The Self Can Never Be Improved

Two ideas that we are very much unacquainted with in the field of mental health are [1] the idea that we cannot change our mental state on purpose and [2]  the idea that our concept of ourselves, the ‘ego’, cannot ever be ‘improved’ or ‘redeemed’ in any meaningful way. These two ideas are clearly very closely linked and both of them are equally unacceptable to us!

 

If we take the second idea first, we can fairly easily see that the idea of ourselves can never be improved or redeemed – the idea that we have of ourselves will always be just that, an idea – it can never be ‘worked upon’ in such a way so as to make it be not an idea. We like the idea of ‘turning ideas into reality’ it is true but this is one idea that will never become reality. Actually – of course – if we are to be strict about it – we would have to say that no idea can ever truly be made into reality. Ideas are ideas and reality is reality; ideas are ideas by virtue of the fact that they are ‘made-up things’ (or ‘constructs’), whilst reality is reality precisely because it hasn’t been made-up, precisely because it isn’t a construct. No matter how much we improve a construct it’s never going to become ‘not a construct’.

 

There is no big problem in understanding this point – where the big problem comes in however is in us understanding that what I call ‘myself’ actually is an idea, is a construct. We have an awful lot riding on the idea of ourselves not being merely ‘an idea’ – 99% of everything we do (as Wei Wu Wei says) is done for the sake of this construct and so to reveal ‘the idea of ourselves’ as being just that we demolish everything we have either attained or think we might be able to attain in one stroke. The perception that this particular idea isn’t an idea is the hook that we hang our whole lives on. That’s the linchpin for the whole shebang, so naturally we aren’t going to take kindly to having it knocked. We would have nothing to hang our narrative on then! It would be like having a fine collection of expensive shirts or a magnificent collection of stylish and fashionable outfits, but no wardrobe in which to hang them. More to the point, it would be like having the most wonderful hat in the world but no head to wear it on. It is easy enough to put forward the argument as to why our sense of ourselves is no more than an idea, no more than a concept, if only it were possible to find someone to listen to it. Everything we relate to via the thinking mind and take on this account to be real is a construct or idea. That’s how the thinking mind works, after all – it has all these ideas about the world and it automatically projects them out onto the world, and we then happily relate to these projections as if they were not our own ideas, as if they were not our own concepts. That’s basic psychology – albeit a basic psychology that we are never taught in any psychology courses! There is a very easy test we can carry out to see if the ‘reality’ we are perceiving is bone fide or if it is merely a formulation of reality that is being mechanically presented to us by the conceptual mind and that is to notice whether what we are perceiving is engendering a state of wonder in us – if it isn’t then we know that it is a routine construct of thought that we are encountering and not reality itself, which always gives rise to wonder. The routine constructs of thought can engender other types of emotional reaction in us, it is true, but never wonder.

 

We live – for the most part – in a world that is made up of our own projections and that is a very dismal thing to consider. The key thing about our own projections is that they unfailingly remind us of ourselves; they unfailingly remind us of ourselves in either a euphoria-producing way or a dysphoria-producing way. In what may on the face of it sound like rather simplistic terms, we could say that our projections are always either ‘slanted towards the positive’ or ‘slanted towards the negative’ – either we are given the impression that our situation is improving and feel optimistic as a result or we are going to be deflated and demoralised by the perception that things are dis-improving, by the perception that things are going in a bad direction. Although this might sound like a rather over-simplistic way of understanding what’s going on this ‘positive versus negative polarity’ is inherent in the very idea of ‘projection’ – since all my projections are centred upon me, and since all I care about (as an ego) is whether things are going to pan out in a way that is [1] to my advantage or [2] not to my advantage then very clearly there are only two types of meaning that my projections are ever going to hold for me. Either I’m going to be attracted to them because they spell good news or I’m going to be repelled because they spell bad news; either I’m going to be full of desire, or I’m going to be full of fear.

 

It is actually impossible for the Mind-Created Self to live outside the ‘closed world’ that is made up of its unrecognised projections – the process by which the MCS relates to its projections as if they weren’t its projections is the process by which the MCS gets to exist as a going concern! That’s the whole mechanism right there in a nutshell. So if we think it’s rather strange that the everyday self or ego should be relating to its projections in place of reality, and doubt that this actually happens as much as we are saying it does, it will come as a far greater surprise (or rather shock) to consider the suggestion that it cannot do otherwise, no matter how hard it might stretch or strain itself. In another way it surely shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that the idea which we have of ourselves can’t actually ‘make out’ in the real world, but only in our ‘idea of the world’. Naturally the self which is a construct of the system of thought can only exist in a world that is also a construct; this is like saying that ‘who we are in the game that we are playing’ can only exist within the artificial terms of the construct that is ‘the game’. The character in the game cannot escape from the game, no matter how much it might like to believe that it can! As Greg Tucker says, the dreamer cannot leave the dream that the mind is dreaming and lead a life that is outside of the dream, independent of the dream, no matter how much effort it puts into proving that it can.

 

As Greg Tucker argues, everything we do in life is secretly for the sake of proving to ourselves that the dream isn’t a dream’, and that we do have a life that is exists outside of this narrow artificial context, and – on an unconscious level – we might say that this unconscious agenda equates to the urge that we all experience to ‘progress’ in life, to ‘improve’ ourselves or our situation. The everyday self or ego (the default setting for how we understand ourselves) is invariably perceived – once we start reflecting on the matter, which is of course something that we don’t always do  – and so are perennial urge is the urge to redeem the lowly (or inferior) situation of the self, and make it ‘worthy’ in some way. This struggle might be seen in terms of general moral improvement, or it might be seen in religious traditional religious terms as being ‘saved’ by Christ rather than remaining a poor sinner headed for damnation. In a more materialistic frame of reference we will understand the redemption of the everyday self in terms of gaining prestige and status in society, of becoming a ‘somebody’ rather than a ‘nobody’. And if we happen to be ‘spiritual materialists’, to use Chogyam Trungpa’s phrase, then we are going to try to ‘redeem the ego’ by teaching it how to be mindful, by training it to be compassionate and accepting and non-judgemental and so on. It’s all the same thing however, it’s the very same thing dressed up in different guises because what we’re trying to do is something that simply can’t be done. We are trying to improve the mind-created self or ego but there’s no ‘improving’ to be done here. ‘It is what it is’, as people often say.

 

The rational self or ego can’t be trained to be non-judgemental, accepting and compassionate – it would be easier to train a herring to bark, or train a caterpillar to pull a cart. The rational self or ego is a mechanism and as such it can only ‘obey rules’ and there is no sincerity in this. It can only do what it sees as being right (or, on occasion, rebel by doing the exact opposite of obeying and react against the rule, which is also a rule, which is also obeying). The rational self or ego is always the same – it can disguise itself in various ways (it can even disguise itself as a saint or enlightened teacher) but the underlying motivation or agenda never changes, not even by a bit. The ego is always the ego. The other way that we have of trying to ‘redeem the self’ is by this thing that we call therapy, and this brings us to the other impossibility that we have mentioned, which is ‘the impossibility of changing our mental state on purpose’. This – needless to say – is something that we have immense resistance to seeing. Just about everyone you talk to is going to tell you that they can change their mental state at will – most of what we do is done for the sake of changing our mental state, after all (although we don’t usually see things like this). I feel unhappy or dissatisfied in myself and so I do something in order that I might feel better! These are all examples of a change in mental state – or that is at least how we take it. If I’m feeling a bit down I can eat a slice of cake, if I’m anxious I can seek reassurance, or – if I am more psychologically minded, I can do some progressive muscular relaxation or perhaps take a few mindful breaths. If I’m feeling bitter or resentful or hard done by, then I can spend a few moments looking at inspirational memes on my phone, or I can start keeping a gratitude diary, and so on.

 

It might sound as if we’re being rather facetious here but the point is that mental health is – for us in the Western nations – all about using recipes or methods – if you feel like this then do X, and if you feel like that then do Y… It’s all about technical procedures and the implication is very much that we can change our mental state on purpose, which is laughable nonsense. What we don’t (or can’t) see is that feeling satisfied/unsatisfied, validated/devalidated, pleased/annoyed, hungry/satiated, etc are the two sides of the same coin. Feeling euphoric and feeling dysphoric (for whatever reason) are the very same bipolar mental state, which is the bipolar mental state associated with the Mind-Created Self, as we have already said. We believe ourselves to have a wide range of emotional states that we can experience during the course of our day-to-day lives but our emotional palette isn’t as diverse as we might think. All of our basic everyday emotions are states of mind that are based upon the ego’s perception of how well it is doing versus how badly it is doing, i.e. whether it is ‘winning’ or ‘losing’. All of our common emotional states are related to the question of whether the game we’re playing is going well for us or not and the problem with this is that we never acknowledge ourselves as playing a game. The ‘lower emotional register’ corresponds to what Tibetan Buddhism calls ‘the six poisons’ (or ‘the six worlds’) and what Christianity referrs to as ‘the seven deadly sins’. Essentially, these are games that are played by the self without it realizing that it is playing games (and this relates to what we were saying earlier when we said that the self creates itself by playing a game without acknowledging that it is). All of our common emotional states are ‘self-ish’ states, in other words; they are self-ish inasmuch as they only make sense in relation to the Mind-Created Self. Anger relates to insults that the ego receives, envy and jealousy relate to the question of whether someone else has got what the ego thinks it should have, desire relates to the self’s need to accumulate wealth or commodities (or the need to enjoy the pleasure associated with ‘obtaining good things’), pride relates to the polarity of validation versus devalidation (i.e. the age-old question of ‘Am I great or am I rubbish?’) and so on. I might argue that feeling in good form (rather than in bad form) isn’t a lower emotional state but it is because all that it means is that the MCS is doing well in its games; it’s won the lottery – so to speak – and that accounts for its good humour – if things went the other way and it ‘lost out’ (or didn’t get its own way) then that good humour would turn into bad humour in a flash, showing that both ‘emotions’ are really just the same thing…

 

All the ‘lower emotions’ are nothing other than the reflection of the self – the self is bipolar and so are all of the afflictive emotions (as Sogyal Rinpoche puts it). The lower emotions equal the Mind-Created Self and the Mind-Created Self equal the lower emotions. So at this point we can see how it is that neither the state of mind that we happen to be in at the time, or the state of identification that we’re in with the mechanism of the self (which is all of the time), can ever be changed ‘on purpose’. We imagine that we can meaningfully change our state of mind (from a painful one to a pleasurable one) and this is what drives us in all of our ego-games – this is the ‘freedom’ that we think we have in everyday life. We imagine (and this ‘act of imagination’ might be better referred to as ‘an absolute unquestionable conviction’) that we can win rather than lose (if we play our cards right, that is) and this belief is pure jet-fuel for us – it keeps us on the go all day long! This type of motivation can only come about when we DON’T see that winning and losing are the same thing therefore (or when we don’t see that both winning and losing equal ‘the self’ and that the self can never be changed or improved or redeemed). ‘Winning’ is my own projection and so is ‘losing’ but if I see this then there will be no more vindication in the former and no more demoralizing ‘loss-of-face’ in the latter and that would mean that the game cannot continue.

 

If I want to enjoy the euphoria of winning then I can’t let myself see that winning is ‘my own projection’, obviously enough. That’s a game-spoiler. More than this though, if I want to carry on being the concrete self then I mustn’t let myself see that my projections are ‘my projections’ because (as we said earlier) not seeing this is the very mechanism by which the everyday self gets to exist. It’s only when I believe in ‘winning’ as an actual real thing that the one who is either going to win or lose (the MCS) can continue to have its (virtual) existence. This being so, it is no surprise at all that we have such immense, implacable resistance to seeing that [1] We can never change our mental state of purpose and [2] the rational self or ‘ego’ can never be redeemed or improved.