Trapped In The Prison Of Thought

There are only two ways to be in life – one is where we are contained by our thinking, defined by our thinking, and therefore controlled by our thinking, and the other way is where we are somehow bigger than our thinking. Thinking still happens in this second case, but it happens within us, not to us. It’s part of us, but it doesn’t define us. It’s just thinking – it doesn’t create our whole world for us.

 

Clearly there is a tremendous difference between these two modes of being – in the first case the thinking is the boss and in the second case we are the boss! One way the boot is on the one foot, the other way it’s on the other foot, and there’s no question as to which foot the boot should be on. Why on earth would we want thinking to be the boss? Why on earth would we want to let our thinking control everything about us and ‘tell us who we are’ and ‘what we should be doing’, after all? Why would we want to be shrunk down to size so that we have to live out our lives within the limited domain of the petty little world that thought has created for us?

 

This is really a matter of choice however – even though we are inclined to imagine that it is. It can’t be a matter of ‘choice’ however because choices come out of thinking and so we can’t choose to be ‘bigger than thought’, or ‘bigger than the thinking process’. ‘Choosing’ – just like ‘planning’ or ‘strategising’ or ‘analysing’ – locks us into the thinking process; it makes us a prisoner of the thinking process. It is an odd thing because the act of choosing automatically feels as if it’s empowering us; having choice sounds like the same thing as ‘having freedom’. It isn’t though because – as we have just said – ‘choosing’ is an operation of thought and operations of thought cannot lead to freedom.

 

Another way of making this point is to say that we can’t choose to be free. The only way we could ‘choose to be free’ would be if we could ‘choose not to choose’. If we could choose not to choose then would be free but we can’t do that because ‘choosing not to choose’ as a blatant self-contradiction! That would be like ‘deciding not to decide’, or ‘planning not to plan’ or ‘having a goal to give up all our goals’. We are trying to be free from the thing by doing the very thing that we want to be free from doing, so how is this ever going to work? The trouble is that when we are caught up in thinking we don’t have the perspective to see this blatant self-contradiction. We need to be outside the prison of thought to be able to see this and it’s precisely the fact that we can’t see it that makes ‘the prison of thought’ into a prison.

 

This is sounds wrong to speak of thought as ‘a prison’ – that’s not the way we like to see things at all. Just as we see the act of choice as empowering us, so too do we see the process of thinking as empowering us. If you were to go around saying that thought is a prison people will straightaway think that you’re crazy, so not only is thought a prison therefore, it also makes us see everything upside-down. Thought is the prison we can’t see to see to be such – it’s a box that we can’t see to be a box. It’s a box that we take to be the whole world! There are lots of consequences to spending our lives in an abstract box and the most straightforward way to talk about them is to say that we always going to be unsatisfied, the matter how well things might seem to be going for us. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we are always going to be separated from life after all, that that’s the most fundamental form of frustration that there is. It’s like being stuck in a jam jar wherever we go – we can see, but we can’t touch!

 

The problem is that thinking can’t genuinely relate as to the real world, any more than this it can genuinely relate us to ourselves. Thought can’t connect us with reality (that was never its job, anyway) – all it can ever do is connect us with its ideas about reality, and thoughts’ ideas about reality are only an extension of itself, a projection of itself. So no matter where we go – we’re always going to be completely contained within the abstract ‘world that thought has made‘. We can’t escape from the box because thought itself is functioning incapable of leading us out of it. This brings us back to what we were saying earlier – that we can’t ‘choose not to think’ because ‘choosing’ is thinking. What else would it be, after all? We’re sifting through our mental categories, as always, and our mental categories – by their very nature – aren’t real. They’re about reality, they aren’t reality themselves.

 

No one is saying that we shouldn’t ever think about anything, or that there is no value in thinking, or anything like that – all we’re saying is something to the effect that “Wouldn’t it be great to leave all our thinking behind every now and again, so that we could experience a genuine ‘honest-to-goodness connection’ with the world, and with ourselves?” Wouldn’t it be great – in other words – not to be contained absolutely all the time within our thinking, as if there were actually some benefit or advantage to be had in this peculiar (and very frustrating) state of affairs? Who on earth is ever going to argue that there is any benefit to be had in being trapped in our thinking 24/7? Who is going to say that it’s a good thing to spend our entire lives ‘stuck in a box’, ‘stuck in the jam-jar of thought’?

 

No one would ever be ridiculous enough to say this of course, but what we do instead is to implicitly deny that this is the truth of our situation, when it most clearly is. There is no mention in society of the very great danger or drawback that is posed to us by runaway thought, just as there exist in society no pathways by which we can develop those other aspects of ourselves, those aspects which have absolutely nothing to do with the thinking mind. We value one thing and one thing only in this world of ours and that is the faculty of rationality, the faculty of reason. Our whole educational system is geared towards turning us into ‘better and better thinkers’, as if this will something solve everything, as if thinking itself were not the curse. What is actually being valued here is our ability to control or manipulate the world, because that’s what thought does. We have as a result become a very controlling, very manipulative, very insincere society – we are always beavering away to try and get things to be the way we think they ought to be. We’re always working away – like so many termites – in creating an artificial world for ourselves to live in and – ludicrously – we assume that this will be a good thing’! The fact that our world is getting uglier and uglier and meaner and meaner every year (as well as becoming less and less sustainable), doesn’t seem to impact on our core belief here at all.

 

Every socially accredited expert in town will swear blind to us that we doing are doing fine. Every government minister will tell us that we doing fine. Society itself  – through all its various mouthpieces – will tell us that we doing just fine, and it’s hard to argue against the totality of ‘society itself’! If we do try to disagree with the consensus then our point of view will be automatically dismissed on the grounds that ‘we don’t know what we’re talking about’ – obviously we don’t know what we’re talking about because we aren’t ‘experts’, because we haven’t been officially accredited as having the right to say anything. We’re wrong straightaway therefore simply because we’re not agreeing with everybody else! The fact that the only reason everyone else agrees with each other is because there’s ‘safety in numbers’ (and no one wants to run the risk of being collectively ostracised) doesn’t seem to detract from the strength of official argument in the slightest! This is the unassailable logic of the Monkey People spoken of by Rudyard Kipling in The Jungle Book“We all say it so it must be true!”

 

What we usefully can do here however is point out the key problem associated with being trapped in the thinking mind 24/7. As we started off by saying, the ‘key drawback’ with this state affairs is that when we are ‘contained by thought’ we can’t know what the world really is, or who we really are, but only what the apparatus of thought tells us on the score. We can only ‘know’ what we have labelled the world (or ourselves) as being, in other words, and that’s not really saying anything! We are ‘fatuously correct’ of course – we are correct in terms of the empty game that we have decided to play, but what’s so great about that? We are as far as our little pointless game is concerned, but what good will that do us? Not knowing who we really are, but only knowing our fatuous labels or designations for ourselves constitutes what we might call ‘the frightening abyss of ignorance’ and this frightening abyss of ignorance is all that our educational system is ever going to provide us with. It can’t impart actual wisdom to us because wisdom doesn’t come out of the thinking mind.

 

What society (which as David Bohm says is the product of thought) does is to separate us from who we really are by demanding that we put all of our energy and attention into adapting ourselves to the artificial world that it has created. This artificial world has nothing whatsoever to do with our actual nature and so the more we allow ourselves to be defined and controlled by it the more alienated from ourselves we become. The more ‘civilised’ we are, the more insane we are, as Foucault says. We might stand to gain all sorts of ‘materialistic benefits’, as the advertising industry keeps telling us, but none of these ‘benefits’ will help us get back in touch with ourselves, obviously. Their function is quite different – their function is to compensate us for what we have lost, although this will never be directly stated. Naturally it will never be directly stated – if it were to be then the deal we’re being offered would lose its appeal immediately!

 

If you were informed that you were expected to live in some kind of a way that fundamentally separates you from the essence of who you really are, but that you will be amply compensated by all sorts of banal daftness, by lorry-loads of ‘fancy fripperies’, how is this ever going to look sound good to you? That’s not how it’s done, however. It doesn’t work like that. No one ever tells us that the price of social inclusion is alienation from our true spontaneous nature and no one ever will! First we are alienated, and then we are ‘drawn in’ with all of these products and commodities that promise (in some vague way) to make us feel less alienated (or less ‘ridiculous’) and our continued attempts to fix or improve ourselves in line with the way that society says we need to be fixed or improved constitutes our whole way of life! That’s the whole package right there. And then – to cap it all – the clownish socially-accredited experts come along in their droves and dare to talk to us about our mental health and advise us on what ‘strategies’ we might avail of in order to improve it!

 

 

 

Art: Madness Returns’ Dollmaker’s Workshop, from gamesradar.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hypnotized By Images

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of images – images are what govern us in everyday life. If we were actually awake (which is to say, if we were actually paying attention to the fact that ‘images are only images and thoughts are only thoughts’) then images (or ideas) wouldn’t govern us, but we aren’t awake. This is the whole point: we aren’t awake and so instead we drift around in this ubiquitous state of being in which we are ‘hypnotised by images’, or ‘hypnotized by thoughts’. Our everyday modality is one in which we are governed by the ideas that we have in our heads and the images that we see all around us (which we also have in our heads because that’s where they take up residence) and the Number One Image that we are presented with in this commercially-orientated world of ours is the image of the existentially fulfilled narcissist! This is an odd notion right from the start because it isn’t possible to be in any way ‘fulfilled’ if we happen to be stuck in the narcissistic mode of being – that’s the one thing we are never going to be! We’re never going to be fulfilled because there is absolutely nothing at all fulfilling about narcissism. Consumerism is all about worshipping images and narcissism is all about worshipping the image of the self, and this means that we’re worshipping an illusion in both cases!

 

This key image – which we are bombarded with ten thousand times every day (unless we happen to be a hermit and therefore insulated from modern life) is deeply contradictory but this doesn’t in the least bit affect the potency of an image – who says that images have to be truthful, after all? The image we’re talking about here is the image of someone (the ‘idealised consumer’) who is leading an exciting and rewarding life as a result of purchasing certain products, or as a result of availing of certain commercial services. The runaway viral propagation of images is called ‘advertising’ of course and advertising is so commonplace to us, so much a part of our life, that we never give it a second thought. On the level that we generally understand it, advertising exists for the sake of selling certain products, certain services. On a deeper level however advertising can be seen as having the function of selling a whole way of life to us, a highly artificial way of life that we that we all now take completely for granted. As John Berger says,

Advertising is not merely an assembly of competing messages; it is a language itself which is always being used to make the same general proposal.

 

Every time we see the image of a happy/excited/fulfilled person within the context of advertising or promotions this is giving us the general message that it is possible for us to live this type of life and at the same time be fulfilled in every possible way. The fact that this message is entirely false doesn’t matter in the least, as we have just said, as the power of an image does not rely on its truthfulness but on its emotional appeal. How often do we see ‘truthful images’ anyway? What would a truthful image look like? Aren’t all images are created with some kind of agenda behind them? Is it even possible to create an image with no covert agenda behind it? In order to do this we would have to be ‘awake’, which is to say, we ourselves would have to be in that state of being in which we are not being controlled by unconscious biases or unconscious programming. When we are being governed by images that we have unconsciously absorbed from the social media, then all we can do is pass on’, whilst being under the impression that we are being original, being creative, being ‘true to ourselves’. This is what ‘the unconscious life‘ is all about…

 

Very oddly, no one ever comments on this. We do often talk about the fact that commercial representations of people promote an ‘idealised body-image’ which is very likely to have an adverse effect on our mental health (= ‘body-facism’). We also remark on the fact that social media generally only has an interest in people who are good-looking (= ‘beauty fascism’) and this too is undoubtedly ‘an unhealthy message’ to be spreading around the place. It is clearly an unhealthy message because it encourages us to be even more superficial than we already are! In focusing on body-fascism and beauty-fascism we missing the most significant point of all however, which is that the representations of people in advertising inevitably present in a highly positive light this proposition that we might call ‘the human being as a narcissist’ and this – without any question at all – has got to be the most disastrous of any image that we could ever be promoting. We are very effectively ‘shutting down our own consciousness’ in this way, and what could be more sinister than this?

 

As a culture, we suffer from a kind of ‘split personality’. We think we can do two things at once which are actually incompatible – we think we can put all this emphasis on the narcissistic modality of being (in the interests of commerce) and yet – at the same time – have some kind of actual integrity as a culture! If this isn’t a joke then what is? We don’t consciously think this of course, it’s just an assumption that we have all too glibly made. We don’t think that the trashy trappings of consumerism are that important really; we don’t think that this type of ‘bubblegum culture’ impacts on who we really are. It’s as if we think we can have all of this instantly disposable two-dimensional ‘rubbish culture’ going on everywhere we look and yet at the same time not be as adversely affected by it in some way. We can’t though – very clearly we can’t! All we need to do is look at the amount of money and resources that goes into commercial advertising (as opposed to any other type of message that might be possible). In order to have an impact on people’s consciousness big money is needed because all the channels of mass communication are operated commercially and this means that the type of message which we are going to see is inevitably going to be messages related to selling stuff, Whether we like it or not we are a culture that is based on consumerism (i.e. shopping) and nothing else. In one way, we already know this – we say it often enough, after all – but in another way it is clear that we don’t take it that seriously. If we did take it seriously then we would do something about it!

 

One way – perhaps the most important way – in which we try to hang onto our dignity and pretend to ourselves that we aren’t entirely superficial as a culture (and who actually wants to be superficial, after all) is by celebrating what we call ‘high culture’ (i.e. the arts and literature and theatre and so on) but whilst high culture might possibly have had relevance at one point in our history, it most certainly doesn’t now. It has now become, as we have said, our way of convincing ourselves that we aren’t entirely shallow and materialistic, which we plainly are. There might be a lot of money caught up in the arts but this just proves the point – culture is predominately the province of the rich and the powerful, and this stratum of society is more committed to the status quo than any other, obviously. They have got a lot more to lose if it changes! Our so-called ‘culture’ is just so much ‘window dressing’ when it comes down to it; it has no impact on our collective consciousness whatsoever and how can ‘culture’ be worthy of the name unless it has a profound impact on our consciousness? How can art be worthy of being called ‘art’ and this is unless it radically changes the way we see the world?

 

The truth is that we have quite forgotten the role of art, which – as Gurdjieff says – was originally to wake us up out of our everyday bland forgetful type of ‘awareness’ and cause us to ‘remember ourselves’. It exists as an antidote to the general anaesthesia, we might say. Art isn’t something that we ‘do in our sleep’, therefore. There are only two types of messages in the world – the messages that have the function of waking us up and the messages that have the antithetical function of anaesthetizing us, putting us to sleep. Our culture, without any doubt at all, (how could we possibly doubt it?) is totally geared towards the latter. All messages that have anything to do with commercial interests are there to ‘put us to sleep’ – it’s not in anyone’s interest that we should become more conscious rather than less conscious. [Although of course we could also say that it is in everyone’s interest that we do become more conscious.]

 

We could give one more example of how we try to pretend that we’re not as superficial as we are. Contemporary society’s interest in mindfulness and meditation arguably has much the same role as ‘culture’,  which is to say, it is there more as ‘a way of offsetting our general awareness of how terribly shallow and unsatisfying our modern way of life is’ than it is there for any other, loftier, reason. Again, if there were more to it than this then we would be actively challenging the deeply conservative structures that exist in society, and – to date – there are very few signs of this. We are – on the contrary – frighteningly compliant! Perhaps future generations might be interested in challenging the debilitating status quo more than we are, but we don’t seem to be in any great hurry to do so! There was far more ‘challenging’ going on in the 60s and early 70s than there is now, despite all our despite the current burgeoning interest in mindfulness and yoga, and healthy lifestyles, and so on.

 

The problem is of course – as has often been pointed out – that we have done what we are best at in the West – we have packaged the ‘consciousness movement’ and turned it into yet another product, albeit an apparently ‘less materialistic’ one. There is a change in emphasis here however that is both subtle, and at the same time not-so-subtle. It is ‘subtle’ because we haven’t noticed it happening, and it is ‘unsubtle’ because it represents hundred and eighty degree turnaround. It is a hundred and eighty degree turnaround because it has now become something to support the self-image, (i.e. something to enhance or validate or ‘accessorise’ it), rather than something to painfully show it up what it actually is, i.e. an obscuration of our true ‘self-less’ nature. Very clearly, there couldn’t be a bigger turnaround than this! What we are actually looking at here – as peculiar as it might sound – is yoga for narcissists, tai chi for narcissists, mindfulness for narcissists, etc. We only need to look at the images that we use to advertise yoga or mindfulness which are – of course – images of ‘good-looking happy people who are having a wonderful life and enhancing it even more with a bit of self-awareness’! It’s a very attractive image to be sure – the only down-side being that it is at the same time infinitely superficial!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Selling Narcissism

The social life is one in which we are perpetrating a kind of hoax, with ever without ever focusing on the fact that this is what we are doing. We are perpetrating a hoax on ourselves, in other words. We very much tend to think that society (or the social life) is about something else, something eminently practical, but – primarily – this is the function that is being served. We are maintaining a fiction, we are validating a ‘purely arbitrary narrative’. No one who has ever studied society would ever claim otherwise.

 

One simple way to talk about this hoax is to say that we have been 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 a rather 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 we simply CAN’T live, no matter how hard we may try to do so.

 

As we have said, this is very far from being an obvious point; it’s so far from being obvious that most people wouldn’t get it no matter how much effort you were to put into trying to explain it. Of all the difficult things to explain this is right there at the top, and – not only is it challenging to explain and challenging to understand – the plain fact of the matter is that we absolutely don’t want to understand it anyway. We are very much invested in not understanding it; our whole lives – obviously enough – have been invested in this hoax and so can we really aren’t going to be open to this type of discussion.

 

One way that we could look at the hoax in question however is to say that it revolves around the idea that it is ‘good to be a narcissist’! This not ever stated 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 (the narcissistic type of life) and along with the image come all sorts of subtle (and not so subtle) incentivizations for us to conform to it. 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. Our great expertise as a culture lies precisely in promoting this particular illusion.

 

We are skilfully manoeuvred not only into believing that the narcissistic life is a very rewarding and satisfying one, but also into believing that it is the only type of life that there ever could be! Add into the equation the fact that everyone around us is also falling for this story hook, line and sinker, then the chances are that we will never smell a rat. The chances that we won’t fall for this hoax are microscopically tiny. There is a rat however and as it happens it is rather a big one. It’s a very big rat indeed! This is King Rat that we talking about here – the Great Granddaddy of all rats and there should be no doubt about that! 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 by. This is a lot like living in a dysfunctional family or being in an abusive relationship – we think what we going through is normal, we don’t realise that we are being taken for a ride. We mistake our prison for reality.

 

The nature of our prison (which is ‘the prison of narcissism’) is that it is entirely hollow, without any genuine substance (or ‘goodness’) to it at all. It is – we might say – ‘fundamentally unwholesome’. Our primary activity involves striving perpetually to bring in some kind of actual substance into our lives, or perhaps fooling ourselves into believing that there is some kind of substance there when there just plain 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 trouble to create an impression or image of ourselves that makes it look as though we’re having a good time even though we’re not really, so that we can make other people envious of us. This is what Berger calls glamour.

It is true that in publicity one brand of manufacture, one firm, competes with another; but it is also true that every publicity image confirms and enhances every other. Publicity is not merely an assembly of competing images: it is a language in itself which is always being used to make the same general proposal. Within publicity, choices are offered between this cream and that cream, that car and this car, but publicity as a system only makes a single proposal.

It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more.

This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer – even though we will be poorer by having spent our money.

Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.

 

When we see that other people are envious of what they think we’ve got, then we can logically infer that there must have something there to be envious of! This then is John Berger’s explanation of what the hoax is. We might naïvely think that – in this consumer society – we invest all our energy on buying products so ‘the products will make us happy’, but this isn’t it – we are acquiring all the stuff and the status that goes with it in order that others might think we are happy, which then allows 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 construct a believable illusion of us having a good time, having a meaningful life, so that we and others can believe in this illusion – the illusion that it is possible to live the type of conditioned life society promotes and actually benefit from this. The purest example of this is of course social media – why else would we spend so much of 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, which is what we started out by saying. When the ‘difficulty’ comes in however is with the actual reason for the narcissistic life being so hollow, so devoid in substance or meaning. Why is the narcissistic life a life that is ‘impossible to live’? One way of looking at this is to think in terms of the Buddhist idea of ‘the good mind versus the bad mind’ – the good mind is the mind of compassion, and ‘the bad mind’ is the mind of self-interest or self-cherishing. If we live on the basis of the mind of compassion then there is meaning in our lives and we can actually grow; if on the other hand we live on the basis of self-interest or self-cherishing then our lives inevitably become sterile and joyless and there can be no growth. Who could possibly disagree with this?

 

All religions who have the function of teaching the compassion is better than selfishness (or at least they started out that way), but the point is that this is not merely a matter of ‘utility’; if we actually sat down and thought about it we would see this psychological truth very clearly – there can be no meaning in the life of the narcissist. We don’t of course ever see ourselves in this way; we have identified NPD as a designated psychiatric condition, it’s an ‘official diagnosis’, 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 effectively distracts us from seeing that our consumer society actually relies on us falling into the trance of narcissism. We pathologize narcissism and promote it both at the same time therefore, which is rather conflicted of us, to say the least!

 

The ‘hoax’ that is being perpetrated in society (and very effectively too) is that it is possible to live in the Narcissistic Mode (even though we won’t call it that) and also at the same time lead a meaningful and fulfilling life, and because of the way that societal pressure works we feel obliged – without reflecting on the fact very much – to maintain the fiction that we are having that we are happy, that we are having the life we want to be living, et cetera. In this is what ‘living the life of the image’ is all about. This is where all the emphasis goes – into fooling ourselves (and others) that we are all having a great time having a great life. That however is quite impossible – obviously it’s quite impossible! What we are trying to do here is create the impression that everything is good is if the impression itself were the thing that mattered and not what the impression is about.

 

In very plain and simple terms what we’re doing here is to pretend to ourselves that the idea which we have (about ourselves or about life) is the real thing, and that therefore that this idea that we have (without realizing that it is only an idea) is the only thing worth concerning ourselves with. The idea we have about who we are and what life is all about is not just ‘important’ to us therefore, it is so overwhelmingly important that it obliterates all awareness of anything else. And even though it is very easy and very straightforward to make such a statement it doesn’t actually help us any to do so because we are all so totally convinced that ‘the idea is the thing’. This is our blindness. We are so convinced that we simply can’t be told otherwise, and this isn’t any sort of hyperbole – if you try to suggest to anybody that their idea of ‘who they are’ is nothing to do with ‘who they really are’ and you will be met with a blank look. Either that or the person you are talking to will automatically think that they know what you mean without really knowing…

 

There is a difference between the two things however and that difference is the biggest and most profound difference there ever could be. What we’re talking about here is the greatest gulf there is, no words exist that can express the enormity of this gulf and yet if you try to get this point across to someone you will almost certainly discover that you just can’t do it. If our mental health rests upon anything then it rests upon an awareness or appreciation of this gulf, an awareness or appreciation of this discontinuity, and – we keep saying – our awareness in this on this score is zero. We don’t appreciate that there is any fundamental  / irreconcilable mismatch between the conceptual world which we are so very familiar with, and the world as it is in itself.

 

This is easy to show – if our ‘awareness of the discontinuity’ wasn’t zero, wasn’t nonexistent, then every time we talked about ideas or thought about the world then we would do so in an ironic way. Our entire language will change accordingly in other words – we would no longer be talking in such a dull, flat, ‘concrete’ way. This becomes particularly pertinent in the case of our approach to mental health. If you were (for some reason) to open up any psychology textbook or journal you will immediately see the dullest, flattest, most concrete pseudo-technical language you could ever possibly imagine. There is very little in the world less interesting, less vibrant, less ‘coma-inducing’ than this type of stuff. The same will be true if you were to eavesdrop on a bunch of mental healthcare professionals talking shop (CBT or DBT therapists for example) – the language being used in this type of setting is invariably concrete, technical and dull – you’d feel like yawning and going to sleep on the spot if you didn’t have your professional image to maintain!

 

What life comes down to when we have no awareness of the discontinuity between thought and the reality is ‘the worshipping of the image’. Everything is about the image; nothing exists apart from the image – so what else could we possibly do other than ‘worshipping the image’. This is what narcissism is – it’s the worshipping the image which we call ‘the self’. In terms of mental health care, and our whole societal approach to mental health, what happens is that we – very absurdly – get diverted into promoting and maintaining the idea of ourselves, the image we have of ourselves. We are trying to protect and perpetuate a construct in other words, and the health or well-being of the construct – needless to say – has nothing to do with actual well-being! The construct doesn’t have any well-being anyway – there is no way for a construct to be well or not well, healthy or not healthy because it is only ‘a construct’! Within the narrow terms of the game that is being played the health of the concept does mean something (just as it does in any regular role-playing game on a computer or game console) but this doesn’t translate into actual reality. It doesn’t translate into actual reality at all. The reverse is true in fact because the more we cherish the concept or idea of ourselves the more we deny our true nature, and ‘denying our true nature’ is a recipe for all sorts of mental suffering!

 

So in a way (a very narrow way) it could be said that our fixing-type therapies are ‘genuinely technical’ – the only proviso being that they are all about ‘maintaining the health of the construct’, which is an unreal and therefore irrelevant thing. The poor inadequate self-construct is under siege from reality and it urgently needs some sort of support if it is not to give way under the strain; when this happens then in colloquial terms we call it a ‘mental breakdown’. Our general understanding of a mental breakdown is that it is just about the worst thing that could ever happen to us – it’s the ultimate personal catastrophe. In real terms however to see that the mental construct or idea that we have of ourselves is not all that it is cracked up to be (i.e. that it is not as important as we think it is) the most helpful thing that could ever possibly happen to us. When this happens we have the possibility of establishing a relationship with our true nature and establishing a relationship with who we truly are (outside of the narcissistic game that we are playing) is what mental health really all about. The one thing that it isn’t about is repairing our narcissistic bubble, which is all our culture cares about…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Challenge of ‘Becoming Real’ (Part 1)

The whole area of psychological therapy itself starts to look rather suspect at this point, not just this modern thing called ‘resilience training’. If our core problem is that we are ‘unreal people living in an unreal world’ (and if this is what lies behind our neurotic symptomology) then no amount of two-dimensional ‘fixing-type’ therapies are going to help us! Band-aids aren’t really going to be the answer here, no matter how hopeful we might be. When we are unreal people living in an unreal world then no type of ‘trivial, rule-based procedure’ that we might enact us is going to cut it when things really start getting rough. Rules can’t help us in the task of becoming independent from rules, after all!

 

What’s more, we don’t have to be a stereotypical selfie-snapping narcissist in order to qualify as being ‘unreal’; this is a general condition rather than being some type of exotic psychopathology. We’re all ‘unreal’ in this particular ‘psychological’ way when it comes down to it. We can pick the most normal-looking, well-adjusted, competent person we know and the chances are very much that they will qualify as being ‘unreal’ in the sense that we are talking about. The whole point that we are making here is that it is possible to be superbly adjusted to this consensus world of ours and yet at the same time be unreal. We are unreal precisely because we are so superbly adapted to the consensus reality – we are taking the illusion much too seriously, in other words. We are taking something seriously that we oughtn’t to be taking seriously and that is the whole root of the problem right there. We are taking our games, our conventions, our arbitrary preoccupations, more seriously than we are taking reality itself, and there is simply no way anyone can say that this very peculiar orientation of ours isn’t going to have major ramifications in the field of mental health!

 

When we are adapted to the socially-constructed world we immediately feel confident in ourselves and this is the confidence of a game player who is good at playing their game. Within the context of this game, this confidence is entirely justified; outside of the game however it’s not, and this is where the big problem lies. The ‘big problem’ comes about because we don’t understand the game to be a game; we don’t think that there is anything outside of the game in other words, but there is – outside of the game there is this little thing called ‘reality’!

 

When we see people who are confident, self-assured, socially integrated, well-adjusted, and all the rest of it this doesn’t mean that we are in a state of good mental health. The inference is unwarranted. In societal terms, we are mentally healthy’ (or saying’, or whatever term you might like to use) (or well-adjusted’), but these are – as we have just been saying – very narrow terms stop test’ – as always – is when things get difficult. When things get difficult do we ‘rise to the occasion’ or do you ‘lose it’? Do we ‘keep our heads’ (as in Rudyard Kipling’s poem) or do we freak out and become utterly useless to everyone concerned, including ourselves? But it isn’t so much about some difficult external situation that comes along unexpectedly to challenge us, that’s only a rough and ready indication, albeit a rather good one. Our mental health isn’t just a measure of our ‘degree of equanimity with regard to difficult external situations’, it also has to do with our ability to be non-reactive and non-judgement in relation to our own state of mind when that state of mind becomes painful or difficult for us in any way.

 

This is a more intimate gauge of our mental health (or ‘resilience’), we might say – how well are we able to stay present with our own difficult mental states?’ It ought to be noted at this point that our ability to stay present with ourselves ‘through thick and thin’, or ‘for better or for worse’ doesn’t mean ‘coping’ with our difficult mind states. This is one of the great absurdities of Western culture – the idea that we have that mental health consist of to a large extent of something as frighteningly superficial as ‘coping strategies’! We are told to be strategic with difficult states of mind; we are taught appropriate ways of ‘managing’ them. Good mental health thus becomes a matter of being a good manager of our emotions, or a skilful manager of our anger, stress or anxiety. The current fashion – and fashion is what it is – is to learn off a whole bunch of coping strategies that are seen as being ‘healthy’ or ‘adaptive’ rather than relying on mechanisms that have been shown to be ‘unhealthy’, ‘non-adaptive’ or ‘dysfunctional’. To say that this is ‘trivializing’ mental health is a tremendous understatement, but it is very hard to find anyone in the mental health services that we even come close to acknowledging this. No one wants to ‘buck the trend’, after all…

 

This approach sounds so eminently reasonable that we never think to question it. We can plainly see that our ‘normal’ response to recurring mental pain is to react in ways that make matters worse rather than better, so it makes sense that the answer must be to do helpful things instead. The only problem with this commonsensical way of looking at things is that nothing we DO in order to help us deal with difficult mental states is going to be genuinely helpful – nothing we do in order to be able to ‘cope’ is going to be healthy or helpful because all we are doing – no matter what strategy in question is – is avoiding pain. So what’s wrong with avoiding pain, we might ask, if we can get away with it? What’s wrong with this plan is of course precisely that we can’t get away with it; we can’t legitimately ‘escape’ or ‘fix’ our own mental pain – all we can do is find ‘new and improved’ ways of ignoring the pain, postponing the pain and generally ‘dissociating’ ourselves from it. All we can do is disconnect ourselves from what’s going on with us, in other words.

 

This is ridiculously easy to see once we actually look into the matter – if something is happening to make me feel that I need to use some kind of coping strategy then this straightaway tells me that there is something there that I need to look at rather than ‘cope with’. If I find a strategy that allows me to use over than the one thing that we can be sure of is that we are not we won’t look at it! After all not taking a closer look at our mental pain (whatever that pain might be) is the one thing that we don’t want to do! Jung makes the point (speaking from the undoubted authority of over half a century of clinical practice) no one ever changes unless their back is well and truly against the wall. If we have the option of not changing (which is to say, if we have the option of utilising some convenient coping strategy) then we are most definitely not going to change. We’ll make the situation more manageable instead.

 

We utilise coping strategies as an alternative to changing, as an alternative to developing resilience. The popular idea that accumulating a whole load of coping strategies (so as to be able to avoid being in that zone where we are ‘no longer in control’) is what being mentally healthy is all about is an extraordinarily obtuse misrepresentation of what being a genuine human being actually is. To be ‘in control the whole time’ – which we think is a good way to be – actually means to be hiding from life; if it were possible to have strategies to cope with every difficult situation that comes along so that they never becomes too difficult (and ultimately it isn’t possible) then we would as a result be permanently removed from life. We would then be leading a life that is ‘safe but sterile’ and that would to be no fun at all. More than simply ‘no fun’, this type of ‘safe’ or ‘managed’ life actually turns out to be a living death – it turns out to be ghastly parody of what life is meant to be.

 

We don’t see things like this because we imagine that it ought to be possible to avoid the more challenging moments in life by using clever strategies and yet at the same time not be insulated from the rest of life (which is to say, the part of life that we would like to engage in / not be disconnected from). We want to ‘cherry pick’ in other words – we want the sweet without the sour, the good without the bad. We want to be reliant on gimmicks and strategies some of the time (the knife is getting tough) but independent from them for the rest of the time, and whilst this idea might seem reasonable enough when we don’t focus on it too much, if we actually were to give it any real attention at all then we would immediately see it to be the purest hogwash! We’re trying to have our cake and eat it.

 

What we are asking for here – without admitting the fact – is the convenient situation in which we can insulate (or remove) ourselves from life with our thinking when it gets too difficult for us and yet not insulate or remove ourselves with our thoughts the rest of the time. Unfortunately for us it just doesn’t work like this – what actually happens is that we get insulated (or removed) all of the time. To be directly in touch with what is happening to us (i.e. not in touch ‘via the agency of the thinking mind’) requires a type of muscle – it requires the development of a type of strength. This strength or muscle grows through ‘weight-bearing’, and the weight in question is simply the inherent ‘difficulty’ of life. Life makes us strong when we don’t avoid it in other words, and to say this is hardly to say anything very new or revolutionary! There are – in life – two roads that we can go down – the road of getting better and better at avoiding difficulty, or the road of getting better and better at not avoiding difficulty! The first road involves control, and the second road doesn’t. The key thing to note here is that we have to put our money on one horse or the other – we can’t ‘hedge our bets’, we can’t ‘chop and change’ to suits ourselves. This is a bit like saying that we either have to decide on lying or telling the truth in order to get by in life. Or to put this another way, we have to decide between ‘finding the easy way round all of our problems’, or ‘doing the required work, whatever that work might be and however much we don’t want to do it’. This doesn’t mean that if we opt for the ‘honest approach’ we won’t ever cheat or tell lies, it just means that we don’t believe that cheating or lungs can really get us anywhere worthwhile, and so because of this insight we won’t invest in the total way that we would have done before.

 

The ‘default setting’ is for us to absolutely wholeheartedly believe whatever it is that the thinking mind tells us, so that when the TM tells us that we are ‘onto a winner’ we get foolishly excited, and when it tells us that we have ‘screwed it all up’ we become equally foolishly despairing. We are ‘one hundred percent gullible with respect to what the TM tells us’ in other words, and this is what lends that particular and peculiar ‘mechanical’ quality to our responses. We don’t have to be 100% gullible though (that’s only our ‘default’, as we have said) – we can learn to doubt the thinking mind and become perhaps only 98% gullible instead! We will still ‘react’ even when we have – to some limited extent – started to see through the thinking mind; we will still react because our ‘perceived well-being’ is still linked or coupled to what our thoughts tell us about ourselves and the world, but there is now a part of us that is not buying into it as much as we used to. The ‘buy in’ is not total anymore, and this changes everything – something else has entered the picture apart from ‘mechanical reacting’. Consciousness has come into play…

 

The point that comes out of this therefore is that it actually suits us to buy into what the TM tells us because if we don’t then we can’t use the thinking process to insulate ourselves from the difficult times in life. This is the argument that we are making here – that if we want to use ‘strategies’ to help us when things get rough then we have to ‘believe our thoughts to be real’, but once we take the step of ‘believing our thoughts to be real’ then we can’t simply go back to not believing in the reality of our thoughts once the need for a coping strategy is past! If we invest in games and game-playing to make ourselves feel more secure in life then we can’t just ‘exit’ our games a bit later on. This is the point that we keep on making – that what we are looking at here is strictly a ‘one-way street’, which is to say, the process in question is ‘irreversible’. Once we ‘start playing the game’ then we can’t just ‘stop playing it’; we can’t just ‘stop playing it’ because we have now lost the capacity to know that the game is a game!

 

 

 

 

Art: wallpaperhi.com

 

 

 

 

 

Mental health in the Cybernetic Age

The fruit of our collective human endeavour is not quite what we think it is – the impression we have of ourselves is very much that we have been steadily improving our situation over the centuries and that we have – at this point in time – achieved something that is pretty much unprecedented. What we have achieved is unprecedented to be sure, but not in quite the way that we like to imagine it is!

 

What we have actually achieved is to have created an unreal world for ourselves and this kind of thing always comes with certain disadvantages, naturally enough! It is perfectly straightforward to explain how we have achieved this remarkable feat of ‘creating an unreal world’ – it’s very straightforward indeed, as it happens. We have created an unreal world by assiduously adapting ourselves to a system of meanings that we ourselves have created. We have become the victims of our own constructs, therefore. We have been ‘trapped by our own device’!

 

It’s not so much the physical environment that we’re talking about here – although that of course comes into it – but the system of meanings that we have overlaid the physical environment with. We don’t live in the physical environment after all but rather we live in a hyperreal world of ascribed meanings that we have superimposed upon that environment. We have in other words adapted not to the world as it is in itself but to the world that is made up of meanings that we ourselves have arbritrarily come up with. This is what Jung is saying in this passage taken from CW Vol 10, Civilization In Transition

The danger that faces us today is that the whole of reality will be replaced by words. This accounts for that terrible lack of instinct in modern man, particularly the city-dweller. He lacks all contact with life and the breath of nature. He knows a rabbit or a cow only from the illustrated paper, the dictionary, or the movies, and thinks he knows what it is really like – and is then amazed that cowsheds “smell,” because the dictionary didn’t say so.

 

When Jung talks about the whole of reality being replaced by words this is the same thing as talking about reality being replaced by thoughts or ideas and there is – needless to say – is very significant difference between the world itself and the two-dimensional ‘rational overlay’ that we replace it with. The problem here is that no matter how successful we are at the task of adapting ourselves to the system that we have collectively constructed, this does not in the least bit translate (or ‘transfer’) to the world that we did not create, which is ‘the world of reality’. And not only does it not ‘transfer,’ there is actually an ‘inverse law’ operating here such that the more we optimise our performance within the terms of the game that we are playing the more removed (and therefore alienated) we are from reality itself. This isn’t a particularly hard thing to see – if we were to spend years in front of an X-box then this clearly isn’t going to help us out there in the real world; quite the reverse is going to be true, as we all know.

 

Skills learned in games can transfer to other aspects of life that are also purely ‘rule-based’, but this is beside the point since other aspects of life that also rule-based’ are also games, they’re just different games. The key difference between games and ‘unconstructed reality’ is precisely that unconstructed reality can’t be understood in terms of rules. If we think that everything that life can be mastered by merely by ‘grasping the underlying rules’ then we are in for a very big surprise, as experience always shows. Life (or reality) is never as simple as we take it to be and this is the only ‘rule’ (although it is more of a principle than a rule) that we need to learn! As long as we remember this then we won’t go too far wrong…

 

Saying that life is never as simple or straightforward as we understand it to be as just another way of saying that there’s more to it than our theories or models allow for there to be; or as Shakespeare puts it, There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. There is more to the world than ideas our about the world (which is to say, the world is not the same thing as our idea of it). In mathematics this principle is expressed very precisely by Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems, which – according to the Wikipedia entry – is widely if not universally thought to show that the attempt “to find a complete and consistent set of axioms for all mathematics is impossible.”

 

In the physical sciences this principle finds expression in chaos and complexity theory. According to Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers (1985) therefore:

No single theoretical language articulating the variables to which a well-defined value can be attributed can exhaust the physical content of a system. Various possible languages and points of view about the system may be complementary. They all deal with the same reality, but it is impossible to reduce them to a single description. The irreducible plurality of perspectives on the same reality expresses the impossibility of a divine point of view from which the whole of reality is visible.

In more down-to-earth language, we could simply say that there is always going to be something that is going to surprise us, no matter how smart we might think that we are.

 

The process of ‘gaining wisdom’ in life might be explained therefore in terms of us learning – through first-hand experience – about this principle of incompleteness; gaining wisdom comes down to the process of discovering that our theories, models and ideas about the world are always incomplete, therefore. Gaining wisdom is a negative process, in other words. We might (if we were naïve enough) think that gaining wisdom means ‘knowing more and more about the world’, but that is not it at all, as many philosophers have of course pointed out. Having said this, whilst it is very clear that the process of learning about the world is the same thing as ‘learning that there is more to reality than our ideas or beliefs about it’ it is also crucially important to acknowledge that this process very often doesn’t happen, or at least is indefinitely delayed. We resist genuinely learning about the world, and content ourselves with accumulating ‘positive knowledge’ instead – ‘positive knowledge’ being a mass of dead facts and figures that never contradict our core assumptions.

 

We could suggest three main reasons why this process of learning might be stifled or indefinitely delayed. One reason would be where there is a belief structure that is particularly strong and where that belief structure is supported (or even enforced) by the culture that we are part of. Organised religion is of course a well-known culprit here – where there is some kind of dogmatic system of religious belief then discovering that ‘there is more to the world than our beliefs about it’ is strictly prohibited! Making a discovery like this immediately puts the person at odds with everyone else and leads to heresy, which is the crime of ‘not seeing the way the world in the way we are supposed to see it’. Heresy is of course the ultimate – most unforgivable – crime in a dogmatic system of religious belief.

 

Another possibility is where we have a strong belief that is not validated or supported by everyone around us but which we adhere to all the same. This type of belief also ‘holds us captive’ and prevents us from venturing beyond it and discovering that it is not ‘all-explaining’ in the way it seems to. A paranoid worldview would be one example of this; it is extraordinary hard to see that there is more to the world than our paranoid ideas about it – if we could do this then we wouldn’t be paranoid! Chronic anxiety would be another example – if I am acutely anxious then my (unexamined generally) hypothesis is that ‘if I don’t control successfully then things will inevitably go very wrong’. Anxiety – we might say – equals this underlying hypothesis plus a deep down lack of confidence that we can in fact control successfully. Because we are so defensively occupied therefore, we are simply not going to have the time to explore any other alternatives to our unconsciously held hypothesis. It is going to be too frightening for us to take the risk of doing so.

 

What we looking at here are instances of what we might call ‘chronic non-learning’ and we could go on exploring such instances indefinitely. What we are particularly interested in looking at in this discussion is something quite different however – what we are looking at here is ‘chronic non-learning as a result of being too adapted to the consensus reality that is society’, and this is something that we are almost entirely blind to. As Jung (1958, p 81) argues in The Undiscovered Self, the pressure to adapt to the social world is so great (and in the potential rewards so large) that it is almost inevitable that we are going to forget everything else in pursuit of the goal of ‘100% adaptation’ –

Nothing estranges a man from the ground plan of his instincts more than his learning capacity, which turns out to be a creative drive towards progressive transformation of human modes of behaviour. It, more than anything else, is responsible for the altered conditions of our existence and the need for new adaptations which civilization brings. It is also the source of numerous psychic disturbances and difficulties occasioned by man’s progressive alienation from his instinctual foundation, i.e. by his uprootedness and identification with his conscious knowledge of himself, by his concern with consciousness at the expense of the unconscious. The result is that modern man can know himself only in so far as he can become conscious of himself – a capacity largely dependent on environmental conditions, the drive for knowledge and control of which necessitated or suggested certain modifications of his original instinctual tendencies. His consciousness therefore orientates itself chiefly by observing and investigating the world around him, and it is to its peculiarities that he must adapt his psychic and technical resources. This task is so exacting, and its fulfilment so advantageous, that he forgets himself in the process, losing sight of his instinctual nature and putting his own conception of himself in place of his real being.  In this way he slips imperceptibly into a purely conceptual world where the products of his conscious activity progressively replace reality.

When we are 100% adapted to the ‘purely conceptual realm’ then there is of course no chance that we will ever go beyond the system that we are adapted to, which is what we would need to in order to see that the whole thing is only an ‘arbitrary construct’ (and is on this account fundamentally unreal).

 

The immediate pressure to adapt to the social milieu is all but overwhelming of course – sometimes it actually is overwhelming! The rewards for successful adaptation aren’t just practical (or ‘material’) either; when we can’t ‘fit in’ this is acutely distressing for us in a psychological sense and this can be seen as an even bigger motivation for us to adapt to social world than the fact that we need to be part of it in order to have friends and some means of ‘making out’ in the world in the collectively agreed-upon reality. An important ‘additional factor’ – which would not have been so much in evidence when Jung was writing back in the first half of the Twentieth century – is something that we might perhaps call ‘the Dawn of the Hyperreal Era’ (in honour of Jean Baudrillard). We could also speak in terms of ‘the Advent of the Cybernetic Age’, which is an age in which ‘everything happens in the head’ and nowhere else, as Reggie Ray suggests here in this quote taken from psychologytoday.com

People are disconnected from their bodies, from their direct experience of life, more and more so as our cybernetic age reaches literally insane intensity; hence people are no longer able to find the depths, the sanity, the health, and the feeling of well-being that only their bodies can offer. We are all talking, thinking heads, more and more cut off from anything actually real.

There is no harm in talking about things, just as there is no harm in thinking about things; when all we do is to talk about things or think about things however then this is another matter entirely! We could equally well say that there is no harm in the Cybernetic Age just as long as we don’t dive headfirst into cyberspace and try to act out the entirety of our lives in this abstract, non-corporeal realm. When this happens – when we jump head first into the purely formal realm that we have created for ourselves (which is as we have said an artificial world that is made up only of meanings that we ourselves have made up) then insoluble problems inevitably start to arise.

 

The essential problem here is that when we adapt to an unreal world then we ourselves inevitably become unreal too. We won’t look unreal or feel unreal, but that doesn’t count for a lot – all that does is to prevent us from seeing the truth about ourselves! If I was unreal but could see that I was then this would in itself be a ‘real thing’ after all. Saying that we ‘become unreal’ sounds outlandish but it isn’t. This shouldn’t be taken as some improvable ‘metaphysical assertion’ – it is on the contrary a very practical type of thing that we are talking about here. When we tell someone (or ourselves) to ‘get real’ this isn’t metaphysics, it simply means that we are being encouraged to come out of our ideas about the world (which is a counter-productive situation) and back to the actual thing itself. It is – in other words – a very basic thing that we’re talking about here! What could be more basic than this?

 

‘Resilience’ is a buzzword these days and we can very easily see that there must be a link between the notion of ‘being resilient’ and the notion of ‘being real’. Real people are resilient, obviously! There has been a lot of concern voiced in recent years that we are becoming less and less resilient as the generations succeed each other. This is a road that is very clearly not leading us to a good place. Various hypotheses have been put forward and what people generally say that there must be it must have something to do with the modern way of life – which certainly seems to be a pretty fair guess. Through ‘less direct’ contact with the world (and the people) around us – because more and more of life happens via a digital interface – we become more and more fragile, less and less able to deal with ‘direct contact’. Direct, unmediated contact with the world around us can actually become frightening – it easily gets so we’d much rather just stay in our cocoons..

 

It’s not just that we have difficulty interacting with the world when there is no digital interface involved (if we can allow that this is the problem) – alongside the difficulty in directly interacting with our environment (or aspects of our environment that are unfamiliar to us) there comes a whole gamut of mental health issues that are created by the sense of ‘alienation’ – which is of course what disconnection (or ‘digitally-mediated connection’, which is the same thing) comes down to. Research in the UK has shown seems to show that the percentage of third level students suffering from anxiety, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, self-harming behaviour and suicidal thoughts is increasing; in a research report (2019) published by the Society for Research into Higher Education Dr Yvonne Sweeney and Dr Micheal Fays state that –

In 2015/16, 15,395 UK-domiciled first-year students at HEIs in the UK disclosed a mental health condition – almost five times the number in 2006/07. This equates to 2 per cent of first-year students in 2015/16, up from 0.4 per cent in 2006/07.

The possibility that this is a real trend here is clearly a matter of great concern; it might well be the case that when Jung said that the greatest danger we face in modern times is the danger posed by the insidious onset of hyperreality (although he didn’t use those exact words) he was hitting the nail right on the head. Ironically, social media is now full of speculative reports that excessive absorption in social media is distorting the whole business of ‘what it means to be a human being’ and turning us into self-absorbed ‘snowflakes’.

 

College authorities across the world have been responding to this situation by offering courses and workshops on resilience training, which on the face of it sounds like an excellent idea. The only problem is that we don’t understand this matter of ‘resilience’ for what it actually is. This is very evident when we consider that our current idea of resilience that it involves the acquisition and implementation of various strategies and skills as an effective countermeasure to the problem.  As soon as we see that ‘being resilient’ is just another way of talking about ‘being real’ however, then the idea that we can become real by means of utilizing strategies and skills starts to look a lot less convincing! Can there be such a thing a strategy for being real? Is inner strength really just a matter of having the right skills and knowing how to use them? Is it just a matter of doing X, Y and Z? Therapies such as DBT assume that this is indeed the case but when if we were to reflect at all on the matter (which isn’t something that we aren’t particularly prone to doing in the ultra-conformist world of mental healthcare provision!) we would see that skills and strategies are a substitute for inner strength not a way of attaining it. Carl Jung made this same point over fifty years ago when he said that ‘rules are a substitute for consciousness’.

 

The point here is of course is that to go down the road of optimizing strategies to compensate for our lack of autonomy, our lack of ‘inner strength’, our absence of ‘consciousness’ we are accentuating the problem rather than solving it! We will no doubt be able to obtain measurable short-terms benefits this way (which will encourage us that we are on the right track) but these short-term benefits are only achieved at the price of a long-term collective ‘mental health disaster’. It’s ‘short-termism’ and we all know where short-termism gets us. We ought to know where it gets us to by now, at any rate. There is no such thing as ‘a strategy for becoming real’! Quite the contrary is true – strategies in mental health exist for the purpose of compensating for our lack of inner strength; they exist for the purpose of covering up this core deficiency. Our approach of assuming that what we call ‘resilience’ can be acquired via training and workshops is making what the deepest aspect of what it means to be a human being into something totally trivial – apparently, there is a recipe for becoming resilient just as there is a recipe for cooking spaghetti bolognese or baking fruit scones. There’s probably a YouTube tutorial on it, just as there is for everything else. This isn’t to knock online tutorials – it’s just that when it comes to the matter of how to go about ‘being a human being’ we’re looking in the wrong place; we should be ‘looking within’, not ‘looking on the outside’ for what someone else might have to say!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Throwing Out The Baby

The trouble with generic therapy is that it is all about copying. We can hardly deny this – we have after all made a virtue of copying, just as we have made a sin of deviance. To copy to be trustworthy and reliable, to deviate on the other hand is to be a loose cannon, an untrustworthy individualist. The idea is that when we all sing from the same hymn sheet then the effectiveness of the therapy will not be compromised. Moreover – and perhaps even more importantly – the organisation that you are working for can ‘stand over’ what you doing because it is guaranteed ‘best practice’. Best practice is what we are always hearing about. This then is what we are calling ‘generic therapy’ – it is a therapy that is fundamentally based on approved protocols and procedures.

 

This tends to sounds good to us – it certainly sounds good to organisations and to healthcare providers, but it isn’t by any means as good as it might sound. There is a very serious problem with it and that problem has to do with the way in which we are always ‘copying from a template’, which are of course what protocols and procedures are. Protocols and procedures are templates. If we base what we’re doing on a ‘model’ then this too, needless to say, is ‘copying from a template’. This again may not sound like a problem – templates are after all to a large extent essential in modern life (they are essential in all manufacturing and industrial processes, for example) but one place where templates for understanding and behaving are not useful is in the realm of mental health! Templates are not just ‘not useful’ here, they are a positive liability…

 

Templates are a liability when it comes to mental health because they represent the antithetical principle to consciousness. We may not consider that consciousness does have ‘an antithetical principle’ but it does and that antithetical principle is routine, or habit, or ‘acting on precedents’. Routine is something that we don’t think about but which we just ‘do’, just as a template is something that we don’t look at afresh each time, but which we just take guidance or direction from. A template is there to direct us, not to be questioned, not to be examined. What we are actually talking about here are rules therefore and rules are the quintessential antithetical principle to consciousness. Rules are the antithesis of consciousness because consciousness comes down to ‘freedom of attention’ whilst rules are – of course – the very absence of freedom.

 

When we follow a routine or act on the basis of a template then we are not looking at what we are doing and when we’re not looking at what we doing then we’re unconscious – our attention is following the channels that have been cut for it and this means that we are basically ‘seeing what we have been told to see’ (or ‘seeing what we have been influenced to see’) and seeing what we have been told to see (or seeing what we have been programmed to see)  is not seeing! We could therefore talk in terms of ‘operating on the basis of the templates that we have been given’, or we could talk in terms of ‘copying’ – ‘copying’ clearly indicates that the authority is outside of us, it clearly indicates that the authority is not us. We could also express this idea by simply saying that we are ‘obeying rules’, and this brings us back to the point that we have just made about ‘rules being the antithesis of consciousness’. If it is consciousness that are studying therefore (or trying to ‘work with’ if we are counsellors or therapists) then using models and protocols and procedures and strategies is ‘using unconsciousness to work with consciousness’. We are required to be unconscious (i.e. operate merely as an unreflective tool of ‘the system of thought’) in order to work helpfully as a therapist!

 

When we follow rules (i.e. when we operate on the basis of models, theories, protocols and procedures) then everything is coming from outside of us and nothing is coming from the inside. Everything is come from the logical system/framework that we are working within. This of course is the modern way! What is essentially happening here is that ‘the inside’ is not being trusted, either by the system or organisation that we are working for, or by ourselves. We need our officially approved maps to follow, we need our state-sanctioned rules to obey. This actually annihilates the individual of course and so we are again confronted with the same self-contradiction that we have just highlighted. The self-contradiction that we’re talking about is nothing if not clear – mental health is where we are operating in the world on the basis of our own true individuality, and ‘compromised mental health’ – we might say – is where there are factors that are denying our true individuality and therefore causing us to be what we aren’t. Our true nature has been distorted, in other words. Somehow, therefore, we are expected to work effectively as therapists by abdicating our true individuality, by repressing it, by submerging it under a suffocating blanket of ‘generic responses’.

 

Another way of looking at this in terms of wisdom. Wisdom is a traditional term and as such it doesn’t really have very much currency in the modern world. It has become a rather ‘quaint’ or old-fashioned term – it’s almost as if the word only belongs within the context of fairy tales, legends and myths. Carl Jung might have talked about ‘the archetype of the wise old man’ but what has that archetype to do with this modern ‘scientific’ world of ours? We have put ‘experts’ on a pedestal it is true, but experts are a very different thing to wise men and wise women; experts are a different kettle of fish entirely! Experts work on the basis of ‘evidence’ and evidence always comes from the outside.  We could say that ours is an ‘expert culture’ and although in common speech we will from time to time acknowledge a person we know or have heard of as ‘being wise’, this designation has no credibility within society itself. Wisdom is not something that is every officially recognised. There are no certificates for wisdom, after all; there is no professional body to regulate the ‘holders of wisdom’ and say whether they have a right to this title or not.

 

A huge (but nevertheless invisible) distortion has crept into our present-day culture therefore – a distortion that is particularly ironic in the field of mental health, as we have been saying. In one way of course it makes good sense to regulate the field of mental health and whatever therapies or approaches or professions there might be that claim to have relevance here – illness of any kind, when it’s chronic and not easily dealt with, has always drawn quacks and charlatans in their droves, a lot of them even managing convince themselves that they know what they are doing! When we take this too far however – as we have done – then it is undoubtedly a case of ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’. When there is no possibility of truly independent thought (or truly independent perception, which is to say, perception that is not guided by models and templates) then to use the word ‘therapy’ is both misleading and irresponsible. Whatever else is going on here, it isn’t therapy! In the absence of unfettered (or unconditioned) consciousness, there is nothing one human being can genuinely do for another, as far as mental health goes, at least. The blind cannot lead the blind – or if they do, then it is only in the direction of the nearest cliff-edge!

 

The world of therapy is just one example of what we have been talking about here however, albeit a rather pertinent one. In contemporary society everything ‘comes from the outside’ – our ways of looking at the world, our ways of understanding ourselves, our very way of ‘being in the world’ – all of these come from the outside, all of these are supplied by ‘the omnipresent external authority’. This is convenient in one way of cause but it is deadly in another – it is deadly as far as our actual individuality is concerned and our ‘actual individuality’ is who we are! When everything comes from the outside there is no wisdom. Rules are a substitute for consciousness, as Jung says. Instead of wisdom we rely on skills and strategies, tricks and manoeuvres, protocols and procedures, that we take out of our famous ‘toolbox’ as and when needed. This – we hope – will get us through life. Most of the time it does indeed seem that our ‘bag of tricks’ (our ‘collection of coping strategies’) will get us through life safely – it seems as if it will until one day something happens that isn’t just some ‘minor upset along the way’. That’s when things start (very quickly) to fall apart.

 

When something of a more major or long-lasting nature happens we discover (even though we might not know at the time that we are discovering it) that the answer doesn’t come ‘from the outside’. The responsibility is ours and it always was. We might go looking for experts or trained professionals to help us when this happens but – unfortunately – it is almost always the case that our experts are just as empty of individuality and wisdom as we are! That’s the way our society is set up. That’s the predicament we’re in – although none of our experts or trained professionals will ever admit it…

 

 

Art: Thomas Chamberlain, on goodfon.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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