The Purely Conceptual World

We have been given a ‘purely conceptual world’ to live in. Because it is a world that is ‘purely conceptual’ this means that there is nothing at all in it. A purely conceptual world is a world with absolutely nothing in it and yet that’s all we are being given. It’s not worth sitting around and waiting hopefully for ‘something else’ to come out of this world because nothing is going to come out of it no matter how long we might wait! It is absolutely the case that we have been given a purely conceptual world to live in and it is also absolutely the case that we are sitting around waiting for something good to come out of it even though nothing good ever can. This is exactly our situation. We go through life thinking that we’re up against this problem and that problem and that we have got this issue and that issue to contend with, and in a (subjective) way this may indeed be said to be true. The underlying problem however – the problem that we can’t ever see – is that we’re stuck in a purely conceptual reality.

 

To talk about ‘a conceptual reality’ is of course an oxymoron – it can be the one way or it can be the other but it can’t be both. We have reality or we have the concept of it but we can’t have both because the two things are as far apart as any two things ever can be. The conceptual reality is like the reality of a film set that, from a certain angle, looks like the real thing, but which can’t ever be investigated from any other angles without it being instantly revealed for what it is. The whole point is not to investigate it from other angles. ‘Life in the conceptual reality’ means making very sure indeed that we only ever do look at things from the proper prescribed angle therefore. If we look at it any other way then the illusion is abruptly shattered; the ‘magic’ that keeps the film real is lost and then we are confronted with the distinctly un-magical nature of the situation.

 

Our allegiance is always to the reality that is being created by the rational mind rather than anything else and we show our allegiance by feeling cheerful when our thoughts indicate that we should be cheerful and being downbeat and morose when they indicate that this is the appropriate reaction. If I think that I’m doing well then my mood improves, and if my thoughts tell me that my prospects are poor then my mood is correspondingly down in my boots. Such is our loyalty to thought that we were put ourselves through all this on a daily basis. We will suffer all sorts of indignities rather than doubt that what our thoughts are telling us about the world.

 

So if our loyalty to thought causes us to make fools of ourselves by becoming elated or depressed at the drop of a hat, bobbing up and down meaninglessly like corks floating in a choppy sea, then our loyalty to the conceptual mind causes us to devote our attention to a superficial pseudo-reality that has nothing interesting about it at all. So on the one hand we’re making a big song and dance about nothing at all the whole time, and allowing ourselves to be serially transfixed by banalities (when we could be paying attention to something that was genuinely interesting instead, i.e. the real world as opposed to the theatrical one) and on the other hand we are obliged to be very rigid and controlling with our perceptions in case we discover that the drama which is keeping us entertained (or ‘transfixed’) is nothing more than a hollow sham.

 

When we tease these two ingredients apart – the inherent dullness of the pseudo-world that we are compelled to believe in and the (usually) invisible anxiety that is attendant upon the maintenance of this fragile artificial world view – we can see something very significant, we can see two elements of depression and anxiety clearly revealed. What else is depression other than the discovery (the unwilling discovery) that the life which we have placed so much stock in (the life which we have been encouraged to place so much stock in) is utterly devoid of any worth or meaning, and that the ‘sense of self’ which has been constructed in relation to this artificial life is fake and lacking in any genuine sincerity or integrity? And what is anxiety apart from this invented – but all too believable – need to make something work that is never going to work?

 

Our encultured response to depression is to say that it is some kind of mechanical defect and that the life which we construct in relation to the ‘purely conceptual world’ which we have been provided with is authentic and meaningful and interesting and all the rest of it. That this is the case is not up for negotiation; that’s not on the table at all, and so any intimation – no matter how convincing it might be to the individual concerned – is inevitably going to be dismissed out of hand. The possibility of not dismissing it out of hand is something that never even crosses our threshold of consciousness. It never makes it that far, it’s shot down without any further ado, and so the message that the condition is screaming so loudly is roundly ignored by everyone concerned – everyone apart from the sufferer themselves, that is (who can’t really ignore it). This denial of the very obvious message behind depression suits the rest of us very well therefore but it doesn’t help the sufferer at all. Far from helping them, denying the reality of what they are feeling makes their suffering even worse – it is made worse because we – in our professional cleverness – have arrogantly denied the meaning of their most intimate personal experience. This experience – far from being pathological in nature – is actually profoundly healthy and this is the possibility we can never allow for.

 

In the case of anxiety our response is exactly the same. We are receiving a message against our will, we are receiving a message but we are fighting against it every step of the way – we are fighting against it for all we’re worth because it is so very inimitable to us. What the anxiety is telling us – in no uncertain terms – is that the endeavour which we are engaged in is untenable, that it is just not going to work out for us. It’s not going to work out for us because it is all taking place on a false basis; everything is always taking place on a false premise in the purely conceptual world because it is in the nature of concepts to be false. It’s a false basis because ‘the concept of me’ is trying to achieve ‘the concept of something else’; ‘the concept of who I am’ is trying (inevitably) to achieve some goal or other and goals are concepts just as anything else in the PCW is!

 

Anxiety is the same story as depression because the message is so strong, and because it hits us on such a deep level that we just can’t override it, or ‘conveniently reinterpret it’ as everyone else can. We feel it in our bones, so to speak. We feel it on a level that is deeper and more profound than the level of our thinking and so even though thought has been our master up to this point, it has finally being trumped stop trumped by reality (albeit a reality that we don’t like). It can’t stand up to our deeper intuition, even though it tries its hardest to do so. Thought isn’t really the master after all – it only pretends to be. Wisdom comes about as a result of suffering, Aeschylus says. Aeschylus also says that wisdom comes about ‘against our will’.

 

Naturally wisdom comes about against our will – what we are learning undermines everything we believe in, after all. It undermines everything we have invested ourselves in so deeply. If only we are able to understand what Aeschylus is talking about here deeply the process that we are undergoing would be so much less punishing for us. If we were able to have some insight into this timeless truth that would make such a profound difference to our experience, even though the process would continue just the same.

 

If we were supported in this crucial understanding (which could only happen if we as a culture were more psychologically aware, or even psychologically aware at all) we would have a far better chance of having this insight ourselves and then as a result of this insight we would still be mechanically struggling against the awareness that it brings us but we would be at peace with our own struggling. We would be ‘at peace with our own struggling’ (as strange as this might sound) because we would understand it but the problem is that the social milieu within which we are enfolded in is profoundly dismissive or denying of any such insight. We cannot after all – as we have already said – countenance for a second the suggestion that the PCW is devoid of any worth or meaning, or any actual reality. We couldn’t get our head around this suggestion even if we tried – that isn’t a thought that we are able to have.

 

Suppose that I do have the thought that ‘all my thoughts are devoid of substance’ – if I were to entertain this thought (the thought that ‘my thoughts are hollow’) then I would be ‘trusting my mental process in order to discount that very same mental process’ since ‘my thoughts are devoid of substance’ is itself a thought. The thinking mind never really sees through itself, even if it does play at it. When we talk about ‘the hollowness of the PCW’ we are of course talking about the hollowness of thought and so this ‘blankness’ or ‘emptiness’ is something that can never be known about on the basis of the PCW. We can talk about it, as we just have done, we can intellectually play about with the idea quite easily, but it’s a sham – not something that is actually helpful. It is very likely to be ‘helpful in reverse way’ because the more we intellectually play about the concept the more we become trapped in the intellect that is doing the ‘playing about’! We can as a culture field any number of intellectual heavyweights capable of discussing the hollowness of thought but that’s not going to help anyone, least of all them.

 

What does help is to focus solidly on two points: [1] that society provides us with a purely conceptual world to live in, a world that we are almost incapable of ever questioning, and [2] that the invisible hollowness that is inherent in the PCW ultimately manifests itself as neurotic suffering (which is displaced suffering, suffering which we cannot see for what it is, suffering the origin of which is entirely obscure to us. As a culture, we see ourselves as being very resourceful, very practical, and very capable; we also see ourselves as having an unprecedented amount of knowledge at our fingertips  – more knowledge than human beings have ever had available to them throughout the whole course of our history. That is unquestionably how we see ourselves. The thing about this however is that it is all a joke if we can’t see that being adapted to a purely conceptual world renders our lives completely sterile, completely meaningless, completely futile, and that this is the ‘Soul Sickness’ that Jung warned about over 80 years ago now:

Deviation from the truths of the blood begets neurotic restlessness, and we have had about enough of that these days. Restlessness begets meaninglessness, and the lack of meaning in life is a soul-sickness whose full extent and full import our age has not as yet begun to comprehend.

As Jordan Peterson says in one of his lectures, psychologists these days are strongly discouraged from mentioning Jung’s name in academic circles; to do so would be the kiss of death because everyone would then realise that you are ‘soft in the head’, so to speak (which is to say, not appropriately rigorous and therefore scientific enough in your demeanour).  No one would ever take anything you say seriously again after this fatal faux pas. No one would ever heed your words ever again. This fact in itself tells us everything we need to know about contemporary psychology! By trying so hard to be ‘scientific’ (whatever we might imagine that to mean) we have departed from our subject. Modern psychology is – at best – a source of confusion. It is a source of confusion because it traps us even more in the purely conceptual world under the pretext of somehow ‘illuminating’ us! Rational ‘therapy’ does the very same thing – under the guise of ‘freeing’ us from our thought-created suffering it compounds that suffering further. All rational therapies do this – there is no way that they can’t, of course…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discovering Our Wholeness

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unconscious Living

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Predicament of ‘Socialization’

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Subsuming Of Individuality [Part 1]

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The System Runs Us As Extensions Of Itself

The generic self is dependent upon the system. In a way, this is a very obvious statement. Of course the generic self is dependent upon the system. In another way, this question of the GS being dependent upon the system is well worth going into, this relationship – a so-called ‘relationship’ – is at the very heart of everything. This relationship is a paradoxical one, as Alan Watt says – it is paradoxical because whilst we are told that we are independent, and given the apparent ‘responsibility’ of being autonomous agents, we are in truth wholly dependent upon the system, which determines everything about us. Everything about the generic self comes from the system after all; that’s the whole point of the generic self – the whole point is that nothing is truly ours, the whole point is that everything comes from the outside. This being the case – as it is the case – how could we possibly be ‘independent’ of the system? Society might be said to be a type of ‘hall of mirrors’ in which we only know ourselves through our reflection in other people’s eyes, or in other people’s minds. This makes each person dependent upon every other person to know who or what they are, or even – you might say – if they are. We are addicted to the approval or good opinion of our fellows just as surely as a heroin addict is addicted to heroin, says Anthony De Mello, and this is why – because the collective tells us who we are. The system tells us who we are, and this is why we can’t ever be autonomous beings in the way we like to think we are, or in the way that society paradoxically holds us to be. When we allow ourselves to be defined by the system then we are not independent of that system. When we are defined by a system then we never have any separate existence from that system and so naturally ‘being free from it’ is never going to be a realistic proposition! Neither can it be said to be the case that we can have a relationship with that system – we need to be ‘other’ than something in order to have a relationship with it. A thing can never be said to have a ‘relationship’ with itself.

 

The generic self is the system which informs it, therefore. When we deal with the generic self we are dealing with the system – that’s who we’re talking to. When we are dealing with a socialised human being, then it society itself that we dealing with, and yet the rub here is that society itself doesn’t exist. It might seem somewhat stupid to claim that society doesn’t exist when we can all plainly see that it does (or at least, we can all plainly see that society is an actual ‘thing’ that needs to be taken into consideration) what we mean is that it doesn’t have any genuine existence of its own – it’s a production, it’s a thing that we vote into existence and so if we didn’t vote for it then it wouldn’t be there, plainly. The same is true for any group, clearly – a group is created by everyone involved agreeing to take certain things for granted and if we didn’t so agree then there wouldn’t be any group. Society is created by agreement as are all groups and what this means is that its emissary – the ‘generic self’ – also only exists because we’ve agreed for it to. The GS is no more ‘an autonomously existing entity’ than society is, therefore.

 

It might seem that this (the nonexistence of the GS) would constitute something of a disadvantage but nothing could be further from the truth – the nonexistence of the GS central to the whole scheme of things! The fundamental nonexistence of the GS means that when we identify wholeheartedly with it (as we do) we become very ‘needy’ and that of course suits the system down to the ground. When we are identified with the GS (so that the game which we are playing is the game that we are it) then in the game there is an absolute irrevocable absence of existence, an absence of existence that no one can ever do anything about. This has to be the case – obviously this has to be the case since – by definition – there is nothing of us in it! The GS corresponds to Gurdjieff’s ‘personality’, which James Moore explains by saying that it is ‘other people’s stuff made concrete in us’. We are busy living out other people’s ideas of who we are and what life is about, and the people we got it off acquired these ideas from yet other people, and so on and so forth. Everything is just ‘passed on’ and ‘passed on’ and it’s impossible to identify the original culprit, the original ‘instigator’ of the whole damn thing. The ‘originator’ is a meaningless concept. But because we are all ‘handing over’ our responsibility, with fervent eagerness, to this idea of who we are and what life is about the idea grows and thrives and takes on ‘a life of its own’. It grows and thrives and takes on a life of its own’ despite the fact that it doesn’t have a life, despite the fact that it doesn’t actually exist and never did. It isn’t really life that we talking about here therefore but a species of ‘pseudo-life’ – for what that’s worth.

 

This is what happens as a result of our ‘gullibility’, if we might use that word. Another term might use is ‘conformity’ – we have such a such an urge, such an overwhelming tendency, to conform to the structures and systems that we ourselves have created that these structures and systems take on a life of their own and rule over us (despite the fact that – as we have said – this isn’t real life at all but only a cheap imitation of it, an imitation ‘without any soul’). This process of handing over responsibility (or ‘handing over power’) to the systems that we have ourselves created so that they are empowered and we are correspondingly disempowered is utterly perverse and yet at the same time absolutely characteristic of what it means to be a human being. It’s what we do all the time! We do it all the time and we never pay attention to the fact that we doing it and so the origin or source of our malaise remains a complete mystery to us. We have created endless trouble for ourselves in this way – by handing over our power to the structures that oppress us and render us ‘not properly human’. It might sound unreasonably harsh to say that we are ‘not properly human’, or that we ‘fall short of being human’, but what else would we expect? We create the system and hand over all responsibility to it (so that we think what it wants us to think and behave as it wants us to behave) and this enables the system to ‘create out in its own image’. The system runs us as extensions of itself in other words, and this is what it means to be ‘the generic self’.

 

Because the system ‘runs us as extensions of itself’  – which is absolutely what it does do – it is inevitable that we are going to ‘fall short of what it means to be a human being’. We are no longer functioning as human beings after all – our humanity was the price that we had to pay in order to adapt ourselves to the security-producing mechanical system, as unpalatable by this awareness might be to us. When push comes to shove we will always do what we’re supposed to do; when there is no particular pressure on us then we can have the luxury of fooling ourselves that we are free agents, that we can act autonomously, that we can rebel’, but the bottom line is that our allegiance is always to the system. We can ‘act the rebel’ – we can act any way we like, of course – but these are only ever postures; the GS loves to look as if it’s a rebel but rebelling is the one thing that it can’t ever do. How can the GS rebel when it isn’t us in the first place? How can the GS rebel (or ‘think for itself’) when how it was created in the first place is by totally conforming to the system. The GS is a puppet, it is ‘the act of conformity personified’, and on this account it is never going to make great rebel! Puppets never do.

 

When we are the generic self then we are always going to fall short of what it means to be a human being – that’s a given – but the rub is that we are always going to fall short when it comes to the system’s standards too. The system always has impossible standards to live up to and no matter how machine-like we make ourselves we are always going to fail to meet the required standards. This is simply because the system is an abstract (or ‘unreal’) entity and so its standards are not practically realisable in the real world, which is where we happen to live. This is why the system is such a tyrannical master – because it is trying to impose its unreal standards on us, because it is always trying to make us into an unreal thing like it is’. The machine can’t help doing this because it can’t see itself as being unreal, because it can’t ‘recognise reality as being reality’. So when we experience the inner critic’s ongoing abuse of us, it’s constant derogatory putdowns and vicious belittling of us, this isn’t another human being inside us, it’s the machine. If (just to give one example of this sort of thing) I suffered throughout my childhood at the hands (or at the tongue) of a critical father then the inner critic isn’t ‘my father inside my head’ – for all that it might seem like it – it’s what we are calling ‘the machine’. It’s the very same machine that was in my father’s head. It’s the very same ‘machine’ that keeps on being ‘passed on and on’ from generation to generation. The machine inevitably wants to turn us into faithful versions of itself; whenever we put a machine in charge of us this is always what is going to do. It can never totally succeed however because there is always going to be something human in us, but it’s going to keep on at us all the same. It’s going to keep on ‘putting us through the wringer’ until it gets what it wants, which is an outcome that is never going to happen.

 

Being the GS definitely isn’t what it’s cracked up to be therefore! The only way we can never get to feel ‘good’ is when we get the approval or acceptance of the collective and we can only get the approval or acceptance of the collective by turning our back on ourselves as we truly are and dedicating ourselves to the values that everyone else is dedicating themselves to. Such is society – whether we choose to see it like this or not. This becomes particularly obvious in the type of small rural community where everyone is afraid to be seen as being in any way different or odd; this is a very real fear because when we get to be seen as different or odd in a very small rural community then it becomes all but impossible to live in that committee. But this is a slippery slope that leads inescapably to a very bad place since there is always going to be something a little bit odd or peculiar about us, were anyone to look closely enough. Eradicating all our personal peculiarities is an ‘impossibly ideal’. It is of course also true that folk can get very good indeed at being just like everyone else, and thinking just like everyone else, exactly like everyone else, and believing the very same thing that everyone else believes in but even when we are superlatively skilled at doing this (superlatively skilled in the art of mimicry) there is still always going to be the fear that we are going to be found out for something or other that is out of our control, and this is a fear that is never going to go away. We are balancing on a knife edge and there is no way to get off it. No matter how complacently normal and comfortably judgemental we might be, we are still balancing on a knife edge. The generic self is both complacent and running scared at one and the same time, even if this may sound contradictory.

 

Society is all about interjecting external ideals, external values, and treating them as if they were our own. We are educated in the game and then we play the game. We talk about chasing dreams or achieving our goals but almost invariably these are the system’s dreams and goals and not our own. When I am the generic self then nothing is my own, as we keep saying. It’s always ‘somebody else’s stuff’ When I am the generic self then my individuality, my uniqueness is an illusion; it is no more than a flimsy fantasy that the system supplies me with. It’s a comforting illusion to be sure, but it is an illusion all the same and that’s the frightening thing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Glamour of the Generic Self

The generic self is glamorous. Whenever it can, it displays a side to itself that is attractive, alluring, and mysterious. Needless to say, the GS is none of these things but that isn’t to say that it can’t conjure up the image when it has to; that’s what glamour is all about after all – it isn’t a naturally occurring attribute but an aspect of ourselves that we cultivate on purpose, an aspect of ourselves that is brought about by both clever stage-management and ‘putting one over on the audience’. It’s a scam, in other words.

 

If we wanted an example of the generic self being glamorous then we need look no further than the world of advertising – the world of advertising is full of glamorous representations of the generic self, it’s made up of nothing else but this. When we see the generic self being glamorous then we want what it’s got, we want the life that it is living. It is because we want that the life that the glamorous generic self is living that the advertising gets its grip on us, obviously. The naïve view is to say that ‘advertising exists in order to sell us the products that are being advertised’. This is true enough on one level of course but there’s more to it than just this – that’s just the icing on the cake. The bigger picture is to say – as John Berger does – that advertising is there to sell us a whole way of life (i.e. advertising is how society sells itself to us). The other way of looking at this is simply to say that advertising is how society sells the generic self to us since it is only as the generic self that we can get to avail of this way of life, this glitzy image-based culture. If we want to enjoy the products and services that are being offered to us then we have to be the generic self; we have to be the generic self since these things are only meaningful from its point of view.

 

We might wonder just how effective advertising really is and whether it justifies the millions that are spent on it every year and various answers could be given, but when it comes to ‘getting us to want to live the life of the generic self’ then there can hardly be any doubt on this score – it’s the most effective strategy ever! Who doesn’t want to jump on this train? The only people who haven’t jumped on board this particular bandwagon – almost as a rule – are those who haven’t whatever reason been able to.

 

The generic self may be glamorous, and we may have thought into its allure hook, line and sinker, but it isn’t us. This is the crucial point to understand. As soon as we use the term ‘the generic self’ we already know that this isn’t who we are – no one goes around feeling that they are ‘a generic person’ after all! We don’t really have any concept of the GS at all; it’s not part of our vocabulary. The whole process of ‘being seduced by the charms of the generic self and then ending up in a situation where we think we actually are this fictional self is not one that we ever bring any consciousness to – it’s not on our list or inventory of ‘things to be aware of’. We aren’t aware of ‘losing freedom’ and in any event this way of looking at things doesn’t occur to us in the first place; we don’t really know what freedom means in this profound sense, we only have a very gross understanding of what is meant by the word. ‘Freedom’, in the psychological sense, means freedom from the generic self – that’s the only thing it can possibly mean. What kind of freedom can we have as the generic, after all?

 

The generic self is the graveyard of individuality. It is the graveyard of everything worthwhile  and interesting – it has behaviour pertaining to it, to be sure, but this is not behaviour that comes out of a real human being, but rather it is only a conglomeration of second-hand thoughts and impressions along with the mechanical reflexes that come about as a result of them. Jung uses the word Everyman: when we follow our crude ‘passions’, he says, then we become Everyman – there is in this case nothing unique (or truly ours) in us, nothing that is not in everyone else. We are ‘infinitely interchangeable with everyone else’ in this case; there is a type kind of ‘cheapness’ to us, a profound lack of any originality or sincerity whatsoever. We could go through our lives full of energy and vigour, full of determination, getting involved in all sorts of things, having lots and lots to say on every subject, but all of this has no ‘meaning’ at all if it comes out of the generic self rather than out of who we really are. It’s no ore than a horror show, really. It’s ‘a thing that happens’, to be sure, but it really and truly has got nothing to do with us. We assume that it does, we imagine that it does, we feel as if it does, but it absolutely doesn’t! Something mechanical (something that isn’t us and isn’t anybody) is living through us and we don’t know it.

 

This is a kind of ‘test of the imagination’ therefore – does this idea or proposition makes sense to us or does it not? If it does make sense then not only does it make ‘intellectual sense’ (like any coherent idea would) it also makes an intense visceral sense too, a visceral sense that is extraordinarily repugnant or repellent. What could be more odious fate than to be going through life like this? The generic self at core is not a pleasant creature, despite its undeniably ‘glamorous’ aspect. It’s not a pleasant creature at all! If we don’t have the imagination to see what the GS is or what ‘life as the GS’ is all about then that is another thing entirely however. We are interested in other things, trivial things, but not in the question of noticing or appreciating what an odious fate it is to be identified with Jung’s ‘Everyman‘. This is a normal way for us human beings to be – we are interested in freedom, but not in freedom from the generic self; we are interested in lots of things, but not in becoming aware of the horror of our actual situation. We are interested in ‘not knowing the truth’, in other word. Even saying this isn’t quite right however – who is there to be either ‘interested’ or ‘not interested’ anyway? Only the GS is there and the GS isn’t us, as we keep saying. It isn’t anybody. It’s Everybody but it’s also nobody…

 

When we look at Everyman as he or she is portrayed in the adverts, it’s not the repellent side of it we see, that’s for sure! On the contrary, there’s something about this self that really makes us ‘want to be it’ – we want to be in its shoes not ours. We want to be in its shoes not ours because it has such very nice shoes! Our own situation is of negligible value – that of the glamorous generic self however is exciting to us beyond measure, we almost feel faint with excitement. This straightaway gives us a clue about where this seductive glamour comes from – the clue is that it is the GS who is experiencing the envy and longing. The GS is after all – as we have said – quite empty of anything interesting or worthwhile; it is not directly aware of this grievous lack (being quite devoid of any self-awareness) but what it is aware of instead are all the wonderful qualities that it perceives as being the property of someone else. The glamour that we are being daily hypnotised by is our own projection therefore; it doesn’t belong anywhere else even though we are absolutely convinced (flatly convinced) that it does. Very curiously therefore (and what could be more curious than this?) we are envious of our own inner impoverishment which has become manifest for us in ‘an upside-down way’ as the wonderful, super-enticing glamorousness of our own projections! We are (invertedly) relating to our own ‘inner poverty’ but we don’t know it.

 

‘Glamour’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, therefore. It isn’t what it’s cracked up to be at all – and neither is the generic self! The ‘value’ or ‘magic’ that we perceive, and which we are maddeningly attracted to, doesn’t actually exist anywhere. It doesn’t exist outside of ourselves (which is where we think it is) and it doesn’t exist within us either. What we are really seeing, as we have just said, is our own utter sterility turned on its head and re-presented to us as the promise of riches or wealth. We are always chasing treasures, we are always striving after ‘external values’, but the stuff we are forever trying to get our hands on is actually the inverted representation of our own denied poverty, if only we could see it. This characteristic ‘grasping’ activity only ever perpetuates our poverty, therefore. This is what the ‘mechanical life’ is all about – perpetuating the poverty, perpetuating the hollowness. We are ‘perpetuating the poverty that is ourselves’; as Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas (Saying 3) –

When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that you are the sons of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty, and you are poverty.

We are ‘perpetuating the poverty that is us’, but saying this isn’t quite right either because what we are so busy perpetuating isn’t really us but ‘who we think we are’, which is the generic self. This is the ‘essential mechanism’ of unconscious life. To say that this is ‘an utterly crazy situation’ is the understatement of the century – what could be crazier than this? In the adverts the generic self looks as if it knows what it’s doing, it looks as if it is successfully seeking and finding its own benefit (and greatly enjoying it too). The GS looks as if it is leading a wonderfully satisfying life, a thrilling and magical life – this is the illusion that is being so cleverly fostered by the advertising industry, after all – but none of this is true. It is all an utterly fantastical hallucination and it is this ‘utterly fantastical hallucination’ that our society promotes so effectively every day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playing To Live Or Living To Play

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Mindfulness Always Comes With An Agenda

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Self Can Never Be Improved

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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