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’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Subsuming Of Individuality [Part 1]

There is a type of ‘seminal event’ that takes place in early childhood which is never mentioned in the developmental psychology textbooks but which makes an absolutely tremendous difference in our lives all the same and this event is the subsuming of individuality within the generic self (or, if we want to put this in Gurdjieff’s terms, ‘the imprisonment of essence within personality’). The reason there is never any mention of this crucial event is of course because we have all already passed this point in our development and – as a consequence – it is profoundly invisible to us. The only way we have of looking at the world is via the eyes of the generic self and the generic self cannot ever see itself for what it is. Or as we could also say, ‘history is written by the victors’ and the victory of the generic self over the individuality is as thorough as thorough can be, as complete as complete can be. Our true individuality has been replaced, as a fledgling cuckoo replaces the original inhabitants of the nest, and so it is never missed. Personality never considers the fact that it owes its so-called ‘autonomous existence’ to the process whereby essence is subjugated, and the subjugation (or imprisonment) of essence by personality is never going to be part of the official narrative. It’s like a big country annexing a much smaller one whose independent existence it never acknowledged in the first place – the act of annexing a country whose existence you do not acknowledge is not going to be acknowledged either!

 

The transition between childhood and adulthood is seen as a process of growth or maturation; the transition between childhood and ‘adult generic-selfhood’ cannot be regarded in such simplistic terms however – in a very real sense this is something of a backward step and certainly not the glorious progression we like to see it as. As Brian Aldiss writes,

When childhood dies, its corpses are called adults and they enter society, one of the politer names of Hell. That’s why we dread children, even if we love them, they show us the state of our decay.

This is not to say that they aren’t any legitimate elements of growth and maturation taking place, or that we would be better off staying as children forever, in some Peter Pan-type world, but rather that the adaptive skills which we place so much stock in are only ever ‘provisionally useful’, and actually turn out to be an obstacle rather than anything else in the long run. Our adaptation to the social world is absolutely ‘an obstacle that we can’t see as such’. Obviously this is the case – society is only a game that we play after all; it’s a game that we only take seriously as we do because we don’t want to see beyond it – it’s a ‘surrogate life’ rather than a means to life. We naturally do feel ‘adult’ when we have successfully adapted to this game and this accounts for that peculiar type of ‘ego confidence’ that a lot of us exhibit but to be well adapted to a game (the hidden purpose of which is to allow us to spuriously evade our legitimate existential insecurity) is hardly grounds for complacency and self-congratulation.

 

The problem is that by allowing ourselves to feel that we have ‘got somewhere’ as a result of adapting ourselves to this artificial world that we have created for ourselves we have actually acted against our own best interests – we have accepted a laughable ‘dummy prize’ in place of the real thing (which is not such easy thing to get the hang of) and the consequence of this is that we no longer have any awareness of the actual challenge of life, and if we have no awareness of the way life is challenging us then we will simply cease to grow. We have been effectively sidetracked, in other words – we have been sent down a dead-end. Another way of putting this is to say that when we develop an identity that suits the social world (an identity that is a faithful reflection of that social world) the assumption that we are unconsciously making in the process of this adaptation is that the social world or social system is ‘the only world there is’ (obviously enough) and so where this assumption falls down is in the face of the undeniable fact that the social world isn’t the only world there is! It’s not actually a real thing at all – the social system is very clearly a ‘made-up thing’, a convenient fiction. To be adapted to society (or to the socialised view of reality) is to be adapted to an illusion and to be adapted to an illusion is to be disconnected from reality. This is a rather significant thing to consider therefore, by anyone’s standards. There could quite possibly be serious problems in this! ‘What type of disadvantages might come from being disconnected from reality?’, we might ask ourselves. ‘What type of knock-on difficulties might this involve?’

 

This is of course a tremendously open-ended question to be asking and it is very hard to know where to even begin answering it. There is no starting point and no terms of reference. The only thing that we absolutely can say however is that the consequence of adapting ourselves to illusion is going to be very great pain (or very great suffering) and this – in essence – tells us all we need to know. If we were o be very clear about this (which we aren’t) then this would be enough for us; this would be enough to open our eyes to our situation and put an end to any further involvement, any further collaboration. It’s as if we find that an old and dear friend of ours has been swindling and exploiting us right from the start; once we see this then it becomes clear that he was never any type of friend at all – that particular illusion will be gone once and for all. It will no longer be there to hold onto. ‘Pain’ of course is a word that can have lots and lots of meanings – it has so many meanings that we quickly come back to the point of again not knowing where to begin with the discussion. One way to start looking into the pain or suffering that inevitably attends ‘fundamental alienation from reality’ is consider a bit further what happens when we adapt ourselves to the illusory social world – when we are adapted to an illusory or artificial world then we are necessarily going to define ourselves in relation to that world – we don’t have anything else to define ourselves in relation to, after all – and the result of this ‘identification with an illusion’ is that we ourselves become an illusion. We thus become every bit as illusory as the world that we have adapted ourselves so enthusiastically to.

 

If the system represented some sort of genuine reality than ‘the identity which we have within it’ would also be real but seeing as how it just plain doesn’t our identity (which is all we know of ourselves and all that we can know just as long as we are remaining the state of adaptation) is completely fatuous, completely bogus. Because our sense of identity is completely fatuous we have precisely zero chance of relating to the real world and to call this ‘cause for concern’ is putting it a very mildly indeed – what could be a graver catastrophe than ‘the loss of reality’, after all? We might ask ourselves if it is perhaps possible to compensate for our loss of connection with reality in some way and whilst this might sound like a pretty stupid question to be asking it actually isn’t – just about everything we do serves as some kind of an attempted compensation for our loss of connection with anything real. Our ‘activities in the game’ are all compensatory devices whose function is to offset the ‘fundamental alienation’ that resides in our core and if someone were to ask exactly what our ‘activities within the game’ might consist of then the answer to this question is very straightforward indeed – our activities within the game are all about ‘winning’ in whatever shape or form that might take. What else does anyone ever do in a game apart from ‘try to win’, after all? What else is there to do?

 

‘Winning’ within a societal context simply means doing well within the specific terms that society presents us with; we – for our part  – simply interpret this as meaning ‘doing well’ full stop – we don’t see it as ‘doing well within the terms of the system’ because we don’t know of any other terms. We don’t see the system as being ‘the system’ and so for us any gains that are made within its remit are seen to be of an absolute rather than a strictly provisional nature. We feel that we have really and truly have got somewhere rather than just ‘having got somewhere within the strictly provisional terms of the game’, which obviously wouldn’t be a particularly meaningful proposition – that certainly wouldn’t be anything to get too excited or self congratulatory or about. So to come back to what we started off by talking about, we compensate for the pain-producing lack of connection with reality by [1] deceiving ourselves into thinking that our societal goals are ‘meaningful in themselves’ and [2] engrossing ourselves in the very demanding (and profoundly immersive) task of trying our very best to attain these goals.

 

This throws up an immediate dilemma when it comes to defining what mental health means because whilst from the point of view of the game that is being played good mental health means ‘continuing to find our goals meaningful (which means ‘continuing to find the experience of striving for them as being satisfying and fulfilling’) any deeper understanding of what it means to be mentally healthy would have to involve, in a crucial way, the seeing of the actual truth of what is going on here, and this would of course completely contradict the first definition that we gave of ‘mental health’. Any discussion of what it means to be either mentally well or unwell which ignores or fails to take account of this contradiction is bound therefore to be utterly facile. Any discussion of mental health that fails to take this flat ‘contradiction in terms’ into account is bound to be absolutely and completely absurd, but this is exactly what our culture fails to do. Our culture refuses to look at the ‘bigger picture’ (or rather, it refuses to acknowledge that there could be any picture other than the picture that is provided for us by the thinking mind). We could go further than this and point out that our so-called ‘culture’ is nothing other than an extension of the rational mind and this of course is absolutely inevitable given the fact that the rational intellect is the only part of the psyche that we give any importance or credence to. We see the world as a machine does and the machine never sees the full picture (to say that ‘a machine never sees the full picture’ is simply a restatement of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem).

 

To come back to what we have said earlier, the fact that a machine (or the rational mind) cannot see the full picture is not a problem in itself; it’s not a problem if we can see that the rational mind is not showing us the full picture, but if we can’t see this then all sorts of intractable difficulties immediately come into being – all sorts of paradoxes arise and the thing about paradoxes is that they are quintessentially insoluble. That’s what makes a paradox be a paradox – the fact that the attempt to solve the problem only makes the problem worse! Or as we could also say, ‘the attempt to solve the problem actually creates the problem.’ When we can’t see that the RT doesn’t show us the full picture (and according to it, it always does) then what we take to be unequivocal gains are in fact circles – our apparent games (which only come about because we take what thought shows us to be the same thing as reality) turn out not to be gains at all – they aren’t gains at all because there are only ‘gains within context of the game’, the game which we take to be the same thing as reality. There is in another words no such thing as genuine change within the mind-created world even though change or progress within the mind-created world (i.e. ‘winning’) is precisely what we are always chasing. Coming back to our point therefore, ‘health’ within the societal game means that we continue not seeing that the goals or ‘progress markers’ that we are orientated towards are paradoxical or duplex in nature. It should come as no surprise therefore to see that paradoxicality is hardly ever mentioned in the world of therapy – paradoxicality is after all the death of purposefulness and – in our simple mindedness – all of our therapies are purposeful (or goal-driven) ones. They are, we might say, ‘doing-based’ rather than ‘insight-based’.

 

‘Paradoxicality’ means that our attempts to escape the problem embroils us in it even further, or – as we have just said – that our attempts to fix the problem actually create it (i.e. the problem wouldn’t actually be a problem if we weren’t trying to solve it). We have an unwanted, pain-producing thought or feeling and our (very simplistic) approach is to believe that we can ‘deal with’ or ‘manage’ it in some sort of purposeful way, via some sort of a procedure or other. ‘Control’ is the paradigm that we are operating within in other words; control is the only thing we know, the anything we trust, and so we apply it ‘across the board’. Naturally therefore, paradoxicality is the very last thing we want to hear about! Our entrenchment in the overly simplistic ‘purposeful mode’ of operating goes a lot deeper than we might imagine however – it goes far deeper than we might imagine because ‘who we take ourselves to be’ (which is to say, the concrete sense of identity that is created by the process of us ‘adapting to the mind-created world’) absolutely relies upon our perception of there being such a thing as genuine positive goals, goals that are absolute in nature rather than duplex (‘duplex’ meaning that they have both a negative and positive aspect to them such that the one is always cancels out the other). Hard as it is for us to understand, our goals are mental projections and mental projections are always duplex (two-sided); projections are always duplex or two-sided by virtue of the fact that they are projections. My projections are an extension of me, after all; my projections are an extension of me and yet I treat them as if they ‘weren’t me’; I treat them as being ‘other than me’, as if there were ‘something new’. Because we relate to our projections as if they were something new (rather than seeing them as just ‘a restatement of the old’) we experience euphoria when we ‘progress’ towards them. The projection is not something new however – it’s just a tautology. It looks like a ‘new development’ in other words; it looks as if I’m ‘saying something new’ but really I’m just ‘saying the same old thing an apparently different way’ and this is why my projections are always duplex and will therefore ‘turn around on me’. This is why I can never really either ‘successfully catch them’ or ‘successfully run away from them’, in other words.

 

Talking in this way allows us to see, very clearly, that the ‘purposeful’ or ‘positive’ self is a game – it’s a game because it is based on us ‘pretending that our projections are not our projections when they are’ (or us ‘pretending that our goals are not duplex when they are’). The positive or purposeful self might be said to have its own type of health therefore and we might refer to this as ‘virtual health’. Virtual health is the health of a purely virtual entity, it’s the health of the ‘self’ that we pretend be in the game whilst not knowing that we are pretending anything. The projected state of being that we are calling ‘good mental health’ (and which we are aiming at so determinedly with all of our purposeful therapies) is a very peculiar type of thing. It’s a very peculiar type of thing firstly because it doesn’t exist and never could do, and secondly because when we have allegiance to it – as we do have allegiance to it – the ‘natural order of things’ is turned on its head. This is the ‘Inversion of Unconsciousness’. The inversion comes about – to recap what we just said a moment ago – because we are pretending that our projections aren’t our projections when they are, or because we are pretending that goals aren’t duplex in nature when they are duplex. This act of pretending (which we are wholly unaware of since we are also pretending very seriously that we are not pretending) creates the positive or purposeful self, and when we are identified with this self we automatically seek to organise the world according to this basis, in accordance with this basis. We will try to impose the values of this unreal sense of self onto the world, in other words, and this is the type of activity that we will always engage in when we are ‘psychologically unconscious’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playing To Live Or Living To Play

We don’t play in our lives, as James Carse says, but rather we play in order to live, and what that means is that we aren’t actually living. As Carse says, life itself becomes the prize which we are to attain as a result of our successful playing; it is therefore ‘the desire to live’ that fuels our striving, that fuels our ‘serious’ or ‘finite’ play. The ‘desire to live’ is – needless to say – not a healthy thing. This is a hunger that can never be satisfied because it’s a hunger that is coming from the wrong place. “Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?” says Khalil Gibran.

 

There is a flavour that comes with this particular style of living and this is a flavour with which we are all very much familiar. It is the flavour of what rebel economist EF Schumacher calls the ‘Global Megaculture’ which is the dominant way of life on this planet. When people are constantly hungry, self-interested, and relentlessly, aggressively competitive then this is the result of ‘playing to live’, rather than ‘living to play’! When we play in order to live (i.e. when we engage in our life-activities in order to obtain some kind of assumed all-important external ‘benefit’ that doesn’t actually exist) then everything assumes a type of heartless seriousness that is ultimately pathological. The seriousness that we are talking about derives from a need that can never be satisfied and this is ‘the need to be validated as a real person by the meaningless game that we are playing’. We are therefore caught up in a very unpleasant situation here – if we don’t succeed in our play then we don’t get to live – we will see it pass us by, we will see everyone else living when we ourselves are not able to. We can only look on at them – full of frustrated yearning, full of envy and bitterness. And yet even when we do ‘win’ (within the terms of the arbitrary societal game that we are playing) we don’t get to live  – we don’t get to live because we have alienated ourselves from life by identifying with a societal role, we don’t get to live because we have alienated ourselves from life by making a goal of it.

 

If anyone told you that this was a desirable state of affairs to end up with then you would have to question either their integrity or their sanity. A more disastrous setup cannot be imagined! The only possible way to make a go of such a situation is to hang onto the illusion that the ‘prize of life’ will be bestowed upon us at some point as a reward for us competing successfully in the artificial arena of societal life, and make sure that we never let anyone tell us otherwise. If we never succeed (as we are supposed to succeed) then we can keep on believing that the goal is still there to be obtained and this is of course a belief that will perpetually torment us. If on the other hand we do succeed then we will just have to fool ourselves that we are living when we are not. This isn’t too difficult a lie to buy into given that everyone else will believe us to have ‘made it’ even if we ourselves can’t help suspecting deep down that nothing has actually changed. In this case, we have to live through everyone else’s fantasy of what our life is like, which is something that can of course turn nasty at any moment! What goes up can also come down, after all! Living our lives through other peoples’ illusions about us is what sociologist John Berger calls ‘glamour’.

 

Of all the possible ways that there might be of living life this has got to be the most stupidest and most pointless. It is utterly stupid and utterly pointless. There is a benefit to this appallingly stupid scheme all the same – it’s just that the benefit in question isn’t ours! We are not the beneficiaries. The ‘benefit’ – very obviously – belongs to the system that is being perpetuated. The house wins, not the punter! What we looking at here is a game that keeps us hungry whether we win or whether we lose. If we lose then obviously we’re hungry and if we win we’re still hungry – we’re hungry for the reason that we have just given, we are hungry for the ongoing going validation from the crowd that our ‘winning’ actually means something, which doesn’t!

 

We can criticise our current economical/political system on many fronts – we can say that it creates a hideous inequality of wealth, we can say that it creates an avaricious competitive uncaring attitude in people that ensures that – rich or poor – we’ll never know happiness, or we can say that it inevitably results in an exploitative disrespectful orientation towards the resources of the planet that will ultimately spell our ignominious doom at some point or other. All of these are very pertinent criticisms – clearly. But the most essential ‘criticism’ of all is a psychological one. The most essential criticism of all that all of our energy and intelligence is being harnessed for a purpose that has absolutely nothing to do with our own well-being – our life energy is being used for one thing and one thing only – the perpetuation of the system that is exploiting us. We aren’t the ‘exploiters’ at all – we are the exploited.

 

The confidence trick that we have fallen for is as simple as it is devious and it is been the mainstay of human societies for as far back as the records go. That which is freely given to all, across the board, with complete impartiality, has been turned into a prize that has to be won as result of us playing a complicated game, as a result of us ‘following out someone else’s rules’, in other words. Rather than being able to live our lives freely therefore, we are under pressure the whole time – the pressure to succeed, the pressure to make something of ourselves, the pressure to please or placate the machine we are caught up in, the pressure to do well by the uncaring mechanical system that we have haplessly adapted ourselves to.

 

Work is essential in life – inseparable from life, in fact – but the point is not that we should not work (which is – ultimately – impossible anyway) but rather that we should not work in order to live. Working in order to live means that whilst the activities which we engage in will supposedly result in ‘life’, they are not themselves living. All of our activities have become imbued with this quality of ‘end-gaming’ and this is a quality that is anti-life. Very obviously it is ‘anti-life’ – we are always rushing but we are not actually getting anywhere. We are always anxious to ‘skip ahead to the next goal, and the next goal after that’ and each goal symbolises the life that we don’t have, but which we wish so much to have. We ‘live in abstractions’ and the corollary of this is that we have to make do with a type of existence that has no actual ‘being’ in it. We have to live in the Promissory Realm – the realm which is entirely made up of promises which can supposedly be redeemed at some point in the future.

 

We are living on the basis of the promise of being and this is what makes us into ‘slaves of the mechanical system’. The system is promising something that it just doesn’t have to give us in the first place and this means that we’re in for a long wait… If we were in our right minds – so to speak – then we’d see this and we wouldn’t be fooled, but we aren’t in our might right minds and so we don’t see it. We very much aren’t in our right minds. What has happened to us is that we have accepted a type of deal and the nature of this deal – as we started out by saying – is that we will immerse ourselves in the game in order that we might win the glorious prize of life at the end of it. This – as James Carse points out – means that ‘in our playing we are not actually alive’. As we read in Revelation 3:1, ‘Thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead.”

 

What we are talking about is a kind of ‘mechanical prelude’ to life only the supposed ‘prelude’ goes on forever. The ‘prelude’ goes on forever (and the promise of being is forever unfulfilled) because the mechanical can never give rise to the non-mechanical, just as a rule can never give rise to freedom. Because the mechanical realm can never give rise to freedom not only can the mechanical realm never give rise to freedom, it cannot ‘contain’ any freedom either. There can be no freedom in it and what this means is that we have no way of relating to the reality of what freedom means, we only have the word on its own. We actually have no interest in the reality of what freedom actually means (this is something that is completely alien to our socially-adapted constitution, after all) and so all of our attention, all of our interest, is on the signifiers of freedom, the symbols (or surrogates) of freedom that the mechanical realm has provided us with. We are not ‘in our right minds’ and so we can’t see that the system is promising us something that it can’t ever deliver. We’re not in our right minds so we can’t see that the world which we have adapted ourselves to is made up entirely of literal signifiers of a reality which is itself not ‘literal’.

 

We are not in our right minds because the system (or the machine) has ‘given us its mind’, to use Carlos Castaneda’s phrase. The machine ‘runs us as projections of itself’, we could say. The system operates us as photographic negatives of who we really are; we are ‘someone else’s version of ourselves‘, so to speak. It’s as if we have been lured into a dark subterranean realm where the sun never shines and where because the sun never shines we have forgotten that there is such a thing as the sun, we have forgotten that there is such a thing as the light. We have wandered into Plato’s cave and taken our place along with all the other prisoners, spending our whole lives watching shadows as if that were somehow an interesting or valuable thing to do. The shadows (i.e. the literal signifiers) aren’t really interesting; they aren’t actually even the tiniest bit interesting. The shadows – if we may be forgiven for elaborating on Plato’s analogy – exert their terrible life-denying hold on us for one reason and one reason only – because they are making promises that they can never keep, promises that have become a substitute for reality itself…

 

 

 

 

Mindfulness Always Comes With An Agenda

Western mindfulness always comes with an agenda, and this is what gives it the particular, rather humourless, flavour that it has. The agenda of Western mindfulness is very much to ‘fix things’ or ‘make things better’ – it’s a practical, goal-orientated kind of thing. It has been turned into a technology or science, which it isn’t. The agenda of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, for example, is to reduce stress. No prizes for guessing this one! In a more general way, we could say that the underlying agenda of all that types of ‘generic mindfulness’ have been developed in the West is to allow us to go back to the way we were before, so that we can carry on in the way we were before. We’re trying to ‘correct the situation’. When we apply mindfulness to the field of mental health this is very much what we are doing – we are using it as a tool to achieve an ‘agreed-upon’ aim that we have in our minds. In the world of mental health we use the word ‘recovery’ a lot and the implication here is – needless to say – that we ‘recover’ the way that we were before so that we can carry on being the way that we were before. That’s the whole idea obviously – while we’re trying to do is recover is ‘ourselves as we were before’.

 

The thing about this is that recovering ourselves as were before has absolutely nothing to do mental health – mental health is a journey, a ‘letting go of the past’ (rather than ‘a clinging onto the past’). Mindfulness or meditation has nothing to do with recovering the way that we were either – that’s a crazy idea! That’s simply ‘acting out of attachment’. We will probably say that we aren’t trying to recover ourselves as we were but our mental health as it was before this doesn’t wash either. What makes us think that the way that we were before was ‘mentally healthy’? Isn’t that a bit of an assumption? An Eastern meditation teacher will tell us that ‘the way we were before’ was simply deluded! Another way of putting this is to say that the way we were before was profoundly unconscious – we were in a kind of trance, a trance created by the automatic acceptance of our unexamined assumptions. We were simply ‘operating on autopilot’ in other words. We hadn’t started questioning anything yet at that stage – we were simply ‘going along with things’ because this was (by far) the easiest thing to do. The idea that it was actually possible to question the fundamental basis of our way of life hadn’t occurred to us and – nostalgically – we look back at this period of our lives as if it were a happy time, which it wasn’t. It was simply a comfortable time, which is not the same thing at all.

 

From a societal point of view, we value mindfulness purely and simply because it represents a way of fixing the problems that we have created for ourselves with our unconscious way of life. This is hardly the first time anyone has said this – Anthony De Mello says that we engage in psychotherapy not because we want to wake up but for exactly the opposite reason, because we want the therapist to fix our toys so that we can quickly go back to playing with them again (in the comfort of our playpens). This is exactly what we are trying to do mindfulness. This is absolutely what we want and there can hardly be any doubt about this – we want to carry on with our socially-approved lifestyle and ignoring the problems that this extraordinarily superficial lifestyle is creating. This is essentially what we want from mindfulness – it’s not as if we are being radical revolutionaries who are fed up to the back teeth with this absurd ‘distraction-based’ way of life that we have created for ourselves. We aren’t fed up at all – on the contrary, we just want more and more and more. We can’t get enough of it!

 

The ‘collective of us’ that we are calling ‘Western civilisation’ (even though it is very pretty much over the entire planet stage) is functionally incapable of wanting to question (or let go of) the assumptions that it is based on. Only the individual can find the courage and curiosity within themselves that is necessary to want to question the bedrock of assumptions that their life is based on – the collective, the group, can never do this. This ought to be obvious – a group of people only gets to be ‘a group’ by tacitly agreeing on a particular set of rules for thinking and behaving. If those ‘group rules’ are questioned then the group ceases to be a group and becomes a collection of individuals instead (i.e. it becomes a collection of people who no longer share the same ‘generic world-view’). There is a game which going on here in other words and if we are to continue to play this game then the one thing we must never do is question the rules that lie behind the game. Once we see that society is a game then we will also see that society is never going to question the assumptions that it is based on – just like a corporation, society is geared towards one thing and one thing only and that is perpetuating itself. Society is a virus in other words – it is ‘an entity which replicates itself without being able to question why it does’. The only type of ‘change’ it is interested in is the type of change known as optimisation, i.e. ‘getting better and better at doing what it is already doing’.

 

When we consider the case of a company or organisation that is providing mindfulness training or opportunities for practice for its staff then we can be sure that the agenda is to ‘increase the efficiency of the staff in relation to the functioning of that company or organisation’ – why else would such an entity be interested? It’s certainly not the case that the company or organisation is interested in questioning the basis for its very existence! The one thing we know for sure is that this is just never going to happen. In the same way therefore, society as a whole (by which we mean the way of life that society embodies or takes for granted) values mindfulness for the sake of optimising this particular game, for the sake of smoothing out whatever ‘mental health problems’ may happen to arise in relation to its operation. Our ‘well-being’ or ‘mental health’ is constructed in relation to this way of looking at things therefore (which is to say, if anyone were to grow disillusioned with the remarkably trivial and unsatisfying way of life that we are expected to get on with and enjoy then our attitude towards his disillusionment will invariably be to see it as a manifestation of a grievous lack of well-being or mental health rather than appreciate it for what it is, which is ‘a sign of health‘. Just as Krishnamurti says (in an often repeated quote) ‘it is no measure of health to be well-adapted to a profoundly sick society’, it could also – and equivalently –be said that it is a measure of health to become unwell or distressed or de-motivated in a sick society.

 

The point that we are making here is subtler that it might perhaps at first seem – it’s not that we become ‘consciously disillusioned’ with society or this socialised way of life as a result of our reflections on its shortcomings or because of any insight that we might have in relation to its true nature. We don’t consciously see this; conscious understanding comes at the very end of the process, not at its beginning. It is a conceit of the rational ego that change comes from its decisions or its perceptions; as Jung noted, change only happens when it is forced upon us by psychic or environmental factors and we have no way of escaping it. Wisdom comes to us against our own will, as the poet and dramatist Aeschylus noted over two and a half thousand years ago in ancient Greece –

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

Conscious insight, understanding and change occur at the very end of the process of psychological growth and the process as a whole is involuntary and not in the least bit subject to our conscious direction. The way this process works is via suffering therefore – we suffer because we always resist helpful change (rather than embracing it or working gamely towards it under our own steam) and we also suffer because (for whatever reason) our situation has become untenable for us and this necessitates change. This is the process of what we have termed ‘disillusionment’ – when we are able to get the satisfaction that we need out of life then we will carry on, when our way of living no longer satisfies the needs that we have but do not realize that we have then the pleasures and satisfactions there were no longer hit the spot and we find ourselves facing into a world of dysphoria’. To the extent that our modern way of life is geared almost entirely towards distraction from everything that is real there is inevitably going to come a time when ‘it just doesn’t work for us anymore’ and society is always going put this back on us and say that there is something wrong with us! Society is going to say that we need mindfulness in order that we should feel better, even though ‘feeling better’ would not be an appropriate response on our part to this situation!

 

When we enter into ‘the world of dysphoria’ then what is happening is that we are unable to function as we ordinarily do it all because functioning as we ordinarily do is causing us pain. We do what we always do but somehow it just doesn’t work for us in the way that it always did. We can’t be ourselves in the way that we are normally able to (or when we are able to be ourselves) and so our situation becomes a chronically dysphoric affair, one that hasn’t any comfort in it.

 

It is precisely this ‘untenable’ situation that results in real change and this is what Jung was talking about when he said that we will only change ‘when our back is against the wall’ – if there is any degree of comfort at all to be had in our particular mode of conditioned existence (which is to say, if the ego-state we are identified with is not unremittingly dysphoric) then we will cling to whatever comfort we find and the process of change will be thwarted. What all of this comes down to therefore is that we are almost inevitably going to be using mindfulness as a way of trying to ‘recover’ the non-dysphoric functionality of the old ego state and so what this means is that we are (without knowing it) ‘going against the healing process’, if we may put it like that. In the West of course, we don’t particularly believe in the healing process – not in the psychological sphere of things anyway. What we believe in, when it comes right down to it, is rational interference (otherwise known as ‘therapy’).

 

This brings us to the very crux of our argument. What we are saying is that just as a company or organisation will be interested in the application of mindfulness from the point of view of the benefits that it can obtain from this, and just society is interested in mindfulness as a way of improving the mental health of its members without the radical cure of them becoming ‘de-socialised’ (and turn therefore into active rebels against the system as it is, since no one goes along with society if they can see it for what it is) so too the rational ego sees mindfulness as a way ‘repairing itself’ so that it can so it can then carry on as it is indefinitely, which is the only goal that actually means anything to it. How after all can the ego (or ‘concrete sense of identity’) have any goal other than the goal of self-maintenance or ‘carrying on as it is’? We could object of course that this has always been the case and that there is nothing new about what we have just said. The ego has always sought to subvert everything to its own ends, including meditation (especially included meditation). That is perfectly normal – that is only to be expected! There is a difference however which is far more significant than we seem to realise – the difference is that in the cultures where meditation originally developed there was an implicit understanding that the development and maintenance of what Alan Watts calls ‘the skin-encapsulated ego’ is not the ‘be all and end all’ of our life here on earth!

 

There can hardly be any argument over the suggestion that this is exactly the position we in the West to take; we pay lip-service (naturally enough) to the virtues of honesty, goodwill, kind-heartedness, compassion, sensitivity to others, etc, but these are all qualities that the ego identity can simply never have! This is something that needs to be understood very, very clearly but which isn’t – the thought-created ego identity is flatly incapable of caring about anything other than itself. It can mimic altruism, (it can sometimes mimic altruism very well indeed) but that is all it is – mimicry. The ego is a great mimic; that’s all it ever does really – it ‘mimics’ (or ‘pretends’). There is a lot of talk going on at the moment about narcissists and sociopaths and ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ but when it comes down to it we’re simply talking about ‘the common-or-garden self’, stripped of all its pretentions, stripped of all its camouflage. The mind-created concrete identity is always ‘the culprit’, so to speak…

 

This is not to say that the civilization in India where meditation originated and developed was full of people leading a deeply spiritual way of life, or that the general culture itself was not orientated towards using ‘chasing illusions’ the same as we do in the West. The point is however that there existed a tradition going back many thousands of years (testified to by the Upanishads and the Vedas) which meant that this way of looking at the world (the non-identity orientated way) always existed even if – as we might expect, the main current of life remained directed outwards, towards the ‘sense objects’, towards the world of the known and knowable phenomena, towards the world of ‘definite things’. But for those whose inclination was to take an interest in the other direction (rather than the commonplace direction of maya which – the Indian teachings tell us – continually distract us from seeing who we really are) the culture existed to support them in this. That which cannot be apprehended by the mind, but by which, they say, the mind is apprehended, that alone know as Brahman and not that which people here worship’  says the Kena Upanishad.

 

No comparable contemporary Western wisdom-tradition exists – Christianity (for the most part) does not support us in the ‘nondual’ way that the Vedas and Upanishads do, but rather it binds us even more to the dualistic belief in the little self which is to be saved and which will (hopefully) dwell forever in Heaven. There is nowhere to turn for those whose inclination is not to continuously absorb or immerse themselves in the generic or fabricated reality that everyone else believes in. Meditation isn’t seen as a way of supporting the process whereby we painfully dis-identify from the rational ego, but rather it is pressed into service as a way of repairing that conceptual self and returning it to the fray. We simply can’t help doing this – it is inherent in our way of understanding ‘mental health’. We see mental health in terms of the ‘well-being’ of the societally-constructed ego, as we have already said. If we saw mental health in a negative way instead (‘negative’ meaning no goals, no agendas) then we would not get caught up in ‘the struggle to save the ego’ in this way but rather by practicing mindfulness we learn to support the process itself, the terribly painful process in which the beleaguered ego-identity ‘loses ground’ and gradually becomes untenable as ‘a meaningful basis for living life’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Self Can Never Be Improved

Two ideas that we are very much unacquainted with in the field of mental health are [1] the idea that we cannot change our mental state on purpose and [2]  the idea that our concept of ourselves, the ‘ego’, cannot ever be ‘improved’ or ‘redeemed’ in any meaningful way. These two ideas are clearly very closely linked and both of them are equally unacceptable to us!

 

If we take the second idea first, we can fairly easily see that the idea of ourselves can never be improved or redeemed – the idea that we have of ourselves will always be just that, an idea – it can never be ‘worked upon’ in such a way so as to make it be not an idea. We like the idea of ‘turning ideas into reality’ it is true but this is one idea that will never become reality. Actually – of course – if we are to be strict about it – we would have to say that no idea can ever truly be made into reality. Ideas are ideas and reality is reality; ideas are ideas by virtue of the fact that they are ‘made-up things’ (or ‘constructs’), whilst reality is reality precisely because it hasn’t been made-up, precisely because it isn’t a construct. No matter how much we improve a construct it’s never going to become ‘not a construct’.

 

There is no big problem in understanding this point – where the big problem comes in however is in us understanding that what I call ‘myself’ actually is an idea, is a construct. We have an awful lot riding on the idea of ourselves not being merely ‘an idea’ – 99% of everything we do (as Wei Wu Wei says) is done for the sake of this construct and so to reveal ‘the idea of ourselves’ as being just that we demolish everything we have either attained or think we might be able to attain in one stroke. The perception that this particular idea isn’t an idea is the hook that we hang our whole lives on. That’s the linchpin for the whole shebang, so naturally we aren’t going to take kindly to having it knocked. We would have nothing to hang our narrative on then! It would be like having a fine collection of expensive shirts or a magnificent collection of stylish and fashionable outfits, but no wardrobe in which to hang them. More to the point, it would be like having the most wonderful hat in the world but no head to wear it on. It is easy enough to put forward the argument as to why our sense of ourselves is no more than an idea, no more than a concept, if only it were possible to find someone to listen to it. Everything we relate to via the thinking mind and take on this account to be real is a construct or idea. That’s how the thinking mind works, after all – it has all these ideas about the world and it automatically projects them out onto the world, and we then happily relate to these projections as if they were not our own ideas, as if they were not our own concepts. That’s basic psychology – albeit a basic psychology that we are never taught in any psychology courses! There is a very easy test we can carry out to see if the ‘reality’ we are perceiving is bone fide or if it is merely a formulation of reality that is being mechanically presented to us by the conceptual mind and that is to notice whether what we are perceiving is engendering a state of wonder in us – if it isn’t then we know that it is a routine construct of thought that we are encountering and not reality itself, which always gives rise to wonder. The routine constructs of thought can engender other types of emotional reaction in us, it is true, but never wonder.

 

We live – for the most part – in a world that is made up of our own projections and that is a very dismal thing to consider. The key thing about our own projections is that they unfailingly remind us of ourselves; they unfailingly remind us of ourselves in either a euphoria-producing way or a dysphoria-producing way. In what may on the face of it sound like rather simplistic terms, we could say that our projections are always either ‘slanted towards the positive’ or ‘slanted towards the negative’ – either we are given the impression that our situation is improving and feel optimistic as a result or we are going to be deflated and demoralised by the perception that things are dis-improving, by the perception that things are going in a bad direction. Although this might sound like a rather over-simplistic way of understanding what’s going on this ‘positive versus negative polarity’ is inherent in the very idea of ‘projection’ – since all my projections are centred upon me, and since all I care about (as an ego) is whether things are going to pan out in a way that is [1] to my advantage or [2] not to my advantage then very clearly there are only two types of meaning that my projections are ever going to hold for me. Either I’m going to be attracted to them because they spell good news or I’m going to be repelled because they spell bad news; either I’m going to be full of desire, or I’m going to be full of fear.

 

It is actually impossible for the Mind-Created Self to live outside the ‘closed world’ that is made up of its unrecognised projections – the process by which the MCS relates to its projections as if they weren’t its projections is the process by which the MCS gets to exist as a going concern! That’s the whole mechanism right there in a nutshell. So if we think it’s rather strange that the everyday self or ego should be relating to its projections in place of reality, and doubt that this actually happens as much as we are saying it does, it will come as a far greater surprise (or rather shock) to consider the suggestion that it cannot do otherwise, no matter how hard it might stretch or strain itself. In another way it surely shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that the idea which we have of ourselves can’t actually ‘make out’ in the real world, but only in our ‘idea of the world’. Naturally the self which is a construct of the system of thought can only exist in a world that is also a construct; this is like saying that ‘who we are in the game that we are playing’ can only exist within the artificial terms of the construct that is ‘the game’. The character in the game cannot escape from the game, no matter how much it might like to believe that it can! As Greg Tucker says, the dreamer cannot leave the dream that the mind is dreaming and lead a life that is outside of the dream, independent of the dream, no matter how much effort it puts into proving that it can.

 

As Greg Tucker argues, everything we do in life is secretly for the sake of proving to ourselves that the dream isn’t a dream’, and that we do have a life that is exists outside of this narrow artificial context, and – on an unconscious level – we might say that this unconscious agenda equates to the urge that we all experience to ‘progress’ in life, to ‘improve’ ourselves or our situation. The everyday self or ego (the default setting for how we understand ourselves) is invariably perceived – once we start reflecting on the matter, which is of course something that we don’t always do  – and so are perennial urge is the urge to redeem the lowly (or inferior) situation of the self, and make it ‘worthy’ in some way. This struggle might be seen in terms of general moral improvement, or it might be seen in religious traditional religious terms as being ‘saved’ by Christ rather than remaining a poor sinner headed for damnation. In a more materialistic frame of reference we will understand the redemption of the everyday self in terms of gaining prestige and status in society, of becoming a ‘somebody’ rather than a ‘nobody’. And if we happen to be ‘spiritual materialists’, to use Chogyam Trungpa’s phrase, then we are going to try to ‘redeem the ego’ by teaching it how to be mindful, by training it to be compassionate and accepting and non-judgemental and so on. It’s all the same thing however, it’s the very same thing dressed up in different guises because what we’re trying to do is something that simply can’t be done. We are trying to improve the mind-created self or ego but there’s no ‘improving’ to be done here. ‘It is what it is’, as people often say.

 

The rational self or ego can’t be trained to be non-judgemental, accepting and compassionate – it would be easier to train a herring to bark, or train a caterpillar to pull a cart. The rational self or ego is a mechanism and as such it can only ‘obey rules’ and there is no sincerity in this. It can only do what it sees as being right (or, on occasion, rebel by doing the exact opposite of obeying and react against the rule, which is also a rule, which is also obeying). The rational self or ego is always the same – it can disguise itself in various ways (it can even disguise itself as a saint or enlightened teacher) but the underlying motivation or agenda never changes, not even by a bit. The ego is always the ego. The other way that we have of trying to ‘redeem the self’ is by this thing that we call therapy, and this brings us to the other impossibility that we have mentioned, which is ‘the impossibility of changing our mental state on purpose’. This – needless to say – is something that we have immense resistance to seeing. Just about everyone you talk to is going to tell you that they can change their mental state at will – most of what we do is done for the sake of changing our mental state, after all (although we don’t usually see things like this). I feel unhappy or dissatisfied in myself and so I do something in order that I might feel better! These are all examples of a change in mental state – or that is at least how we take it. If I’m feeling a bit down I can eat a slice of cake, if I’m anxious I can seek reassurance, or – if I am more psychologically minded, I can do some progressive muscular relaxation or perhaps take a few mindful breaths. If I’m feeling bitter or resentful or hard done by, then I can spend a few moments looking at inspirational memes on my phone, or I can start keeping a gratitude diary, and so on.

 

It might sound as if we’re being rather facetious here but the point is that mental health is – for us in the Western nations – all about using recipes or methods – if you feel like this then do X, and if you feel like that then do Y… It’s all about technical procedures and the implication is very much that we can change our mental state on purpose, which is laughable nonsense. What we don’t (or can’t) see is that feeling satisfied/unsatisfied, validated/devalidated, pleased/annoyed, hungry/satiated, etc are the two sides of the same coin. Feeling euphoric and feeling dysphoric (for whatever reason) are the very same bipolar mental state, which is the bipolar mental state associated with the Mind-Created Self, as we have already said. We believe ourselves to have a wide range of emotional states that we can experience during the course of our day-to-day lives but our emotional palette isn’t as diverse as we might think. All of our basic everyday emotions are states of mind that are based upon the ego’s perception of how well it is doing versus how badly it is doing, i.e. whether it is ‘winning’ or ‘losing’. All of our common emotional states are related to the question of whether the game we’re playing is going well for us or not and the problem with this is that we never acknowledge ourselves as playing a game. The ‘lower emotional register’ corresponds to what Tibetan Buddhism calls ‘the six poisons’ (or ‘the six worlds’) and what Christianity referrs to as ‘the seven deadly sins’. Essentially, these are games that are played by the self without it realizing that it is playing games (and this relates to what we were saying earlier when we said that the self creates itself by playing a game without acknowledging that it is). All of our common emotional states are ‘self-ish’ states, in other words; they are self-ish inasmuch as they only make sense in relation to the Mind-Created Self. Anger relates to insults that the ego receives, envy and jealousy relate to the question of whether someone else has got what the ego thinks it should have, desire relates to the self’s need to accumulate wealth or commodities (or the need to enjoy the pleasure associated with ‘obtaining good things’), pride relates to the polarity of validation versus devalidation (i.e. the age-old question of ‘Am I great or am I rubbish?’) and so on. I might argue that feeling in good form (rather than in bad form) isn’t a lower emotional state but it is because all that it means is that the MCS is doing well in its games; it’s won the lottery – so to speak – and that accounts for its good humour – if things went the other way and it ‘lost out’ (or didn’t get its own way) then that good humour would turn into bad humour in a flash, showing that both ‘emotions’ are really just the same thing…

 

All the ‘lower emotions’ are nothing other than the reflection of the self – the self is bipolar and so are all of the afflictive emotions (as Sogyal Rinpoche puts it). The lower emotions equal the Mind-Created Self and the Mind-Created Self equal the lower emotions. So at this point we can see how it is that neither the state of mind that we happen to be in at the time, or the state of identification that we’re in with the mechanism of the self (which is all of the time), can ever be changed ‘on purpose’. We imagine that we can meaningfully change our state of mind (from a painful one to a pleasurable one) and this is what drives us in all of our ego-games – this is the ‘freedom’ that we think we have in everyday life. We imagine (and this ‘act of imagination’ might be better referred to as ‘an absolute unquestionable conviction’) that we can win rather than lose (if we play our cards right, that is) and this belief is pure jet-fuel for us – it keeps us on the go all day long! This type of motivation can only come about when we DON’T see that winning and losing are the same thing therefore (or when we don’t see that both winning and losing equal ‘the self’ and that the self can never be changed or improved or redeemed). ‘Winning’ is my own projection and so is ‘losing’ but if I see this then there will be no more vindication in the former and no more demoralizing ‘loss-of-face’ in the latter and that would mean that the game cannot continue.

 

If I want to enjoy the euphoria of winning then I can’t let myself see that winning is ‘my own projection’, obviously enough. That’s a game-spoiler. More than this though, if I want to carry on being the concrete self then I mustn’t let myself see that my projections are ‘my projections’ because (as we said earlier) not seeing this is the very mechanism by which the everyday self gets to exist. It’s only when I believe in ‘winning’ as an actual real thing that the one who is either going to win or lose (the MCS) can continue to have its (virtual) existence. This being so, it is no surprise at all that we have such immense, implacable resistance to seeing that [1] We can never change our mental state of purpose and [2] the rational self or ‘ego’ can never be redeemed or improved.