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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letting The Light In…

Human nature being what it is, we are much quicker to give advice then we are to understand what it is that we are giving advice about, and nowhere is this more true than in the world of mental health! The undoubted reason for this is that we are deeply challenged by the whole business of ‘mental ill-health’ and we just want to ‘shut it down’ as quickly as possible by firing off a barrage of ‘fix-it’ – type advice. We just want to get back to ‘business as usual’. Healthcare professionals are very often as bad as anyone else in this regard. We are – by and large – extraordinarily loathe to see that mental health isn’t the result of us applying our clever ‘fix-it’ – type technology. We are extraordinarily loathe to see that mental health isn’t something that we ‘do’.

 

Mental health is – rather – something that happens to us despite all our frenetic doing. It’s not a ‘positive choice’ that we make, even though we are always told that it is. The key thing to understand here therefore is that almost all of our ‘doing’ – whether we like to admit it or not – is geared at validating our illusions (and also geared towards furthering the state of ignorance that is necessary for us to go on believing in these illusions). That’s where our interest really lies, not that anyone is ever going to admit it to themselves. For us, ‘mental health’ means precisely this – it means ‘that mode of existence within which we can continually get to validate our illusions and endlessly perpetuate the cloud of darkness within which these illusions appear to make sense’. Without us ever actually seeing things like this (obviously enough!), we (unconsciously) take our continued well-being as being synonymous with the furtherance of our ignorance, and so if it were ever to be the case that we switched our outlook by one hundred and eighty degrees and became interested in our actual well-being instead (instead of the travesty that we are all busy promoting) then we would find ourselves in direct opposition to the prevailing climate, which is not in the least bit favourable to what we might call ‘genuine mental health’ (which is most emphatically not merely a matter of ‘returning to business as usual’).

 

Why should the prevailing climate (or general consensus) be so unfavourable towards genuine mental health? Why should our ‘true well-being’ be something that we are so pointedly uninterested in? There appears to be no sense to this – it makes absolutely no sense at all that we should be opposed to our own well-being! To put this another way, why should we condemn ourselves to a whole lot of unnecessary suffering, which we undoubtedly do condemn ourselves to? Why do we take on pain that we don’t need to take on? The answer isn’t particularly hard to come up with – the point is that we want everything on our own terms and not just that we want everything on our own terms but that we absolutely insist on having everything on our own terms, and this insistence is what is causing all our suffering. A simple way of explaining what these conditions are is to say that we want the world to fit in with our preconceptions of it. Of course this is true; of course it is true that we always want the world to fit in with our preconceptions of it. Who could argue with this? We like everything in the world to fit in with our plans, and are either thrown or annoyed when this doesn’t happen, but even more than this we want the world to fit in with our ideas for it, no matter how cock-eyed those ideas might be.

 

The fact that we are constantly fitting our perceptions of the world into the template of what we unconsciously believe it to be is not something we pay much attention to, naturally enough. If we were to be aware of this then it would spoil everything. The only way it can work for us (the only way we can obtain the concrete ‘sense of self’ that we want to obtain) is if we remain oblivious to any such process of manipulation occurring – if we were to know that we are constantly having to shore-up the comforting illusion then the comforting illusion would no longer have so much comfort in it! There’s a whole load of work going on in the background to keep the illusion (the illusion that reality is fitting in effortlessly with our expectations for it) and that work can never stop. This is the key point therefore – that our everyday perception of ourselves and the world – as natural as it may seem – is actually the result of some sort of manipulation, some sort of ‘jiggery-pokery’ that’s going on off-stage, some sort of ‘covert doing’ on our part. It’s a show that has to be put on. Were we to know about this then that would be a truly hideous awareness to have, but we don’t know about it and we are of course very keen to carry on ‘not knowing about it’.

 

When we insist on ‘having everything on our own terms’ (without knowing that we are) then this – needless to say – produces a state of being that is inescapably brittle, inescapably rigid, inescapably insecure. Not only this but it produces a state of being that is very, very small – as small as small can be! If the world has to present itself to me in terms that I can understand, within a format that I myself have invented, then it must necessarily only be as big as my understanding, only as big as my expectations. Whatever it is that I imagine life to be, then that’s what it will appear to be. ‘What the thinker thinks the prover proves’, as Robert Anton Wilson says. It’s not what I personally ‘imagine life to be’ of course but the set of constricted beliefs and assumptions that have been passed on to be to me by my culture, by the people that constitute my social milieu. I have been given a very narrow way of seeing things and I have also been given to understand that it is most sacred duty to uphold this narrow prejudicial viewpoint until the day I die. That’s my ‘duty’. Whenever I can pass the burden of this ‘restricted viewpoint’ on to someone else I will do, and I will consider myself to be doing them a favour.

 

When we give someone the gift of a very narrow way of seeing reality (or when we give ourselves that dubious gift) then we are giving them (or ourselves) the gift of never being able to relax and be at ease. How can we possibly relax when we have to keep the door closed to the ‘wider view’, which is the view that we ourselves do not have to arrange, the view that we ourselves do not have to be controlling all the time. This is the reason why religious fundamentalists are prohibited from practising meditation – because it involves letting go of our small view of the world. Within the terms of the religion in question ‘letting go of our small view’ is considered to be the very same thing as leaving the door open to Satan and his wiles; this is how we interpret what happens when we stop insisting on life matching our ridiculously small idea of it! And it is of course not even the case that our small picture of the world is at least partially true – it isn’t. Reality is either seen ‘for what it is’, or it is not seen at all. Any manipulation or control or distortion and is not reality that we are perceiving but only the reflection of our own limiting mind.

 

What’s true for the concrete-thinking religious fundamentalist is also true for us – only on a less obvious way. We pride ourselves on being ‘open-minded’ after all, which is a good joke. The gift that our culture gives us is the gift of being restricted without knowing it, narrow without knowing it, uptight without knowing that we’re uptight. This unnecessary burden makes itself known to us as neurotic pain, which we all suffer from to some extent or another. Whenever we believe that our mental health is ‘our own responsibility’ and that it is ‘up to us’ to ‘do something about it’ then this is only tying us up in tighter knots than ever. That’s a jinx. Anything we do deliberately, on purpose, as part of some plan that we have, is going to tie us up even in ever-tighter knots and mental health – as we started out by saying – is not something that we can do. Mental health is not one of our ‘doings’, it is not ‘the output of our rational purposeful mind’. It can’t be the result of anything we ‘tell people to do’!

 

This is a rather amazing thing to reflect on when we consider just how quick both professional mental healthcare workers and lay-people alike are in offering us advice when we are suffering from anxiety or anorexia or OCD or low self-esteem or depression, or whatever it is. We are – to a very considerable extent – pushed into the role where we become ‘the takers of well-meant advice’. Doctors, therapists, nurses, family members, friends – everyone we meet has got advice for us! And if this were not bad enough, we voluntarily go and buy a whole load of self-help books and allow the authors of these books adviser us too. It’s all advice – it’s a wall of advice – and all of it is unhelpful, all of it only ‘makes things worse’. It might sound very extreme to say this but just so long as the advice we are being given is about something we have to ‘purposefully do’ then how can it help us? Purposeful doing is how we ‘perpetuate our ignorance’, it is how we ‘perpetuate our narrow, pain-producing viewpoint’ – that’s all that purposeful doing ever does. We are projecting our conditioned mode of existence indefinitely into the future.

 

The glitch is that we have confused mental health with ‘going back to how we were before’. We use the word ‘recovery’ an awful lot, which actually devalidates the suffering that we are going through. Our suffering isn’t something that just needs to be ‘corrected’ so that we can go back to how we were before, when we were ‘well’ (!) – it is the precious means by which we get to discover how we were putting all our energy into defending this ‘illusion that we have of ourselves’ when this is actually ‘effort that is against ourselves’. We want to validate our illusions because – for most of us – this is what life has some how come to be all about. For most of us life is ‘all about validating our illusions of what we think life is all about’! This is thankless work however because it is work that is only ever going to ‘rebound’ on us in the form of amplified neurotic pain. ‘Fixing up the broken illusion’ isn’t the way to become well; repairing our leaky comfort zones isn’t the way to ‘recover our mental health’. The way to become well is to allow the illusion to remain broken! We don’t try to ‘cement over the cracks wherever they appear’ because if we do this then the light won’t be able to shine in. True mental health means having the courage to allow the cracks to appear, and even when we see that we are compulsively trying to repair them, realizing (in a peaceful fashion) that this isn’t the way to freedom, but only the way to ‘ongoing slavery to the thinking mind’…

 

 

 

 

A Break In Harmony Is A Manifestation Of Harmony

If we have to live our lives, then what we are living is not life. It’s something else, it’s a construct of thought. This is a principle that Alan Watts often comes back to his talks – ‘it doesn’t work if you have to do it’. ‘If you must play, then you can’t play’ says James Carse. A rule or compulsion can’t be substituted for life, no matter how good our intentions might be. We are trying to replace one thing with another, completely different thing – another, completely different thing that it just can’t be replaced with! If there is one ‘mistake’ that we keep making in life, over and over again, then this is surely it.

 

This is an odd type of mistake that we are talking about here however – there’s something peculiar about it in that it’s a mistake which we never spot and which – therefore – we carry on making all the time. It has become normal; this is a ‘mistake’ that has now become the whole world for us. It is therefore ‘a mistake that we can’t ever escape from’. As Carl Sagan says,

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.

Alan Watts says something to the effect that we are banjaxed by society because of the way society makes the things we were going to do anyway compulsory, with the inevitable consequence that we now can’t do them! Orthodox religions always do this – they make ‘being good’ compulsory and this double-binds us so that we now can’t be good. When we push ourselves to be good then straightaway it’s false, straightaway it’s an act. Instead of being genuinely good we’re play-acting therefore, and – as if this were not bad enough – the fact that we are ‘pushing ourselves to be something that we are not’ automatically sets up resistance in us, and so we create the tendency to do evil. Not only have we cheated ourselves out of the possibility of being genuinely good-hearted therefore, we have brought a shadow into the world and the nature of this shadow is that the more resolutely we strive to be good the darker and more powerful it gets!

 

Orthodox monotheistic religion always presents morality (or obedience to God) as a necessity, as a rule, as a compulsion. The Deity is as portrayed as an autocrat, as a tyrant – albeit one with our own best interests at heart! But if God did insist, in all seriousness, that we follow the Divine Plan that he has laid down for us (for own good) then he would be neatly double binding us since it has now become impossible for us ever to be ‘good’. It is now becoming possible for us to be good and yet we are not allowed to be the way that we are either. If this isn’t a neat example of a double bind then what is? God – being God – would know this perfectly well of course and so – given the fact that we have been now set up to fail (and also given the fact that not obeying God is a sin against Him) – we would have to question what exactly He is up to. Is the autocratic Father God a malign being, as the Gnostics and Cathars have asserted?

 

The thing is of course that all this talk of what God requires of us and doesn’t require of us comes out of the mouths of men, who undoubtedly have their own agenda in taking this line. God is not stupid – as men are – and so he would not (of course) set us up in this way – he would not demand that we obey His law on pain of Eternal Damnation because that would straightaway ruin the point of everything. It would take the good out of everything – it would be like a relationship where one person demands of the other that they love him or her and always stay true. That would end love immediately – that would be the end of the relationship right there! Human beings do this all the time of course (they automatically take away each other’s freedom because they ‘love’ each other) but would God make this mistake?

 

It is always been our way both in the West and the Middle East to personify the Deity as a ruler or autocrat. In everyday life  we have imposing authority figures telling us what to do and so it undoubtedly makes (some sort of) sense to think of the Deity in the same way, as some kind of ‘amplified version’ of the monarch or Emperor. In the East, the Divine Principle tends to be seen very differently of course – if we take the example of Daoism we can see this most plainly. The Dao does not lord it over the creatures it supports, the Dai De Jing explicitly states. In this way of looking at things there is no brutal dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘obedience’ and ‘disobedience’. There is no such thing as sin, that most celebrated of Christian concepts. Instead there is ‘harmony’ on the one hand and the appearance (but not the fact) of ‘broken harmony’ on the other. We can’t achieve accord with Universal Harmony on purpose because – as the Daoist teachings tell us – ‘to try to accord with the Dao is to deviate from it’. It can’t be a ‘sin’ to be out of harmony with the universe therefore because there is nothing we can do to correct the situation! Anything we do to try to correct the situation simply messes things up all the more.

 

We can clearly see that Daoism doesn’t throw vicious double binds at us in the way that Christian morality does,  and yet neither is it ‘amoral’. It provides us with a subtle way of relating both to ourselves and the world – we can see for example that breaking harmony (a rather discovering that we have broken harmony) is not a regrettable thing. Discovering that we have broken harmony with the universe is painful it is true but that doesn’t mean that this break with harmony isn’t a part of the harmony! By discovering that we are out of kilter with reality (and are thus disconnected and alienated from it) we discover that there is an underlying harmony. We don’t miss it until it’s gone! The discovery that we have broken harmony is the awareness of that harmony; the discovery of our disconnection paradoxically is our connection. In the Western-Rational Paradigm chronic mental distress or discomfort (what used to be called ‘mental illness’) is seen quite reasonably as a departure from mental health, and that is of course bad news. Mental ill-health is ‘regrettable’ therefore – it is unfortunate, it is something to feel unhappy about. According to the Western-Rationalist Paradigm the thing to do when we discover that we have departed from the state of good mental health is to deliberately or purposefully correct this situation. For us, that’s what ‘therapy’ means – it means deliberately returning ourselves (by whatever means) to a state of good mental health.

 

This is the classic rational approach – departing from the state of mental well-being is ‘bad’ (or ‘wrong) and so it needs to be corrected. Straightaway therefore, we find ourselves deep in the realm of double binds – everything we do to try to help ourselves simply accentuates our suffering. By taking this crude rational approach we ‘disconnect ourselves our own disconnectedness’; we are most emphatically rejecting our disconnection as ‘an error’ and so of course we are trying to separate ourselves from it; that’s the whole point after all – we want very much to disconnect ourselves from the pain and confusion of our disconnection. This of course seems to be the right thing to do, but that is only because our approach to the situation so very unsubtle – we are actually creating more suffering for ourselves this way because not only do we still have we the original disconnection eating away at us, we now also have the ‘disconnection from the disconnection’ to contend with! Not only do we have the original ‘break in harmony’ we now also have ‘a break in harmony with our break in harmony’ and seeing as how it was the original ‘disharmonious situation’ that was itself the key to recovering harmony we aren’t exactly making matters easier for ourselves!

 

The cure for the pain is in the pain‘ Rumi says, and he might just as well have said ‘The cure for the disharmony lies in that same disharmony’. If we consciously ‘live’ our harmonious situation, with all the pain this involves, then that is how we reconnect with the greater harmony of life. It’s no good looking elsewhere for the answer; it’s no good fighting against the pain that we’re in, and trying to prevent or ameliorate it – by denying the break in harmony we are at the same time denying the underlying harmonious of our situation since  – as we keep saying – the awareness of our disharmony is the harmony. We have been provoked into ‘taking matters into our own hands and this is what the alchemists of old (who were a subtler folk than us) called the via erratum, the ‘way of error’. It’s ‘the way of error’ because no matter which way we twist or turn we are only going to deviate from the harmony of our own being all the more. The (apparent) departure from the underlying harmony of our own being brings suffering, and that suffering is telling us – in very clear terms – all about this departure. Our cultural tendency is to try our best to get rid of this suffering (in whatever way we can) and yet at the same time completely ignore the way in which we have – as a culture – disconnected ourselves from the harmony of our own true nature.

 

The root of this disconnection lies in the way in which we have grossly overvalued the ‘rational purposeful self’ at the expense of all other aspects of our being. We are living life ‘via the thinking mind’ and the thing about this is that the thinking mind is an autocrat – it is in fact the blueprint for all other autocrats, all other tyrants. All the thinking mind can do is ‘judge’ or ‘evaluate’ and then ‘control on the basis of the judgements or evaluations it has made’. It’s a machine – it operates on the basis of its established categories, its established rules. The thinking mind is its categories, is its rules. This is been known for a long time – the alchemists used the motif of the Old King in order to draw attention to the way in which the ruling principle of our lives tends to become malign over time, and work against the good of the whole. The young king is both strong and just – his job is to protect the land over which he has dominion against all enemies. He exists to serve and his power is used therefore in the service of the kingdom over which he rules. The old king however has become rigid, obsessive and controlling in his attitude – he controls for the sake of controlling (just like any human dictator who has grown to love power for its own sake and as a result is stubbornly unwilling to relinquish power no matter what the price of his unwise clinging might be). Joseph Campbell calls this figure ‘the Tyrant Holdfast’ who – Campbell says – is ‘the keeper of the past’; the Tyrant Holdfast keeps merely for the sake of keeping, holds on merely for the sake of holding on, and never for any better reason. In a similar vein, Carlos Castaneda speaks of difference between ‘the guardian and the guard’:

A guardian is broad-minded and understanding. A guard, on the other hand, is a vigilante, narrow-minded and most of the time despotic.

What the ‘tyrant mind’ does when it gets to rule the roost, when it gets to call all the shots, is that it maps everything out in its own particular way and ‘makes rules for anything’. It ‘makes everything part of its own system’ – it subsumes everything within its own domain. It establishes a bureaucracy, it sets up innumerable policies and procedures’. In short, what it does is that it ‘tells us what to do even though we were already going to do it’! This is the curse of the rational-purposeful mind and it only takes a little bit of imagination to see just what a terrible curse this is! The finest, most wonderful things in life become meaningless (if not poisoned) when we do them on purpose, when we do them because we think we ‘have to’. There never was a better way to spoil things than to bring the thinking mind into it – it makes everything we do insincere. It automatically takes over everything itself, but it just isn’t able to do the job. It turns life itself into an onerous duty or task, into ‘something we have to do’. It perversely turns life into something that we are compelled to do, even though life itself is nothing but freedom…

 

 

 

 

 

Art: fullmetal alchemist brotherhood wallpaper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Naïve Approach To Psychological Therapy

The naïve approach to psychological therapy is to imagine that the therapeutic process is something that we both instigate and orchestrate ourselves – we believe the process to be – to a large extent at least – under our control. This belief has the consequence that if the therapy is unsuccessful then this must be due (to some part at least) to the person undergoing the therapy not trying hard enough, or not trying consistently enough. We might – as therapists – not like to acknowledge the inherent judgement here, but to the extent that we believe the therapeutic process to be purposeful, we must also – on some level – be allocating blame. We are – after all – taking the view that the person engaging in the therapy is responsible for the process themselves. That’s pretty much the whole point of the therapy – we are providing the tools by which change can be effected. We provide the tools (that’s our job) and then we want the person to ‘take responsibility for themselves’ (as it is said) and put these tools into action. We have taken care of our side of the deal after all, so now it’s up to them.…

 

This is where the confusion creeps in – we do indeed have responsibility for ourselves, but not in the way that is being implied here. Our responsibility (using the word carefully here, which is to say, not in any crude moralistic sense) is to be honest with ourselves (i.e. ‘not to lie to ourselves’. And if we do lie to ourselves – which is of course perfectly normal – then we take ownership of this as much as our awareness allows us to. We might well be lying to ourselves it’s true, but that doesn’t mean that we have two validate our lies to the hilt! We don’t necessarily have to invest in propping the lies up. The basic point that we’re making here is that we can’t have the responsibility to change ourselves; we can’t have the responsibility to change ourselves simply because that is not possible. How can we be ‘responsible’ for something that isn’t in any way possible for us to do? That isn’t a ‘responsibility’, that’s a ‘double-bind’! One of the easiest things in the world is for a therapist to double bind his or her client and the chances are very much that no one will ever notice this happening, either the therapist or the one having the therapy. The fact that both parties involved are utterly unaware of the double bind doesn’t make it OK however – obviously that doesn’t make it OK!

 

One of the biggest delusions going is the delusion that – if we try hard enough – we can change the way we are. This is why we are forever condemning our fellow men and women – because we firmly believe that they could change their behaviour if only they wanted to. If they don’t change their behaviour (the behaviour that is annoying us) then it is probably because they don’t want to, or can’t be bothered to. It is remarkably foolish however to think that people could change (as in ‘improve’) themselves if only they wanted to, if only they tried hard enough. We would only have to reflect on the matter for a few moments to see the flaw in this reasoning. Do we really imagine life to be as simple as this? We all have a tendency to act in such a way as to cause both ourselves and others unnecessary suffering – that is the human condition, as we can see merely by taking a look around us – and so is it really just a matter of us ‘copping on’ and giving ourselves (or perhaps someone else) a damn good kick in the pants in order for all of this to change? If this were the case wouldn’t we all have done this centuries ago – millennia ago, even? How do we persist in thinking that an ‘exertion of will’ is all it takes? How do we persist in not seeing how foolish it is to persist in this utterly ridiculous belief?

 

This whole business of ‘purposeful morality’ provide us with a good illustration of the utter futility of trying to change ourselves on purpose. We can keep ourselves in check (for the most part, at least), but only at the price of being constantly at war with ourselves. It’s as if ‘virtue’ means being totally repressive of ourselves, totally controlling of ourselves – the more we keep ourselves down the better a person we are, according to this view. This approach certainly hasn’t worked out for us in terms of public morality – people haven’t improved as far as their moral calibre is concerned as a result of being subjected to two thousand years worth of Christian ethics; if anything we are – in the developed nations of the West – more self-obsessed than we have ever been at any point in human history. It could be argued (and has been argued) that our present unfortunate narcissistic condition is a result of the decline of religion in modern times but this argument doesn’t hold much water. In Ireland (just to give one example) when the Catholic Church had near absolute power in the land and even the government and police deferred to them, great evil thrived under these conditions. History shows that religious folk are often capable of greater cruelty then their not-so-religious compatriots because they feel so justified in their attitude and actions. Overall, it is abundantly clear that ‘trying to be better people on purpose’ not only doesn’t work, but that it is actually counter-productive in terms of the stated goal. Trying to force ourselves to be good (which necessarily means repressing the part of us that isn’t up to scratch) empowers the shadow like nothing else. The shadow loves repression.

 

We can apply the same lesson to therapy – how do we ever imagine that people can – no matter how motivated they might be – change themselves to be a better way on purpose? What a lack of insight this shows! Do the therapists who espouse this approach have experience of changing themselves in this way? We can all change ourselves on the short term of course (always assuming that the incentive is great enough) – a leopard can indeed change its spots, if there is enough money in it! Similarly, if our aim is simply to change our behaviours or attitudes in order to escape or ameliorate the pain we are in without looking any deeper into ourselves we can – by dint of our efforts – effect a type of temporary change, a type of ‘elastic’ change, but nothing about us will have genuinely changed. Superficially perhaps, we can change ourselves – fundamentally, we cannot. We can put on lots of different masks, and convince ourselves that we are the person that the mask shows, but the one thing we can’t do is change the one who was wearing the mask!

 

The problem is that we are a superficial, image-obsessed culture and as such it doesn’t really make much sense to expect of ourselves that we should look more deeply into things when it comes to matters of mental health (or when it comes to any other matters either, come to that). We don’t breed philosophers, we breed businessmen and salesmen. We are very good indeed at selling stuff but not so good at checking to see if what we are selling so cleverly is actually worth a damn! There is absolutely only one thing that can help us when it comes to the restoration of our mental health however and that is not being superficial! What this means for a start is not trying to do ‘therapy’ out of a book or manual but – rather – drawing upon our own personal experience and understanding. ‘Doing it by the book’ is great for some things, but not for therapy. Therapy (if we are to agree that there is such a thing) comes out of a person, not a book or manual or some accepted protocol’. Life simply doesn’t work like this – it demands more of us than mere ‘off the shelf’ generic answers.

 

If we say that therapy is some kind of ‘order’ or ‘logical understanding’ that is imposed on us from the outside, by someone who – in their official capacity – ‘knows better than we do’, then this means that there is no therapy. This isn’t therapy at all, it’s merely brainwashing and brainwashing never improved the mental health of those being brainwashed – although it is undeniably good at changing their behaviour and way of thinking in the short term! If on the other hand we define ‘therapy’ by saying that it is essentially all about the recognition and appreciation of innate processes, processes that are already happening by their own accord, then we can perhaps allow that there is such a thing.

 

The bottom line is that therapeutic change is ‘facilitated by consciousness, not ‘imposed by strategic action’. Consciousness – on the part of the person concerned and those around them – does not ‘cause’ growth any more than the sun ‘causes’ seedlings to sprout and fruit to magically appear on trees. There is no causal relationship, no compulsion, no issuing of ‘instructions’ concerning the best way to grow or develop – the sun simply provides the necessary conditions for growth and other than that it is completely non-interfering. It does not applaud the seedlings when they grow nor does it criticise or question them if they don’t – the sun is fine either way! In the same way, consciousness is simply ‘there’– it has no agenda whatsoever. Consciousness has no agenda whatsoever and this is what makes it so tremendously different from the thinking mind, which cannot ever ‘not have an agenda’!

 

It is precisely this – the lack of any agenda, the lack of any bias – that makes it possible for consciousness to facilitate growth (or ‘therapeutic change’, just as it is precisely the fact that the thinking mind cannot not have an agenda that means that it ought not to be allowed anywhere near a therapeutic process! As soon as we can see this it becomes very clear where we are going wrong in our culture as regards this thing called ‘therapy’, or this thing called ‘mental health’. In our spectacular blindness, we have put thought in charge of everything! We have put thought in charge of therapy as if its brisk, necessarily cold and goal-orientated approach has any place here. As if mental health or well-being were a goal. We have put in place a ‘bureaucracy of thought’ to manage people’s mental health – if we knew how, we would turn mental healthcare into an algorithm to be fed into the health board’s computer network, and turned into an official procedure along with everything else. What we are always doing is ‘building machines to help us manage life’ and whilst this seems to work in some areas (‘seems’ being the operative word) it most certainly doesn’t work when it comes to mental health. Who ever heard of such a thing as ‘a machine to support us in our mental health’?

 

Machines are necessarily injurious to our well-being, to our mental health, when they are allowed to get involved. A ‘machine’ doesn’t have to be made of metal and plastic or cogs and wheels – any form of organisation that is based on rules is a machine. A hospital is a machine, a company or organisation is a machine, society itself as a machine. The designed world that we have created for ourselves is a machine and in order to survive within it ourselves we are obliged to turn ourselves into machines too. We have to ‘compromise ourselves’, in other words, in order that we might live in this world. We have to go against our true nature, as Philip K Dick says.

 

Compromising ourselves by becoming more and more ‘machine-like’ causes mental ill-health; adapting ourselves to society causes mental health, as Foucault says. Machines cause mental ill-health because they don’t give us space to be who we are. Society causes us mental ill-health because it doesn’t give us the space to be who we are. We could perhaps respond by saying, “Well in that case we will programme the machines to give us space to be ourselves” but that won’t work because no programme for that exists, nor could exist. We can’t adapt society to give us to give space to us either by passing the appropriate legislation because that legislation doesn’t exist – there is no formula to for providing space and so this is the one thing a machine can never do. That would be like having a rule that says there must be no rules! Only conscious human beings can be non-judgemental. Only conscious human beings can be non-judgemental, and there is an acute shortage of ‘conscious human beings’. Society doesn’t value them, after all – it has no regard for them whatsoever…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Can’t Be Trapped In Reality

We can’t be trapped in reality because reality contains no limits; we can however be trapped in our idea of reality, our map of reality. This sounds rather ‘new-age’ or idealistic perhaps, but it is also perfectly true. When we say this that doesn’t mean that there are no biological limits in reality because of course they are – I can’t go and live at the bottom of the sea and I can’t wade through a lake of fire wearing nothing but shorts and a T-shirt, but this isn’t what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the ‘fine structure’ of reality, so to speak, not the grosser structures that exist within it. There are no limits built into the fine structure of ‘reality’ (or ‘space’) – limits are only to be found in the grosser structures, not in the actual ‘essence’ of things.

 

Even to try to explain it like this is going wrong however because ‘structure’ is always built on limitations. That’s what structure is – it’s a system of limits, a system of rules. So instead of saying that ‘the fine structure of reality’ has no limits built into it we should just say that intrinsic space has no limits on it; if it did then it would hardly be worthy of being called ‘space’, after all! If space came with certain inbuilt limitations than obviously there wouldn’t be any ‘space’ in it – there would only be compartments, and compartments can only accommodate what they were designed to accommodate.

 

This gives us a good way of looking at the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic space – intrinsic space is space that hasn’t been designed, hasn’t been created, and which holds no purpose. Extrinsic space, on the other hand, is space that has been designed, has been created, and which does have some sort of ‘inbuilt’ purpose. Extrinsic space is another way of talking about games, in other words. In the general run of things it pretty much goes without saying that we don’t distinguish between ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ space – this isn’t really a type of differentiation that occurs to us. But we if we could see the difference then this would save us from an awful lot of confusion. Because we don’t appreciate that there is this ‘finer’ or ‘subtler’ to reality – which exists beneath the surface of structure, so to speak – we naturally imagine ourselves to have our existence solely on the structural level. We implicitly see ourselves to be structures, in other words. We implicitly see ourselves to be ‘things existing in a world of things’, as Colin Wilson put puts it.

 

When we understand ourselves to have our essential existence on the level of extrinsic space, without understanding what extrinsic space is or that it is there at all, then this is a very different kettle of fish from simply and problematically ‘being’, in an unconditional way, which is the actual un-manipulated situation. This is a whole different ballgame, therefore. What we are doing when we are immersed in extrinsic space is to be pretending to be something without knowing that this is what we’re doing. We are ‘playing a game’ but there’s nothing playful about this game – on the contrary, it is deadly serious. Existence on the level of extrinsic space has an immensely immersive quality to it – it gets to be as immersive as it is because we have now have zero capacity to understand that they could be such a thing as ‘intrinsic space’ (which is also the same thing as freedom). Understanding ourselves purely on a structural level precludes any awareness of intrinsic space, just as it precludes any awareness of what freedom actually means…

 

The only type of freedom we are interested in is extrinsic freedom, which can be defined by saying that it is ‘the freedom to believe that we are the structure’, along with the freedom to operate as the structure, in the way that this structure needs to operate. Extrinsic freedom is the freedom that is built into the game; it translates into ‘the freedom to play the game’ therefore. In order for this surrogate form of freedom to work we have to believe that we truly are the structure which is the self-concept; furthermore, in order for us to continue to believe that we are this structure we have to be able to operate as that structure. Take away our extrinsic freedom, in other words then we would no longer be able to sustain our unreflective belief that ‘this is who we are’. For the conditioned self then, a good supply of extrinsic freedom is absolutely essential; for the conditioned self running out of EF is like running out of oxygen.

 

‘Extrinsic freedom’ might sound like a fancy sort of thing but it isn’t – it’s a very readily understandable concept indeed – it simply means ‘the freedom to obtain our goals’. If we were totally unable to obtain any of our goals, for an indefinite period of time, then – to the conventional way of thinking about things – this is to be regarded as a very dire situation indeed. There is none worse, in fact. We are therefore exhorted ‘not to give up hope’, and ‘keep on trying,’ and so on and so forth. The whole dreadful rigmarole of ‘positive thinking’ comes into play here – positive thinking is all about hanging onto the illusion of our extrinsic freedom for as long as we possibly can. This is just another way of saying that positive thinking is all about staying identified with the conditioned identity (which is our idea of ourselves) for as long as possible. Extrinsic freedom can equally well be seen as ‘the freedom to make meaningful choices’ and our mental health is generally seen as being synonymous with the freedom that we have to make choices. CBT for example, in its traditional form, is all about our so-called ‘freedom’ to make helpful or advantageous choices – we are given to understand that, with regard to our mental state – no matter what the situation we might find ourselves in – we can always make helpful choices. The unspoken implication here is of course that if were to happen that we weren’t able to make any choices then this would be the most undesirable situation imaginable. This would be – the implication is – a very grim scenario indeed. If you were to talk to anyone in the world of mental health care they will almost certainly equate ‘mental well-being’ with ‘the capacity to make choices’; how – we might ask – because anyone possibly argue against this when it sounds so very obviously true?

 

And yet what is ‘obvious’ is not generally true – these two terms don’t actually belong together! The truth, by its very nature, is not going to be obvious – the truth is always unstated, not stated! When we make choices then we are using the thinking mind; we are using the thinking mind because that’s where our ‘choices’ come from. To think is to choose and to choose is to think. ‘The freedom to make choices’ is therefore the same thing as ‘the freedom to think’ but the thinking isn’t actually freedom! When we think we allow our awareness to run down well-worn tracks; when we think we allow our consciousness to be robotized. If I am to have the ‘freedom’ to make rational choices about my situation then what this means is that I must NOT have the freedom to see that my so-called choices don’t involve any free will. How could they when they are completely determined by the mechanical system which is thought? This is what James Carse calls ‘self-veiling‘ – if I am to play a game then I must not know that this is what I am doing; I have to veil from myself the freedom that I have not to play or the game won’t work. ‘The freedom to choose’ is therefore another way of talking about negative freedom; it is ‘the freedom not to be free’, or ‘the freedom to be unfree and yet not know it’.

 

Once we ‘see beyond the obvious’ then it is clear that by equating mental health with ‘the freedom to make meaningful choices’ (choices that are meaningful to us, anyway) we are inverting the natural order of things, so to speak. We are inverting the natural order of things because – in ‘the natural order of things’ – our greatest good must be synonymous with our freedom, whereas the inverted scheme of things asserts that our ‘greatest good’ is synonymous with ‘the integrity of the game that we are playing without knowing that we’re playing it’. We must protect the integrity of the game no matter what because this is the means by which we get to be unfree without knowing that we are. What could be clearer example of inversion than this? What kind of a crazy thing is this to assert – that our happiness and well-being is somehow to be found within the narrow confines of our meaningless games? How do we get away with saying that ‘mental health’ is when we identify so much with the thinking mind that we actually lose touch with reality? To use the thinking mind is one thing, but to identify with it is to identify with a fiction since the thinking mind deals only in abstract conventions. To identify completely with the TM is to lose oneself in a game that we cannot see to be such.

 

Mental health – when we look at it in a ‘non-inverted’ way – can be seen as the freedom not to have to buy in to any of the thinking mind’s so-called ‘choices’. This is a negative definition, not a positive one. Our ‘greatest good’ lies not in any of thought’s constructs, not in the fulfilment of any of its plans, but in the removal of that ‘double restriction’ – [1] the restriction (or imprisonment) within the world that thought has created for us, and [2] The restriction which prevents us from being able to see that this so-called ‘world’ isn’t actually the world at all but an artificial construct. This brings us back to our ‘starting-off’ statement with regard to the impossibility of being trapped in reality:  we can’t be trapped in reality because reality is made up entirely of freedom! It’s overflowing with freedom. We CAN be trapped in the thought-created world, the game however, because the thought-created world is made up of nothing but limits, nothing but rules. The TCW disguises its own stark lack of intrinsic freedom by providing us with a whole heap of extrinsic freedom – as much of it as we want! Extrinsic freedom hoodwinks us into believing that we already are free when we’re not. It does this in a very cunning fashion – it camouflages the lack of intrinsic freedom by saying (or implying) that we will be free if we obey the rules correctly. This is what extrinsic freedom IS – it’s the freedom that supposedly exists ‘outside of ourselves’, it’s the freedom that is obtainable ‘via obeying rules’ – the only drawback here being that this freedom doesn’t actually exist. It’s slavery in disguise.