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 construct, 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 the world itself and the ‘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 is 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 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 is always 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 – that this principle of incompleteness, this business of discovering that our theories, models and ideas about the world are always incomplete. We might (if we were naïve enough) think that gaining wisdom means ‘knowing more and more about the world’, but that is not 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 ideas or beliefs about it’ it is also crucially important to acknowledge that this process very often doesn’t happen, or is indefinitely delayed.

 

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 and 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 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 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’, 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 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 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? 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 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 not 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Problem With ‘Coping Strategies’

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Mechanism Of Unconsciousness

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

There Is No Technique For Mental Health

What we want in our mental health workers is not ‘technical smarts’ but actual wisdom. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement – in this the most difficult area of human experience actual bona fide wisdom is surely what is required, not just a fancy vocabulary and a few ‘off-the-shelf’ therapeutic protocols. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it is! It’s a very controversial statement…

 

The reason that this is a highly controversial territory is because, unbeknownst to ourselves, we have collectively put all of our money on a different horse entirely; instead of putting our money on the horse called ‘wisdom’ we have put it on ‘technical know-how’. The reason for this isn’t hard to understand – technical know-how has served us so well (or it would appear) in other areas that we assume it should serve us equally well here – the only thing being that it doesn’t! There’s no ‘technical fix’ for mental health difficulties and if we think that there is, or that they could be, then we are simply deceiving ourselves.

 

What we’re talking about here is part of a much wider problem – we don’t value wisdom at all in this modern world of ours! Even the word itself doesn’t fit anymore; it sounds quaint, like something from a fairy story, like something from a bygone age. There were wise men and wise women in a bygone age perhaps but now we have specialists, now we have experts. Specialists are produced on an assembly line – admittedly a lot of hard work is required, and more than just a bit of native ability, but the process is nevertheless one in which ideas and theories are passively absorbed from the outside. This is how the academic world works and there should be no doubt about it – it is ‘conformity on a global scale’.

 

There is a place for this type of process, which we can most accurately call ‘training’. There is a very big place for it – our world wouldn’t run otherwise! It would break down and there would be no one to fix it. If your computer develops a glitch and crashes on you then you need a proper IT specialist to get it up and running again, and if you sustain a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula then you need an orthopaedic specialist to get this sorted out for you. In both cases we will be very grateful for the specialist knowledge, skill and experience. With difficulties that occur in relation to our mental health it is a different matter entirely however. This is a whole different ball-game. Highly trained therapists and psychologists might sound as if they possess a hard technological knowledge like the IT expert or the consultant orthopaedic surgeon but they don’t. They don’t for the simple reason that no such ‘technical knowledge’ exists.

 

We just don’t have that type of black-and-white knowledge and that isn’t because we haven’t yet acquired it; it’s because the nature of what we are looking at here is far too complex to allow for the possibility of black-and-white theories or black-and-white maps. We can come up with theories, we can come up with maps and models for sure, but they aren’t going to be of any help to us. Why they won’t be any help is easy to explain – the rational mind works by taking a very narrow slice of the ‘complex whole’, and because the slice of the pie we are taking is so narrow this makes it possible to have a ‘sharp focus’ on the world. The narrower the slice the sharper the focus! This is why people who have a very blinkered view of the world find it possible to have very definite, very black-and-white beliefs! Those of us who aren’t blinkered aren’t able to be so very sure of ourselves, as Bertrand Russell has pointed out.

 

By the same token then (going back to their rational intellect and its capacity to come up with theories and models) when it comes to thicker slices of the pie (the pipe being reality itself, we might say) our sharp focus goes and we are no longer able to say definite things, no longer able to make definite statements about the world. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Relation is one example of this, complexity theory is another. The very essence of complexity theory is that in a complex system the future trajectory of that system bifurcates not just once but many times and we aren’t able to predict which path the system is going to go down. The bigger the slice of reality we take the more uncertainty comes into the picture; hence the science of ‘limitology’ which looks at necessary limits to knowledge that it is possible to have about a system.

 

We could of course try to argue that the human psyche isn’t a ‘complex system’, but who is going to buy that? Intuitively we all know that the psyche is a very deep phenomenon indeed, and no one has ever shown otherwise, despite the best efforts of the behaviourists! To try to argue that what we are is, at root, is no ‘big deal’ (i.e. that it is something that is could be very easily explained away by science) is a most peculiar impulse, and actually has nothing to do with science. True science isn’t afraid of irresolvable uncertainty – it isn’t about ‘explaining things away’. That’s not science, that’s what ER Schumacher calls ‘degenerate scientism’, which is a kind of substitute for fundamentalist religion, i.e. something that gives us all the answers so that we don’t ever have to think about anything. Really, when we come up against what we may term ‘mental health difficulties’ what we are looking at is the core question of what it means to be a human being, as the existential psychotherapists have pointed out. This is therefore not some kind of trivial problem that can be disposed of by the judicious application of CBT or ‘emotional regulation’ or ‘anxiety management’ or ‘distress tolerance’ or anything of that ilk. The greatest philosophical minds in history have wrestled with great question of what it means to be a human being yet we superficial moderns come up with CBT and emotional regulation techniques and think that we have done something clever!

 

What we really need our mental health workers who are genuinely wise, who have their own, hard-won insight into what it means to be a human being but our educational system is entirely wrong for this. Our system of training demands conformity, as we said earlier; it demands that we become the passive receptacles of some generic form of knowledge it is not our own, and which we are not allowed to question. Whoever got on well in training by questioning stuff, after all? At the end of the training process we know lots of ‘stuff’ for sure but it isn’t our stuff. It’s stuff from ‘the outside of us’, it’s ‘external content’. If you happen to be training as an electronic engineer or an organic chemist this is fine – you can hardly be expected to recapitulate the entire history of the discipline from scratch, all by yourself, in order to ‘make it your own’! With therapy however  things are different  – we really do need to have ‘discovered it for ourselves’, so to speak. What we are saying has to be a ‘living truth’ for ourselves, otherwise we are merely repeating empty phrases that we read in a book, or learned on a training course. Intellectual knowledge by itself is utterly useless when it comes to therapy – it is an insult! What is needed is ‘visceral knowledge’, ‘deep knowledge’, wordless knowledge, knowledge that we have won ourselves through personal work and which comes from the very heart of us.

 

In most types of psychotherapy this is – to some extent – how it works, but even here there is – almost always – the straitjacket of models and frameworks which prevent us from ‘seeing things for ourselves’. And even more significantly it is still the case that most psychotherapists, even with all the experiential work that they have done, are still constrained by deeply ingrained societal assumptions about what life is ought to be. We come out of our experiential work learning something about ourselves perhaps but still unconsciously subscribing to the Generic Mind. It’s as if we can be the two things at once, without any conflict at all – it’s as if we can be ‘mental health workers’ and ‘the products of our society’ at the same time. We imagine therefore that is possible to be socially conditioned and yet genuinely helpful to other people at one at the same time. This is obviously quite ridiculous. There are, as Alan Watt says in ‘Psychotherapy East and West’, two distinct types of therapist: the one who stands with society (and all its unconscious assumptions) and the one who stands with his or her client against society and all the blind senseless aggression that is inherent in it.

 

This doesn’t mean that we have to ‘fight’ society or be continually attempting to ‘destabilise’ it, it just means that we see through it and no longer take seriously what it takes seriously. More than just regular personal work is needed for this however, we actually have to ‘wake up’ somehow and there no ‘recipe for waking up’ that we can apply in any sort of a training course or programme. As Bruce Lee said (not in exactly these words) towards the end of his life to someone who wanted to learn from him, “I have no system to teach, so how can I teach you?” Only systems can be taught, and all systems are equal conformity to a set of rules. Systems equal unconsciousness, in other words – consciousness has no system that it needs to conform to!

 

This brings us to the nub of the problem – the reason that the type of suffering that comes about when our mental health is compromised has become such a pandemic is because we live in a world where (as we have said) ‘wisdom’ no longer has any value. Or – as we could also put it – it is because we live in a world which no longer places any stock in the value or importance of the individual. We think that we as a society value the individual but this is absolutely not the case. We don’t even know the meaning of the word! We are brought up not to value the individual but rather to cherish the mind-created ego or ‘self-image’ and that isn’t the same thing at all as the individual. The ego or self-image are nothing more than a collection of desires and fears, likes and dislikes, attachments and versions, and these – by their very nature – are always generic. They are ‘off the shelf clothes that everyone can wear’, they are a ‘one size fits all’ garment. As Jung says:

The more you cling to that which the whole world desires, the more you are Everyman, who has not yet discovered himself and stumbles through the world like a blind man leading the blind with somnambulistic certainty into the ditch.

We become the individual we are really under this ‘cloak of the generic’ not by believing in our own opinions, not by allowing ourselves to be trapped by our own likes and dislikes; we become ‘who we truly are’ not by passively allowing ourselves to be helplessly imprisoned by our own preferences and biases, but by discarding them. Being an individual is not about having opinions about everything under the sun, contrary to popular belief; it’s not about defining oneself in terms of our lifestyle, friends or tastes – it’s about standing alone and not having any beliefs or opinions that we can share with other people, or fight with them about. Being an individual means that we have not identified with the Generic Mind in other words. It means that we are ‘travelling in our own motorcar rather than being the passive passengers on the public transport system’, to use Gurdjieff’s metaphor.

 

The cause of our malaise lies precisely in our loss of individuality, precisely in the loss of our genuine interiority. So the answer isn’t to ‘carry on as we are’ and have a corps of highly trained specialised professionals standing by in the wings to give us generic therapy when we need it – the answer is for all of us, therapist and non-therapist equally, to struggle heroically to regain our individuality in the face of society’s relentless and ceaseless mechanical pressure on us to give it up…

 

 

 

The Greatest Calamity

When we allow ourselves to be completely defined by the thinking mind, the mind that evaluates and categorizes, then the result of this – quite simply – is the self. That’s how we get to experience life on the basis of ‘the self’ (instead of ‘in some other way’). Unless something is unambiguously defined in a black-and-white way then we are unable to identify with it, and without identification there can be no self.

 

‘Identification’ simply means that I see some fixed position, some fixed viewpoint as being ‘me’ – it’s the fixed nature of the position of the viewpoint that allows for the possibility of making any kind of ‘literal statement’ about the world. How can we make a literal statement if there is not a ‘literal’ (or ‘concrete’) point of reference to make it from? Literal statements actually are the fixed point of reference projected outwards onto the world. As soon we say this, we get a strong hint as to what the ‘calamity’ to which we are referring might be – identification means that everything I see and experience from the point of view of that ‘fixed position’ is already inherent in that position, and between my perception of myself as being ‘this viewpoint’ and ‘the world that I perceive around me’ (which is as we have said tautologically contained within my assumed frame of reference) what else is there? For me, that is everything – that represents the alpha and omega of my total field of possibilities.

 

The principle behind what we are saying here is very clear – when I identify with the fixed position then I am just not going to be able to perceive anything that does not ‘agree’ with this fixed reference point of mine. I won’t be able to see anything other than those things that make sense in relation to the fixed reference point that I have tacitly accepted as being ‘the only possible way of looking at the world’ – naturally enough! So what has happened is that I have become sealed off within a closed system. No possibility of ‘radical reorganization’ exists within a closed system – clearly there can’t be any such because what makes the closed system into a closed system is the fact that there are restrictions placed on what can be allowed to happen in that system. The ‘self consistency’ of logical systems depends upon the limits that are placed upon what is allowed to happen within that system – which is of course the very same thing as saying that logical systems ‘function as such on the basis of rules’! No one is going to argue with this…

 

There is no calamity involved in allowing everything that happens in a logical system to be determined by rules – that’s how logical systems work, as we keep saying. But what is good for a logical system (such as the national railway system network or a big modern hospital) is not good for us as individual human beings. The one does not imply the other, and although this may seem like a very obvious point to be making it clearly isn’t a point that we understand in any practical way because the story of mankind is very much the story of how we have allowed our own systems to enslave us and make us miserable as a result of this wretched state of enslavement. This is the one mistake we keep on making over and over again and the fact that we are repeatedly making it is very clearly because we do not understand what we’re doing! We’re not even close to understanding what’s going on – we are forever focusing on improving the systems that enslave us rather than looking at how we can become free from them.

 

Society is a logical system and we are all defined by it, no matter what we might like to believe. We don’t want to believe that we are defined by society, we want to believe that we are ‘unique individuals living our own unique individual lives’, but this is simply not true. How could it be true, when we are not actually putting any effort into it? Being the unique individual that one genuinely is isn’t just something that ‘falls into our lap’, like a ripe fruit when the tree is shaken – it can only come about via arduous effort. This isn’t ‘effort’ as we usually see it either – it isn’t  effort that is made in a particular direction, effort that is directed towards a particular or specified end. We not ‘improving ourselves in line with some idea that we might have with regard to how we or someone else might think we ought to be improved’. That is merely ‘optimization’ and optimization is the process of adapting ourselves to some kind of logical system. Optimization is movement in the direction of losing autonomy.

 

The effort involved in becoming the true individual that one actually is (or rather that one could be) is of an entirely different nature to this – it involves what the alchemists of old called the Opus Contra Naturam – the ‘work against nature’. Rules or precedents exist that propel us in a certain direction – the Opus Contra Naturam means not going in this direction! The work against nature is of course what Carl Jung calls individuation. Individuation (or rather ‘the fruit of the individuation process’) isn’t something that just ‘falls into our lap’ (as the socialised identity does) – it emerges slowly as a result of our struggle to be true to ourselves (or ‘find ourselves’) in the face of a hostile environment, which is what the social system is as regards our genuine individuality. The inertial forces that are ranged against us are immense and implacable and it is as everyone knows much easier to just give into them and be like everyone else! At least then we will have company, rather than feeling very much on our own and in danger of feeling that the ‘fault’ lies within us, and not within society as a whole.

 

So society is one big machine that that we have to struggle against in order not to be defined by it, but the other manifestation of ‘the machine’ is the thinking mind, which is what we started off by talking about. We’re caught between the machine on the inside and the machine on the outside, and neither of them has any tolerance at all for ‘who we really are’ – the machine – any machine – understands only mechanical things, and ‘who we really are’ is not mechanical. Or as we could also say, ‘a machine only understands defined things, and who we are is not capable of being defined’. The problem is however that who we understand ourselves to be is both defined and limited, and as such the one thing that it fears more than anything else is a reality that is not defined, a reality that is not limited. There is no challenge for the conditioned self that is greater than this; the unlimited / undefined reality is not merely ‘a challenge’, it is its greatest terror!

 

We see ‘being defined’ as being a strength – we know who we are, we know what we think, we know what we like and what we don’t like, and this seems like a strong position to be in. Almost anyone you talk to will tell you that this is a strong position to be in – society will tell you this. It is however strong only in a very limited way – it’s like being a world-renowned expert in a very narrow field – without any doubt we are formidably strong within the parameters of our specialization and if our area of specialization were ‘the whole world’ then we would be genuinely strong! But because our area of speciality isn’t the whole world (obviously enough!) we aren’t ‘strong’ at all –we only have a kind of ‘pretence’ at being strong and inasmuch as we allow ourselves to believe in this pretence of ours (which is easily done) we get to imagine that we are strong when we are not. When we fall into the trap of believing our own pretence we make fools of ourselves, in other words, and ‘making a fool of oneself without being able to see it’ is not a genuine form of strength.

 

Although this might at first glance seem like a somewhat obvious and therefore trivial example to give, it only takes a moment of reflection to realise that what we are talking about here is the situation of the conditioned (or ‘mind-created’) self. The mind-created self gets to feel robust and unrealistically confident in its outlook (if not downright arrogant!) because of the way in which it believes in a strength which it doesn’t actually have. The traditional virtue of humility originally meant something like ‘the awareness of the fact that we don’t really know anything’ (as opposed to what we usually take it to be, which is ‘the theatrical effort of the arrogant self to try to show that it is not arrogant when the truth is that it simply can’t help being so’). The incentive for us to fall into the trap of ‘believing in our own pretence’ (or ‘believing that our very limited area of specialisation is the whole world when it plainly isn’t’) is that it creates a feeling of ‘ontological security’ for us – a feeling of ‘security-of-being’ that we just can’t obtain any other way.

 

Being defined gives us a sense of security therefore, but only when we been live in a world that is made up of nothing more than our own mental projections. If we want that feeling of being secure – the feeling of being secure that comes from being totally defined – we have to pay the price of having to live in a very small world – the very small world of our own thoughts, our own expectations. What else are our thoughts anyway, if not ‘expectations of the world’? We don’t know that we are living in this absurdly small world, but that doesn’t alter the fact that we are, and there are going to be consequences to this choice that we have made, even though we don’t know that we have made it.

 

It’s not a good thing to shrink down in this way – it brings suffering, and not only does it ‘bring suffering’, it brings ‘suffering-without-the-capacity-to-bear-it’. Within this ‘absurdly small world’ (which is the only world that makes sense to the defined self) we are constantly subject to ‘irritations’ of a totally trivial nature. We can say that these irritations are of ‘a totally trivial nature’ because precisely they are irritations that make sense to the defined self, and the ‘defined’ (or ‘mind-created’) self is itself completely petty, completely trivial! We all know this on some level or other – we are all deeply familiar with the pettiness of the everyday self. The only time we aren’t aware of this is when we are wholly identified with this self, which is – needless to say – all too often! This is a calamity in itself; to be infinitely petty in the scope of our concerns, without knowing that we are because we are so caught up in them – is without any doubt a terrible calamity. We only need the smallest bit of imagination to appreciate just how terrifying a fate this is.

 

That’s only the beginning of it however. In order to enjoy the ‘sense of security’ that comes with being narrowly defined we need to restrict ourselves to ‘living within a very small world without knowing that we are’ and in one way this seems to be a price that we are willing to pay. There are however distressing consequences to this manoeuvre that only become apparent after a while. The ‘consequences’ that we talking about can be understood in terms of counterproductivity – ‘counterproductivity’ means that we that when we exert ourselves to accomplish one aim (and thereby hopefully resolve the situation in some way) other problems – which we have not foreseen – immediately come into play. And when we try to fix these unexpected problems what happens next is of course that a whole clutch of new problems come into being which also need to be fixed, and so on and so forth. On the ‘macro-scale’ this sort of counterproductivity is fairly well-known to us – our linear/technological approach to managing our environment is always rebounding on us in various unexpected (and unwanted) ways, as Gregory Bateson pointed out back in the 1960s. Ivan Illich also speaks of what he calls ‘specific counterproductivity’ in the fields of education, communication, transport and health.

 

We are at least’ halfway aware’ of counterproductivity on the macro-scale, whether it is in regard to the planetary ecology or industrialized society, but we are almost entirely blind to what we might call ‘intrapersonal counter- productivity’, which is the result of us trying to control or regulate ourselves. No matter how free we try to be in ourselves the mere fact that we are defined (just as the world we live in is defined) means that we are already controlled in the most profound way possible, even before we do anything else. This is like being ‘strangled at birth’! Intrapersonal counterproductivity is where we try to obtain a benefit for ourselves but incur suffering instead (or where we try to avoid pain, and instead of avoiding it we bring it down on our heads a thousandfold). The more common term for this is of course neuroticism and the concrete or literal self is the source of all neurotic counterproductivity…

 

 

 

The Jinx

To be ‘unconscious’, in the psychological sense of the world, means that we absolutely can’t help seeing everything via some kind of ridiculous arbitrary viewpoint that simply isn’t true and never could be! That’s the sort of ‘jinx’ that we’re talking about here – the jinx of being made a complete fool of by our thinking, by our ‘ideas about reality’, so to speak.

 

It doesn’t matter what perceptions or understandings of the world we have therefore, they are only there because of our conditioned viewpoint. Our perceptions and understandings of the world only make sense in relation to this viewpoint – they don’t and can’t make sense in the other way. No matter what ‘serious’ tasks we might engage in, if we try to tackle them without first tackling the wooden beam that is lodged solidly in our eye-socket, we can only succeed at perpetuating our folly. ‘Perpetuating our folly’ is the best we can hope for…

 

The very idea of a ‘serious task’ becomes not-so-serious therefore – we may be taking ourselves seriously for sure but this is really just a joke that we can’t see – it’s an invisible joke, it’s a ‘joke at our own expense’! The reason this joke is at our own expense is because we are forever acting as if we have a very solid and mature grasp on things (our whole demeanour, our whole comportment says as much) whilst the truth of the matter is that we are the victims of a ridiculous deception that we have unwittingly perpetrated upon ourselves.

 

How is looking at the world from the basis of a viewpoint that isn’t true and never could be true ‘serious’? We point the finger at all sorts of so-called serious problems that are to be found in the world and which need our urgent attention but stubbornly ignore their root cause, which is our extraordinary ‘one-sided’ (as Jung would say) view of the world. We see things the way our thinking mind says we should see them, and not in any other way – the advantage in this is that we can then effectively utilise the world in the way we wish to utilise it, whilst the disadvantage is that our awareness is completely contained within the game we are playing with the result that we simply don’t know that we’re playing it.

 

Putting matters like this gives us a way of looking very precisely at our predicament in life. If our unwitting one-sidedness results in us only being able to attend to that aspect of the world which corresponds to the unconscious (or unexamined) expectations that we are invisibly encoded into our way of thinking about the world then what has essentially happened here is that we have set ourselves up as being ‘outside of life’ (or ‘apart from life’), and not just ‘apart from life’, but also against life, in opposition to life.

 

If we are completely ‘on the side of thought’ (and have no balance whatsoever within us) then there is no way that we will not be living ‘apart from life’, and ‘in opposition to life’. Not being in opposition to life is going to be a complete impossibility. Life is the Whole Thing, not just the partial or fragmentary view. Furthermore, life cannot be subdivided without ceasing to be life – when we subdivide it life just becomes an idea! We can’t say what this thing that we’re calling ‘life’ is because to say this is to put life in a compartment and to put life in a compartment is to ‘separate it from itself’. This is the whole problem in a nutshell – the whole problem is our unconscious compulsion to turn everything into a mind-created abstraction!

 

So the next question we could ask is ‘what happens when we place ourselves outside of life and in opposition to life?’ Very obviously, to do this is to incur all sorts of calamities. When we headbutt the universe, then we end up with a very sore head! When we break harmony with the Tao (even though, as Alan Watt says, this is ultimately an impossibility) then just as we are in opposition to life, life is in opposition to us and no matter how we figure it, when life itself exists in opposition to us than the one thing that we may rely on is that things are going to get pretty rough!

 

In very simple terms, when we are in this situation of being on the ‘other team’ with regard to life, then everything is going to turn against us. As Jung says our own psyche is going to turn against us. We are creating our own nemesis with everything we do.  “The more compulsive the one-sidedness, and the more untamed the libido which streams off to one side, the more daemonic it becomes” says Jung (Collected Works Vol 6). In this statement it is clear that we actually have two devils on our back here, not just the one. We have the ‘daemonic forces’ that have been called into existence by our ‘one-sidedness’ (by our ‘opposition to nature’) and we also have the compulsivity that is inherent in this one-sidedness. There is nothing to choose between these two devils – they are each as bad as the other! Compulsivity is a demon because it never gives us any peace, it goads us on forever and ever and we can never keep it satisfied, no matter how hard we may try. We are in this horrible situation where we do what we do not because we really want to (or because there is any joy in acting out ‘what we have in mind’ as Macbeth says) but because we have to. We have no choice. There is no freedom in the moment for us, only slavery to a pitiless (and quite insane) master!

 

And then if this were not bad enough, the result of us obeying the compulsivity created by our one-sidedness in this way is that we set up a force that turns against us and ultimately destroys everything that we have put so much effort into creating. We can’t win either way, therefore – we try to get some peace by placating the devil that is persecuting us from the inside (which, ultimately, we can never do because no matter how much we give it it will always want more) and we bring the devil on the outside down on our heads as a result of trying so hard to appease the demon on the inside! To say that we are ‘caught between a rock and a hard place’ is putting it far too mildly. We’re up shit creek without a paddle.

 

Needless to say, this conflicted situation creates great suffering. We try as hard as we do to enact all of our ideas, beliefs, and plans because we fervently believe this there is to be great benefit in doing so. Our rational-purposeful output matters a great deal to us – that’s why we are so very’ serious’ about it. It matters to us a great deal because we believe that we are going to set up some value in the outside world; we believe that we are going to ‘do some good,’ in other words. Our belief in the importance of our goals – whatever these might be – is however driven not by the genuine desire to ‘do good’ when we are in the grip of the thinking mind but ‘to do good by the criteria of the thinking mind’, which is not the same thing at all! ‘Doing good by criteria of the thinking mind’ simply means obeying its compulsions (or ‘doing what we are not free not to do’) – we just don’t see things this way when we are in ‘unconscious’ or ‘passively-identified’ state. We don’t see our true motivation.

 

So – as far as we are concerned ‘everything will come out all right’ just so long as we can attain our goals, and this is why they matter so much to us in the very serious way that they do. Yet, the fact that we are acting unconsciously (or one-sidedly’) guarantees that our efforts are all going to rebound on us in the most painful way; it guarantees in other words that we have set ourselves up so that the thing we see as being of the utmost importance is unfailingly going to go wrong for us, is going to backfire on us, and if this doesn’t spell ‘suffering’ then what does? The very thing that we are pinning all our hopes on is the one thing that could never work out for us. Action that comes out of one-sidedness is never going to work out for us.

 

The reason for this is of course because it is our unconscious or unexamined assumptions that are driving everything. Whenever we want to achieve we want to achieve on the basis of these unconscious assumptions and because these assumptions are completely unfounded (they can’t not be) we are heading off on ‘a journey to nowhere’ right from the very start. Thought can be a very useful guide in the pragmatic domain but it is never going to be of any service to us in the ‘absolute’ sense that we want it to be. Thought can never do us any good when used as an ‘absolute basis’ for how we are to live life! It can’t do us any good because in reality there is no such thing as ‘an absolute basis’. Life can’t be oversimplified on the basis of a theory or belief either of the religious or political or scientific variety. All theories/models/concepts/beliefs come out of the one-sidedness of the rational mind; they all come out of our ‘invisible assumptions’ and this is why they will always backfire on us.

 

We can use the rational mind to help us with the ‘little things’ in life, with the day-to-day mechanical details, but not with the big things, not the things that really matter. We can’t face life on the basis of a theory or model or belief as we have just said. To do so is an evasion of responsibility and this evasion will inevitably rebound on us! Nature unfailingly punishes unconsciousness, as Jung says. Ignorance is no excuse. Facing life on the basis of a theory/belief/model/opinion is living unconsciously (i.e. engaging on the basis of unexamined assumptions is living unconsciously) and to live life unconsciously is to be very thoroughly jinxed. We might not see it – we almost certainly won’t see it – but our ignorance doesn’t mean that the joke isn’t on us; our ignorance is why the joke is on us!