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…








Living In A World Of External Meaning

We worship purposefulness – motivational speaker and life coach Tony Robbins says that ‘activity without purpose is the drain of your life’. How great it would be if only we could be purposeful the whole time, without any wasteful (and pointless) purposelessness! What a splendidly meaningful life that would be, we might think.

The only drawback here – and this is something that conveniently never occurs to us – is that all of our purposes, no matter how splendid they might seem – are ‘made up things’. Because our purposes are ‘made up things’ (and how could they be otherwise, since there are no ‘purposes’ in reality itself?) they wouldn’t be there unless we said that they were, and because they aren’t there unless we say that they are we have to keep on saying that they are. We’re caught on a hook here. This means that not only do we have to keep on struggling gamely to realise the purpose in question, we also have to struggle to keep on confirming to ourselves that our purposes are real and meaningful and worth – on this account – struggling for!

This is a kind of tortuous knot therefore – the situation is not at all as straightforward as we might have thought it to be. ‘Having a purpose’, as everyone says, gives us meaning in life. That’s why we love goals so much. That’s why we love having a plan. But the fact that we ourselves have to maintain the meaningfulness of the goal or purpose takes this meaningfulness away again. If I have to assert that something is true in order for it to be so then this renders the whole exercise is meaningless. Truth that I myself have to agree upon is not truth and meaning that I myself have to ‘make up’ is not meaning. On the contrary, it’s a game…

If we want to enjoy the ‘meaningfulness’ of the purposeful life we have therefore to play a game with ourselves. What we have to do is keep the part of the exercise whereby we ‘maintain the meaningfulness of the purpose’ secret from ourselves so that we don’t know we doing it. We ‘arrange’ for the purpose to be a purpose (because it wouldn’t be one otherwise) but we keep it quiet from ourselves that we are doing this. This might on the face of it seem to be a neat trick (and on the face of it, it is a neat trick) but the long and the short of the matter is that we are deceiving ourselves, and so no matter how much effort we put into it, this isn’t really going tos get us anywhere! Progress in the game is not real progress, after all. and what’s more, we’ve ‘made an enemy of the truth’ with this manoeuvre – there’s always going to be this ‘unwelcome awareness’ waiting in the wings and that unwelcome or refused awareness is going to cast a shadow on us, even when we seem to be at our happiest. Life can’t be lived on the basis of secrets, after all…

If there is to be meaning then it cannot be created by us, it cannot be arranged in advance through the manoeuvre of having a plan or a purpose. We may choose for this, that or the other to be meaningful and society might designate this, that that or the other to have meaning, but this isn’t real meaning. It is ‘assigned meaning’. This is ‘meaning that is imposed from without’ rather than meaning that comes, all by itself, ‘from within’. What allows meaning from within (or intrinsic meaning) to arise within us is lack of pressure, lack of control, lack of intention; when we are busy being purposeful then this is like a brick wall keeping intrinsic meaning out. If we are under pressure to ‘achieve’ the whole time then this is going to starve us of any genuine sense meaningfulness in our lives therefore. We may not notice this deficiency because extrinsic meaning (which equals ‘rules’ or ‘pressure’ or ‘compulsivity’) has substituted itself for the real thing. When compulsion is in the driver’s seat then we will be oblivious to intrinsic meaning, which is a far subtler sort of thing. It is far subtler, and it does not push itself upon us. It is not a loud blaring foghorn voice – it does not bellow at us, it does not threaten or cajole us.

So far from it being the case that purposeless activity is a drain upon us, it is – because of its non-compulsive or non-coercive nature – leaving the door open for what used to be called grace. Without grace, life is graceless (needless to say!) and purposeful/mechanical activity, even though we can’t necessarily see it to be so, is graceless. Conventional ‘wisdom’ warns us that the devil finds work for idle hands and this is, we might say, ‘the dark side of the work ethic’. The dark side of the work ethic is that what underpins our so admirable industry is the fear of what might happen if ever we were to stop! Some forms of Christian evangelicalism hold that meditation is a dangerous practice for this very reason – if we cease with all of our wall-to-wall mental busyness then we are, in effect, leaving the citadel of purposeful selfhood unguarded, and when we do that then the devil can walk right in and take over. It’s not just prayer that protects us from Satan therefore – ordinary, run-of-the-mill thinking activity does too. This however constitutes a fundamental mistrust of life itself; it is reminiscent of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, which is a way of looking at things which means we even have to distrust our actual nature, which is said to be tainted with this thing called ‘Original Sin’. We have been warned of this inherited curse down through the centuries and so we stay busy out of our fear, not because of the worthwhile goals that we are to attain. To relax is tantamount to sinning!

Once we start off from this standpoint it will never occur to us that what might ‘come in’ if we lower our personality defences might actually be a beneficial sort of thing, and not satanic at all, notwithstanding the famous Protestant work ethic. Kierkegaard, himself a devout Christian, tells us that idleness, of the right sort (i.e. not mere ‘self-distraction’), is the divine life itself –

Idleness, we are accustomed to say, is the root of all evil. To prevent this evil, work is recommended…. Idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; on the contrary, it is truly a divine life, if one is not bored….

Our goals and purposes are our own affair – they don’t connect us with life, no matter what we might think to the contrary. When we are busy in this goal-orientated way then we are ‘preoccupied’, we are ‘closed’ with regard to anything that isn’t relevant to the goals that we have in mind. The same is true for thinking – when we are busy thinking then we’re not paying attention to anything other than our thoughts. In order to genuinely ‘attend’ – which is how we connect with reality – we have to drop our purposeful doing and thinking and this is precisely the thing that, in our rational-purposeful culture, we find so difficult to do. Somehow, doing has become so important to us that we no longer have any time for being. Saying this is not to dismiss the importance of doing, or purposeful behaviour. By grounding our doing in being it becomes more effective; the best action arises from stillness, as it is said in the East.

As Alan Watt says, when we think of the time then we have nothing to think about but our own thoughts and this very effectively disconnects us from reality. The same is true with our purposefulness: – if we are purposeful the whole time then this is actually ‘being busy for the sake of being busy’ – wall-to-wall busyness means that we never get a chance to come up for air’ and ‘check in with ourselves’ about what we are actually doing. We never refer to actual reality, in other words. It’s not our ‘purposelessness’ that’s the big danger when it comes down to it therefore but our dreadful ‘non-stop busyness’ – this is the real ‘drain’, this is the real plague. Because of the ‘insulating’ character of the goal-orientated mode (the fact that we can’t see the bigger picture when we’re focused on the details) it all too easy happens that – as we have said – we become disconnected from both reality and from our own true nature – which is ‘spontaneous’ not ‘purposeful’. We get so caught up in the ‘how’ that we lose sight of the ‘why’.

This is a phenomenon that is very prevalent in our culture, as we keep saying. It’s a contagion that we have all been infected with, to some degree or other. Extrinsic meaning is such a ‘bully’ that it never gives us any time to listen to anything else (any quieter or less forceful voices) – it gives us this task to do, then the next, and then the next after that and it never lets up. When people talk about ‘working to live’ rather than ‘living to work’ this is what they’re talking about: the healthy way of things is when we engage in purposefulness for a specific and practical reason, and so when we’re done we can return to our natural state of stillness, or ‘purposelessness’. As we have said, who we really are is not purposeful – we don’t exist for the sake of fulfilling purposes, after all! Idleness brings us closer to the divine state of being, as Kierkegaard says. Everything has already been achieved (so to speak) and so what’s our problem? What’s got into us to be constantly seeking goals without ever a break, as if there were some sort of virtue in restlessness? Once we go down the road of overvaluing rationality and purposefulness, then this very quickly turns into the sort of thing whereby we lose track of who we really are and what life is really about. Life isn’t really about ‘anything in particular’ of course; we can however say what it’s not about though – it’s not about being purposeful for the whole time like some kind of demented machine that doesn’t know when to stop!

If we distrust ‘not being busy’ or ‘not being narrowly purposeful’ what this means is that we don’t trust our own actual nature, which is – as we just said –NOT about being busy. Who we are in our essence does NOT need to be validated by having some ‘purpose’! This is however the very nub of the matter – when we exist full-time in the Purposeful Realm then we construct an identity for ourselves that is based entirely upon ‘how well we are doing at achieving our goals’. That’s the name of the game, after all. This conditioned identity absolutely does have to be validated by purposes – without some sort of ‘purpose’ this conditioned identity very quickly finds itself in bad shape. When I see myself purely on those terms which the Purposeful Realm itself provides me with then I have to seek validation (or ‘meaning’) via my effectiveness in achieving the specified goals, arbitrary though these goals might be. The purposeful realm is a game in other words, and when you are in a game you have to play the game – there’s no choice here! There are no other options…

Not that we know we’re playing a game of course. If we knew that then we’d realise that we don’t have to play; ‘whoever plays, place freely,’ says James Carse (or something to that effect). The Purposeful Realm doesn’t let on that it’s a game; it doesn’t let on that there is any other form of existence other than this – the ‘ceaseless doing’ type of existence, the ‘mechanical activity’ type of existence, the ‘chasing goals’ type of existence. The promise of ‘being’ is always being dangled in front of our noses but that’s all it is – a promise, and an empty one at that. In this world we get to exist via our goals, via our purposes, via our roles and it’s all very competitive. We always have to point to something outside of ourselves in order to justify as being here. The reason we have to do this is because this ‘identity’ is entirely hollow – it’s not actually real and so it continually needs to be propped up or validated. If we were rest to in our true, unconditioned nature, then we would not need this pernicious self-validating activity. We wouldn’t need to look anywhere else; we wouldn’t need to look to some spurious external authority for validation. We wouldn’t need to be forever trying to ‘prove ourselves’. We are however thoroughly alienated from our true nature and so we do have to go on being purposeful. The purposeful self is the ‘substitute’ for who we really are, but it’s not a very good substitute. It’s not a very good substitute because it’s got exactly nothing going for it!







Working Via Pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The System Can Only Ever Do One Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovering Our Wholeness

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unconscious Living

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Predicament of ‘Socialization’

When we say that ‘society creates the generic self’, (or that society ‘only values the generic self’) we are making a very straightforward point. Who could ever deny this, after all? And yet even though this is so very obviously true, we never pay any attention to psychological or philosophical implications of this observation. Society’s part in creating the generic self is as we have just said nothing if not obvious; we all know what happens to people in a group – their actual individuality is submerged in the generic identity. Everyone in the group tacitly agrees to conform to the way of thinking that everyone else has conformed to and the result of this is that no one has any responsibility for anything! We hand over responsibility to the group but the big problem with this is that a group is not a real thing. A ‘group’ is the result of ‘an agreement that has been made’ and this means that it is only ‘real’ because we have agreed for it to be so. This means that it isn’t real, in other words. A group is ‘a collection of people in lock-step’ who have all tacitly agreed to let their individuality be subsumed by the ‘common blueprint’ regarding ‘how to think’ or ‘how to be in the world’. It is very rare that we confront this truth head on and even rarer that we allow ourselves to see the full implications of this agreement of ours; this great reluctance on our part to bring any awareness to the ‘predicament of socialisation’ doesn’t spare us from its impact on our mental health however. As Jung says, just because we don’t know of our ‘sin’ (the ‘sin of unconsciousness’!) this doesn’t mean that nature won’t punish us for it! Put very simply, adhering as we almost always do adhere to the societal blueprint for ‘how we supposed to be in the world’ means that we can’t grow, and this is a very good price for the privilege of ‘getting on with everybody’! It’s not just the case that it is a shame (or ‘a sad thing’) that we don’t ever realise the potential that we’re capable of realising, but that the unrealised potential turns toxic and becomes a destructive force in its own right. As Jesus says in Verse 70 of the Gospel of Thomas –

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

We can also quote from the writings of Erich Fromm in this connection:

The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life.

 

Our social environment can only do one of two things therefore: it can either support us in our growth by providing a cultural milieu in which the idea of ‘moving beyond ourselves’ is not a thoroughly alien concept, or it can thwart our growth by creating a world in which the static ego-identity is implicitly seen as the ultimate statement of ‘who we are’ and ‘our passport to a joyful, exciting and fulfilling life’. These are the two possibilities and there is no midway point – it’s either ‘the one or the other’. Without any doubt whatsoever it can be said that the particular social milieu within which we find ourselves comes under the second category – we are inundated from all sides with the basic ‘subliminal message’ that says the ego-identity is most definitely our passport to a meaningful and fulfilling existence. This message is inbuilt into our language, into our very way of thinking about things. All commercial advertising is based on this premise as is the entire structure of our capitalist/consumerist way of life, which exists purely for the benefit of the static, two-dimensional ego-identity – without our unquestioning acceptance of this hypothetical abstract entity the whole thing becomes quite meaningless.

 

The unreflective identification with the static identity (or the concrete ‘sense of self’) absolutely prohibits ‘growth’ however – very clearly it does! Growth isn’t the name of the game at all, something else is – something that does not involve growth or transcendence in any shape or form! What the game is about is the glorification of this abstract, static-or-concrete ‘sense of self’ and this is another kettle of fish entirely. This is what James Carse calls ‘a finite game’. When we glorify (or obsess over) the abstract or ideal value only one thing can ever happen and that is that we get caught up in an oscillation between ‘exaltation’ one extreme end and ‘despair’ at the other. There is no real movement taking place – certainly no ‘growth’ – just this internal swinging back-and-forth between the two extremes, both of which are just as unhealthy as the other! We swing back and forth between these two unhealthy extremes and that’s the end of it! That’s our existence in a nutshell. It’s a circle.  And what’s more, for most of us it isn’t the case that we even ever hit these two dramatic extremes – we merely vibrate somewhere in the middle range, somewhere in the murky grey zone, so to speak. ‘Growth’ – or ‘real change’ – means not fixating on the self and its obsessive concerns’ it means moving beyond the static ego-identity, as we royally said, and it is precisely this type of movement that we have no concept for.

 

‘Going beyond the self’ does not mean ‘being unselfish’, which is something that we might quite understandably assume. It is the self that ‘acts unselfishly’ – this mode of behaviour that we call unselfishness is when the self strains to go against its own innate inclinations, this is where the ego represses its own innate inclinations. Unselfishness – from a moral point of view – is where ‘the self struggles mightily to be what it is not’ – the leopard is striving heroically to change his spots. From the point of view of the ego-identity, behaving altruistically is always an uphill struggle and when it does this for any length of time it naturally expects to receive a medal for it! Going beyond the self is not a purposeful thing however; it is not something that happens as a result of striving and straining. It’s certainly not something that happens as a result of us making goals (and this is always a deeply disappointing for us to find out because we think that goals are the answer to everything). Goals are the projection of the self, not the means by which we can go beyond it. If someone were to ask how we could ‘go beyond the self’, one answer would be to say that it is our innate curiosity that takes us beyond the self – the concrete ego-identity can never be curious about anything, it just doesn’t have it in it! The concrete ego-identity has only two ways of relating to the world, one being attraction and the other aversion; either it likes something and wants to get closer to it (or  – ideally – engulf it completely) or it dislikes something and wants to get as far away from it as is possible (or destroy it, if it can). The ego-identity is mechanical in its nature therefore – which is to say, it never looks beyond itself. It has no concept for ‘looking beyond itself’.

 

Another way of putting this is to say that the thinking mind is ‘mechanical’ (because all it does is follow rules) and the result of identifying with this mechanical mind is that we lose the ability to go beyond ourselves – the rational mind can’t take us beyond ourselves any more than it can take us beyond itself. All thought can ever do is extend itself, after all. To understand this is to understand is that ‘going beyond ourselves’ is not a problem that can be sold by the application of logic – methods embroil us in thought further rather than free us from it. Curiosity has nothing to do with logic however; to be curious about the world is not the same as to be thinking about it. ‘Being curious about the world’ isn’t as innocent as we might think either – being curious about the world is very short step from ‘asking questions about the status quo’ and the one thing the social system can’t take is someone who asks questions about the status quo! The ‘agreement’ only gets to be ‘an agreement’ by us not asking any further questions; that’s what as agreement is – the tacit understanding that no one is going to ask any further questions on the subject. The ‘game’ only gets to be played when no one asks any questions about the rules of the game, and why we should carry on playing. That is the one question we must never ask in a game – why we are continuing to play it! ‘Why?’ and ‘the mechanical modality’ just don’t go together; the mechanical modality is based on obeying rules not questioning them.

 

There is more to curiosity than we might think therefore – although we all like to think of ourselves as possessing a fair degree of healthy curiosity about the world the truth of the matter is that very few of us have any real curiosity at all. If we did then we would be questioning this way of life that we have, this way of life that society has given us, this way of living that we have somehow created for ourselves, and if we questioned it in this way then we wouldn’t be able to carry on pursuing the goals that society tells us we should be pursuing. Curiosity – if truly followed – will always result in us asking ourselves why we are playing the game that we’re playing (or why we are living life in the very narrow way that we are living it). There is absolutely no way that we will be able to carry on running on the very narrow tracks we used to be running on; that’s no longer going to be a possibility for us because we have now seen what we are not supposed to see. What we are ‘not supposed to have seen’ can be explained in two ways – [1] that our goals, aims and values in life are not truly ours, and [2] that ‘who we take ourselves to be’ is not actually us either. Insight into this fundamental confusion between our ‘actual inalienable nature’ and ‘who or what we are told we are’ cannot fail to upset our view of things in a very big way; even if we do carry on pretty much the same as before (and the fact remains that we will still have to exist and make a living in some way within the system as it is unless we can somehow sprout wings and fly away) what we now see life being about has radically changed – we no longer see our ‘fulfillment’ as being synonymous with the attaining of the standards or benchmarks that society so authoritatively supplies us with. Instead, we see our fulfillment as something that is to be found within the journey from ‘who we automatically understand ourselves to be’ to ‘somewhere else’, somewhere that exists ‘at right angles’ to everything we know and are familiar with, and which is – on  this account – completely incomprehensible (or ‘completely invisible’) to us. Instead of seeing the meaning of our lives as something that is to be found within the journey ‘from one known to another’, we come to realise that life itself is ‘the movement beyond’, and that it has absolutely nothing to do with our hopes and fears, our theories and beliefs, our goals and intentions.

 

As soon as we come to see that there is this incomprehensible movement going on (Krishnamurti’s ‘movement from one unknown to another’ or David Bohm’s Holomovement) then the mechanical process by which we enact certain goals or intentions ceases to hold the utter fascination for us that it used to have; the mechanical aspect of the world still exists and cannot be gotten about, but it is no longer seen as being ‘where life lies’, it is no longer seen as being crucially important in the way we always used to think it was. We no longer ‘hung up’ on it, as Alan Watts would say; we no longer fundamentally anxious about it in the way that we used to be. When we are in the mechanical (or generic) mode of being then we are like a person with a bad gambling addiction – we live in the big wide mysterious world the same as everyone else does, but all we are ever interested in is looking to see which way the dice will fall when we throw them on the ground. A lot hangs on that, after all! If three  ‘twos’ come up for us then that’s bad news and we will feel gutted; if on the other hand we get three ‘sixes’ then we will be jubilant, we will be ‘over the moon’. Nothing new ever happens in the game (which is precisely why it is a game) but we remain utterly transfixed by it all the same. We are 100% hypnotised, like the legendary ‘rabbit caught in the headlights’. The game is the only thing of interest to us; if we are to find any fulfilment in life it is to be here, located within the prosaic process of obtaining a high score rather than a low one.

 

The ‘great wide world’ lies all around us, to be sure, but we couldn’t be less interested in it. We are profoundly uninterested in it and this is the ‘lack of curiosity’ that we spoke of earlier. When we are caught up in what we are calling ‘the mechanical mode of being’ then all we can ever care about is ‘obtaining the right outcome’ – obtaining the right outcome means everything to us. When we are in ‘the generic mode of relating to the world’ then all we are interested in are ‘generic outcomes’; we couldn’t care less about the ‘non-generic’. We couldn’t care less about the non-generic and yet the ‘non-generic’ is reality itself! Anything that doesn’t ‘fit the bill’ with regard to ‘what we think it should be’ is dismissed instantly, it is dismissed without us even knowing that we have dismissing anything. Life itself is automatically dismissed; life itself is automatically dismissed without us even realising that we are dismissing anything. It is dismissed in order to facilitate us ‘playing the game’.