wouldn’t it seem reasonable? We have discovered that meditation, when regularly practiced, reduces stress and anxiety and produces feelings of well-being and peace and so why wouldn’t we utilise this discovery? It wouldn’t make sense not to do so! This is very obvious logic but because it is so obvious we miss the more subtle point, which is a point that we really need to understand.

The ‘more subtle point’ is the understanding that if we have any notion at all in our heads that we are doing something that is going to benefit us then we are grasping and if we are grasping then we can’t be meditating! As Krishnamurti says [Quote taken from awaken.com] –

Every decision to control only breeds resistance, even the determination to be aware. Meditation is the understanding of the division brought about by decision. Freedom is not the act of decision but the act of perception. The seeing is the doing. It is not a determination to see and then to act. After all, will is desire with all its contradictions. When one desire assumes authority over another, that desire becomes will. In this there is inevitable division. And meditation is the understanding of desire, not the overcoming of one desire by another. Desire is the movement of sensation, which becomes pleasure and fear. This is sustained by the constant dwelling of thought upon one or the other.

‘Trust Krishnamurti to be awkward,’ we might think but it’s not Krishnamurti that is being awkward here (of course) but life itself. Life is insolubly awkward in this regard; we can’t obtain it by trying to obtain it – the ‘trying’ is precisely what messes it all up! ‘What we cling to we lose,’ as the Buddhist saying goes, and this is a formidably difficult lesson to learn. It’s no hyperbole to say that this is the most difficult lesson to learn full stop. It’s as difficult as it is because it goes totally against the grain, because it is so completely and utterly counterintuitive. It goes against our common sense big time.

‘What we cling to we lose and what we give up we gain,’ we might say, and even though this principle is very easily stated it’s not so easy to put it into practice. The understanding is not so easy to put it into practice because we automatically try to exploit it – we automatically try to exploit all of our insights. We understand that ‘if we give it away then we will gain it’ and so – being clever as we are – we change our tactics to ‘deliberately giving it away’!). This is what happens to so many religiously-minded people – they are being ‘good on purpose,’ but being good on purpose isn’t being good. It’s not the same thing at all. Being ‘good on purpose’ is grasping; all purposeful behaviour is grasping! All purposeful activity is grasping and all we know is purposeful activity. Take this away from us and what have we got left?

Coming back to mindfulness, it is of course perfectly reasonable, perfectly understandable that we would sign up for a course, or start learning by practising on our own, with the idea that this is going to be helpful for us, or that some of our problems may be addressed in this way. We can hardly be blamed for this; if it were not with this particular idea then the chances are that we would have never started practising in the first place! Pain, and the hope of being free from it, is what causes us to go looking for an answer; it also provides us with ample motivation to keep working at it and not give up. The idea that mindfulness is a strategy or tool that can help bring about the desired outcome of more peace (or less suffering) in our lives is therefore absolutely OK, but what needs to happen later on is for us to gain the understanding that meditation is not a sophisticated form of purposefulness and that it cannot be used to bring about some goal or other that we have in mind. The necessary learning is that ‘we cannot have a purpose behind our practice’, in other words.

It is only natural that this awareness will come about (all by itself) as a result of our increasing familiarity with the practice of meditation. What we are learning in meditation is precisely that grasping is counter-productive and that the more we grasp the less peace we will have. We get to see this by observing the mind and we also get to see that ‘grasping at non-grasping’ (or ‘trying to do not-doing’) isn’t going to work either. We can’t intend to have no intention and we can’t have an agenda to drop all our agendas. What are we doing in meditation is cultivating awareness and awareness is the state of non-grasping. It’s the thing that has ‘nothing to do with us’, in other words. Within the context of the particular type of culture that we are part of (which is a rational/purposeful culture) this understanding gets jinxed however. It gets jinxed because it is so very hard to separate ourselves from the society that we are part of and which duly determines our implicit understanding of life and who we are.

So because of the way in which we as a culture do over-value purposefulness (and it can hardly be doubted that we do so; all we have to do is look at all of our talk of tools and strategies and of managing this, that or the other and of beating depression and combating anxiety, and so on and so forth) those of us whose job it is to run mindfulness courses don’t appreciate how vital it is to give up our agendas and goals, and give up our desire for things to change as a result of practising meditation. As a result of this lack of insight what happens is that we end up being bizarrely split in two – we work harder and harder at ‘not grasping’ in a meditation practice but behind it all we have this big rational agenda for ‘things to change’. Mindfulness has become the tool of the rational mind in other words, and that’s getting it the wrong way around.

If we are using mindfulness as a tool then it is never going to work for us. It can’t work because we are putting thought in the driving seat when it was overvaluing rationality that created all our problems in the first place. This isn’t to say that ‘using mindfulness as a tool of the rational mind’ won’t result in any benefits because it can but rather that any benefits obtained will be paid for later on in terms of other difficulties that have not yet made themselves known to us. All systems are like this – they take us around in circles, they provide short-term benefits at the cost of long-term snags. They create new problems as they solve the old ones. This is a double-bind, as Alan Watts says. It is what Gregory Bateson refers to as ‘the cybernetic paradox’) and what Ivan Illich – speaking from a sociological viewpoint, calls specific counterproductivity. We’re trying to get somewhere and yet at the same time hang on to our ideas about the world and this isn’t ever going to work. We’re chaining ourselves to our underlying assumptions and so how is anything ever going to change?

The only way we can genuinely change is if we let go of control completely, and this happens to be the one thing we don’t want to do! We don’t want to ‘go all the way,’ even though we might like to pretend to ourselves that we do. We’re dipping our toes in the water but that’s as far as we’re ever going to go! We’re ‘playing at embracing change’ but that doesn’t mean a thing. The bottom line (which we very rarely own up to) is that we are terrified of letting go of control (this is what being ‘over-invested in purposefulness’ always means, of course) and so we put on a good show even though our heart isn’t really in it. Meditation – Krishnamurti says – is ‘a movement happens all by itself’ and just as long as we (however surreptitiously) are trying to ‘have a hand in that movement’ it is never going to happen.

Being Possessed By The Positive Self

The true nature of who we are isn’t what we say we are, it’s what we don’t say. And yet just about all we ever do is go around saying who or what we are! We weave a dense and sticky web of identity, and then get caught up in it. The more we try to say who we are (and the more we believe in what we’re saying) the more tangled up we get.

The culture that we are part of may be described in lots of different ways – it has been described as a rational culture, a technological culture, a consumer culture, a materialist culture, and so on but what it really is – most essentially – is the culture of the positive self. The ‘positive self’ is the known self, the self that can be described and communicated to others. Our culture is all about the positive self and the reason we can’t see this to be true is because we take the positive self so very much for granted that it’s just not an issue for us. It’s not an issue for us any more than the fact that the sky is blue is an issue. The only time we do get our attention drawn to the limitations of the positive self is when it starts to develop ‘aches and pains’ (so to speak) and then of course we become painfully aware of it, just as we become painfully aware of our kidneys when we have a kidney infection.

This analogy is fine up to a point but where it breaks down is in the fact that the positive self isn’t legitimately part of us. The positive self is a construct, or as we might also say, it is ‘an artificial implant’; just as Carlos Castaneda says that our mind is not our own but a ‘foreign installation’, so too is the thought-created identity that this mind has provided us with. Inasmuch as ‘who we are’ and ‘what we are about’ makes sense to our fellow human beings (or to society in general) then who we understand ourselves to be is an arbitrary mental construct or ‘foreign installation’. We have been tricked in a very fundamental way and there can be no two ways about this. If we are to understand anything in life it ought to be this. If we don’t understand it then everything we do is in vain!

What this means is that ‘the need to exist’ or rather, ‘the need to be recognised as existing’ becomes the same thing as ‘the need to identify with the societal construct of who we are and what we are about’; if we don’t do this then we just won’t be acknowledged as existing. We will be ‘unpeople’. The need to exist and have a place in the world is very strong of course; just as it is natural for a tree to grow and put out roots and branches, it is also natural for us to want to be acknowledged as existing and find our proper place in this world, to ‘belong’, as it is said. But what’s happening here is that this natural urge is being subverted so that all about energy goes in the ‘wrong direction’, so to speak. It’s the wrong direction simply because it benefits the positive self; it benefits the mask we are wearing, and not the one who is wearing the mask. What is beneficial to the image is harmful to us.

The whole of society is nothing more than a game for benefiting the positive or stated self, when it comes down to it. It’s true that our bodies benefit from improved health care, improved sanitation, having an environment to live in which is relatively free from danger and disease, but we never pause to wonder who it is that is routinely inhabiting this body of ours, and whether that inhabitant is us. We never stop to wonder whether it is us, or whether it is some cuckoo-like pretender that been implanted and has somehow taken over! This is of course such an outrageous suggestion that no one is ever going to take it seriously. It’s extremely unlikely that anyone is going to give this idea the time of day – the notion that I might have made the mistake of identifying with false persona, a false self, a false idea of who I am, is not one that is ever going to occur to me, not in the usual run of things. And yet this is precisely the danger that Carl Jung warned of over seventy years ago, the danger that the social persona will ‘grow onto our flesh’ and end up living our lives for us, ‘on behalf of us’, so to speak. After talking about how we can be ‘possessed by ideas’, as strange as this may sound, Jung, in Collected Works 9(1) p, 123, goes on to say this:

A common instance of this is identity with the persona, which is the individual’s system of adaptation to, or the manner he assumes in dealing with, the world. Every calling or profession, for example, has its own characteristic persona. It is easy to study these things nowadays, when the photographs of public personalities so frequently appear in the press. A certain kind of behaviour is forced on them by the world, and professional people endeavour to come up to these expectations. Only, the danger is that they become identical to their personas – the professor with his text-book, the tenor with his voice. Then the damage is done; henceforth he lives exclusively against the background of his own biography. For by that time it is written: “…then he went to such and such a place and said this or that,” etc. The garment of Deianeira has grown fast to his skin, and a desperate decision like that of Heracles is needed if he is to tear this Nessus shirt from his body and step into the consuming fire of the flame of immortality, in order to transform himself into what he really is. One could say, with a little exaggeration, that the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is. In any case, the temptation to be what one seems to be is great, because the persona is usually rewarded in cash.

The writer Colin Wilson approaches this from a different angle when he says that we hand over our responsibility for living our lives to a collection of habits and reflexes which he calls ‘the robot’. (For the sake of convenience) I don’t have to answer the front door myself – my butler will do that for me. Similarly, I don’t have to live my life for myself – the robot will take care of that! As Colin Wilson says here (in a quote taken from a conversation Jeffrey Mishlove on intuitionnetwork.org):

Yes, well, you see, the basic point about the philosophy of Gurdjieff, and I suppose about my own basic ideas, is this recognition that we have inside us what I call the robot — a sort of robot valet or servant who does things for you. So you learn something like talking French or driving a car or skiing or whatever, painfully and consciously, step by step. Then the robot takes it over and does it far more quickly and efficiently that you could do it consciously. However, the important thing is not to interfere with the robot once he’s learned it, because you completely screw him up if you do. Now, the robot does all these valuable things like talking French and so on for us. The trouble is he also does the things we do not want him to do. We listen to a piece of music; it moves us deeply the first time. We read a poem, we go for a country walk, whatever, and it moves us. But the second or third time you do it, the robot is listening to the music or reading the poetry or doing the country walk for you. I said I’ve even caught him making love to my wife. And this is our real problem — that the robot keeps taking us over and doing the things that we would rather do.

Convenience is of course a great thing as we all know, but when things get this convenient (when convenience gets taken to the logical extreme and we don’t actually have to be there any more) then it stops being ‘convenient’ and becomes something else entirely! It stops being a good thing becomes a very bad thing indeed – after all, who wants to get to the end of their life and only then realise that it wasn’t them that lived it, but rather that the ‘captain at the helm’ was a mere collection of habits and reflexes? That is like having a ghost live your life instead of you because you couldn’t be bothered to step in yourself, because you were ‘otherwise engaged’. Or we could say that it’s like being banned by the authorities from attending your own birthday party – what’s the point of having a birthday party if you yourself are not invited, or if you yourself are a ‘persona non grata’?

This turns out to be exactly the case when cuckoo-like positive self gets to manoeuvre itself sneakily into the ‘prime position’ – the first thing it does is to get rid of any remaining traces of who we really are and thus our true individuality becomes the unwelcome guest, the one who is unceremoniously shown the door every time they put in an appearance. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead there is a line that says something to the effect that if we spend our entire lives being interested in nonsense that has nothing to do with us (and which we’re not even really interested in any way) then at the end of our life we will find that we have been our own betrayers! We’ve done the dirty on ourselves and sold ourselves up the river as a result of identifying with the ‘false or shallow sense of ourselves’, and constantly seeking benefits for this false idea of who we are at the expense of our true nature. In Christianity this is equivalent to the idea of selling us soul to the devil in return for paltry material advantages in this brief lifetime. It might seem like a good time at the time (because we’re not really thinking it through) but when we discover that we have been cheated of the only thing that is actually worth something this is going to be a very hard awareness to have to face up to.

The positive self most definitely is something that we adopt for the sake of convenience.  It is convenient because it is known to us, and thus no work is needed to investigate it (as a philosopher or mystic might do) and it is also convenient because this is how we get to be ‘optimally adapted to the social world in which we find ourselves’. This process (which is very much akin to the ‘slippery slope into addiction’ that is talked about by recovering addicts) starts at a very early age, as we all know. It starts when, as a result of the need to be accepted and loved, we try to become the sort of people that our parents want us to be rather than remaining true to really are. Then at school we are under further pressure to fit into the crowd and be the sort of person who is popular rather than unpopular (or at least, the sort of person who is inconspicuous rather than the sort who sticks out as being somewhat odd and is liable on this account to be given a hard time). This process – needless to say – doesn’t stop at school but continues throughout our adult life too – just as long as we are part of a collective then are going to be under pressure to conform to that collective and this is a process that (as Jung says) brings material short-term benefits at a terrible long-term cost. We spend all our time grasping at tacky phantoms, and missed what was really there.

This cost is – then – that we end up cheating ourselves out of our own lives and the awareness that this has happened (the awareness that this is what we have unwittingly done) is one of the most painful awarenesses is that it’s possible to have, if not the most painful. In our decidedly unphilosophical culture we tend to label this sort of terribly painful awareness ‘depression’ and we think that it is something that can be cured by pills or a dozen sessions of talking therapy, which is rather an odd idea to say the least. As in all the neurotic conditions, we don’t tend to understand our experience in this way when we ourselves happen to be suffering from depression – our social milieu doesn’t support an insight such as this, as we have already said. It is seen as a pathological manifestation, a sickness, and because our experience is so very painful we tend to see it this way too. We certainly don’t think that there is anything good about it. We think that there is something wrong with us, possibly something organically wrong but we also believe that we are suffering from some kind of very serious moral failing (or character failing) as well. We might feel like bad people – undeserving of happiness, and undeserving of life itself. We might feel deserving of punishment or death.

These feelings are real and the pain that is in them is real, but our interpretation is distorted because of our identification with the false self that has been so conveniently created for us by our thoughts, and by the insidious process of socialisation. If I feel undeserving of happiness, undeserving of life, and that there is something terribly wrong with me at my core, this is just a distorted version of the awareness that the positive or defined self is not who I am. I feel like a fake or phony or if I feel that I am not truly alive (but am only a hollow shell) then this too is a distorted echo (or inversion) of the insight regarding the false nature of the positive self, and the way that it functions by passing itself off as what it isn’t.  By association with the false self, we are guilty of the crime of taking what never belong to us, and disenfranchising the true heir (so to speak). As soon as we stop confusing who we are with the positive self these feelings of guilt and self-loathing or self-condemnation will pass, but this can only happen when we see through the superficial culture that surrounds us, which endlessly and pointlessly celebrates the tawdry ‘known image’ in place of the mystery which it obscures.







The Social Sickness

What is winning and what is losing? What does it mean to be a success and what does it mean to be a failure? Usually – almost always – we are in far too much of a hurry to ask these questions. We are in too much of a hurry to win rather than lose, too much of a hurry to succeed rather than fail. That’s ‘the name of the game’, as they say.

As is the case with all games, unreflective action is the thing – we struggle to get it right and not get it wrong, without ever looking into the all-important question of why the one thing would be ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’. We never ask what should be the ‘all-important question’. The point of the game however is not to test the validity of the framework which we are operating within, or query the meaningfulness of our goals – if we did that then there would be no more game. The whole point of playing a game is to accept the framework unreflectively, to take it for granted that the goals are meaningful and see where this exercise gets us. We proceed on the given basis and that is what makes it possible to play the game, as we all know.

The thing about being a winner or loser, a success or a failure, is that we can’t for the life of us see that this is only a game! In everyday life, when I feel myself to be a success’ I feel very good and other people will envy me my success and want to be like me. When I perceive myself to be a loser or a failure then I will feel very bad in myself and other people will be glad not to follow my example – they will be happy not to be me. We look up to people who are designated as successes and down on those who are regarded as failures and this – whether we want to admit it or not – is what society is all about.

When we feel ourselves very strongly to be ‘failures’ in our lives this constitutes intense suffering and there is no way that we perceive this suffering to be merely ‘part of the game we’re playing’. There is absolutely no way in which we perceive ‘being a failure’ or ‘being a loser’ as merely being designations in the game, something that only makes sense within the context of the game that’s been playing. If we did, then we wouldn’t of course be feeling so bad. It’s precisely the fact that we don’t know that we are playing a game that makes the pain we are in so cruel. What is essentially happening here is that we have taken the game of society (for the game of ‘the social value system’) so very seriously that it is causing us great suffering. This is a type of sickness therefore.

In the same way, when we go around feeling good about ourselves because we have a high status in terms of the social hierarchy then we are basing this good feeling on an illusion. This too is a sickness, and it’s a sickness that we ‘enjoy suffering from’, so to speak. We think that we are enjoying it, at any rate, even though enjoyment that is based on an illusion can’t be worth very much really! It’s all just fantasy currency after all, just like the pretend-money in a game of monopoly. When we feel good about ourselves because of an illusory value system this isn’t just an empty hollow good feeling, a good feeling that has no basis or substance at all, it is also something that prevents us feeling good in a real way. When an illusion thrives, the real gets neglected.

When we feel bad because we have not made of ourselves what society says we should have, then this is clearly an affliction, this is clearly not a healthy situation. I might be feeling bad because of an illusory value system, but the fact that I am feeling bad is real all the same. So the curious thing about this social game that we are playing without knowing it is that when we ‘win’ this is bad for mental health, and when we ‘lose’ then this is bad for our mental health too! Both possibilities equal suffering – the suffering of not being true to who we really are, the suffering that comes when we neglect the truth in favour of an illusion. We make a big deal of ‘mental health’, and go on about it the whole time, but the unpalatable truth is that our collective way of life is itself a harmful or life-denying illusion!

To be mentally healthy – we might say – is to realise that being a success is just empty as being a failure, and that to believe in either label is to bring unnecessary suffering upon ourselves. One way we have a meaningless good feeling that effectively cuts us off from our true nature, the other way we have a meaningless bad feeling that just as effectively alienates us from who we truly are. When we realise this however what is more than likely to happen is that we will ‘redefine the rules of the game that we are playing’ and start playing for ‘spiritual development’ instead of ‘social status’ and ‘material gain’, which were the old milestones. This is what Sogyal Trungpa calls spiritual materialism and this is really just another (improved) way of trying to be ‘winners’ rather than ‘losers’.

When we play the game of ‘spiritual materialism’ then being a winner basically means ‘becoming more spiritual’, which is the greatest joke ever. We really do want this advancement for ourselves and we think that we will be better off in a real way when this happens. Straightaway therefore, we have the same old entrapping polarity of ‘gain versus lose’, ‘succeed versus pain’, ‘right versus wrong’. What does it mean to be a success rather than a failure in this new context, however? What does it mean to be ‘a winner’ within the terms of this particular game? To be a ‘winner’ – no matter what game we might be playing, no matter what goal we might be chasing – always implies ‘being a loser’; we could therefore say that ‘being a winner’ is defined in terms of ‘not being a loser’. This is a very strange tautological definition therefore – if I am a winner then that means that I’m not a loser and if I am a loser then that means that I am not a winner!

This may seem like mere verbal trickery but is much more than this. If we can understand this point then that immediately takes us to the very root of this whole issue. The point is that ‘being a winner’ (or ‘being a success’, or whatever) is merely a label, and all labels are by their nature ‘self-contradictory’, just as all ‘judgements’ or ‘definite statements’ are self-contradictory. This – in essence – means that they don’t actually have any reality to them. Labels or definite statements are so very superficial, so very ‘skinny’ that nothing at all separates the positive statement or the positive definition from its negative counterpart! As we have just said, ‘being a winner only makes sense in terms of ‘not being the loser’ and vice versa. A winner is a loser and a loser is a winner, therefore.

To feel good about being the one and bad about being the other is therefore quite absurd; to spend all our time chasing success and fleeing from the spectre of failure is ‘a theatre of the absurd’. This goes much deeper than we might imagine – when we ask ‘what does it mean to be a winner?’ or ‘what does it mean to be a loser?’ the answer is plain, if we want to see it. It means being a label, being a concept, being a ‘two-dimensional mental construct’. But more than this, we can apply this insight to the question of ‘what does it mean to be a self?’ The concept commonly known as the self only ever has two possibilities open to it – the possibility of doing well and the possibility of doing badly, the possibility of getting it right and the possibility of getting it wrong, the possibility of pleasure and the possibility of pain. The everyday oh-so-familiar sense of self is a polarity, in other words and it can never be more than a polarity. We don’t perceive it as such but such it is; the self is a polarity and polarity is a trap for consciousness.

To say that the self is a polarity might sound a bit odd but on reflection it is undeniable. The self gets to be the self via the all-important boundary that separates it from everything that is not it (which is to say, ‘the rest of the world’). This is a ‘co-dependent pair of opposites’ just as <winner/loser> or <up/down> is. As we have just said, each opposite is defined by saying that it is not the other, which is a closed loop of meaning. In the case of the boundary that separates ‘me’ from ‘the other’, ‘me’ is ‘me’ because it is not ‘the other’ and ‘the other’ is ‘the other’ because it is not ‘me’, and this is, as we have said, a tautological (or ‘empty’) definition. ‘Self’ and ‘other’ can only be defined in terms of each other and means that the two definitions don’t actually mean anything. It’s a game, a ‘closed loop of meaning,’ and yet we have been tricked into believing that it is real. Our sickness is therefore (as we have said) the sickness of believing that a game is not a game…