‘Mental health’ and ‘organisations’ don’t go together – if we have some degree of mental health then we won’t have any more to do with organisations than we can possibly help, and if we are part of an organisation then it goes without saying that the integrity of our mental health is going to be significantly compromised. There are no two ways about this! When we consider the fact that mental health falls within the remit of large and intensely bureaucratic healthcare organisations we can see just how ironic this is, therefore. When an organisation makes it its business to take care of our collective mental health then this constitutes a very big problem. No one – it seems – is even aware of the problem, never mind engaged in doing anything about it. Our situation is very much like lambs being led to the slaughter, which is a metaphor that Gurdjeff used in ‘The Tale of the Evil Magician’ – (taken from thecasswiki.net)
There was an evil magician. He lived deep in the mountains and the forests, and he had thousands of sheep. But the problem was that the sheep were afraid of the magician because every day the sheep were seeing that one of them was being killed for his breakfast, another was being killed for his lunch. So they ran away from the magician’s ranch and it was a difficult job to find them in the vast forest. Being a magician, he used magic.
He hypnotized all the sheep and suggested to them first of all that they were immortal and that no harm was being done to them when they were skinned, that, on the contrary, it would be very good for them and even pleasant; secondly he suggested that the magician was a good master who loved his flock so much that he was ready to do anything in the world for them; and in the third place he suggested to them that if anything at all were going to happen to them it was not going to happen just then, at any rate not that day, and therefore they had no need to think about it.
He then told different sheep…to some, “You are a man, you need not be afraid. It is only the sheep who are going to be killed and eaten, not you. You are a man just like I am.” Some other sheep were told, “You are a lion – only sheep are afraid. They escape, they are cowards. You are a lion; you would prefer to die than to run away. You don’t belong to these sheep. So when they are killed it is not your problem. They are meant to be killed, but you are the most loved of my friends in this forest.” In this way, he told every sheep different stories, and from the second day, the sheep stopped running away from the house.
They still saw other sheep being killed, butchered, but it was not their concern. Somebody was a lion, somebody was a tiger, somebody was a man, somebody was a magician and so forth. Nobody was a sheep except the one who was being killed. This way, without keeping servants, he managed thousands of sheep. They would go into the forest for their food, for their water, and they would come back home, believing always one thing: “It is some sheep who is going to be killed, not you. You don’t belong to the sheep. You are a lion – respected, honored, a friend of the great magician.” The magician’s problems were solved and the sheep never ran away again.
Coming back to our original statement, we might still ask why mental health and organisations don’t go together? How can we make a statement like this? And if there is a grave mismatch between mental health and the all-powerful organizations that we have created to work ‘for our benefit’ then why hasn’t anyone noticed it? As it happpens, this is something that we can be very clear about – it’s not a difficult argument that we are making here but something that is entirely straightforward. All that’s needed is for us to have a clear understanding of what ‘mental health’ is. Mental health is really just another way of talking about freedom (or ‘autonomy’). When we are ‘free to be ourselves’ – without any external influences manipulating us without us knowing that we are being manipulated – then we may be said to be autonomous, then we may be said to be in a state of ‘good mental health’. If on the other hand we are being ‘controlled without knowing that we are being controlled’ (by external influences we know nothing of) then obviously there is no way that this can be said to be ‘a healthy situation’!
As soon as we put things like this it becomes clear to all but the naïve that mental health must be a very rare thing indeed in our society! Everything about our culture is about covert control; ‘freedom’ – although we use the word a lot – is simply not on the agenda. No one wants us to be free – even we ourselves probably don’t want to be free, as the psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm has pointed out. With freedom comes very great responsibility after all, and who wants that? The type of ‘freedom’ that we are talking about here isn’t the trivial freedom to ‘come and go as we please’, but – as we have said – the freedom to be ourselves. ‘To thine own self be true,’ says Shakespeare, but we are blasé about this dictum because we assume – for the most part – that we are already being true to ourselves. This is very far from being the case however. We aren’t being true to ourselves and we can explain why we aren’t very simply – in order to be ‘true to ourselves’ would we would have to be seeing the world in our own unique and individual way and we’re not – we are seeing it in the totally generic way that we have been passively conditioned to. This ‘adaptation to the Generic Reality’ is what Gary Z McGee calls ‘comfortable cowardice’ in his article On Becoming Free.
This after all is what society is – society is what comes into being when we all see the world in the same way! That’s the price of admission to society, that’s the price we have to pay in order to be granted ‘membership to the club’ – we all have to agree to see things in the same way, we all have to ‘subscribe to the consensus reality’. This of course happens very early on in our lives and we don’t exactly ‘notice it happening,’ we don’t exactly ‘give our conscious consent’ to the process – it’s just what happens. It’s called ‘the process of socialisation’ and no one ever asks our permission first to see if we want to be socialised!
The ‘Great Illusion’ is that we are already free, that we are already ‘seeing things in our own individual way’. Nothing could be further from the truth however. As Erich Fromm says,
Modern man lives under the illusion that he knows ‘what he wants,’ while he actually wants what he is supposed to want. In order to accept this it is necessary to realize that to know what one really wants is not comparatively easy, as most people think, but one of the most difficult problems any human being has to solve. It is a task we frantically try to avoid by accepting ready-made goals as though they were our own.
A big part of the illusion ‘that we are already free’ lies in the fact that we take it so very much for granted that the way we understand life is the only way that it ever could be understood. This being the case we don’t of course feel that we are being manipulated or coerced to see the world in a particular predetermined way! We don’t know that there is always ‘the freedom to see things otherwise’. This is something that you would not be able to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it for themselves – the words just wouldn’t make any sense. ‘We accept the reality with which we have been presented’ – as the line in The Truman Show goes. In this film, Truman Burbank gradually ‘wakes up’ to the fact that everything he has ever been told is a lie, and via this process of ‘seeing through the lie’ he becomes (as his name suggests), a ‘true man’. He becomes true to himself, he becomes the true individual that he already is.
This isn’t a question of creating one’s own ideology or philosophy, but simply seeing through what is not true. In the past this has been known as ‘the negative way’ or via negativa. In the same way, therefore, recovering our autonomy doesn’t mean ‘having our own particular opinions about everything under the sun’ but simply seeing falsehood for what it is. Truth is not something we have to loudly ‘assert’, or ‘hold onto’, it is – rather – what emerges all by itself when we find the courage to let it do so. The truth is ‘none of our business’, in other words – it ‘stands by itself’ without any need for assistance or support or or interpretation on our part. It’s not a question of ‘my’ truth versus ‘your’ truth therefore and when anyone (or when any group of people) take it upon themselves to tell us ‘what the truth is’ we can be sure that their so-called truth is anything but true. It is – on the contrary – an aggressive lie and it is by such aggressive lies that society maintains itself!
This brings us to the very nub of the matter – the truth isn’t something that can be stated and then agreed upon by the collective, it is something that is seen. It is, moreover, something that is seen only by the individual and no one else. No one else can see it! The collective cannot see it and neither can any paid-up member of the collective. To see the truth requires us to be who we really are and this means discarding the false shell or husk of who we have been told that we are.
There is what we might call ‘a Basic Principle’ here and that principle is this: When two or more people agree on ‘what the right way to see things’ is, then that agreed-upon viewpoint acts as ‘an inferior substitute for the truth’. The viewpoint that we have agreed upon isn’t really true for any of us – it isn’t anyone’s way of seeing the world, rather it is Everyone’s way. It’s just a convention that we have all agreed upon for the sake of ‘getting on’. Conventions are ‘things that we have agreed to be true’ – language is a convention, socialised behaviour is a convention, the legal system is a convention, and so on, and it can be readily seen how very dependent upon all these various conventions we are. The danger (the ‘Very Great Danger’!) is however that we will become trapped in our own conventions, trapped in our own systems, trapped in our own devices. What traps us is forgetting that the conventions only are conventions and not reality itself. We take the inferior substitute to be equivalent to the real thing and when we ‘forget’ in this way then our systems end up defining reality for us – they end up defining everything about us! This situation of ‘being defined by some sort of arbitrary external authority without knowing that we are’ is of course (as we have been saying) the complete antithesis of autonomy, the complete antithesis of ‘mental health’, and this is exactly the situation that we all find ourselves in. The irony is that when our lack of autonomy manifests itself in the form of neurotic suffering we go looking for assistance from the very structures and systems that have disempowered us so grievously in the first place. Fromm is very clear about this –
Man does not suffer so much from poverty today as he suffers from the fact that he has become a cog in a large machine, an automaton, that his life has become empty and lost its meaning.
The big problem is however that when we suffer (as we inevitably do suffer) from being merely ‘a cog in a large machine’, we look to that very same machine for help!
Art: Spell II, by H.R. Giger