Playing The Game

One thing we never properly understand is the true function of the power differential in society. We can of course observe, as did Alfred Adler, that there is this drive to obtain and exert power (which Adler derived from Nietzsche’s subtler concept of the ‘will to power’) which effectively incentivizes us to climb as high as we can up the social hierarchy. There are obvious benefits to this – from the biological point of view, having a high social status means (for males, at any rate) that we will have a better chance of passing our genetic material on to future generations, which is of course what the basic biological game is all about. In societies all across the world there are male hierarchies of power but the incentive to compete for a place in them is clearly not about having the precious opportunity to father more babies than lower status males can! That old-fashioned biological imperative obviously doesn’t apply to us – it might be true for baboons but it isn’t particularly the case for humans anymore. There is however another benefit to being ‘high status’ and that is the psychological one of feeling better about yourself, of having a ‘positive image’ of yourself. This is of course the ‘lobster effect’ spoken of by Jordan Peterson.

 

But we can go deeper than this and (following Nietzsche) argue that the greatest benefit of being high up in the power hierarchy is that we get to be the one who says what is true and what is not true. We get to be ‘the one who defines reality’ in other words and this can (obviously enough!) bring many benefits. The cliché is that ‘power corrupts’ but it would be more accurate, and more telling, to rephrase this as ‘the ability to define reality corrupts’! If I have the power to define reality than I am pretty much untouchable; if I have the power to say what reality is and what it isn’t then I can get away with just about anything. How can I get caught out when ‘everything I do is right’ (or when ‘everything I do is eminently justifiable’) and you can be sure that everything I do will be excused in this way if I’m the one in charge of the ‘official validation procedure’!

 

We all know that totalitarian regimes stay in power or consolidate their power by ‘saying what is true and what is not true’, so as to always paint themselves in a good light (no matter what atrocities they may have committed). This is familiar territory – we need only to think of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is a low-down dirty trick to redefine reality so that you can’t be seen as the scoundrel you are, and is also a trick that no dictator, no ruling elite, has ever shied away from! When you are in charge of what is true or not true it’s very hard not to abuse this power. What makes this so tempting is that when we distort reality to favour ourselves we believe in the distortion just as much as everyone else does. We never have to see that there is any ‘distorting of the truth’ taking place. ‘Telling a lie’ and ‘believing in the lie’ become one and the same thing.

 

This power of being able to distort the truth and straightaway believe our own distortion isn’t reserved for those at the very top of the social hierarchy of course – we all have this power, and we all use it. We are all ‘corrupt dictators’ when it comes to our own private reality bubble and if we think otherwise then that’s simply because we’re naïve. The difference is however that whilst we might be able to fool ourselves readily enough in any given situation, we are unlikely to be able to fool very many other people. Things change when we get up to the top of the hierarchy however; it all becomes remarkably effortless then – we are automatically on the right side of history, so to speak. We are automatically validated just by our very position, and this allows us to get away with a great deal – if we want to that is, and we almost certainly do!

 

We might argue with this by saying that, whilst it probably true that those right at the very top of the pecking order can get away with more, if they want to, this hardly explains the existence of power hierarchies in society and everyone’s need or desire to compete for the best possible position in them. We obviously can’t all ‘make it to the very top’ and most of us have no such ambition, but there is another dimension that comes into this and that is a dimension that we are – for one reason or another – particularly blind to. It’s not just that our self-esteem and confidence ‘go up when our social status is high’, that’s just a small part of it; there is another factor here that we are most unlikely to spot and that has to do with our ability to ‘pass on’ our own acknowledged existential pain and insecurity. The idea that this should be a significant (or maybe even an essential) factor in everyday human psychology is rather foreign to us – it’s not really part of our understanding with regards to the question of ‘how people interact’. Naturally it isn’t – if it was then this would compromise the mechanism by which we ‘pass on’ (or ‘displace’) our angst onto the people around us.

 

This is not something we focus on, and – as we have just said – this isn’t an aberration or an accident. There is a self-serving mechanism right at the core of ‘the everyday self’ that we never read about in any psychology textbook and that is the mechanism for getting rid of our inner pain without us knowing about it. It doesn’t make sense to us that we should have to have such a mechanism because – unsurprisingly enough – we see the situation of ‘being self’ as a perfectly legitimate state of affairs. It isn’t, though – it is on the contrary an artificial situation that has to be constantly propped up. Another way of putting this would be to say that the everyday self is an inherently insecure kind of ‘virtual entity’! When I have identified with ‘the idea that I have of myself’ (and the idea everyone else has of me too) – which is almost always – then I inevitably have to be doing something to ‘keep myself propped up’. I need to be continually validating myself in other words, and this is a job that I simply can’t get away from. I may not see what I’m doing (in fact it won’t work if I see what I’m doing) but this doesn’t mean that I’m not doing it.

 

Our assumption is that the self doesn’t need continually propping up, that it doesn’t need to be validating itself time and time again, and the reason we think this is because – as we have just said – we think that the idea which we have of ourselves isn’t a construct (just like all the other ideas that we have). To see this would constitute a total revolution in the way we perceive the world and our resistance to encounter such a radically new way of seeing things is of course always going to be maximal. Straightaway, therefore, we can see that there is some kind of ‘secret strain’ or ‘secret tension’ going on and that this tension itself is pain that needs to be promptly displaced if the integrity of the game is to be preserved. This might be said to constitute the type of ‘core existential pain’ that is contingent upon our conditioned mode of being in the world, but this is only the beginning. Just to cover up the awareness of how the self is being artificially presented to us not as a construct, but as an independently existing entity in its own right, isn’t good enough – the self-concept just can’t exist as some kind of ‘neutral player’, so to speak, it needs to be ‘head and shoulders above all the other players’, if possible. Or, alternatively, it needs to be head and shoulders above the environment that it finds itself in, which is to say, it has to be calling the shots and not the environment. The self-concept has to be ‘winning at its game’, in other words, whatever that game might be.

 

As Alan Watt says, the ego constantly has to be playing the game of ‘one-upmanship’. It has to do this in order to offset its ‘central weakness’ which is that it needs to be special in order to exist, whilst actually it isn’t special at all! The mind-created sense of self can never get away from this need to compete – even when it tries to be ‘humble’ and ‘unassuming’ it tries to be better at this task than anyone else! Essentially, it is the case that the mind-created image of ourselves is always aggressive (or rather we are always aggressive when we think that we are the self-image or self-concept). The self-image can’t not be aggressive because that is how it sustains its very existence, and this necessity is what no one seems to understand. We imagine that it must be possible for us to cooperate and be essentially peaceful and non-judgemental beings, when this is actually incompatible with our ‘identified’ nature, our nature as ‘conditioned beings’! On the surface of things, it appears that we do cooperate in society, for the most part, anyway; we not all out on the street fighting each other, at any rate (although that can easily happen if we have too much to drink). We may easily imagine – therefore – that humankind’s basic aggression has been sublimated and long last been turned into something more ‘productive’.

 

As we keep saying however, the type of aggression that we looking at here isn’t biological in nature – it’s psychological. Is the invisible aggression of projecting the thinking minds outwards onto the world and trying to make the world ‘be what we think it ought to be’ and ‘mean what we think it should mean’. This is the fundamental invisible and unacknowledged aggression of rationality. There’s still plenty of old-fashioned aggression around of course, but it is not so much ‘out in the open’ for the most part; when we look around us therefore, it does seem perhaps that the basic biological aggression has been sublimated into socially accepted channels. If we think that the aggression is gone however we’re very much mistaken; it’s merely been turned into the ‘manipulation of meaning’! We can’t see anything particularly forceful or coercive going on in the public arena perhaps, but that’s simply because everyone is perfectly happy to buy into the officially-manipulated version of reality – we are all quite docile in that respect. The tremendous homogenisation that’s taken place in the Western world with respect to culture is evidence of very great aggression; via the systematic manipulation of meaning, life has been turned into purely generic affair and the life of the autonomous individual doesn’t count for anything. Nothing ever happens that has not been programmed to happen, no one ever thinks what they are not supposed to be thinking.

 

Psychological aggression (as we have said) is where we control reality without admitting that we are doing so, which is something that’s going on a scale ‘hitherto undreamt of’. The question is therefore – who is manipulating reality, who is calling the shots with regard to all this control? This is – needless to say – a question that gets asked an awful lot; it’s a ‘classic conspiracy-type’ question, and anyone in this world who is even a little bit alert can smell a conspiracy going on somewhere. This isn’t an unfortunate mental aberration either – it’s just basic intelligence. Someone, somewhere, is cooking the books! Whole sections of potential reality been closed off to us on a permanent basis and no one is admitting to this. Something fishy is going on with the reality supply and anyone talks about it gets treated as if there’s something wrong with them; anyone talks about it is treated as if they’re mentally unwell. The official line is always that there is no funny business going; the official line is always that realty isn’t being tampered with. The official line, by definition, is always that ‘what we see in front of us the only reality that is’…

 

We could – if we wanted to – focus on the vexed question of who is at the very top of the power hierarchy. Who are the elite, who are the sinister manipulators? This is always a fascinating matter to think about for sure, but it’s much more fruitful to consider the uncomfortable question of ‘what’s in it for us‘. The point is that as far as most of us ‘invested players’ are concerned it doesn’t – in any practical way – matter who is at the top of the pyramid of power just so long as someone is. As long as someone is in charge then there will be such a thing as a tightly-organised hierarchy, and as long as there is such a thing as a tightly-organised hierarchy then we will be able to jockey for an advantageous position within it. This line from the film Sin City is rather pertinent here, where Senator Roark states that power comes from-

….lying big, and gettin’ the whole damn world to play along with you. Once you got everybody agreeing with what they know in their hearts ain’t true, you’ve got ‘em by the balls.

As long as we have a good position in the power hierarchy then we will be ensured of being able to invisibly displace our acknowledged existential pain on those who are either below us in the pecking order, or on the same level. We will do this of course at the same time as ‘sucking up’ to those above us – we fawn on those with more power and demean those with less. The times when we actually see this sort of thing going on however only makes up the very tip of the iceberg – we can see when a bully is doing their bullying (if the matter is brought to out in the open) but what is far harder to spot is the way in which this very same thing goes on in all ‘mechanical or role-based interactions’ between people. To exist within the hierarchy is always to displace pain (and also to have pain displaced onto us, if we not at the apex of the food chain).

 

This doesn’t mean that people never genuinely ‘kind’ to each other – we can meet with kindness wherever we are (although it’s more commonly encountered on the lower strata of society, where people are less concerned with status and have less to lose therefore by ‘dropping out of the game’) but when this happens it’s always because the people concerned have dropped out of the game and are responding autonomously, not as they have been told to respond by their social conditioning. Unless we disregard the rules of the game and become our true spontaneous selves, there is no way that we can be kind; unless we are being our true spontaneous selves then we are inevitably ‘passing on pain’. If we remain ‘plugged into the system’ (and continue to believe in the basic structure that is provided by society) then we are always going to be imposing that structure on everyone we meet, everyone we interact with, and this is an act of aggression. I aggress you and you aggress me – we both keep ourselves in our respective boxes, and the only real ‘winner’ therefore is the system itself. By seeking personal advantage all that happens is that we strengthen the machine (or the game) even more.

 

So much of what passes for ‘communication’ isn’t anything of the sort – it’s just control, it’s just ‘the use of power’. Communication can only take place between those on an equal footing. Anything we say that places any kind of constraint (or expectation) and the person we are talking to (when they are unacknowledged assumptions that are being imposed) is aggression, this control, and control is in itself paint displacement. The imposition of structure is paint displacement – this is obviously the case since there’s always an immediate penalty’ once we fail to accord with the structure that’s being presented to us. If we get it ‘wrong’ we are blamed’, in other words. If we disobey we get punished, and this is paint-displacement pure and simple. Those at the top of the pyramid are always right, whilst those at the very bottom are always wrong!

 

Even though we’ll never admit it to ourselves, being part of a determinate structure always creates pain (which is equivalent to saying, as we did earlier, that ‘being conditioned creates pain’, or that ‘being identified involves pain’). We have surrendered our actual autonomy after all, and the loss of autonomy is pure pain. We might as well say that ‘the loss of who we really are’ is pure pain; obviously it is – what could be a greatest source of suffering than this? The result is therefore that there is all this ‘free-floating’ pain in society and that is why we have to be so competitive, that is why we always have to be playing games. That’s why we have a top and a bottom to society; that’s why there has to be a hierarchy. This way we get to have ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and the losers get to carry the pain for all the rest of us! The hierarchy (or game) is a pain-displacement mechanism, therefore! The ‘losers’ don’t really deserve the pain that is being put on them of course but if the pain-displacement mechanism is to work someone has to be nominated as being worthy of blame, someone has to be seen worthy of ‘negative judgement’! Our ‘social hierarchy’ is all about pain displacement therefore, is just that we not accustomed to seeing things this way.

 

 

The significance of there being a hierarchy of power in society is therefore to a large extent a psychological one therefore in that it allows us to define ourselves, and ‘defining ourselves’ is how we keep the insecurity of our basic undefined situation at bay. If I am fully-defined then so too is the world around me fully-defined since I define my world and my world defines me, and so this leaves no ‘uncharted corners’ anywhere to worry about. Everything is neatly taken care of – too neatly in fact, because a completely defined situation is a highly uncomfortable one. It is a profoundly inhospitable one – there is irreducible suffering in it, as we keep saying. This sets up another problem therefore – we started off with the problem of ontological insecurity and then when we solve this we found that we had another problem in its place which is the existential pain of conditioned existence (the existential pain of ‘pretending to be who we aren’t’) and so – with great ingenuity – we solved this by creating a structure that has a top and a bottom! This way we can play the game of one-upmanship that Alan Watts talks about and those who do well in the game will obtain game. Opting for the safety of conditioned or defined existence inevitably brings about pain but we have found a way of using that pain (or the need to avoid it) as currency in a game, a game that has no end, a game that has no ‘happy resolution’…

 

 

 

 

Image: nzfilmfreak.com

 

 

 

 

 

Conscious And Unconscious Suffering

Our consciousness is controlled by compulsive external determinants which compel us to react to them on a full-time basis. When our consciousness is controlled in this way then reacting is all that we knowreacting is then the beginning and the end and we can never go beyond it. We can’t see beyond reacting and we don’t even understand that there is anything beyond it.

 

Another way of putting this is to say that our consciousness is controlled every inch of the way by the thinking mind and that when we are controlled every inch of the way by the thinking mind then we are completely lacking in freedom. Freedom is the one thing we can never have when we are under the Dominion of Thought – we don’t even know what freedom means, even if we do talk about it all of the time. Thought – we might say – is the utter absence of freedom disguised as ‘freedom’.

 

We don’t know that we are being controlled because – generally speaking – we think that we are the thinking mind. This is why the prison is invisible to us, this is why we don’t understand what it means to be ‘controlled without knowing that we are being controlled’; it’s a simple enough idea, but we just don’t get it (or if we do get it, we certainly don’t get it in relation to ourselves).

 

The problem is that we assume that these compulsive external determinants are us and just as long as we keep on thinking this then will never see that we are being controlled. Everything seems hunky-dory then, we have no cause to suspect that anything is amiss. ‘Why then would we want to know?’ we might ask at this point, ‘maybe we might even be better off continuing in this way, particularly if it seems that there aren’t any real problems arising as a result?’

 

There is a problem with the setup as it stands however, it’s just that we don’t see it – we don’t see that we are being controlled by external determinants that are not ‘anything to do with us’, and neither do we have any awareness of how this invisible lack of freedom might be backfiring on this. Our unawareness of the true nature of our predicament doesn’t mean that we are immune to its consequences however – we incur suffering as a result of being in this ‘enslaved’ state and although we aren’t generally in touch with the precise nature of this suffering it is there all the same, waiting for its chance to unfold and ‘show itself’ to us, which it will  do sooner or later.

 

The question ‘Maybe we would be better off not knowing that we are being controlled?’ is an ironic one, really. How could we lose our freedom (which is the most essential thing we have) and yet expect not to suffer in some way as a result of this? Freedom goes deep – it goes deeper than we might imagine it to. Without freedom we cannot ‘be’, without freedom we are not ‘free to be’, and so we simply don’t get to be! It’s not just that our true nature cannot thrive in the absence of freedom; it is necessarily excluded! Freedom – we might say – is who we are.

 

When there is no freedom there can be no ‘unconditional being’ and unconditional being is the only type of being there is! If there’s no freedom then we can only exist in the way that the All-Determining System of Thought says we can, and this type of ‘obedient or compliant existence’ has nothing to do with who we really are. Conditioned existence has nothing to do with who we really are; control always annihilates ‘being’. Control only allows what has been chosen or selected to exist (i.e. it only allows what has been said by the system to be ‘lawful’) and whatever is said or asserted is not us. We are what has not been said, and cannot be said. Whatever is ‘said or asserted’ is the System of Positive Knowledge, and the System of Positive Knowledge will not ever permit us ‘unconditional existence’. It can never grant us that…

 

This brings us to the point where we might want to ask ‘What are the signs and symptoms of having no freedom and yet not knowing it?’ How, in other words, does this odd state of affairs actually manifest itself in reality? Given that our lack of freedom is invisible to us (since if we don’t know that there is such a thing then we won’t miss it) how can we become aware of it? We can best characterise the process that is taking place (in the background, so to speak) by saying that it involves a progressive narrowing of our world along with a progressive inability to be aware of this narrowing (we can’t be directly aware of it since the ‘narrowing down’ is precisely what defines our capacity to know or perceive anything in the first place). Because this ‘narrowing’ is the same thing as ‘the denying of who we really are’ it will inevitably become manifest sooner or later however – it will become manifest to us as a type of spiritual ennui, in terms (we might say) of a ‘semi-repressed sense of all pervading meaninglessness’.

 

In the Purposeful Realm (which is the world we live our lives in when we are being unknowingly controlled by the aforementioned ‘compulsive external determinants’) the pain of meaninglessness ‘loads onto us’ without us being able to see the pressure that we’re under for what it is. We are being ‘choked out’ as regards our ‘sense of meaning’ but we’re not directly facing this pain. The pain or suffering does not show itself where it is (i.e. right in the core of us) but rather it is displaced onto the external world where it appears as ‘drama’. The more ‘choked out’ we are with regard to meaning or spaciousness in our ‘inner world’ the more drama there will be in our external lives therefore. This drama may manifest in terms of our social interactions or in terms of what is going on in our lives, or it may go no further than our own thinking – we will in this case be plagued by the curse of ‘overdramatic thinking’ (or ‘neuroticism’).

 

 

The pain we’re talking about here (the pain of meaninglessness or ennui) manifests as ‘lack of peace’ in other words, and the curious thing about this ‘lack of peace’ is that it’s not necessarily experienced by us as suffering – although of course it can be. Lack of space in the interior world always manifests as increased activity in the Exterior or Purposeful Realm. Oddly however, we experience this ‘lack of peace’ as something potentially worthwhile, as something that is potentially fruitful, and for this reason we automatically ignore the downside of it all. ‘Drama’ – in the sense that we’re talking about here – means two things: it means ‘us getting our own way’ and being validated as a result. And, naturally enough, it also involves us not getting our own way and feeling painfully devalidated instead. Because we’re looking at everything with ‘rose-tinted spectacles’ however we don’t see the ensuing drama as containing ‘equal amounts of validation and devalidation’, as all dramas do. We’re blind to that fact – we need to be blind to that fact if we are to carry on playing the game!

 

This doesn’t mean that we can’t ever do anything if we’re not ‘unfree on the inside’ – it doesn’t mean that we have to be helpless and passive and just ‘go with the flow’. Action isn’t the same as drama – drama is where we do what we do in order to obtain validation and avoid de-validation, whereas action is where we simply act, without any thought of validation or de-validation. There is no drama involved when there’s no ‘striving for personal gain’ – there’s no displaced excitement either, either of the euphoric or the dysphoric variety. Freedom is not a passive state but the only truly empowered one; peace is not ‘a repressed state of being’ but rather the origin of all effective action. In drama everything is about how the action in question is impacting on me; it’s not really about what is done or not done, what is said or not said. It’s all about the ego being either pleased or displeased, whereas action really is about what it says it is about. Action is sincere, in other words. Anything we do for dramatic effect can never be properly effective – it’s not meant to be either, it’s meant to be perceived as being effective, which is a different kettle of fish entirely. It’s pure theatre.

 

People quite regularly say, in discussions on medication, that they wouldn’t want to lose their ‘reactivity’, which we often perceived as being the thing that puts the ‘Zing’ into our actions. We tend to imagine that life will be flat and boring without our reactivity, which is the same thing as thinking that life would be flat and boring without all of our constant dramas! Actually, however, it is our reactivity that is ‘boring’ – what could be more tedious than being 100% engaged in ongoing empty drama, after all? Drama is exhausting and devoid of interest both at the same time! Not only is reactivity/drama ‘boring’, it is a – much more to the point – pure undiluted suffering. Drama is suffering but we just can’t see it as such. We can’t see it as such because we are hoping to get some good out of it (just as an old-time panhandler might hope to get a few big nuggets of gold at the bottom of his sifting pan one day). There is no good to come out of what we’re doing however, no matter how long we stick at the panhandling. Where drama is concerned we are always going to come out empty-handed!

 

To get actual meaning in our lives we have to go beyond reactivity and reacting, we need to go beyond  ‘being controlled by compulsive external factors without knowing that we are’. In the simplest possible terms, finding the meaning in our lives involves reconnecting with our actual sincerity, which is precisely what we lose when we allow ourselves to be controlled without realising that we are being controlled. Reconnecting with our sincerity does not of course mean that life gets any easier; the reverse of this  is true – everything gets a lot harder straightaway! When it does mean however is that no matter how difficult the situation we find ourselves in, we never lose our connection with actual meaning. There is absolutely zero meaning in ‘unconscious suffering’ (which is when we are being ‘preoccupied by the ongoing drama’, or – as we could also say – when we are ‘being controlled without knowing that we are being controlled’) but the gift in consciousness suffering is that the meaning immediately comes back to our lives…

 

 

 

Image: taken from consciousreminder.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loyalty To The Lie

The social life is one in which we perpetrate a kind of hoax without ever focusing on the fact that we are doing so. We could also say that the social life is a life which revolves around maintaining a fiction that we do not ever admit to being such. We think that society, or the social life, is all about something else, something more honest, but – primarily – it is this (i.e. ‘perpetration of the hoax or fiction’) that is the function that is being served.

 

One way to talk about this hoax is to say that we are being sold the idea that it is possible (and not just possible, but highly desirable) to have a type of life that in reality it is just not possible to have. This is rather a big hoax therefore since if we fall for it (as we generally do) then instead of living the life that it IS possible for us to live, we will be forever trying to live a life which it is simply not possible to live, no matter how hard we try.

 

This is very far from being an ‘obvious’ point however. It is so far from being an obvious point that most people would not get it no matter how much time and effort you might put into trying to explain it. Of all the difficult things to understand, this is right there at the very top, and not only is it challenging for us to understand (even if we did want to) the plain truth it is that – deep down – we absolutely don’t want to! We really, really, really do not want to ‘get it’.

 

One way that we could look at the hoax is to say that it revolves around the idea that ‘it is good to be a narcissist’! It is not ever expressed like this of course but that’s what it comes down to – we are presented with the idea or image of this type of life (this narcissistic type of life) and along with this idea and the images that go with it come all sorts of subtle (and not so subtle) incentivizations. We are ‘sold the package’, in other words. We are sold the package and, as Sogyal Rinpoche says, we are sold it with superlative skill.

 

We are skilfully manoeuvred not only into believing that the narcissistic life is potentially a rewarding and satisfying one, but also into believing that it is the only sort of life there ever could be. We are manoeuvred into believing that it is the only possibility. Add into the equation the fact that everyone around us is also falling for this hoax hook line and sinker, then the chances that we will ever smell a rat are practically zero. The chances that we won’t fall headlong into this trap – i.e. the trap of ‘narcissistic withdrawal from reality’ – (along with everyone else) is astronomically tiny.

 

There is a rat however and it is very big one. It is a very big rat indeed! This is King Rat were talking about here – the Great Grand-Daddy of all rats, and there should be no doubt about this. This is ‘the hoax of all hoaxes’ and no one seems to know anything about it. The problem is that we don’t know anything else; we don’t have anything else to go on. It’s like being in the dysfunctional family or in an abusive relationship – we think that what we are going through is just normal, we don’t realise that we have been taken for a ride. We have mistaken our prison for reality.

 

The nature of our prison (which, as we have said, is the prison of narcissism) is that it is entirely hollow, without any genuine substance or ‘goodness’ to it at all. Our activity involves therefore striving perpetually to bring in some actual substance into our lives, and/or fooling ourselves into believing that there is substance there when there isn’t. An example of how we cultivate this particular illusion is given by John Berger – the trick that we use (according to Berger) is that we go to a lot of effort to create an impression (or image) of ourselves that makes it look as if we having a good time (even though we’re not) so that we can make other people envious of us. This he calls glamour; The happiness of being envied is glamour’, Berger says. When we can see that other people are envious of what we’ve got, then we can logically infer that we must have something there for other people to be envious of! Other people think we’ve ‘got it’ and so we think that too.

 

This then is John Berger’s explanation of what ‘the hoax’ is. We might naïvely think that – in this consumer society – we invest all of our energy in buying products so that the products will ‘make us happy’, but this isn’t it – we’re buying all the consumer-type stuff in order that other people might think we are happy, which will then allow us to feed off the illusion that they have about us! Deep down we know that we can’t buy happiness but what we can do is to construct a believable illusion of us having a good time, having a good life, being happy, etc, so that both ourselves and others can believe in it. The purest example of this is of course social media – why else would we spend all our time posting images of ourselves having a good time if we weren’t trying to construct a believable illusion?

 

Nothing we have so far said comes across as being too formidably difficult to understand, even though this is what we started out by saying. Where the ‘difficulty’ shows itself however is in understanding the actual reason for the narcissistic life being so hollow, being so devoid of substance. Why is ‘the narcissistic life’ ‘impossible to live’? One way of looking at this is in terms of the basic Buddhist idea of ‘the good mind versus the bad mind’ – the ‘good mind‘ being the mind of compassion, whilst the ‘bad mind’ is the mind of self-interest or self-cherishing. [The mind of self-cherishing is ‘bad’ not for any moral reason but simply because it always leads to suffering]. If we live on the basis of ‘the mind of compassion’ then there is meaning in our lives and we grow as people as a result; if on the other hand we live on the basis of self-interest and self-cherishing then our lives become sterile and joyless and there can be no growth. All that can grow is greed, and the need for power or control.

 

All religions have the function of teaching morality (or at least they started out this way!), but the point is that this is not merely a matter of ‘social utility’ – it’s not mere ‘convention’ we’re talking about here but something much deeper. If we actually sat down and thought about it we would see this truth very clearly – there can be no meaning in the life of a narcissist. We don’t of course ever see ourselves as such; we have made Narcissistic Personality Disorder into a designated condition in DSM-5 but this makes it even easier not to recognise that narcissism (to some extent or other) is pretty much the norm in our society. It also distracts us from seeing that our consumer society actually relies on us operating as narcissists. We both pathologize narcissism and promote it at one and the same time therefore, which is rather conflicted of us, to say the least!

 

The ‘hoax’ that is being perpetrated in our society (and very effectively, too) is that it is possible to live in Narcissist Mode and lead a meaningful and fulfilling life at the same time and because of the way societal pressures work we feel obliged – without ever reflecting on the matter very much – to maintain the fiction that we are happy, that we are having a good time, and so on and so forth. This is what ‘living the life of the image’ is all about. This is where all the emphasis goes – it goes into fooling both ourselves and others that we are having a great life inside of our narcissistic cocoon. This however is (and always will be) quite impossible, as we keep on saying. That’s a non-starter. That’s just not going to happen…

 

The hoax – therefore – is to get us to try (and keep on trying) to live a type of life that is impossible to live, and we collude in this hoax by maintaining the fiction as best we can, without realizing that this is what we are doing. Sometimes of course we just can’t maintain the fiction any more, and when we can’t we feel very bad about that – we feel very bad about it because we’re ‘loyal to the lie’. We don’t realize that we’re ‘loyal to a lie’ but we are – that’s why we are at such pains to maintain and protect the self-image’, that’s why we always see having the self-image tarnished or shown up in a bad light as being such an unmitigated disaster…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pain and Suffering in the Positive World

The unspoken (and deeply hidden) assumption behind the positive or ‘stated’ reality is that if we don’t pressurise ourselves (or force ourselves) sufficiently then we won’t actually exist!

 

In the positive reality straining is the thing, therefore – any ‘failures’ are automatically seen as being the result of us not trying hard enough. We are therefore always culpable for any (so-called) ‘failures’ and this implication is inherent in the very nature of the positive reality itself. Everything is about trying, and our skill and persistence in trying.

 

In one way this makes perfect sense, in one way this assumption is absolutely true. It’s true as far as the ‘positive reality’ is concerned, anyway. Nothing exists in the positive reality unless it is forced to do so, unless it is compelled to do so. That’s the whole point of the stated reality, that unless it is purposefully asserted then it isn’t going to be there! Everything is thus our personal responsibility, one way or the other…

 

So in one way the assumption that we are talking about here is entirely valid, entirely trustworthy as a ‘guiding principle’. In another way however the exact reverse of this is true; in another way the assumption we are working on the basis of is utter nonsense and that is because what we are calling the ‘positive reality’ isn’t actually reality at all but only our model of it, only our idea of it.

 

When we are talking about models then naturally it is the case that unless we specify something (unless we ‘spell it out’) then it’s not going to be there. There is no problem in understanding this point. But what’s true for the model is not true for the reality that is being modelled – we don’t have to specify reality in order that it be there. We don’t have to tell reality to be there in other words!

 

We don’t need to tell reality to be there, and we don’t have to tell it how to be there either. This is how we know that reality is reality, and not some mere arbitrary construct! As Philip K Dick says, ‘Reality is that which, when we stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.’

 

Where the confusion comes in is because of the way in which we get our model (or picture) of the world muddled up with the actual genuine article. This confusion is bound to come about just as long as we are using the thinking mind to navigate by since the only way the thinking mind can apprehend reality is by representing it in ‘positive’ terms.  All representations are positive in nature. The TM actually has to ‘speak’ reality therefore; it has to aggressively assert ‘what is real’.

 

The TM can never ever understand the negative or unstated reality, and this ‘limitation’ is inherent – as we have already said – in the nature of thought itself, which is a positive or ‘doing-type’ thing. If we are operating on the basis of thought then we cannot at all comprehend what is meant by ‘the negative or unstated reality’. And yet at the same time we can clearly see – if we are not under the power of our thoughts and ideas and beliefs, that there is nothing else reality could be other than ‘unstated’. All the books in the whole world are written on humble blank paper, after all – what type of the situation would it be where there was ‘nothing but words’ and words could therefore only be written on other words?

 

Because we automatically confuse the positive reality with actual reality we make the mistake of assuming that trying (or straining) is the key to everything! Even if we aren’t aware that this is what we are assuming we are nevertheless doing so – our whole rational/purposeful culture is predicated upon this (false) assumption. That’s the type of world we live in – a positive world.

 

In everyday life we ‘get away with the mistake’ (after a fashion, in a way, although not really); when it comes down to mental health and our so-called ‘therapeutic approaches’ then this is where we really don’t get away with it. It backfires on us here big time here – the more we ‘try’ the more of a hole we get stuck in, and then everyone (including ourselves) blames us for not being able to get out. Everyone blames us (either implicitly or explicitly) for not trying hard enough. Perhaps we actually like being miserable, people might say, when after all the help we’ve been given we still don’t manage to pull ourselves out of the hole we’re in. What’s our excuse? What’s wrong with us? There must be some ‘secondary gain’ say the healthcare professionals, nodding their heads wisely to each other…

 

The truth is, however, that it is trying that lies at the very root of our problems. Essentially, we trying to force ourselves to exist; we are trying to wilfully redeem ourselves from whatever jinxed situation we are in by ‘pressurising’ ourselves, by ‘positively motivating’ ourselves. We are putting ourselves under pressure to be well, putting ourselves under pressure to be happy, putting ourselves under pressure not to be anxious or depressed.

 

This ham-fisted approach doesn’t work in negative reality however – it only works in the positive reality and the positive reality isn’t real! In the positive reality we need (as we have said) to forcefully assert ourselves if we are to ‘successfully exist’ – this is the ‘aggressive ego-world’ with which we are all so familiar. That’s in the make-believe world where we are forever playing ‘the game of egos’. In the real world it doesn’t work like this however. In the real world the more we pressurise ourselves to exist successfully the more unreal we become! In the real world the more we force ourselves (or ‘positively motivate’ ourselves) the more false we become, and it is this unreality, this inauthenticity that is the root cause of our suffering.

 

 

 

Image, The Strain Season 4, from denofgeek.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Environment That Compels

We are constantly being told that we should fit in to whatever it is that going on – this is the only message we ever hear. All messages are this message – obey, obey, obey. We’re all obeying machines and obeying is all we know. We’re either obeying machines or we’re failing machines. The message is so constant that it isn’t even as if we are being ‘told’ it. The environment itself is the message. We just know that we have to adapt, we just know that we have to fit in. The system isn’t just telling us that we have to comply – the system is compliance! Compliance is the only reality we know and so it isn’t compliance, it just ‘is’. It’s the inescapable condition of our existence.

 

 

The logic is inescapable. Logic is always inescapable; that’s the nature of logic – logic isn’t something that you’re supposed to be able to escape from! Logic leaves no loopholes. Logic is something you obey and the obeying is so total that it isn’t even obeying any more. It’s just ‘existing’. It’s the only form of existing we know of. It’s the alpha and the omega. This is the compulsive environment, the environment that compels. The only question is, how well do we comply? That’s what makes this into successes or failures, winners or losers. This is the world we live in – the world that tells you what to do and what to be. The world that tells you everything. What it doesn’t tell you doesn’t exist…

 

 

How well can you obey? How well can you obey? Only it’s not called ‘obeying’, is it? It’s called something else. Or it’s not called anything at all. Why call it something when there’s nothing else? Why call it something in particular when there are no other possibilities to talk about? You just have to get on with it; you just have to be what the system wants you to be. How well can you be what the compulsive environment wants you to be? Can you really make the grade? What will become of you if you don’t? Of course, the question we should really be asking is, what will become of us if we DO succeed? That’s the question we should be thinking about. What will happen then, huh? Not that we can think that – we never look that far. We’re not allowed to think it – it’s not within the parameters of our design. It’s not part of the game to question the game. How well can you obey, my friend? How successfully can do what you’re supposed to do, what you’re told to do? How well can you fit into a world that doesn’t allow ‘not fitting in’, a world that doesn’t have any concept for not fitting in, other than a wholly negative one? How will you obey even when you don’t know that you are obeying? How successful can you adapt and what will you become when you do attack? That’s the question the machine won’t ever let you ask!

 

 

Can you feel the pressure pushing down on you? Can you feel it there every minute of the day? Can you notice yourself straining to obey? Strain, strain, as hard as you can. Strain every day. Strain to obey the rule because you know what will happen if you can’t. Although you don’t really know. Strain to conform to the compulsion because you know the compulsion won’t allow you not to conform!

 

 

How well can you conform, my friend? Can you get it right? Will you feel at ease when you do so? Will you at last feel relief? Will you feel joy when you obtain the goal? Your attention is stuck fast to the defined surfaces that are being provided for you. Strain, strain, strain – strain to succeed! Strain to get it right! Your attention is glued to the concept of what you’re supposed to be, of what you’re supposed to do, and all you know is straining, all you know is straining. It’s the condition of your existence.

 

 

One illusion straining after another – do you know that feeling? One illusion trying to reach another. And what happens when you get there? What then? Will there be joy? Will there be happiness? Will there be relief? What happens with one illusion reaches another illusion, what does that add up to? What happens when you add one illusion to another? That’s the question we ought to be asking ourselves. Just what do we expect to happen then? Did we think that far ahead?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Challenging The Concrete Identity

The greatest cause of mental ill health on the planet is without question the Generic Mind which we all have to fit into. The Generic Mind is ‘the sickness that masquerades as health’, it’s the game we are all supposed to play. Carlos Castaneda explains the GM by saying that it is a ‘uniform’ mind – “a cheap model: economy strength, one size fits all.” By all having the same model of mind, we are able to readily communicate with each other – we all know instantly and exactly what the other person means because we share the same point of view. This ‘ease of communication’ is an advantage in one way therefore but it’s a disaster in another because we lose our own unique point of view. In his novel Breakfast Of Champions Kurt Vonnegut talks about ‘cuckoo ideas that we have no immunity to’ – these ideas circulate freely in society and automatically infect everyone they touch. These cuckoo ideas originate outside of ourselves (they are ‘foreign installations’, as Castaneda says) but we instantly adopt them as our own just as soon as they come into our heads – we incubate them lovingly and do our very to propagate them whenever we can. We obtain satisfaction from passing these viral ideas on, just as we experience irritation and annoyance (or possibly rage) when we hear them contradicted…

 

When we talk about the Generic Mind as being greatest cause of mental ill health the problem is that no one knows what we are talking about. We don’t acknowledge that there is any such thing as the ‘Generic Mind’ and so naturally we don’t see it as ‘the biggest cause of mental ill health’. We have lots and lots of other reasons listed for mental ill health and none of them have anything to do with the Generic Mind. And yet the GM is a very readily observable phenomenon: whenever a bunch of people agree that something is true then that is the generic mind right there! The GM is what happens when we join a group, in other words, and we all know the type of trade-off that has to be made when we become a member of the group. We first become aware of this insidious trade-off in the school playground and we only ever get more and more deeply embroiled in it as we grow up.

 

What happens when we become part of the group is of course that we lose our unique individuality – a collection of unique individuals can’t become a group matter how they try. A collection of individuals can ‘get on’ and ‘cooperate’ but the one thing they can’t do is form a group – individuality has to be surrendered for that! In a group, as we have said, certain things have to be agreed upon by all. What’s more, they can’t just be ‘agreed upon’ – they have to be agreed upon and then that agreement has to be immediately forgotten about. We have to first take a whole bunch of stuff for granted and then we have to charge on ahead wholeheartedly without ever looking back at what it is that we assumed in order to be able to charge full-speed ahead. This is what society is, and this is also what the Generic Mind is – 100% unreflective action.

 

The Generic Mind is always marked by its concrete nature, therefore – it is concrete because it can’t question its core assumptions and ‘not being able to question one’s core assumptions’ is the very definition of ‘concrete’. There is absolutely no way that the GM can ever be ‘non-concrete’ – the only way this could happen would be if the group broke up into individual persons, and this just happens to be against the rules of the group. Furthermore, when we are in the group, then being exiled from the collective is seen as the worst possible thing that could happen to us. What is really happening when we adapt to the Generic Mind therefore is that we get locked into a type of blindness, type of stupidity. Not being able to question our core assumptions is a terrible form blindness, and there’s no getting around it or compensating for it, no matter how clever we get. The whole enterprise simply becomes ever more absurd, evermore ridiculous, and ever more doomed to eventual disaster.

 

From the point of view of the Generic mind (or the concrete individual) there is nothing more unthinkable than having to question (or ‘let go of’) our core assumptions. Our very blindness has somehow become infinitely precious to us and we will protect it fiercely – we will protect our toxic ignorance to the very best of our ability! The basic motivation behind a group is always exactly this – it is always conservative and never ‘exploratory’. We’re locked into this position of protecting our core assumptions even though we don’t actually have a clue as to what they are! We don’t of course want to know what these core assumptions aren’t because (on some level) we realise that this would involve finding out that they aren’t true, and because of our ‘absolute commitment to the cause’ this would spell the greatest possible ‘unwanted outcome’. As far as motivations go therefore, this is a very strong one! It is both a very powerful motivational force, and a lethally dangerous one; not only can it never lead to any good, it is without question always going to lead us to utter disaster in the long run.

 

We can say two very simple things about the Generic Mind therefore – one is that it is always concrete, and the other is that it is driven, at all times, by the utterly inflexible need to avoid questioning itself. We can say this about the Generic Mind and we can also say it about all social groups, including of course society in general. In this ‘peculiarity’ of the concrete mind can be seen ample cause for mental ill health – it is hard (if not impossible) to think of a better recipe for mental ill health than this! There is no arguing with a concrete-minded person, just as there is no arguing with an organisation (or the people making up the organisation); there is no arguing (i.e. no possibility of genuine communication) with the GM because the GM has zero flexibility in it and there is no communication without flexibility. As far as the GM is concerned therefore, it is always ‘my way or the highway’…

 

The ‘sickness that masquerades as health’ is therefore the fixed identity that cannot question itself; the fixed identity that must always assert itself above everything else. For me, as a ‘concrete person,’ this sickness is actually ‘myself’ therefore; the sickness is me and if there is one thing that I am guaranteed not to understand then it is this! For me, ‘sickness’ is always going to be those forces that are acting against me, those forces that are standing in the way of me ‘continuing to not question myself’, whatever it is that stands in the way of me continuing to see the world in the way that I am used to seeing it and think I ought to be able to see it. The fixed identity sees its own integrity as the very bench-mark of mental health, in other words, which – from its own point of view – is entirely understandable!

 

Similarly, for us as a culture, we find it flatly impossible to grasp the idea that the sickness which is afflicting us is ‘the sickness of the fixed concrete identity’! We just don’t get this and we aren’t about to get it either, which isn’t surprising since – as we have said – society itself is a fixed concrete identity. So too are the healthcare organisations that we encounter if we do develop mental health challenges and we want some help and support. This in itself is inevitable,  nature of organisations being what it is, so where the problem really comes in is where we meet workers and therapists who completely reflect (or embody) the unyielding concrete nature of the healthcare organisation that they are working in. In this case we are stuck between a rock and a hard place – we are ‘trying to force ourselves to get better’ (in accordance with our concrete viewpoint on the matter) and so too is the healthcare machine that we are now under the care of. Either way, it’s all about control, it’s all about ‘forcing’, and the way we are trying to force ourselves to be is only the ‘right way’ because we’re looking at everything from the closed (or conservative) viewpoint of the concrete mind set.

 

The point (that we keep making) is that the concrete mindset can’t do anything other than try to force things to be the way it thinks (i.e. assumes) they should be. Just as it cannot question its assumptions, so too it can’t NOT try to force things to accordance with the ideas that it has concerning how things should be. The concrete mindset is utterly blind, as we have said – it is blindness personified. Everything it does comes out of this blindness; there is nowhere else it can come from because all the concrete mindset has is its own viewpoint, which it totally takes for granted. That’s what ‘concrete’ means – that’s the whole point, the whole point is that the concrete mindset demonises everything that hasn’t got its official ‘stamp of approval’ on it, and it only puts its stamp of approval on its own productions.

 

There is no substitute for an individual (or ‘unaffiliated’) person in the heavily regulated world of mental health-care; there’s no substitute for someone who isn’t a company man or company woman, anyone who isn’t singing from the prescribed hymn sheet. There is no substitute for actual consciousness, in other words, and consciousness hasn’t anything to do with this dreadful old thing we are calling ‘the fixed identity’. Fixed identity is the very antithesis of consciousness; it is that principle of consciousness turned on its head and made into a perverse parody of itself. When we switch from consciousness to ‘concrete mode’ therefore, we aren’t moving ‘from one end of the spectrum to the other’, or anything like that, we’re switching from an allegiance to the truth, at ‘whatever cost,’ to allegiance to the lie, no matter what price we might have to pay for that unwise affiliation. These two things are frankly incommensurable – we can’t ‘serve two masters’ in this regard, if we do then, according to Luke 16:13 we ‘…will be devoted to the one and despise the other’. Or as we read in 1 Corinthians 10:21: ‘You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.’

 

If we have no unexamined allegiance to our unconscious assumptions then we are free to do anything – we are free to let any idea go, no matter how attached to it we might be, and this is what mental health truly consists of. Mental health is all about courage therefore – we are not being governed by a hidden (or not so hidden) core of fear, which is what lies behind the security-seeking ‘concrete mindset’ that we keep talking about. So what we are really saying here is simply that fear and fearlessness are incommensurate – fear is after all the only possible reason we would swear allegiance to a bunch of unconscious assumptions! ‘Conscious assumptions’ are on the other hand a totally different matter: we can operate on the basis of assumptions if this turns out to be useful for practical purposes (i.e. if making assumptions in some particular matter actually works) but that doesn’t mean that we have to make a religion of them! We can use rules when it suits us to do so, in other words, but that doesn’t mean that we have to let these rules have free reign to determine everything about us.

 

When we make a religion of our unexamined assumptions (which necessarily involves making the act of questioning them ‘heretical’ or ‘taboo’) then the only possible reason that could lie behind this is fear. Nothing else would make us do such a stupid thing! What we are essentially doing here is that we’re putting all the money we’ve got on a totally mad gamble – the totally mad gamble that our unexamined assumptions will somehow turn out to be correct, even though we’re not going to actually look at them.  We’re acting out of fear rather than wisdom. The fact that we are so very reluctant to investigate our own brash claims ought in itself to be enough to tip us off that something fishy is going on. Any impartial observer could tell us that there is something extremely dodgy going on here when we behave like this but somehow we turn this dodgy manoeuvre around so that it becomes something to feel good about. We have made our lack of honesty and integrity into a virtue to be proud of – the classic ‘red-neck’ trick!

 

This then is exactly how the Generic Mind works, by turning its inflexibility, blindness and aggression into a virtue, into something to be proud of. We are proud of our fixed identity; it’s the thing we’re most proud of – we’ve actually made it into something essential, something we can’t ever let go of. We’ve made it into something we can’t even think of ever ‘letting go of’. This throws everything we think and everything we perceive one hundred and eighty degrees out, so to speak. Our understanding is what of what is meant by ‘mental health’ is turned on its hand, as we have said. Our understanding of what is meant by the term ‘mental health’ is turned on its head to mean the automatic validation of what we have arbitrarily taken to be true, the aggressive promotion of what we have arbitrarily taken to be true, and that isn’t health by any stretch of the imagination! That isn’t health – that’s inverted health, that’s ‘the sickness that masquerades as health’! Health isn’t where we spend all our time glorifying our own stubborn ignorance and making a virtue of it; health is where we find the courage within us to start looking at these assumptions, and seeing them for what they really are. Mental health necessarily involves rebelling against the collective mind-set therefore, and this is particularly true in the highly conservative area of mental healthcare…

 

 

Image – New York Bushwick Street Art, from rebelone.de

 

 

 

 

 

The Problem With ‘Coping Strategies’

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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