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