The Pain Of Being A Machine

‘Mental health’ and ‘organisations’ don’t go together – if we have some degree of mental health then we won’t have any more to do with organisations than we can possibly help, and if we are part of an organisation then it goes without saying that the integrity of our mental health is going to be significantly compromised. There are no two ways about this! When we consider the fact that mental health falls within the remit of large and intensely bureaucratic healthcare organisations we can see just how ironic this is, therefore. When an organisation makes it its business to take care of our collective mental health then this constitutes a very big problem. No one – it seems – is even aware of the problem, never mind engaged in doing anything about it. Our situation is very much like lambs being led to the slaughter, which is a metaphor that Gurdjeff used in ‘The Tale of the Evil Magician’ – (taken from thecasswiki.net)

There was an evil magician. He lived deep in the mountains and the forests, and he had thousands of sheep. But the problem was that the sheep were afraid of the magician because every day the sheep were seeing that one of them was being killed for his breakfast, another was being killed for his lunch. So they ran away from the magician’s ranch and it was a difficult job to find them in the vast forest. Being a magician, he used magic.

He hypnotized all the sheep and suggested to them first of all that they were immortal and that no harm was being done to them when they were skinned, that, on the contrary, it would be very good for them and even pleasant; secondly he suggested that the magician was a good master who loved his flock so much that he was ready to do anything in the world for them; and in the third place he suggested to them that if anything at all were going to happen to them it was not going to happen just then, at any rate not that day, and therefore they had no need to think about it.

He then told different sheep…to some, “You are a man, you need not be afraid. It is only the sheep who are going to be killed and eaten, not you. You are a man just like I am.” Some other sheep were told, “You are a lion – only sheep are afraid. They escape, they are cowards. You are a lion; you would prefer to die than to run away. You don’t belong to these sheep. So when they are killed it is not your problem. They are meant to be killed, but you are the most loved of my friends in this forest.” In this way, he told every sheep different stories, and from the second day, the sheep stopped running away from the house.

They still saw other sheep being killed, butchered, but it was not their concern. Somebody was a lion, somebody was a tiger, somebody was a man, somebody was a magician and so forth. Nobody was a sheep except the one who was being killed. This way, without keeping servants, he managed thousands of sheep. They would go into the forest for their food, for their water, and they would come back home, believing always one thing: “It is some sheep who is going to be killed, not you. You don’t belong to the sheep. You are a lion – respected, honored, a friend of the great magician.” The magician’s problems were solved and the sheep never ran away again.

Coming back to our original statement, we might still ask why mental health and organisations don’t go together? How can we make a statement like this? And if there is a grave mismatch between mental health and the all-powerful organizations that we have created to work ‘for our benefit’ then why hasn’t anyone noticed it? As it happpens, this is something that we can be very clear about – it’s not a difficult argument that we are making here but something that is entirely straightforward. All that’s needed is for us to have a clear understanding of what ‘mental health’ is. Mental health is really just another way of talking about freedom (or ‘autonomy’). When we are ‘free to be ourselves’ – without any external influences manipulating us without us knowing that we are being manipulated – then we may be said to be autonomous, then we may be said to be in a state of ‘good mental health’. If on the other hand we are being ‘controlled without knowing that we are being controlled’ (by external influences we know nothing of) then obviously there is no way that this can be said to be ‘a healthy situation’!

 

As soon as we put things like this it becomes clear to all but the naïve that mental health must be a very rare thing indeed in our society! Everything about our culture is about covert control; ‘freedom’ – although we use the word a lot – is simply not on the agenda. No one wants us to be free – even we ourselves probably don’t want to be free, as the psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm has pointed out. With freedom comes very great responsibility after all, and who wants that? The type of ‘freedom’ that we are talking about here isn’t the  trivial freedom to ‘come and go as we please’, but – as we have said – the freedom to be ourselves. ‘To thine own self be true,’ says Shakespeare, but we are blasé about this dictum because we assume – for the most part – that we are already being true to ourselves. This is very far from being the case however. We aren’t being true to ourselves and we can explain why we aren’t very simply – in order to be ‘true to ourselves’ would we would have to be seeing the world in our own unique and individual way and we’re not – we are seeing it in the totally generic way that we have been passively conditioned to. This ‘adaptation to the Generic Reality’ is what Gary Z McGee calls ‘comfortable cowardice’ in his article On Becoming Free.

 

This after all is what society is – society is what comes into being when we all see the world in the same way! That’s the price of admission to society, that’s the price we have to pay in order to be granted ‘membership to the club’ – we all have to agree to see things in the same way, we all have to ‘subscribe to the consensus reality’. This of course happens very early on in our lives and we don’t exactly ‘notice it happening,’ we don’t exactly ‘give our conscious consent’ to the process – it’s just what happens. It’s called ‘the process of socialisation’ and no one ever asks our permission first to see if we want to be socialised!

 

The ‘Great Illusion’ is that we are already free, that we are already ‘seeing things in our own individual way’. Nothing could be further from the truth however. As Erich Fromm says,

Modern man lives under the illusion that he knows ‘what he wants,’ while he actually wants what he is supposed to want. In order to accept this it is necessary to realize that to know what one really wants is not comparatively easy, as most people think, but one of the most difficult problems any human being has to solve. It is a task we frantically try to avoid by accepting ready-made goals as though they were our own.

A big part of the illusion ‘that we are already free’ lies in the fact that we take it so very much for granted that the way we understand life is the only way that it ever could be understood. This being the case we don’t of course feel that we are being manipulated or coerced to see the world in a particular predetermined way! We don’t know that there is always ‘the freedom to see things otherwise’. This is something that you would not be able to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it for themselves – the words just wouldn’t make any sense. ‘We accept the reality with which we have been presented’ – as the line in The Truman Show goes. In this film, Truman Burbank gradually ‘wakes up’ to the fact that everything he has ever been told is a lie, and via this process of ‘seeing through the lie’ he becomes (as his name suggests), a ‘true man’. He becomes true to himself, he becomes the true individual that he already is.

 

This isn’t a question of creating one’s own ideology or philosophy, but simply seeing through what is not true. In the past this has been known as ‘the negative way’ or via negativa. In the same way, therefore, recovering our autonomy doesn’t mean ‘having our own particular opinions about everything under the sun’ but simply seeing falsehood for what it is. Truth is not something we have to loudly ‘assert’, or ‘hold onto’, it is – rather – what emerges all by itself when we find the courage to let it do so. The truth is ‘none of our business’, in other words – it ‘stands by itself’ without any need for assistance or support or or interpretation on our part. It’s not a question of ‘my’ truth versus ‘your’ truth therefore and when anyone (or when any group of people) take it upon themselves to tell us ‘what the truth is’ we can be sure that their so-called truth is anything but true. It is – on the contrary – an aggressive lie and it is by such aggressive lies that society maintains itself!

 

This brings us to the very nub of the matter – the truth isn’t something that can be stated and then agreed upon by the collective, it is something that is seen. It is, moreover, something that is seen only by the individual and no one else. No one else can see it! The collective cannot see it and neither can any paid-up member of the collective. To see the truth requires us to be who we really are and this means discarding the false shell or husk of who we have been told that we are.

 

There is what we might call ‘a Basic Principle’ here and that principle is this: When two or more people agree on ‘what the right way to see things’ is, then that agreed-upon viewpoint acts as ‘an inferior substitute for the truth’. The viewpoint that we have agreed upon isn’t really true for any of us – it isn’t anyone’s way of seeing the world, rather it is Everyone’s way. It’s just a convention that we have all agreed upon for the sake of ‘getting on’. Conventions are ‘things that we have agreed to be true’ – language is a convention, socialised behaviour is a convention, the legal system is a convention, and so on, and it can be readily seen how very dependent upon all these various conventions we are. The danger (the ‘Very Great Danger’!) is however that we will become trapped in our own conventions, trapped in our own systems, trapped in our own devices. What traps us is forgetting that the conventions only are conventions and not reality itself. We take the inferior substitute to be equivalent to the real thing and when we ‘forget’ in this way then our systems end up defining reality for us – they end up defining everything about us! This situation of ‘being defined by some sort of arbitrary external authority without knowing that we are’ is of course (as we have been saying) the complete antithesis of autonomy, the complete antithesis of ‘mental health’, and this is exactly the situation that we all find ourselves in. The irony is that when our lack of autonomy manifests itself in the form of neurotic suffering we go looking for assistance from the very structures and systems that have disempowered us so grievously in the first place. Fromm is very clear about this –

Man does not suffer so much from poverty today as he suffers from the fact that he has become a cog in a large machine, an automaton, that his life has become empty and lost its meaning.

The big problem is however that when we suffer (as we inevitably do suffer) from being merely ‘a cog in a large machine’, we look to that very same machine for help!

 

 

Art: Spell II, by H.R. Giger

 

 

 

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Enforced Heteronomy

The root cause of our mental un-health (or mental unwellness) is – I would argue – that we are not allowed to be ourselves. This might sound too simple, or ‘not scientific enough’, but it’s a simple thing that we’re talking about here. Getting all fancy and technical about it is missing the point! It’s actually obscuring the point! We exist in an environment that – for whatever reasons – will not allow us to be ourselves, and if not being able to be ourselves (nor know who we are) isn’t a definition of mental unwellness then what is? Another way of putting this is to say that our lack of mental health is due to our autonomy as individuals being compromised, without us being able to know that it has. Ivan Illich expresses this same idea by saying that in society we are ‘heteronomous rather than autonomous’. Heteronomy is the state of being in which are defined and regulated from without, instead of being free to be who we actually are and do what is truly in our nature to do. Few would argue that this is a healthy or wholesome way to be, and yet this is without question the situation that we find ourselves in! That’s the world we have made for ourselves…

 

Heteronomy is the something that our modern society produces to a very extreme degree; society – in its current super-invasive format – defines everything about us. It tells us what we like and what we don’t like, it provides the template for our generic identities. It is and never has been good to be defined by an external structure (by the church, by a political movement, by local cultural influences, or whatever) but to allow ourselves to be defined and regulated by a system that is purely and solely driven by its agenda to sell us things can hardly be anything other than extraordinarily pathological. It is ridiculously farcical, but at the same time deeply sinister, because we let it eat us up without any complaint. We don’t stand up to it, we cave in every time, we put up with any indignity. It is as if our spirit has been somehow broken by this apparently innocuous thing we blithely call ‘the consumerist way of life’; it’s as if human beings don’t exist anymore – only sad shadows that uncomplainingly go through the paces of the ridiculous superficial game that we have been given in place of life…

 

We have no autonomy because everything comes from the outside, and when ‘everything is supplied from the outside’ then this means that there is no inside, or no room for anything on the inside, and this is just another way of saying that there is no room for ourselves, for our true genuine inner lives.  When everything comes from the outside then this is a disaster of the very greatest proportions, as Jung says here in this quote from On The Psychology Of The Trickster Figure. Collected Works Vol 9 (Part 1) –

 

The disastrous idea that everything comes to the human psyche from outside and that it is born a tabula rasa is responsible for the erroneous belief that under normal circumstances the individual is in perfect order. He then looks to the State for salvation, and makes society pay for his inefficiency.

 

He thinks the meaning of existence would be discovered if food and clothing were delivered to him gratis on his own doorstep, or if everybody possessed an automobile. Such are the puerilities that rise up in place of an unconscious shadow and keep it unconscious. As a result of these prejudices, the individual feels totally dependent on his environment and loses all capacity for introspection. In this way his code of ethics is replaced by a knowledge of what is permitted or forbidden or ordered.

 

How, under these circumstances, can one expect a soldier to subject an order received from a superior to ethical scrutiny? He has not yet made the discovery that he might be capable of spontaneous ethical impulses, and of performing them – even when no one is looking.

 

We are the inside, not the outside. We’re what’s been overlooked. The outside has nothing to do with us – not only is it foreign to our true nature (so to speak), it’s actually inimical to us. The thing is however that when we’re heteronomous we no longer have a sense of ‘the inside, we no longer have any true interiority. Instead, we have a false sense of interiority which is really just the outside that has been ‘introjected’ (or internalized) by the process of socialization. We think that the alien introject is us, in other words. The better things are going for the alien introject the worse off we are – its ‘health’ is our ‘lack of health’, so to speak (even though we can’t really speak in terms of ‘the health of the introject’ since an introject isn’t a living thing). It would have to be genuinely alive in order to have health and it isn’t – it isn’t alive at all. It belongs to another realm, not the realm of life. It belongs to what Plato would call ‘the world of shadows’, not the world of light…

 

Heteronomy means that when I make a choice, something inside me chooses for me and I don’t know it! On the contrary, I think that I have ‘made a choice’, I think that I have ‘acted autonomously’, and this feels good. This type of ‘feeling good’ isn’t however the type of good feeling that comes with being genuinely free, it’s an analogue of that. It’s the good feeling that comes with ‘playing it safe whilst at the same time thinking that you’re taking a risk’, it’s the type of good feeling that comes when we allow ourselves to be tricked into believing the ‘theatre of freedom’ when really we should know better! A simpler way of putting this is then to say that the pleasurable / satisfying feeling of ‘false autonomy’ comes about as a direct result of us believing something that isn’t actually true, and as soon as we say this we can see that this ‘inverted’ situation is never going to be conducive to good mental health!

 

Technically, what we’re talking about here can be described as ‘playing a game’, which is something that we are of course all very familiar with! When we are 100% immersed in the game of conditioned life then we are ‘eligible’, so to speak, to experience the good feeling that comes from thinking that we are acting autonomously when we’re not. We are also eligible to experience the motivation to want to be able to act autonomously in a successful rather than an unsuccessful way in the future even when this doesn’t seem to be working out for us at the moment and this motivation is also potentially very rewarding since we can pleasurably anticipate ‘doing what we want to do’ in the future, even though it isn’t really ‘what we want to do’ but only what our conditioning wants us to do. The actual authenticity of our wants and needs doesn’t matter therefore because we will still stand to experience pleasure and satisfaction when they are met. If all we want is to feel good then who cares?

 

This therefore represents a very potent incentive not to see through the game! We don’t want to spoil things by going into them too deeply. But then the other side of the coin is of course the bad feeling that comes when we are unable – for whatever reason – to successfully act out the impulses that we mistakenly imagine to be our own free will (but which are in reality nothing more than ‘the rules of the games’ that we have internalized). The euphoria of successfully acting out the impulses along with the dysphoria of not being able to do so make up the ongoing drama of everyday (or ‘conditioned’) life and the game of trying to obtain the one and avoid the other generally keeps us busy enough so that we don’t need to look too closely at what we actually doing. The package works perfectly well for the majority of the time in other words and so we rarely find the need to look beyond it…

 

Our conceptions of what is meant by ‘good mental health’ can therefore be seen entirely within this context – which is ‘the context of us playing the game of being autonomous when we’re not’. We see our psychological well being as being directly linked to how well we are able to perform within this game that we do not acknowledge as a game and as long as we are able to maintain the perception that we are able to enact our imaginary autonomy (or at least believe in the possibility of us being able to do so in the future) then we are going to say that we are getting on just fine. We can’t call this real ‘mental health’ because it doesn’t involve any actual autonomy but it does all the same act as a perfectly serviceable surrogate or analogue for the real thing. All seems to be rosy – or at the very least potentially rosy – in the garden, therefore. Problems start appearing on the scene however when we can no longer maintain this vital perception that we are either ‘in control’ or at least ‘potentially in control’.   Alongside this problem – which is known to us all as anxiety – there is another related glitch and that is when we can no longer maintain the perception that there actually is anything in the game worth striving for (or – conversely – that what we have already gained or achieved is in fact not in reality worth anything). This second glitch in the game is of course what we call depression.

 

A more succinct way of putting this is to say that anxiety is where we are unable to believe any more in our ability to successfully manipulate outcomes within the game and depression is where the outcomes (whether we achieve them or not) no longer mean anything to us and, more than this, actually appear to us to be utterly fraudulent. Given the fact that we construct our identity on the twin basis of what psychologists sometimes call ‘self-efficacy’ (i.e. the belief that one has that one can successfully obtain one’s goals) and what we imagine ourselves to have obtained on the basis of this illusory ‘self-efficacy’ of ours, the failure of the game to supply us with a believable package is absolutely devastating in its effect. It is devastating because all we know is the game, and so when the game gets ‘spoiled’ for us as it does by anxiety and depression, we have nothing else to turn to.

 

When we’re playing the game that we’re autonomous when we’re not (because in reality we’re being ‘externally determined’ every step of the way) then we may said to be ‘psychologically unconscious’. ‘Unconscious life’ is that life where we follow the script that has been handed to us without ever realizing that we are doing do, or that there actually is any script. We follow the script that we have been provided with whilst fondly imagining the whole time that ‘we’re coming up with it all by ourselves’. We’re playing a game without knowing that we’re playing game. We might wish to say that the script is being provided for us by society, or by ‘the external authority’ of the system we live in, or we might say that it is being given to us by ‘the conditioned mind’ – it doesn’t matter which words we use because it all comes down to the same thing – we’re being externally determined. No matter how we say it, it all comes down to the fact that we have no autonomy, and therefore no true sense of who we actually are or what we actually might want to do with our lives.

 

This state of being ‘externally determined’ is the ubiquitous state of affairs and it is pointless for us to go around trying to say what we have just said to anyone we might happen to meet because the chances are very much that they won’t understand a word that you are saying. To be unconscious not only means that you don’t know that you are, it also means that you don’t even have the referents to understand what it is that is being talked about. This brings us to a crucial point in relation to anxiety and depression and the neurotic mental disturbances in general. The point is this – when we are psychologically unconscious ourselves and we come across someone who is anxious or depressed (because the game is no longer working for them) then we are of course going to try to ‘help them’ by returning them to a state of ‘happy equilibrium within the game that we’re not acknowledging to be a game’. There is no way that we’re not going to try to do this! What we can’t see is that there is a real chance here (amidst all the distress and suffering) of discovering our true autonomy, since we can’t discover freedom until we discover the fact that we don’t have any! If we ourselves are psychologically unconscious then what we have just said here will be fundamentally incomprehensible to us because we honestly (if erroneously) believe ourselves to be already free…