The Problem With ‘Coping Strategies’

It is impossible to put across the idea that it is helpful and useful to use a particular skill or coping strategy without at the same time giving the jinxed message that we ought to be (or need to be) ‘coping’ with whatever difficult situation it is that we are in. Pressure of this sort however is always counterproductive in therapy; pressure of this sort is guaranteed – in other words – to have quite the ‘reverse effect’!

 

This is a ‘therapy dilemma’ that no one ever seems to spot! It’s a ‘dilemma’ because therapy is supposed to be about helping people but selling someone the idea that they need to be ‘coping’ with (or dealing correctly with) whatever it is that’s going on for them is most definitely not helping anyone. This is a jinxed message; it’s like saying that we have to ‘manage life’ correctly and this is the least therapeutic message it is ever possible to give anyone!

 

It takes a little bit of insight to see this of course and insight into psychological matters tends to be rather thin on the ground in our culture. We are all about techniques, not insight! The insight here is that what we really suffer from isn’t the emotional pain that we’re in so much as the attempt to ‘cope’ with it. As soon as we get the idea that we have to cope we’re finished!

 

What on earth do we imagine ‘coping with emotional pain’ means, anyway? Anybody who happens to be suffering from mental or emotional distress is of course going to be trying to cope with it – this is a very strong instinct – and what this actually comes down to is ‘hanging onto some semblance of normal’. We try to pretend (either to ourselves or to others) that everything is still okay; we keep trying to ‘keep up the act’, so to speak. Another way of talking about ‘coping’ would be to say that it essentially involves us trying to impose our will on the situation; we’re trying to get things to be a little bit more ‘the way we think they should be’, in other words. We’re trying to exert control on the way we feel. In psychological terms, we are resisting. We are resisting things being the way that they actually are.

 

This is all very normal and natural and ‘only to be expected’, but at the same time it is completely unhelpful, completely non-therapeutic. What we resist persists’, says Carl Jung and if we can’t see this then we are on the road to nowhere! Resisting is what we do ‘by reflex’ – it’s our automatic response to pain both mental and physical, and ‘going along with the automatic response’ is never going to be the helpful thing to do. Never in a million years is this going to be the helpful thing to do!  On the contrary, it is precisely our automatic defensive reactions to emotional pain that cause us to get stuck in it, as Jung says.

 

We tend to think that ‘coping mechanisms’ aren’t the same as ‘automatic pain-avoidance’ reflexes but they are. They’re just a little bit more methodical, just a little bit more ‘well thought-out’. ‘Coping’ is resisting the way we are; very obviously, if we weren’t resisting the way that we are, then there would be no need for us to be coping! Coping wouldn’t be ‘a thing’ then, it wouldn’t be an issue as to whether we ‘cope’ or ‘don’t cope’.

 

‘Coping’, or ‘the need to cope’, seems to be very important to us when we’re in the thick of things and we feel very much that we can’t cope or mightn’t be able to cope, and this is very natural. Of course we’re desperate to cling on to whatever little bit of control we have, or think we might possibly be able to have, but this doesn’t mean that we should be validating this tenancy in therapy, so to say that you should be trying to cope on the one hand, and that there is a right ‘way to cope’ on the other. As we have said this is a disastrous message to be giving people – it isn’t just ‘not helpful’, is the very opposite of helpful.

 

Really, this is a punishing message. It wouldn’t be a punishing message if it actually worked but it doesn’t work and not only does it not work, it is indicative of a complete lack of understanding that we think that it should! ‘Coping’ is the thing we can’t do and yet at the same time absolutely feel that we need to, and it is this ‘untenable’ position that causes us that very particular form of suffering with which we are all so familiar. If we weren’t caught in the jaws of this conflict then this would be a very different matter – the suffering wouldn’t be the same at all. We’d be ‘free to suffer’ in this case, rather than ‘suffering at the same time as believing that it is very wrong (or very unacceptable) that we should be suffering’…

 

We always think that not coping with our emotional distress is the ‘bad thing’ – we think that ‘not coping’ means freaking out or causing a scene or embarrassing ourselves, or something highly undesirable like that. But ‘not coping’ doesn’t mean ‘reacting in a harmful or inappropriate way’ – ‘not coping’ isn’t just ‘acting out’ (i.e. displacing our pain by some kind of behaviour). Actually, ‘acting out’ or ‘displacing’ is a form of coping with mental pain or distress. It’s a strategy. Reacting (or ‘freaking out’) is how we do try to cope, by refusing to be present with the pain and ‘acting it out’ instead. This is a very basic coping strategy – the most basic of them all. It’s either this or we batten down the hatch and repress everything for all we’re worth…

 

‘Coping’ – as we have said -essentially means gaining control of our situation such that it stays within certain tolerances, certain predetermined parameters. This is such a normal idea to us that we never question it; we apply it across the board, even when it’s not the helpful thing to do. There are all sorts of processes that we do need to control in this way – cooking food, for example, so that it isn’t undercooked on the one hand or overcooked on the other. Physiologically speaking, we need to make sure we stay within certain parameters – we need to stay between being too hot and being too cold, we have to eat enough but not too much, et cetera. If we are bleeding, then we have to make sure that we staunch the wound and don’t bleed too much.

 

When it comes to feelings however then the same doesn’t apply – to try to keep ourselves within specific parameters with regard to emotions, with regard to how we feel, isn’t a helpful approach at all. We can very easily imagine that we ought to keep ‘the way that we feel’ within a certain normative range, so that the feeling in question is a ‘normal’ one, but when we try to do this we create this whole perception that ‘we need to cope’, that it is a very bad thing (unspecified as to exactly why) if we fail to stay ‘in control’, where ‘coping’ (or ‘staying in control’) means preventing ourselves from feeling the way that we actually are feeling. We have, without consciously realising it, set limits for ourselves in terms of how we supposed to feel and because these self-imposed limits don’t tally with reality, we’ve put ourselves in a very tight spot indeed. We actually feel that we are ‘cracking up’ when this happens – this is exactly what the phrase ‘cracking up’ means, it means going beyond our self-imposed arbitrary limits.

 

The experience of being on the edge of ‘cracking up’ (or ‘being on the edge of not coping’ when not coping is a very bad thing)  is something that we have created for ourselves by trying not to crack up – we ourselves have imposed these limits on ourselves and they are limits that don’t naturally exist. It feels very bad indeed when we feel that we are on the edge of not being able to cope, but ‘coping’ (or ‘managing’) is not a helpful idea to bring into our situation. ‘Coping’, as we have said, means ‘controlling what’s going on’ and ‘controlling what is going on’ very quickly turns into ‘trying to make what is happening not be happening’! When it comes to mental health, trying to make what is happening not be happening is definitely Number One on the list of unhelpful things to do! This doesn’t mean that we don’t all do it of course but – at the same time – it’s the most punishing situation we could ever put ourselves in. We’ve have given ourselves a task that can never be carried out (it can never be carried out since no one can make ‘what is happening not be happening’) and at the same time we have said that it is imperative that we succeed at it. What a thing this is to do to ourselves!

 

What confuses things even more is this talk of ‘managing emotions’ that we hear so often about in recent times. When we hear this phrase then of course we are very likely to think that we should be controlling how we feel, and keeping our emotions within ‘safe’ or ‘appropriate’ boundaries. There is definitely a lot of scope for confusion here because no one should be led to believe that anything we experience – emotion-wise – is ‘wrong’ and needs to be controlled. There is no dial within us that can, like a thermostat, be adjusted to keep the emotional temperature from getting either too hot or too cold. There’s no way for us to change the way we feel, and yet here we are being told that this is our responsibility, that this is exactly what we should be doing

 

The confusion comes about because we are talking about two very different things – when we talk about ‘managing emotions’ what we actually mean is that we should refrain from ‘acting-out’ our emotions in ways that are harmful either to ourselves or to others. Strategies are sought to prevent these unhelpful reactions, therefore. The problem is however that we automatically jump to the conclusion that the way to do this is to quieten down the feeling/emotion so that it is no longer so intense. We assume that we have to ‘turn the dial down’ with regard to the strength of the emotion or feeling, and that is what ‘coping’ or ‘self-soothing’ strategies are all about. But we really have jumped to an unwarranted conclusion here because it’s quite possible to feel the emotion without either acting it out either towards oneself or to others. Very oddly, it seems that we just have no interest at all in exploring this possibility!

 

Feeling an emotion is an art not a science or technology, and this is the reason why we are not interested in it. If it were a technology we could ‘roll it out’; we could standardise and regulate it and teach therapists how to facilitate it. We can’t do this with an art however – we can’t standardise an art and ‘roll it out’ as a generic, ‘one-size-fits-all’ therapy. The thing about an art is that it is individual; the thing about an art is that is going to be learnt in a different way for each person and this is hugely inconvenient to us as a rational (or control-based) culture. The therapists themselves would have to ‘master the art’ and even then it’s not something that we can teach as such. There are no rules, no principles that we can point out; it isn’t a system, and as Bruce Lee says, how can you teach something that isn’t a system?

 

We can teach ways of not feeling emotions or ways of repressing them of course. For this, strategies exist. For feeling the emotion, just as it is, there are no strategies. There are no strategies for this any more than there are strategies for ‘living life’ or ‘telling the truth’ or ‘relating authentically to other human beings’! For all the most important things, there are no strategies. It’s not that easy! All the things that we can teach people to do are very trivial indeed and it is a mark of our remarkably un-psychologically minded culture that we think we can ‘teach mental health’. To teach mental health is to teach someone how to live life and this is one thing that just can’t be done. We can programme people for sure, we can condition them or train them or brainwash them, but we can’t teach them how to live life. We don’t know how to do that ourselves, anyway! We would have to teach ourselves first and we can’t do that because we don’t know how. Who can teach us to be authentically ourselves? Who can teach us how to be present, in this utterly unique situation? All we can do is teach people is how not to be here, how to ‘be here in a conditioned (or inauthentic) way’, and this is therefore exactly what we do teach people! We brainwash people, we condition them, we ‘train their minds’. To call this a ‘therapy’ is however a bit rich…

 

 

 

 

 

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Spiritual Escaping

It is possible to imagine (if we are given to thinking in this way, which of course a lot of people are) that we could – if we wanted – live life in a more ‘spiritual’ way. It is also possible (perfectly possible, in fact) to try to do this, by replacing our old, more crudely ‘ego-orientated’ and materialist way of thinking about the world with a more refined, subtle and spiritual approach. This is like getting rid of your old smelly sofa and getting a brand new suite from British Home Stores or IKEA, or getting rid of the old lifestyle and welcoming in the new. It is possible to imagine that this is how we go about the process of ‘spiritualizing in our lives’ but this isn’t how it happens. This is getting it ‘back to front’! This is ‘putting the cart before the horse’!

 

What’s happening here is that we have jumped ahead and tried to put into place the type of life that we would have if we were more spiritual, and then by ‘stepping into this life’ assuming or hoping that this will somehow ‘spiritualise’ us. The reason this approach may be said to be ‘back to front’ is of course because ‘a more spiritual life’ (so to speak) is what we live after we become ‘more spiritual’ – leading what we understand to be a more spiritual life most certainly isn’t going to make us so, it’s just going to involve us in the type of ‘unconscious mimicry’, changing our costume rather than changing the one who is wearing the costume, to use Alan Watts’ memorable analogy. The clothes don’t change the person wearing them. We smile when we’re happy – we don’t smile in order to become happy!

 

The very fact that it is our understanding of what constitutes a spiritually-orientated life ought to be enough to tip us off. If I have not yet developed this spiritually-orientated attitude (which obviously I can’t have done or I wouldn’t be looking into making changes in this direction) then how on earth am I going to know what ‘a spiritually-orientated life’ would look like? I can of course read about it in books and magazines and absorb ideas from the burgeoning spiritual improvement industry but this can only ever provide me with certain notions about what this thing called ‘the spiritual life’ should look when seen from the outside, not what it’s like from the inside (so to speak). And – what’s more – the one who is absorbing all these ideas, the one who is forming an impression of what the spiritual life should look like, is the ‘spiritually-unimproved me’, which is me as I actually am right now.

 

The thing about this is that anything understood by this current self (by the ‘me’ I actually experience myself to be right now) can only ever serve to reinforce the unconscious assumptions about life that go to make that self, that ‘me’, be what it already is. I can only understand stuff that fits in with my unexamined assumptions about life; or to put this the other way round, everything I understand is necessarily understood on the basis of my current conditioning. This inevitably means that when I try to change – by buying into whatever ideas, whatever theories or model appeal to me – I’m not really going to change at all. Genuine change can’t come about as a result of purposeful or deliberate action because purposeful or deliberate action is only ever going to reaffirm our current way of understanding the world. How could we imagine otherwise? Change cannot be something that I can impose on myself because the ‘I’ which is seeking to impose the change will itself remain unchanged. As Alan Watts says, the self that seeks to do the improving is the very one that needs improving! This is the invisible glitch behind all ‘managed changed’ – the glitch being that the one who does the managing will never change. Deliberately setting out to change ourselves ensures that we stay the same; it actually reinforces our position.

 

As soon as we see this glitch (in all its glory) then the point we’re making becomes very very clear, it becomes ‘as clear as clear could be’, but then after we have assimilated the point the question arises as to how we can proceed if we do genuinely wish to lead a more spiritual life. If there isn’t – as Krishnamurti says time and time again – a method, a path, then how do we go about getting from ‘here’ to ‘there’? The point that we are missing when we try to deliberately adopt a more spiritually-orientated life (or when we in any way try to ‘improve’ or ‘better’ ourselves in general) is that we are trying to walk away from ourselves as we actually are. We want to be different from the way that we are, but this isn’t ‘being spiritual’ – it’s simply an exercise in escapism! We’re trying to escape into a more spiritual way of life, a more spiritual way of being. If we were genuine about it then we wouldn’t be getting involved in escapism but rather we would be interested in seeing things as they actually are. If we were sincere in ourselves with regard to the wish to ‘walk a more spiritual path’ we wouldn’t be walking away from ourselves the whole time, turning our backs on ourselves as we really are, but rather we would be staying present with ourselves in our actual, ‘unimproved’ lives. This isn’t a matter of willpower (in the usual sense of the word), it is purely a matter of courage.

 

Courage means ‘the willingness to see the truth about how we are’. It also means the willingness to live our lives as we are, even though this may not be very pretty to look at. The more willingness we have to see this unvarnished truth, the more we change as a result! So let’s say that I’m not very spiritually-orientated and I’d like to be more so. Suppose I am ‘egoically’ or ‘materialistically’-orientated (and – again – presumably I must be or I wouldn’t be wishing to change) then in this case ‘being the unspiritual person that I really am’ is the spiritual path! All I have to do is live my life as it unfolds, in the plain old ordinary way that it always does unfold. This may sound too easy to be worth anything, it may not seem like any sort of meaningful challenge at all, but the thing here – of course – is that I have to do it consciously, without making excuses for myself! I live my regular old life, as it unfolds for me, but I see myself as I do so as I actually am.

 

This – needless to say – turns out to be not so easy after all. What normally (almost always) happens is that there is lots of self-deceiving activity going on (both of the conscious and unconscious variety); this is activity that is specifically aimed at preventing us from seeing ourselves as we really are. What this activity essentially comes down to is self-validation – no matter what we do, there is always ample validation (or justification) for it. All of our actions take place within some kind of ‘validating context’, a validating context which serves to make it okay for us to be the way that we are; quite possibly it makes it more than just okay, quite possibly it makes us absolutely right to be that way. This sort of ‘self-excusing’ or self-validating’ is of course a deeply familiar kind of thing. Living consciously isn’t therefore to do with whether we manage to stick to the accepted moral or ethical code or not (moral codes are validating contexts in themselves) but rather it is to do with what would in the past have been called ‘the conscience’. It has to do with a ‘truth sense’ that we all have. Living consciously has nothing to do with what is seen as right or wrong by our thinking mind (which is the ultimate ‘validating context’) but right or wrong (speaking figuratively here) with respect to our innermost nature, our true nature, which is usually kept effectively silenced!

 

This isn’t a matter of judging ourselves and then feeling either good or bad according to whether we have succeeded or failed – which is of course how it works in the traditional religious context. Living our lives consciously doesn’t mean thinking that we should be different from how we actually are and feeling bad when we can’t change this state of affairs – that’s living unconsciously, not consciously! Consciousness means seeing ourselves as we really are which – as we have said – turns out to be the very thing that we don’t want to do! Our whole motivation in the so-called ‘spiritual quest’ was to get away from seeing this, after all! Why – we might wonder – is it so very difficult to see ourselves as we are, rather than either automatically validating or automatically condemning ourselves (which is really just reverse-validation)? This is – as investigation shows – always the case, but the question is ‘Why should it be the case?’ What’s going on here? What’s the big problem in ‘seeing ourselves as we really are’?

 

The ‘big problem’ is of course that we want so desperately for there to be a self to lead this ‘spiritual life’ – we want for there to be such a thing as ‘the spiritual self’! That’s the identity we want. Given the fact that there is no such thing as ‘the self’ – spiritual or otherwise – where does this leave us? What direction do we go in, now and (given the fact that there is no self there to develop) who is the one who wants to go there? This is where purposeful behaviour meets its abyss – and this is an abyss that no one can ever get past. It also happens to be an abyss that no one can ever see, which means therefore that we don’t know that we can never get past it. When we are unaware of the abyss then we can happily carry on with our purposeful activity and our rational thinking; we can carry on with our dreams. When on the other hand we see the Abyss, when we see the Great Discontinuity, then all of that is cut off as if with a knife!

 

Purposeful behaviour is how the self carries on being the self – as long as it can – via its purposes – (or via its fears, which are the same thing) extend itself into the future (or rather extend the idea of itself into the future) then it is happy. When the Discontinuity is spotted however, then that is the end of all that! The Sword of Manjushri (which is the sword of wisdom) cuts all our goal-orientated activity away, all our thinking away. To see the Discontinuity is to have awareness of the essential relativity of all of our thoughts and all of our goals. It is in other words to have awareness of the way in which all of our thinking is utterly nonsensical. Inasmuch as our identity is created entirely out of our thinking then to see the Discontinuity (between our thoughts and reality) is to see that our notion of having an identity (either good or bad, successful or unsuccessful) is also ‘utterly nonsensical’. Is this really what we want to discover, however? Do we really have an appetite for this sort of thing?

 

 

 

 

The Secret World Of Suffering

The most terrible ‘mistake’ we could ever make would be to miss the point of what life is all about and spend all our time preoccupied with something else, something that isn’t life, something that has nothing whatsoever to do with life. What bigger mistake could there possibly be than this? What worse screw-up could there be than this?

 

This is of course a rhetorical question because we never could make a bigger mistake than this. You really would want to kick yourself for making a mistake like this – you’d want to kick yourself particularly hard! The point we’re making here is of course that this is exactly the mistake that we – as a culture – are making; we are making precisely this mistake and we are far too stubborn to listen to those amongst us who try to point this fact out. We absolutely won’t be told.

 

This is an astonishing statement to be able to make – it is a staggering statement to hear as well (if, that is, we were able to hear it). How could we have got things so wrong? It is however very clearly the case that very few people are ever going to take this on board, and of those who do see it, none of them have a position in the rigid hierarchy of society and this means that no one is going to listen to them even if they were to say something about it. We only listen to people in positions of authority, and positions in people in ‘positions of authority’ (those people whose opinions get listened to) are inevitably the most heavily conditioned of us all, as Noam Chomsky points out. Who cares what the misfits and eccentrics think, when by definition what they think doesn’t matter?

 

The two main ‘parts’ of life, we might say, are ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ and – as things stand in our society – neither of these two things has anything to do with life. We could just as well say that neither of these two things ‘have anything to do with who we really are’, which is another way of saying the same thing. Most work doesn’t require us to be able to ‘tap into who we really are’ – it’s hardly necessary to point this out! No one is going to pay us to ‘be ourselves’; quite the contrary is true – most of us are actually being paid to be who we aren’t! As Philip K Dick says in Do Androids Dream, ‘we are required to go against our own nature’. The other way of putting this would be to say that ‘no one is going to pay us for doing what we would do anyway’ but only for ‘doing what we don’t want to do’, and therefore wouldn’t do, and that this is why we are being paid. We’re being paid to compensate us for doing what we don’t want to do…

 

In a rather simplistic way, we could say that when we have a job we have a role to play and that role isn’t us, obviously. This in itself is harmless enough: if I am a waiter then I can step out of role when I’m not working. I know very well that I’m not this role and, what’s more, it is probably that I can even be myself, to some extent, when I am in role at work – I don’t have to act like some kind of robot, after all. If I happen to be working in a very expensive restaurant then I will be required to be ‘more in role and less myself,’ it’s true, but I still know that it’s only a role. The problem is however that in the last few hundred years in particular life has become more complicated and our roles have become ever more two-dimensional, or artificial. As the social world becomes more abstracted from nature, and the demands that the natural world place on us, our conditioned sense of who we are gets correspondingly more removed from who we really are. The ‘natural world’ is replaced by the ‘designed world’ and so thought becomes the guiding principle rather than the natural (or ‘spontaneous’) order of things. Thought itself gives us roles to perform, roles that are – moreover – extremely hard to see through. We have ‘ideas about ourselves’, in other words, and we live our lives on the basis of these ideas.

 

It’s actually extraordinarily hard to not do this – we never stop to consider that the ideas we are living our life on the basis of are only ideas. Who does that? The urgency to ‘get on with life’ is such that we never had time to stop to reflect on matters such as this. Certainly don’t feel that we have the time to do much in the way of reflecting, or philosophising The whole ‘trip’ of thought is that it never allows us to pause to consider the fact that the thoughts which we are basing our lives on are only thoughts – if we did this then we could there would be the chance of radical change in our lives. As it is however, there is no chance of radical change, and we don’t miss this possibility either! We don’t miss it because we are convinced – without ever reflecting on the fact that we are convinced – that everything we could ever possibly want or need or aspire to is to be found within the realm of trivial change (which is the only type of change we know or understand). And because the realm of trivial change is the only type of change we know, we don’t see it as being ‘trivial’, obviously!

 

When we are ‘in role without knowing that we are in role’ then it is of course the case that the only type of change that we will ever know or acknowledge is change of the trivial variety. The only way there could be radical change would be that if we were to come out of role, but because we don’t actually know that we are ‘in role’ we are profoundly incapable of conceiving of or in any way comprehending that possibility. This then gives us a very neat way of looking at the mechanism by which we can miss the whole point of ‘what life about’ without knowing that we have missed anything – a whole world becomes invisible to us when we ‘are in role without knowing that we are’, a whole world that is actually the only word there is! What other the world could there be than the world we see when we are not in role, after all? The world we see when we look through the conceptual filter of the thinking mind isn’t the world at all, and – as we have already said – this isn’t something that we ever stop to reflect on.

 

When we are in role without knowing it then we are not at all interested in any other world than the world that makes sense from the point of view of the ‘part’ that we are playing. Because nothing else is of any interest to us, the possibility of our lives changing in a radical way is not going to be a possibility that we are in any way curious about. If we ever were to have the inking that that there were such a possibility – which we will inevitably do from time to time, no matter how carefully we organise or regulate our lives – then our only response will be fear. We will be terrified without knowing why we are terrified; we will be afraid without being interested in finding out why we are afraid. When we are in role without knowing it (or conditioned by thought without knowing it) then awareness of the type radical change that we have implicitly denied is bound to manifest as ‘ontological terror’.

 

If we were in role but at the same time knew ourselves to be in role then the possibility of radical change, the possibility of ‘dropping out of role’, would of course not be terrifying to us. It would simply represent a greater degree of freedom; it would represent ‘blessed relief from the onerous set of restrictions that we are operating under’. It would be ‘good news’ not ‘bad news’, in other words. When we are unconsciously identified with the part that we are playing however then – as we have said – radical change is synonymous with ‘ontological terror’ and for this reason we are going to take very great care never to permit any awareness, however faint, of the possibility of such a thing. What this means therefore is that we are straightaway going to be constrained to ‘a false life’! We are confined to an area of experience that has nothing to do with who we really are, but only to do with who we are playing at being. This ‘area of experience’ is the world which only makes sense in relation to the identity we mistakenly think we are!

 

There is a very interesting question that comes up here and that is the question of whether it is possible for us to continue in life in this very restricted mode of being (the mode of being in which we think trivial change is the only type of change there is) and yet remain undistressed by this fundamental restriction? Can we get off ‘scott free’, in other words? In one way we might come to the conclusion that it is indeed possible for us to continue indefinitely in this mode without ever missing the wider reality from which we are cut off; we might come to such a conclusion as a result of our observations of the people around us, the people we know and have regular interactions with. On the whole, people seem to be getting on well enough, and if we take into account the media’s unduly positive representations of how we are getting on then it would seem that we are certainly not distressed or troubled by our ‘lack of Wholeness’. Life has never been better, if we are to believe the media’s super-glossy representations of modern life!

 

We could on the other hand make the sober point that there is an invisible side to society, a side that isn’t on general display, either in terms of how human life is represented to us by the media, or in terms of how we personally wish to see it. What we are talking up here could be spoken of as ‘a secret world’ – the secret world of unacknowledged suffering. We ‘filter for misery’, as psychiatrist Scott Alexander puts it – we see the world as being a happier place than it really is. To a significant extent, we also filter other people from seeing us as being miserable, of course. On the outside we might seem to be fine – or ‘halfway fine’ at least – but what’s really going on with us on the inside? How would it feel if we really tuned in to ourselves, instead of only going on the images that we are fed? This secret world is the world of the ‘walking wounded’, we might say – we are still functioning (in some kind of a fashion) and we can still keep up the front (more or less) but the passion (or ‘sense of meaning’ with regard to life) has long since fled. This is the world we don’t see represented very often, or even at all; there can be no doubt that it is a substantial world, that there are many of us in it. Statistics do not exist to tell us just exactly how big this world is however; there are no stats to draw on here since this type of profound alienation from life is the norm rather than the exception!

 

When we can’t keep up the pretence anymore (and are forced to ‘declare our hand’) then this means that we have automatically graduate into another ‘secret world’, which is the secret world of overt or acknowledged mental suffering, where there is at least now a degree of honesty about what’s going on. This too can rightly be spoken of as ‘an invisible world’ inasmuch as we are no longer part of ‘visible society’. Whilst it is true that there is a movement to bring the various types of ‘mental ill health’ into the public consciousness (in contrast to the policy adopted in Victorian times where the main purpose of the asylum, as Erving Goffman says, was to ‘segregate the mentally unwell’ so that us normal folk would never have to have the unpleasant experience of actually encountering them) our approach to the whole matter of mental suffering is still to see it as some sort of pathological process that can be cured without ever having to look at the deeper causes that might exist in society itself. We’re trying to be more inclusive, which is good, but we still don’t want to look into the real causes of mental suffering, and so we’re not actually going to get anywhere with our efforts.

 

We certainly don’t see any connection with the profound artificiality of modern society and the way in which – ultimately – it causes us to ‘miss the very point of life itself’, as we put it earlier. Who amongst those of us who are adapted (and therefore invested) game-players are ever going to admit to such a thing? We are not exactly inclined to ‘ask big questions’, we are not exactly very likely to start wondering if our whole way of doing things (or seeing things) is wrong – on an individual level it usually requires a massive crisis to bring such questioning about and on the level of the ‘collective mind’ which is society, even the biggest crisis isn’t going to trigger honest reflection of this sort. The generic/collective (or ‘adapted’) mind isn’t able to ask big questions like this – it has an unholy terror of them. Our only option in this case is to assume that the patterns of mental suffering that we are witnessing are due to individual pathology that can (hopefully) be cured without bringing into question the overall structure we are adapted to, which is the game we are committed to playing without knowing that we are.

 

 

In short, we just don’t want to see that 100% adaptation to society causes us to miss the key point of life itself. We just don’t want to see it and we won’t see it. Society causes us to ‘miss the point’ by giving us a false basis upon which to live life and – as we have argued – the way in which it does this is by compelling us to see ourselves as being who it says we are. ‘The system says who we are’, in other words – it defines everything about us and we’re perfectly happy about that! There can be absolutely no doubt that this is what society does. Just to emphasise the point that we have already made: society would not be society unless we were all socially constructed, socially conditioned. If we all came ‘out of role’ at the same time, where would society be then? What would happen to the collective way of seeing things if we did this? Society is after all nothing more than a set of agreements that we covertly make with each other and what we are ultimately agreeing to is to be ‘in role’ without acknowledging either to ourselves or anyone else that we’re actually doing anything at all!

 

In conclusion, the point that we never want to look at is that it is utterly impossible for us be mentally healthy (or ‘mentally well’) and be socally conditioned at the same time and the reason for this is that being socially conditioned or socially adapted means that we are who society says we are rather than who we actually are, and if we’re not who we ‘actually are’ then it is absolutely the case that we’re not living life. We might be doing something else alright but whatever the hell it is that we’re doing we’re definitely not living life. We’re ‘playing at living life’, which isn’t the same thing at all…

 

 

 

 

Fundamental Alienation

The everyday sense of ‘self’ never changes and this is an extraordinary observation. It may not seem like an extraordinary observation (it may not even seem true) but it is. The self has this absolutely extraordinary property of never ever changing; even in a hundred years the everyday sense of self will not change – it’s as if we’re going back to ‘Square One’ every single time. More properly, we never actually leave ‘Square One’, we never actually leave the starting point. We’re always at the starting blocks, but never actually moving on. The fundamentally static nature of the self is an extraordinary thing to note because there is nothing that doesn’t change, nothing that isn’t part of the ongoing flow of change that is reality, and yet the static viewpoint that we call ‘the self’ always stays the same. How then can this be?

 

The self never changes because it’s only a viewpoint on reality, not the actual reality that is being viewed – it’s just a fixed set of rules that we can use to manipulate incoming information about the world. The ‘self’ is a screening-device that we filter reality through. There is a little slot, a little aperture through which the light of the world comes in and an inverted static image is thrown up on a screen, which we relate to and mistakenly call ‘reality’. We have therefore our own ‘tame version# of reality which is a frozen snapshot of the original; we don’t see the conceptual reality as being a static picture but there’s no way that it can’t be – ‘concepts’ are pictures of reality that are governed by rules, and genuine movement can never come about as a result of following rules. Rules always proceed from a fixed point, and so no matter what may seem to be happening, we are only ever going to be looking at the extrapolation of that fixed point. We are only ever going to be looking at the logical extrapolation of this fixed point and the thing about this is that there are no fixed points! There’s ‘no such thing’…

 

There is no such thing as ‘a fixed point in reality’, something we can orientate ourselves to and measure the world against. The only way this could happen would be if we could somehow isolate one specific element from reality as a whole and then make observations of this specific element ‘as it is in itself’, with no reference to anything outside of it, no reference anything else apart from it. When we do this however (and we always are doing this, because that’s how the conceptual mind works) we create an ‘unreal thing’; we create an unreal thing because it isn’t possible to separate out one element from everything around it and look at it purely ‘as it is in itself’. This is implicit in the holographic model – if every little bit of the world contains every other little bit (as is symbolized by the image of Indra’s Net of Jewels) then how can we hope to extract one bit, and yet at the same time hope to have that isolated or abstracted bit continue to be real? The only way anything gets to be real is by being part of Indra’s Net, after all!

 

Our problem in understanding this lies in the fact that we are always operating from the basis of the categorical mind and the categorical mind works by assuming the existence of ‘the world of things’, as Colin Wilson puts it. Categories are the machinery by which we create ‘things’, after all – ‘things’ are the projection of our abstract categories onto the world. Erich Fromm makes the same point when he says, ‘We live in a world of things, and our only connection with them is that we know how to consume or manipulate them’.

 

Consuming is of course always going to be a hollow business, which is precisely why it works so well as a system. This has been said many times before but it’s worth saying again – the system known as ‘consumerism’ works by keeping us hungry, keeping us unsatisfied, keeping us insecure! We are constantly thinking that someone somewhere is enjoying what we are not and this highly unpalatable feeling keeps us on our toes, keeps us being properly ‘competitive’. This is of course the standard critique of the ‘consumerist way of life’ but that doesn’t mean that we ever actually stop to think about it. Obviously we don’t ever stop to think about it – if we did then we wouldn’t be able to carry on in the ridiculous way that we are carrying on!

 

This is a point that is well worth contemplating however, if we happen to have any concern at all for our actual well-being! It is well worth contemplating because if we don’t then we are inevitably going to be steered ever more in the direction of being identified with the concrete or disconnected self. It’s the concrete or disconnected self that buys all the products, after all! The disconnected self watches all the ads and buys all the products because – unbeknownst to itself – that is the only way it has of (symbolically) regaining its lost connection with the world. To consume, and to dream the consumerist dream, is the disconnected self’s only way of ‘participating’ in life. If we were not being socially engineered to operate in the world as this ‘isolated or alienated consumer’ then society (our type of society, anyway) would straightaway start to fall apart. To ignore the mechanical forces that are operating on this therefore (and which are compelling us to experience life on behalf of the disconnected or alienated self) would be extremely unwise therefore – the life of the disconnected/alienated consumer is not a happy one, as we have already indicated. Who wants to be a hungry ghost, after all? Having a population made of hungry ghosts is great for powering the economy but there are not many laughs to be had in actually being one! Hungry ghosts don’t do much laughing…

 

So what other type of direction is there to go in, apart from the direction of ever-increasing narcissistic withdrawal? We started off talking about the central oddity of the self, which is – we said – that it never changes. The world is constantly changing, but the fixed viewpoint that we have haplessly identified with does not. Fixed viewpoints don’t change, after all – they don’t have to change because they aren’t part of reality; they are abstractions from reality not part of it! To move back into reality restores our connectedness, our ‘relationship’ with the dynamic world around us, but from the point of view of the disconnected desirer or consumer (i.e. ‘the alienated manipulator’) there is a high price to pay for this – the highest price of all, in fact. The ‘alienated manipulator’ which is the static self ceases to exist when we re-establish our relatedness with the dynamic reality!

 

In order to have an existence as a static self we have to be thoroughly insulated from any possibility of seeing our actual connectedness with reality therefore, and this is the absolute precondition for taking part in the rule-based system which is society. That’s the precondition for the game! Naturally no one is ever going to point this out for us – no one is would ever sign up to the deal if this spectacular ‘downside’ were to be brought to our attention. The very suggestion that taking part in the collective way of life that is society automatically disconnects in the fundamental away from reality (and from ourselves) is incomprehensible to us – no one is going to take this on board. ‘Spoiling the party’ doesn’t come into it! Yet for anyone with a modicum of psychological insight only a few moments of careful consideration will suffice to show the truth of what we are saying here. When ‘everything is about the image’ then how can we ever possibly allow reality into the picture?

 

This is such a basic principle – if the description of (or ‘signifier for’) reality is to ‘take on a life of its own’ (as it must if we are to play the game) then that which is being described (or that which is being signified) must be banished completely, must be taken out of the equation completely. This ‘banishment of reality’ is the lynchpin of the whole mechanism – this is how the map takes over from the territory, by eliminating that territory. This is of course the principle behind Baudrillard’s hyperreality; the fake can only thrive in the absence of the real, and in the absence of the real the fake thrives like the most virulent of weeds! In the absence of the real the fake has a field day. In the absence of the real the show is absolutely unstoppable – it is of course utterly worthless, conducive to nothing but various shades and flavours of confusions, misery and frustration, but it is unstoppable all the same!

 

So no one is ever going to come up to us and tell us at the price we are paying for being ‘one hundred per cent adapted to society’ is that we have to be disconnected both from the reality of the world and the reality of our own actual nature, and – as we have said – even if they did we wouldn’t know what they were talking about. We wouldn’t know what they were saying and we wouldn’t want to know. It is therefore both extremely important that we should know this thing, and at the same time we are supremely resistant to ever taking it on board. So why is it so important, we might ask? Certainly it is not important in the moral sense – it’s not as if there is a moral framework there that we have to obey! All frameworks – without exceptions – are arbitrary impositions, and so too are the so-called ‘moral imperatives’ that derive from them. This is easy enough to show – the most essential element in life is –we could say – freedom, since without freedom there can be no chance whatsoever of happiness or any type of well-being, and yet we can’t make freedom into a moral issue without straightaway becoming ridiculous. Should we make a law saying that ‘we have to be free’? Obviously, as soon as we do this we have actually taken away our freedom – we have ‘made freedom compulsory’, we have taken away our freedom not to be free.

 

We can’t say that it is ‘important’ that we should understand the crisis that has been created by the loss of our connection with reality, the loss of our connectedness from our own inherent nature, in a moral sense therefore, and yet there is an ‘urgency’ to the matter all the same. The imperative here is not a rule that is imposed on us from the outside, an ‘official guideline’ that we have to adhere to, but rather it is an impulse that arises naturally within us when we become aware of our true situation. If we say that our true situation is that we are ‘unknowingly trapped within a false reality’ (as the essential Gnostic myth puts it) then the impulse that arises within us might be said to be ‘revulsion with regard to this state of affairs’. This is the ‘inner revulsion’ spoken of in the Lakāvatāra Sūtra. If I suddenly see that I’ve been tricked to into accepting a vastly inferior ‘pseudo-reality’ in place of the real thing, a pseudo-reality that is utterly inimical as regards the expression of my true nature, then what would my response be? Certainly I will be not acting out of any sense of morality, out of any idea about what is ‘right or ‘wrong’. This situation isn’t something we need to ‘think about’!

 

If we look at this in terms of Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreality, then we can say that hyperreality represents an ‘inverted form of freedom’ – we are ‘free’ to adapt ourselves to whatever deterministic templates are provided for us, we are ‘free’ to buy into whatever static identity it is that the system is offering us. The Realm of the Hyperreal offers us ‘freedom from our true nature’ therefore, but this is a distinctly odd form of freedom because it what it really translates into is ‘the freedom to be enslaved by whatever images or thoughts the thinking mind throws at us.’ We are represented in such and such a way, but there is no choice in this for us – straightaway our consciousness is sucked up and magnetically compelled to believe that it is ‘this, that or the other identity’. Freedom from our actual undetermined nature always means slavery to the fixed form, therefore. We can be ‘free’ from who we really are only by being plunged into a state of compulsory identification with whatever image the thinking mind presents us with – that’s the only way ‘freedom from our true nature’ can ever work, obviously!

 

So when we say that the everyday self never changes, and that this is that this is ‘proof of its unreality’, then this is just another way of saying that the Realm of the Hyperreal never changes. Of course hyperreality never changes, never flows, never recklessly jumps over its own boundaries; if it did that then it would be the real, not the hyperreal! Hyperreality is all about identity – things are always what they are said to be, they can’t deviate from this in the slightest! Identity is by its very nature ‘stuck to itself’ and on this account it can never have any depth. It can never be otherwise than what it is literally stated as being and this is exactly why it can never have any actual depth. And yet at the same time there is no ‘identity’ to anything really, there is ‘no such thing’, and so all this fuss is about nothing. We have the security of having an identity, it is true, but the price we pay for this ‘security’ is being locked into an artificial state of being that we might call fundamental alienation – the fundamental alienation of being identified with a static viewpoint, the fundamental alienation of being identified with a viewpoint that never ever changes, the fundamental alienation of being removed from life itself…

 

Art: Speedy Grafitto

 

 

 

 

The Mechanism Of Unconsciousness

It is commonplace in therapy to hear people say that they feel that they have lost themselves, or feel that they have become disconnected from themselves. Alternatively, people might say that they feel disconnected from reality, or from the world, or from the people around them – both come down to the same thing. Jung points out that traditional cultures speak of the phenomenon of ‘loss of soul’ in these circumstances and no more eloquent or succinct description of this type of suffering exists, and yet in the language used by us mental health workers, the official, so-called ‘scientific’ language, we hear nothing that resonates with this. We certainly would never allow ourselves be heard talking about something like ‘loss of soul’! Instead, we enthusiastically generate a profusion of bizarre, artificial terms that are somehow supposed to assist us to understand the people we are dealing with. The highly technical language nature of the ‘official language’ gives us the impression that we have very clear and precise understanding of what is going on, but this is not at all the case! We don’t have any understanding, never mind an extremely detailed, in-depth ‘technically-advanced’ understanding. That’s pure moonshine! We’re kidding ourselves that we know what we’re talking about…

 

How can we say this? Quite simply, the dry and abstract nature of the language we as professionals use immediately tells us this – there is clearly no (or precious little) correspondence between our ‘technical’ language and the experience that that the person we are working with is having. In physical medicine it is possible to have a formal description of what is going on for the patient that has nothing to do with what it actually feels like to have the sickness the illness or condition and this is a legitimate state of affairs inasmuch as there is some kind of definable process at work that we can point to. Admittedly, our ‘formal description’ is never going to be the whole story, but it can be practically helpful nevertheless. In mental health this is however most emphatically not the case – there is no defined or definable biological ‘illness process’ taking place that we can point a finger at. This ‘illness process’ has never been found, let alone been measured, quantified and corroborated by experts. If someone were to find a causal connection between the physiological substrate and the commonly-presenting disturbances in mental health that would be very big news – we would know all about it!

 

There are processes taking place here of course and we can speak meaningfully about them, but only if the language we use is sensitive enough and flexible enough for the job – the realm that we are trying to talk about here is not a concrete one, it is most emphatically ‘not quantifiable’ and for this reason developing some sort of dense, ‘clunky’ pseudo-technical language is actually quite absurd. We are not talking about what’s really going on, so what is the point of this investment in a way of describing things that doesn’t actually have bona fide correlates in the real world? In the case of a physical illness such as malaria there exists a level of description that is quite separate from the experience of the various symptoms, such as high temperature, fatigue, weakness, shivers, etc, and this has to do with the nature of the malaria-producing parasite, its mode of transmission, and so on, and this body of knowledge, abstract though it is from the point of view of the sufferer’s actual experience, is clearly very relevant.

 

It’s a different kettle of fish however when we are talking about psychological disturbances – there is no ‘abstract level of meaning’ that we can usefully refer to here. Whatever my actual experience is, that is the meaning of what is happening to me.  No one is supposed to be ‘thinking’ about it – drawing conclusions about it, analysing it, etc. No ‘models’ or theories exist that can be of any genuine practical use. There is no ‘story’ that can be read from what is happening to me, nothing an expert clinician can extract from my experience that is going to be more relevant than the experience itself – all they are doing is imposing their own ‘version of events’ on me, and this is aggression not ‘helping’. It is, we might say, a widely practiced form of ‘institutionalized violence’; it is ‘violence’ or ‘aggression’ in the sense that it is ‘an enforced conformity to some widely-held set of assumptions about life’. This sort of talk will probably sound rather odd to most people since we that we all very much tend to take it for granted that there must always exist some ‘objective’ description of what is going on for us that we almost certainly don’t have any access to. To think this is very much to miss the point, however – if I am having some kind of painful/distressing experience and I try to interpret what I’m feeling in some kind of rational (or ‘scientific’) way then what I’m essentially doing is denying what I’m feeling. The only way not to deny it what’s going on for me is not to interpret, not to impose my own (or anyone else’s) framework of interpretation on my experience. Interpretation is aggression, and as such it is always going to rebound on me and add to my suffering rather than lessoning it.

 

This is a strange thing to say because our understanding is very much that the true, objective nature of things can only be known by scientific experts – the raw experiential data of our lived lives is only a subjective illusion, so we in our sophistication believe. It might be a subjective illusion, but at the same time it is our subjective illusion and we can’t dismiss it or in any way walk away from it. We certainly can’t hand it over to a bunch of big-brained experts to make sense of it! Whatever I’m experiencing it is my truth, and is worthy of respect on this account. My own truth is all I have, after all. In short, no one – no matter how highly educated or experienced they might be – can ever tell us ‘what our experience means’. We ought to know this, we ought to see it very clearly indeed, but we don’t. We have been bamboozled for too long!

 

Whatever ‘condition’ it is that I am suffering from has a meaning to me that manifests in the form of mental or emotional pain, obviously enough, but the point that isn’t so easily understood that the pain does carry a meaning, or – as we should rather say – that the presence of pain is a meaning’ in itself. The ‘meaning’ of the experience is the experience itself, as we have already said. This may become easier to understand if we go back to what we started off talking about: the pain of neurosis (we might say) is the pain of being separated from our own true nature, and of being compelled therefore to live in some kind of ‘removed format’, some kind of format that bears no essential relationship to who we really are. This doesn’t mean however that the condition of being separated from our true nature, in some kind of removed format’, is always going to be painful for us – very often it isn’t, very often we have no way of knowing that we are, in some fundamental way, ‘removed from ourselves’. We are not in the least bit aware of our ‘lack of a sense of interiority’ because that lack of interiority becomes projected out onto the world where it is invertedly perceived as ‘potential values’ that we may or may not be able to realise. To put this more clearly, we can say that our vanished interiority shows itself in a hallucinatory fashion as ‘prizes that we can win’. But our chance of realizing these external values, of winning these ‘prizes’, is zero; this is never going to be any more than mere ‘theatre’ – it is never going to be any more than mere theatre because the inverted projection of our missing interiority isn’t an actual ‘thing in itself’, it’s simply a symbol or not metaphor for what is missing. The Great Prize that we are trying to acquire in the outside world is a metaphor that we don’t see as a metaphor, a symbol that we don’t see as a symbol; on the contrary, we see the value that we are chasing – very naïvely – as being something that really does have an independent existence in the outside world. Rather than being ‘psychologically-minded’, we are being 100% ‘concrete-minded’ instead. What we have just described is the state of ‘psychological unconsciousness’ in a nutshell. Unconscious life (we might say) is the life in which we spend all our time displacing the unacknowledged pain of disconnection from our own true nature (i.e. our interiority) onto the outside world and then either chasing it when it appears in the form of attractive projections, or running away from it when it appears in negative (or aversive) manifestations.

 

This displacement mechanism is – therefore – why it is that we aren’t aware of our state of ‘removal’ from ourselves, why it is that we don’t know about our ‘lack of interiority’. We don’t know what is missing from our lives because we have unconsciously reformulated it in terms of some bogus ‘external possibility’ that we may (or may not) be able to realise in the outside world. This becomes the normal way for us to be, the normal way for the world to be. When we are in this ‘distracted’ mode of being we don’t miss our relationship with our true being, our actual core nature, then because we have what we might call a ‘delusional’ relationship with it as it (misleadingly) appears in projected form; we have a relationship with ‘the reflection of our interiority’, which is just like the reflection of the moon in the village pond, to use the Zen metaphor.

 

The remarkable thing about this is that we are able to construct our whole lives on this basis – not on the basis of a genuine relationship with our ‘interiority’ but on the basis of our relationship to a supposed ‘possibility’ that can’t actually ever come to pass, which is the projected eventuality of us being able to bring about the actualisation of the exteriorization (or displacement) of our lack of interiority, which (naturally enough) isn’t a real thing at all but – as we have said – merely a symbol or metaphor which we can’t see as such. So putting this a bit more simply, our lives are predicated upon this key assumption that ‘the symbol isn’t a symbol at all but the real thing’, which is clearly never going to get us anywhere!

 

This would sound very fanciful indeed as a basis for living life if it were not for the fact that we already know that it actually works very well indeed. We know that it works very well indeed because we can see the evidence all around us! We could of course ask how we know that we are all living ‘on the basis of symbol or metaphor that we can’t see such’, and this is a reasonable question. Everyone we meet (or at least almost everybody) seems to be operating in a perfectly authentic basis, after all. Nobody seems to be ‘unconscious’, nobody seems to be ‘lacking in interiority’! There is a key ‘yardstick’ that we could use here and that is the question of whether the structure of society actually makes sense to us or not, whether it seems like a perfectly reasonable and sensible way to be living our lives, or not. If it does make sense, if it does seem like a reasonable and worthwhile way to live our lives, then this clearly demonstrates that we are living life on the basis of the metaphor that we cannot see to be a metaphor. It clearly demonstrates that we are ‘living life concretely’, in other words. The values of society are all entirely concrete; this is of course the case because they relate only to ‘the concrete sense of self’. Society has nothing to say on the subject of ‘the inner life’ and that is the only life that really matters, the only life that is worthy of the name…

 

The social structure exists for one purpose and one purpose only – validating and facilitating the concrete identity. It only exists to support ‘the life of the outer man or outer woman’. If we are operating on the basis of the concrete identity then the structure of society serves us very well therefore (or at least it seems to) but when we aren’t looking out of the world from the concrete point of view then we perceive it as being hostile to us – it is hostile to us as we truly are in our essence. The black-and-white framework of meaning that is the social system is implacably hostile to consciousness; naturally the FW is hostile to consciousness – it’s hostile to consciousness because it always wants to put consciousness in a box! When we put consciousness into a box it ceases to be consciousness; it becomes something else instead – it becomes ‘the concrete self’!

 

We are using this observation as a way of throwing light on the way in which we live life on the basis of on the basis of symbols that we mistake for a concrete reality, but this is of course only going to work if we are able to step out of the concrete self! If we can’t step out of this viewpoint then our argument is wasted effort – the only way we can ever appreciate the significance of the statement that ‘we are unconscious because we live life on the basis of symbols that are taken in a concrete fashion’ is if we can already see things in a ‘non-concrete’ way and if we can’t then the observation will remain quite meaningless to us. This entire discussion is of course quite meaningless anyway if we are only thinking in a concrete way – the only thing the concrete point of view can understand is its own concrete, black-and-white logic and that logic always confirms the validity of the viewpoint that is using it. The concrete self has validation aplenty (which is of course how gets to be the concrete self) but at the same time (despite all this spurious validation) it still remains pure empty delusion.

 

To come back to the gist of what we are saying then, it’s clearly possible to live on the basis of displaced interiority, and when we do so we end up in the very familiar situation of ‘the concrete self living in the projected positive world’. We don’t need to say anything further about this particular situation because we all know it so well! When we make the experiment of living as the concrete self in the concrete world (as, for the most part, we all are doing) then we don’t notice our lack of interiority. This lack shows itself in terms of our ‘distractibility,’ our immersion within the world of fear and desire, but instead of lack of authenticity and independence, we just see this as ‘normal everyday life’ and see nothing wrong with it. We don’t know what we are missing, after all – reality has been murdered but there are no witnesses, as Jean Baudrillard says.

 

Our lack of interiority can impinge upon us however when it does it manifests in terms of an intensification or exaggeration of the tendency to be controlled either one way or the other by the mechanical force of attraction/aversion. Whenever this mechanical tendency of ours gets accentuated beyond a certain point it becomes painfully visible to us and it is shown up as being incongruous as a result of its painful visibility. When our attention is drawn to the overtly mechanical and compulsive nature of our behaviour and thinking then this is of course highly distressing for us – it is highly distressing because we can’t help seeing that the terrible lack of autonomy that is involved here – we can clearly see that we have been ‘taken over’ by external deterministic factors that are very obviously inimical to our true well-being. The truth of the matter is that we are almost always being controlled by these external mechanical factors but we don’t notice it because it is generally occurs within the range of what we see as ‘normal (or ‘socially-congruent’) behaviour. Generally speaking – when the mechanism of unconsciousness is running smoothly – then we obtain some degree of satisfaction and validation as a result of obeying the mechanical impulses that drive us. We feel ourselves to be in control and that we are ‘doing stuff because we want to do it’; we have the ‘illusion of autonomy’, in other words. This illusion is painfully ruptured when we find ourselves doing (or thinking) stuff that we don’t want to do (or think), and when these actions cause even more pain than the pain we are trying to get away from. Our attempts to escape the pain inside only bring us more pain and this is the neurotic situation in a nutshell.

 

In terms of ‘loss of soul’, we could say that the failure of the mechanism occurs when we can no longer distract ourselves from the pain of having lost that essential part of ourselves because our distraction strategies are now causing us even more pain than the pain we are already in. Paradoxically, therefore, our failed attempts to avoid the suffering of our lost interiority (our lost connection with our own essential nature) is what brings us to the point where we can’t help finding that connection again. All our tried-and-trusted exit routes have been ‘cut off’, so to speak, and so we have no choice but to confront the truth. Our ‘failure’ helps us where our ‘success’ could not, therefore…

 

 

 

Art: Corvi by Inkiostro Bianco, taken from architonic.com

 

 

 

 

The Spiritual Trap

The so-called ‘spiritual path’ that we hear so much about is a deeply confusing thing; it’s a deeply confusing thing from the point of view the conditioned self, at any rate! When we think of spirituality and the spiritual realm we think of light and love and creativity and the outpouring of blessings and abundance but all of this is necessarily seen from the perspective of the conditioned self. What other perspective would we see it from, anyway? We have no other available perspective to us – if we did then we wouldn’t need to be thinking or talking about ‘the spiritual path’ in the first place because we would already be there.  That’s where we want to be, not where we already are. It’s our ‘fantasy’, so to speak…

 

But why, we might want to ask, is it such a great problem to relate to the spiritual path from the POV of the conditioned self or ego? Surely we have to start off somewhere? The conditional self must after all be entitled to its own (however narrow) way of imagining what the spiritual life would look like.  This however is precisely the problem because the condition self sees everything in an inverted way – it can’t see things straight no matter what it does! That is beyond it. The self cannot help but see everything in terms of limitation and the projections that arise out of this unacknowledged limitation; it can’t help seeing things in terms of its own unacknowledged limitations because that is its nature, but how can freedom ever be represented in time terms of a limitation (or rather an ‘inversion’) that has not been acknowledged?

 

The self can’t understand anything except ‘through its own viewpoint’ and so when it thinks about freedom it naturally thinks about freedom for itself. It imagines that it’s going to obtain this great blessing called freedom (or peace or joy or whatever). But how can an imaginary entity that is constructed on the basis of ‘the absence of freedom’ actually obtain freedom for itself – this is a contradiction in terms. The nub of the contradiction is this: we know that freedom is wonderful but the thing is that we want to experience it at the same time as hanging on tightly (as tightly as ever we can) to our lack of freedom, which is where we get our sense of security from. We want two mutually exclusive things at the same time therefore, and we can’t for the life of this see any problem with this. Our fundamental allegiance is to our sense of ontological security, and yet somehow we imagine that freedom is something we want, even though freedom means ‘freedom from this restrictive (and entirely illusory) sense of ontological security’.

 

The only reason we are interested (the only reason the condition self is interested) in the so-called ‘spiritual path’ is because – on some level – it is convinced that there is going to be profit to be had in travelling down it. There is something highly attractive there that the conditioned self is reaching out for, in other words. The actual irreducible mechanics of the situation means that conditioned self can only be interested in something if it thinks that it can exploit that situation and the very nature of ‘the spiritual realm’ is that it is the one thing that can never be exploited by the self, or indeed be ‘related to’ (in any way) by the conditioned sense of identity. The spiritual life is what happens in the absence of this grasping, controlling, manipulating, perennially greedy and insecure self.

 

 

What we call ‘the spiritual realm’ is after all precisely that realm of being that is not a projection of the self; it is that realm of being that does not serve as a backdrop to the self, as a context for its activities. How can the self exploit its own absence, therefore? How can the self exploit reality, when reality is reality precisely because it is not being seen or constructed via an act of reference to that ‘unreal centre’ which we call the self’? And yet – despite this profound anomaly –the conditioned identity’s most sophisticated strategy for validating itself is to take up an interest in spiritual matters, ‘consciousness expansion’ and so-called ‘self-development’ in general. This is the point Chogyam Trungpa makes here in ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’

No matter what the practice or teaching, ego loves to wait in ambush to appropriate spirituality for its own survival and gain.

‘Appropriating spirituality’ is however only one example of what the conditioned identity is always doing in order to validate itself – the everyday self is forever hitching its cart to one sort of ‘good cause’ or another, and as far as ‘good causes’ go anything religious or spiritual is pure gold dust! There will never be any better validation and this. The conditioned identity or self-concept is by its nature always insincere therefore. It always has a hidden agenda and that hidden agenda is simply itself. This however is – generally speaking – a rather unacceptable agenda, a rather unattractive agenda, and so the self-concept comes up with something else instead, something more palatable and wholesome sounding, which it manages – very easily – to wholeheartedly believe in. Spirituality is no exception to this and this is why the world of ‘spiritual teachers’ and ‘spiritual seekers’ so often has bad smell to it, a bad smell which we might not notice straightway because of the glossy packaging it comes with. Generally speaking, we can say that ‘the glossier the package, the worse the smell will be’.

 

The essential contradiction is therefore, that the ‘attractiveness’ of the package is an appeal to specifically to the conditioned identity, and this is starting everything off on the wrong foot right from the word ‘go’. To revisit the example we gave earlier – we hear all this talk of abundance and manifestation and being empowered or supported by the universe (and so on) but this is all pure illusion, pure fantasy. It’s a projection of the conditioned identity – a projection which is so attractive precisely because of where it is coming from, which is ‘a place of chronic impoverishment’. Abundance is no good to the conditioned identity – the greater the abundance the greater the desire and the greater the desire the more misery we are going to be in. The conditioned identity will swallow all those riches down in a flash and become bigger and greedier and more miserable than ever. This is simply what we always do – we are always chasing the good stuff, no matter how we might happen to see it. In reality, nothing exists for the conditioned identity except for a very long, rocky road leading to its eventual extinction, and there’s not a lot of appeal in that! ‘Enlightenment is ego’s ultimate disappointment,’ says Chogyam Trungpa; there is no ‘good stuff’ out there that the self can win by playing the game of spirituality well enough, by meditating assiduously enough. There’s nothing for it take home and bank.

 

This is a there is of course another side to spiritual endeavour and that is the path of self-denial, self restriction, self mortification and we are of course very familiar with this from the example of the more ‘joyless’ forms of Christianity.. The puritans banned theatre and dancing (and merrymaking in general) in 16th century England, just as the Taliban did in Afghanistan when they were in power. Smiling and laughing were not seen as a good thing! The ‘ultra-serious’ forms of religion always ban everything that has no bearing on the all-important task of fighting sin and purifying the soul. This is just another sham however – it’s just another strategy of the conditioned identity in its attempt to get what it wants. The more I reject and deny myself the more this shows my craven desperation to ‘obtain the prize’!

 

There is no ‘prize’ however – that’s just the crazed fantasy of the conditioned identity, as we have said. The prize I can’t wait to get my hands on is the prize of my ultimate unquestionable self validation, the prize of knowing that I’m definitely ‘doing the right thing’. This is absurd however – the conditioned identity can never do the right thing. Nothing it does can ever be ‘right’ (in the sense of being free from the taint of self-interest); the conditioned identity can never be validated the way that it wants to be because its motivations are never going to be honest and straightforward. The self’s motivations are never going to be honest because honesty would mean acknowledging its own inherent emptiness. The truth is the one thing that is never welcome at the door of the conditioned identity; its fundamental orientation – necessarily – is always towards fantasy.

 

This raises the question as to what ‘genuine spiritual endeavour’ might consist of – the type of spirituality that is not about chasing rainbows and unicorns on the one hand, or the humourless malignant denial of joy on the other. What is left after we take these two extremes away? The one thing we can say is that it is not helpful to try to step into the shoes of ‘an alternative version of ourselves’ who just happens to be more spiritually advanced (whatever that means!) and less screwed up than we are. ‘Spiritual bypassing’ is not the answer! Not only is this quite pointless (in the sense that it’s never going to get us anywhere), it is also actually going to work against us because we will be prone (in fact more than just ‘prone’) to believing that we have achieved some of virtue when we haven’t! Our illusory sense of ourselves is going to thrive, and we’re going to be happy about this wonderful ‘sense of spiritual identity’ and encourage its growth as much as we can. We’re going to water and feed it ever day…

 

Believing that we have achieved some sort of virtue when we haven’t (or believing that we are ‘more spiritual’ than we really are) is a recipe for an especially virulent type of shadow, and spiritual groups or communities have more than their fair share of ‘unacknowledged negativity’. There is all sorts of unacknowledged nastiness that goes on here. The same is true of course in mainstream religious circles – some the most vicious and inhumane acts in history were carried out in the name of God, or in the name of religion. On a less conspicuous level, it is always the case that when we imagine ourselves to be living life ‘more righteously’ than our fellow men (or fellow women) then this is going to give rise to a very unpleasant form of judgementalism on our part and this toxic judgemental attitude (the toxic judgemental attitude of the righteous man or woman) is how the ‘shadow of religion’ shows itself. The judgement of the righteous followers of the way upon their less worthy fellows is always a manifestation of the shadow. Very peculiarly, we tend to imagine that God Himself is judgemental and intolerant in this same way, and so – it could be said – we only taking our cue from Him! It’s as if we assume the Deity to be suffering from the same malaise that we are – the malaise of thinking that we are ‘more spiritual than we really are’, the malaise of having false ideas about ourselves. This – after all – is the only place intolerance and negativity comes from.

 

The cure for such hubris is simply for us to live life as we actually are, to walk in our own shoes, rather than in the shoes of some more spiritually-advanced ‘version of ourselves’. What could be a better way of being ‘cut down to size’ than this? Our idea of ourselves (the self-concept or conditioned-identity) operates by always promoting itself above its actual station. That’s what it does, that is ‘natural activity’. The self-concept makes itself into ‘the centre of things’; who after all doesn’t feel themselves to be ‘the centre of things’? We can feel that we are the centre of things in either a pleasant or an unpleasant way, as ‘the hero’ or as ‘the villain’, but it’s a false perception either way. Whether I feel like the best in the world or the worst in the world, it is still an inflation of my actual situation. Any thought of myself at all as an inflation of ‘the actual situation’ and the self-concept is never any more than just a thought’! The self-concept is only ever just a thought and all thoughts are inflationary (i.e. they make something special when it just plain isn’t) and so to live life as we actually are (rather than as we would like to be) is the infallible cure for spiritual hubris.

 

If we were to ask what the ‘true’ spiritual path might look like one good answer would therefore be to say very simply that it is to live our own life as we actually are rather than striving for some attractive ideal. ‘Striving’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, in other words! ‘Spiritual striving’ is not all it’s cracked up to be because on the one hand it blinds us to the way we actually are, and on the other it causes us to fall headfirst into the delusion of thinking that we are other than we actually are. This doesn’t mean that we stop striving however, because striving to be better is how we actually are. It’s not as if we should now turn things around and ‘strive to be non-strivers’! The unpalatable thing is always to be the person we actually are, and realize that in doing this we are being as honest as we ever possibly can be, and that this ‘honesty’ is the most that we can ever do. That’s the one thing we can do – be honest, and if we’re not honest (as we of course aren’t) then that’s fine too because all we need to do is pay attention to that.

 

It’s the truth that sets us free, as Jesus says in John 8:32, not any spiritual fantasy that we might be indulging in. We don’t need to try not to fantasize (if we do that then all that’s going to happen is that we’re going to run a fantasy in which we aren’t fantasizing) we just observe the fantasy we are running about ourselves whenever we it comes to us to actually remember to observe – how often – if at all – we do remember to notice the fantasy that we are currently running is another matter entirely, of course! A reorientation is involved here therefore – a reorientation from fantasy towards the unvarnished truth of what’s actually going on for us, however unglamorous or unpalatable that might be. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche puts it, ‘we stop looking for our dreams to come true’:

As long as you regard yourself or any part of your experience as the “dream come true,” then you are involved in self-deception. Self-deception seems always to depend upon the dream world, because you would like to see what you have not yet seen, rather that what you are now seeing. You will not accept that whatever is here now is what is, nor are you willing to go on with the situation as it is. Thus, self-deception always manifests itself in terms of trying to create or recreate a dream world, the nostalgia of the dream experience. And the opposite of self-deception is just working with the facts of life.

 

 

 

Art: Lora Zombie Reykjavik

 

 

 

 

 

Living Life Aggressively

There are two ways to live life – one is where we are constantly imposing our own expectations and goals (or other people’s expectations and goals) on the world and the other is where we are sensitive to what is ‘unfolding all by itself’, and are interested in seeing what happens when it does unfold, ‘all by itself’.

 

When we are in the mode of ‘imposing our expectations or goals on the world’ then we are absolutely not interested in seeing what unfolds all by itself, obviously! We are only interested in seeing our goals being realised; anything else – by definition – is a disappointment to us. The concept of being ‘interested in what unfolds’ is profoundly meaningless to us – we see that as merely ‘giving in to external circumstances’. Nothing is going to happen that is to benefit us that way, we say. No ‘advantage’ is ever going to come our way unless we fight for it to.

 

In one, very limited way, this is true. If we live in a world that believes that the only way ‘good things’ are going to happen is if we fight for them to happen, then because everyone’s interpretation of ‘a good thing’ is narrowly interpreted as ‘the gratification of our goals’, which all have to do with personal advantage’ (which is of course the way we operate in our society) then it is of course very much the case that if we don’t fight tooth and nail for our advantage then it’s going to be someone else’s advantage that is going to be realised instead, and so there is no way out of the struggle. There’s nothing for it but ‘struggle followed by more struggle’, even though it’s a guaranteed fact right from the beginning that none of this struggling is ever going to get us anywhere. The myth behind aggression (needless to say) is that all the struggling and striving will pay off; the truth behind the persistent myth is however that it won’t.

 

Living aggressively by always striving to impose our own ideas, our own expectations and goals on the world, does not come with a good prognosis. The prognosis for this type of approach is always bad, no matter what our goal-orientated society might tell us! As a modality of being in the world it seems to make sense, it seems very much to be sensible and to ‘hold water’ as the way of going about things. Actually, of course (as we have just said) when we caught up in it then we can’t see any other approach to take; we can’t see any other approach that doesn’t straightaway spell ‘defeat’ in terms of the game that we are playing. For this reason, therefore, it’s hardly surprising that we’re putting all our money on this approach – what else are we supposed to do?

 

Living life in the aggressive mode is actually addictive, when it comes down to it – it’s addictive because we can’t see any way possibility other than to keep on doing it until it finally pays off (if it’s ever going to, that is). Our only way to feel good is to put ourselves in the situation of being ‘one up’ in whatever struggle is going on; this feels good because it feels as if we’re getting somewhere. This addictive feeling of ‘getting somewhere’ is false however because – as we have said – ultimately we are not getting anywhere. No one ever gets anywhere on the basis of aggression – it’s an out-and-out lie that we will do! It’s a lie that everyone believes in, to be sure, but that doesn’t make matters any better; the consequences of folly aren’t made any less disastrous when the folly in question is conducted en masse. All that it means is that we have company in our mistake, and means of course that we are much less likely that we will see it as a mistake.

 

It doesn’t take too much effort to discredit what we have called ‘the aggressive mode of living life’. Being ‘aggressive’, just to recap, is where we proceed by imposing our own expectations and goals on the world so that everything (or as much of everything as possible) happens along the lines we want it to. There are all sorts of assumptions implicit in this way of life – assumptions that we never bother to look into. One is that ‘we already know everything that is important for us to know’ (except for a few details here and there that can be filled in later) and so it makes sense for us to make plans with regard to what we want to see happening in life. If we didn’t make this assumption then we could hardly put as much emphasis on ‘control’ and ‘making plans’ as we do! The other, related assumption is that nothing good or worthwhile will happen unless it is made to happen, forced to happen, and this assumption is what locks us into the aggressive mode of being in the world, as we pointed out earlier.

 

As we have said, we don’t generally see ourselves as having made these assumptions – we usually imagine that there is a lot more freedom in our lives than there is. The problem with the ‘positivist paradigm’ (which is another way of talking about psychological aggression) is that it comes with no freedom. They can’t be any freedom when we have already filled it up all the available space in ourselves with ‘what we think we know’! ‘Freedom’ and ‘the radical unknown’ are the same thing – there’s absolutely no way that there can be any freedom in the known, even though this – from the philosophically positive point of view – is something that we simply cannot see. From the ‘positive’ perspective the only type of freedom is the freedom to do whatever we wish to do within the realm of the known; there can’t be any freedom in ‘the radically unknown’ for the simple reason that we don’t admit that there is such a thing! The only reason we are able to proceed in the positive/aggressive way that we do this because we don’t acknowledge there being any possibility of ‘the radically unknown’. If we had acknowledged the possibility of radical uncertainty then we would never have been able to start off in the positive mode in the first place. We would have been too unsure of our ground to start building on it. We have to assume that we know something for sure or otherwise we have no basis for anything and if we have no basis for anything then there can be no such thing as ‘the positive assertion of goals and expectations’.

 

The positivist position is based on hope therefore – when it comes down to it, we’re hoping that our basis is correct, we were hoping that there are some things that we really and truly do know for sure!’ We have to hope this because otherwise nothing we believe in makes any sense! What we have essentially done when we jumped into the ‘positive mode of being in the world’ is that we made a ‘guess’; it is of course perfectly legitimate to make guesses, but the thing about the positive/aggressive approach is that we gloss over the fact that there has been any guesswork involved – we don’t acknowledge this in the least. Straightaway, we start acting as if the guess we have just made is known to be unquestionably untrue, and so absolutely no ‘window of uncertainty’ is left open at all. This ‘closing of the window’ facilitates a positive/aggressive approach in life, but at the same time it precludes any chance of actual freedom.

 

This always comes down to the same thing – if our guess happened to be ‘right’ (rather than being completely ‘wide of the mark’) then there would be no such thing as ‘radical uncertainty’; there would be no such thing as radical uncertainty because everything would have to seamlessly ‘dovetail’ with the positive knowledge that we already have (i.e. our core assumptions), and so there couldn’t be too big of a surprise floating around anywhere. There might be small surprises of course, but nothing radical, nothing that would well-and-truly upset the boat (and therefore prove our guess about the nature of reality wrong). In this case – as we have already pointed out – a type of freedom would be the type that is to be found within the Realm of the Known (i.e. the only type of freedom possible will be ‘the freedom of swapping one known outcome for another’). Radical freedom will be something that doesn’t exist at all.

 

This is all very well, but it all hinges on this one, very precarious thing, and that thing is that our original guess (which we are not admitting to be a guess) was right. But the point here is that even if our guess did happen to be wrong, completely unfounded, completely wide-of-the-mark, etc, we never have any way of knowing this. We would have no way of knowing this because the ‘Realm of the Known’ which we have now created for ourselves contains, as we have said, no ‘windows’, no means of asking any radical questions. The ‘positive reality’ doesn’t contain the possibility of ‘questioning itself’, in other words. If it did then it would no longer be a positive reality; it would be a ‘relativistic reality’, which is a different kettle of fish entirely. When it comes down to it, there is no way we can ever prove that there isn’t such a thing as the radically unknown, the radically surprising, the radically uncertain, out there somewhere waiting to pounce on us. Our positive logic will always tell us that there isn’t, but then it is in the nature of logic to say this. The nature of logic is such that it can’t question the assumptions that it has made in order that it should be there in the first place, as we keep reiterating.

 

Thinking about it, we’d have to ask ourselves why we would ever put ourselves in such a highly dubious position. What possible motivation could we have doing something like this? We base everything on a guess that we don’t admit to be a guess and then we charge ahead incautiously down a road that only goes one way, a road that takes us to a Realm of Positive Knowledge that can’t (by its very nature) ever be falsified from the inside, and which we can’t ever get out of! The only possible consolation we could ever have in this position (if we were looking for some, that is) is that we might possibly have been right in our original supposition even though – having entered into the lobster pot of Positive Reality – we now have absolutely no way of checking up to find out whether we were ‘right’ or not. All we can do is keep on telling ourselves that we were right to go down this road, that we are right to continue down it, even though whatever assertions or self-affirmations we do come out with invariably carry no weight at all. They carry no weight at all since they are presupposed by the assumptions that we have to buy into without knowing that we were buying into anything.

 

When we live our lives in the concrete, aggressive way that we almost always do live it, then with every purposeful action that we take, with every logical thought that we come out with, we are covering up the truth, covering up our own true nature. Everything we do on the basis of the concrete, ‘rule-based mind’ comes down to ‘the denial of radical uncertainty’; the world that has been created by concrete, rule-based mind constitutes a formidably thorough-going ‘system of denial’. The world that we have created for ourselves – most peculiarly – is the systematic denial of the possibility that we might have been wrong in our original unacknowledged ‘hypothesis’. If it happens to be the case (speaking purely hypothetically here) that we were correct in our original assumption, then this would make our purposeful actions, rational thoughts and pontifications on the matter completely righteous in the manner of a fundamentalist preacher who is speaking words of literal truth.

 

But if this were the case, could we not afford to be a little more generous, a little more gentle and kind-hearted in our attitude? Would we have to be so harshly judgemental, so very cruel and unforgiving? This is a telling argument because fundamentalists (of whatever type) are always harsh, always judgemental, always unforgiving. That comes with the territory. That is their nature, as we all know! The fundamentalist, the ‘concrete or literal believer’ is always right and if they are right then that means someone else has to be wrong! Right always means wrong – we can’t have one without the other. By the same token, when we cling less stubbornly to our rigid opinions, dogmatic points of view and beliefs, experience invariably shows that this makes it more tolerant of other people, not less. Not having some sort of fixed position or attitude in life allows us to be more generous of spirit, more humorous and fixed gentle in ourselves, which shows that – as the Buddhists say – there is strength in vulnerability that does not exist in the fixed position, and the clenched fist.

 

The secret to life itself – we could say – is this difference between aggression and non-aggression, and what a big difference this is! One way is ‘all about us’, whilst the other way is about ‘what it is that is revealed when we stop being so obsessed about ourselves’. One way is ‘all about us’, only it isn’t really all about us! It’s all about ‘who we pretend to be because we are afraid of finding out who we really are’. This is what living aggressively comes down to – it’s our attempt at pretending, as systematically as we possibly can and in collusion with others, to ‘be what we are not’, and that’s why it is always so dreadfully uninteresting, so dreadfully sterile…