The Challenge of ‘Becoming Real’ (Part 1)

The whole area of psychological therapy itself starts to look rather suspect at this point, not just this modern thing called ‘resilience training’. If our core problem is that we are ‘unreal people living in an unreal world’ (and if this is what lies behind our neurotic symptomology) then no amount of two-dimensional ‘fixing-type’ therapies are going to help us! Band-aids aren’t really going to be the answer here, no matter how hopeful we might be. When we are unreal people living in an unreal world then no type of ‘trivial, rule-based procedure’ that we might enact us is going to cut it when things really start getting rough. Rules can’t help us in the task of becoming independent from rules, after all!

 

What’s more, we don’t have to be a stereotypical selfie-snapping narcissist in order to qualify as being ‘unreal’; this is a general condition rather than being some type of exotic psychopathology. We’re all ‘unreal’ in this particular ‘psychological’ way when it comes down to it. We can pick the most normal-looking, well-adjusted, competent person we know and the chances are very much that they will qualify as being ‘unreal’ in the sense that we are talking about. The whole point that we are making here is that it is possible to be superbly adjusted to this consensus world of ours and yet at the same time be unreal. We are unreal precisely because we are so superbly adapted to the consensus reality – we are taking the illusion much too seriously, in other words. We are taking something seriously that we oughtn’t to be taking seriously and that is the whole root of the problem right there. We are taking our games, our conventions, our arbitrary preoccupations, more seriously than we are taking reality itself, and there is simply no way anyone can say that this very peculiar orientation of ours isn’t going to have major ramifications in the field of mental health!

 

When we are adapted to the socially-constructed world we immediately feel confident in ourselves and this is the confidence of a game player who is good at playing their game. Within the context of this game, this confidence is entirely justified; outside of the game however it’s not, and this is where the big problem lies. The ‘big problem’ comes about because we don’t understand the game to be a game; we don’t think that there is anything outside of the game in other words, but there is – outside of the game there is this little thing called ‘reality’!

 

When we see people who are confident, self-assured, socially integrated, well-adjusted, and all the rest of it this doesn’t mean that we are in a state of good mental health. The inference is unwarranted. In societal terms, we are mentally healthy’ (or saying’, or whatever term you might like to use) (or well-adjusted’), but these are – as we have just been saying – very narrow terms stop test’ – as always – is when things get difficult. When things get difficult do we ‘rise to the occasion’ or do you ‘lose it’? Do we ‘keep our heads’ (as in Rudyard Kipling’s poem) or do we freak out and become utterly useless to everyone concerned, including ourselves? But it isn’t so much about some difficult external situation that comes along unexpectedly to challenge us, that’s only a rough and ready indication, albeit a rather good one. Our mental health isn’t just a measure of our ‘degree of equanimity with regard to difficult external situations’, it also has to do with our ability to be non-reactive and non-judgement in relation to our own state of mind when that state of mind becomes painful or difficult for us in any way.

 

This is a more intimate gauge of our mental health (or ‘resilience’), we might say – how well are we able to stay present with our own difficult mental states?’ It ought to be noted at this point that our ability to stay present with ourselves ‘through thick and thin’, or ‘for better or for worse’ doesn’t mean ‘coping’ with our difficult mind states. This is one of the great absurdities of Western culture – the idea that we have that mental health consist of to a large extent of something as frighteningly superficial as ‘coping strategies’! We are told to be strategic with difficult states of mind; we are taught appropriate ways of ‘managing’ them. Good mental health thus becomes a matter of being a good manager of our emotions, or a skilful manager of our anger, stress or anxiety. The current fashion – and fashion is what it is – is to learn off a whole bunch of coping strategies that are seen as being ‘healthy’ or ‘adaptive’ rather than relying on mechanisms that have been shown to be ‘unhealthy’, ‘non-adaptive’ or ‘dysfunctional’. To say that this is ‘trivializing’ mental health is a tremendous understatement, but it is very hard to find anyone in the mental health services that we even come close to acknowledging this. No one wants to ‘buck the trend’, after all…

 

This approach sounds so eminently reasonable that we never think to question it. We can plainly see that our ‘normal’ response to recurring mental pain is to react in ways that make matters worse rather than better, so it makes sense that the answer must be to do helpful things instead. The only problem with this commonsensical way of looking at things is that nothing we DO in order to help us deal with difficult mental states is going to be genuinely helpful – nothing we do in order to be able to ‘cope’ is going to be healthy or helpful because all we are doing – no matter what strategy in question is – is avoiding pain. So what’s wrong with avoiding pain, we might ask, if we can get away with it? What’s wrong with this plan is of course precisely that we can’t get away with it; we can’t legitimately ‘escape’ or ‘fix’ our own mental pain – all we can do is find ‘new and improved’ ways of ignoring the pain, postponing the pain and generally ‘dissociating’ ourselves from it. All we can do is disconnect ourselves from what’s going on with us, in other words.

 

This is ridiculously easy to see once we actually look into the matter – if something is happening to make me feel that I need to use some kind of coping strategy then this straightaway tells me that there is something there that I need to look at rather than ‘cope with’. If I find a strategy that allows me to use over than the one thing that we can be sure of is that we are not we won’t look at it! After all not taking a closer look at our mental pain (whatever that pain might be) is the one thing that we don’t want to do! Jung makes the point (speaking from the undoubted authority of over half a century of clinical practice) no one ever changes unless their back is well and truly against the wall. If we have the option of not changing (which is to say, if we have the option of utilising some convenient coping strategy) then we are most definitely not going to change. We’ll make the situation more manageable instead.

 

We utilise coping strategies as an alternative to changing, as an alternative to developing resilience. The popular idea that accumulating a whole load of coping strategies (so as to be able to avoid being in that zone where we are ‘no longer in control’) is what being mentally healthy is all about is an extraordinarily obtuse misrepresentation of what being a genuine human being actually is. To be ‘in control the whole time’ – which we think is a good way to be – actually means to be hiding from life; if it were possible to have strategies to cope with every difficult situation that comes along so that they never becomes too difficult (and ultimately it isn’t possible) then we would as a result be permanently removed from life. We would then be leading a life that is ‘safe but sterile’ and that would to be no fun at all. More than simply ‘no fun’, this type of ‘safe’ or ‘managed’ life actually turns out to be a living death – it turns out to be ghastly parody of what life is meant to be.

 

We don’t see things like this because we imagine that it ought to be possible to avoid the more challenging moments in life by using clever strategies and yet at the same time not be insulated from the rest of life (which is to say, the part of life that we would like to engage in / not be disconnected from). We want to ‘cherry pick’ in other words – we want the sweet without the sour, the good without the bad. We want to be reliant on gimmicks and strategies some of the time (the knife is getting tough) but independent from them for the rest of the time, and whilst this idea might seem reasonable enough when we don’t focus on it too much, if we actually were to give it any real attention at all then we would immediately see it to be the purest hogwash! We’re trying to have our cake and eat it.

 

What we are asking for here – without admitting the fact – is the convenient situation in which we can insulate (or remove) ourselves from life with our thinking when it gets too difficult for us and yet not insulate or remove ourselves with our thoughts the rest of the time. Unfortunately for us it just doesn’t work like this – what actually happens is that we get insulated (or removed) all of the time. To be directly in touch with what is happening to us (i.e. not in touch ‘via the agency of the thinking mind’) requires a type of muscle – it requires the development of a type of strength. This strength or muscle grows through ‘weight-bearing’, and the weight in question is simply the inherent ‘difficulty’ of life. Life makes us strong when we don’t avoid it in other words, and to say this is hardly to say anything very new or revolutionary! There are – in life – two roads that we can go down – the road of getting better and better at avoiding difficulty, or the road of getting better and better at not avoiding difficulty! The first road involves control, and the second road doesn’t. The key thing to note here is that we have to put our money on one horse or the other – we can’t ‘hedge our bets’, we can’t ‘chop and change’ to suits ourselves. This is a bit like saying that we either have to decide on lying or telling the truth in order to get by in life. Or to put this another way, we have to decide between ‘finding the easy way round all of our problems’, or ‘doing the required work, whatever that work might be and however much we don’t want to do it’. This doesn’t mean that if we opt for the ‘honest approach’ we won’t ever cheat or tell lies, it just means that we don’t believe that cheating or lungs can really get us anywhere worthwhile, and so because of this insight we won’t invest in the total way that we would have done before.

 

The ‘default setting’ is for us to absolutely wholeheartedly believe whatever it is that the thinking mind tells us, so that when the TM tells us that we are ‘onto a winner’ we get foolishly excited, and when it tells us that we have ‘screwed it all up’ we become equally foolishly despairing. We are ‘one hundred percent gullible with respect to what the TM tells us’ in other words, and this is what lends that particular and peculiar ‘mechanical’ quality to our responses. We don’t have to be 100% gullible though (that’s only our ‘default’, as we have said) – we can learn to doubt the thinking mind and become perhaps only 98% gullible instead! We will still ‘react’ even when we have – to some limited extent – started to see through the thinking mind; we will still react because our ‘perceived well-being’ is still linked or coupled to what our thoughts tell us about ourselves and the world, but there is now a part of us that is not buying into it as much as we used to. The ‘buy in’ is not total anymore, and this changes everything – something else has entered the picture apart from ‘mechanical reacting’. Consciousness has come into play…

 

The point that comes out of this therefore is that it actually suits us to buy into what the TM tells us because if we don’t then we can’t use the thinking process to insulate ourselves from the difficult times in life. This is the argument that we are making here – that if we want to use ‘strategies’ to help us when things get rough then we have to ‘believe our thoughts to be real’, but once we take the step of ‘believing our thoughts to be real’ then we can’t simply go back to not believing in the reality of our thoughts once the need for a coping strategy is past! If we invest in games and game-playing to make ourselves feel more secure in life then we can’t just ‘exit’ our games a bit later on. This is the point that we keep on making – that what we are looking at here is strictly a ‘one-way street’, which is to say, the process in question is ‘irreversible’. Once we ‘start playing the game’ then we can’t just ‘stop playing it’; we can’t just ‘stop playing it’ because we have now lost the capacity to know that the game is a game!

 

 

 

 

Art: wallpaperhi.com

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Challenging The Concrete Identity

The greatest cause of mental ill health on the planet is without question the Generic Mind which we all have to fit into. The Generic Mind is ‘the sickness that masquerades as health’, it’s the game we are all supposed to play. Carlos Castaneda explains the GM by saying that it is a ‘uniform’ mind – “a cheap model: economy strength, one size fits all.” By all having the same model of mind, we are able to readily communicate with each other – we all know instantly and exactly what the other person means because we share the same point of view. This ‘ease of communication’ is an advantage in one way therefore but it’s a disaster in another because we lose our own unique point of view. In his novel Breakfast Of Champions Kurt Vonnegut talks about ‘cuckoo ideas that we have no immunity to’ – these ideas circulate freely in society and automatically infect everyone they touch. These cuckoo ideas originate outside of ourselves (they are ‘foreign installations’, as Castaneda says) but we instantly adopt them as our own just as soon as they come into our heads – we incubate them lovingly and do our very to propagate them whenever we can. We obtain satisfaction from passing these viral ideas on, just as we experience irritation and annoyance (or possibly rage) when we hear them contradicted…

 

When we talk about the Generic Mind as being greatest cause of mental ill health the problem is that no one knows what we are talking about. We don’t acknowledge that there is any such thing as the ‘Generic Mind’ and so naturally we don’t see it as ‘the biggest cause of mental ill health’. We have lots and lots of other reasons listed for mental ill health and none of them have anything to do with the Generic Mind. And yet the GM is a very readily observable phenomenon: whenever a bunch of people agree that something is true then that is the generic mind right there! The GM is what happens when we join a group, in other words, and we all know the type of trade-off that has to be made when we become a member of the group. We first become aware of this insidious trade-off in the school playground and we only ever get more and more deeply embroiled in it as we grow up.

 

What happens when we become part of the group is of course that we lose our unique individuality – a collection of unique individuals can’t become a group matter how they try. A collection of individuals can ‘get on’ and ‘cooperate’ but the one thing they can’t do is form a group – individuality has to be surrendered for that! In a group, as we have said, certain things have to be agreed upon by all. What’s more, they can’t just be ‘agreed upon’ – they have to be agreed upon and then that agreement has to be immediately forgotten about. We have to first take a whole bunch of stuff for granted and then we have to charge on ahead wholeheartedly without ever looking back at what it is that we assumed in order to be able to charge full-speed ahead. This is what society is, and this is also what the Generic Mind is – 100% unreflective action.

 

The Generic Mind is always marked by its concrete nature, therefore – it is concrete because it can’t question its core assumptions and ‘not being able to question one’s core assumptions’ is the very definition of ‘concrete’. There is absolutely no way that the GM can ever be ‘non-concrete’ – the only way this could happen would be if the group broke up into individual persons, and this just happens to be against the rules of the group. Furthermore, when we are in the group, then being exiled from the collective is seen as the worst possible thing that could happen to us. What is really happening when we adapt to the Generic Mind therefore is that we get locked into a type of blindness, type of stupidity. Not being able to question our core assumptions is a terrible form blindness, and there’s no getting around it or compensating for it, no matter how clever we get. The whole enterprise simply becomes ever more absurd, evermore ridiculous, and ever more doomed to eventual disaster.

 

From the point of view of the Generic mind (or the concrete individual) there is nothing more unthinkable than having to question (or ‘let go of’) our core assumptions. Our very blindness has somehow become infinitely precious to us and we will protect it fiercely – we will protect our toxic ignorance to the very best of our ability! The basic motivation behind a group is always exactly this – it is always conservative and never ‘exploratory’. We’re locked into this position of protecting our core assumptions even though we don’t actually have a clue as to what they are! We don’t of course want to know what these core assumptions aren’t because (on some level) we realise that this would involve finding out that they aren’t true, and because of our ‘absolute commitment to the cause’ this would spell the greatest possible ‘unwanted outcome’. As far as motivations go therefore, this is a very strong one! It is both a very powerful motivational force, and a lethally dangerous one; not only can it never lead to any good, it is without question always going to lead us to utter disaster in the long run.

 

We can say two very simple things about the Generic Mind therefore – one is that it is always concrete, and the other is that it is driven, at all times, by the utterly inflexible need to avoid questioning itself. We can say this about the Generic Mind and we can also say it about all social groups, including of course society in general. In this ‘peculiarity’ of the concrete mind can be seen ample cause for mental ill health – it is hard (if not impossible) to think of a better recipe for mental ill health than this! There is no arguing with a concrete-minded person, just as there is no arguing with an organisation (or the people making up the organisation); there is no arguing (i.e. no possibility of genuine communication) with the GM because the GM has zero flexibility in it and there is no communication without flexibility. As far as the GM is concerned therefore, it is always ‘my way or the highway’…

 

The ‘sickness that masquerades as health’ is therefore the fixed identity that cannot question itself; the fixed identity that must always assert itself above everything else. For me, as a ‘concrete person,’ this sickness is actually ‘myself’ therefore; the sickness is me and if there is one thing that I am guaranteed not to understand then it is this! For me, ‘sickness’ is always going to be those forces that are acting against me, those forces that are standing in the way of me ‘continuing to not question myself’, whatever it is that stands in the way of me continuing to see the world in the way that I am used to seeing it and think I ought to be able to see it. The fixed identity sees its own integrity as the very bench-mark of mental health, in other words, which – from its own point of view – is entirely understandable!

 

Similarly, for us as a culture, we find it flatly impossible to grasp the idea that the sickness which is afflicting us is ‘the sickness of the fixed concrete identity’! We just don’t get this and we aren’t about to get it either, which isn’t surprising since – as we have said – society itself is a fixed concrete identity. So too are the healthcare organisations that we encounter if we do develop mental health challenges and we want some help and support. This in itself is inevitable,  nature of organisations being what it is, so where the problem really comes in is where we meet workers and therapists who completely reflect (or embody) the unyielding concrete nature of the healthcare organisation that they are working in. In this case we are stuck between a rock and a hard place – we are ‘trying to force ourselves to get better’ (in accordance with our concrete viewpoint on the matter) and so too is the healthcare machine that we are now under the care of. Either way, it’s all about control, it’s all about ‘forcing’, and the way we are trying to force ourselves to be is only the ‘right way’ because we’re looking at everything from the closed (or conservative) viewpoint of the concrete mind set.

 

The point (that we keep making) is that the concrete mindset can’t do anything other than try to force things to be the way it thinks (i.e. assumes) they should be. Just as it cannot question its assumptions, so too it can’t NOT try to force things to accordance with the ideas that it has concerning how things should be. The concrete mindset is utterly blind, as we have said – it is blindness personified. Everything it does comes out of this blindness; there is nowhere else it can come from because all the concrete mindset has is its own viewpoint, which it totally takes for granted. That’s what ‘concrete’ means – that’s the whole point, the whole point is that the concrete mindset demonises everything that hasn’t got its official ‘stamp of approval’ on it, and it only puts its stamp of approval on its own productions.

 

There is no substitute for an individual (or ‘unaffiliated’) person in the heavily regulated world of mental health-care; there’s no substitute for someone who isn’t a company man or company woman, anyone who isn’t singing from the prescribed hymn sheet. There is no substitute for actual consciousness, in other words, and consciousness hasn’t anything to do with this dreadful old thing we are calling ‘the fixed identity’. Fixed identity is the very antithesis of consciousness; it is that principle of consciousness turned on its head and made into a perverse parody of itself. When we switch from consciousness to ‘concrete mode’ therefore, we aren’t moving ‘from one end of the spectrum to the other’, or anything like that, we’re switching from an allegiance to the truth, at ‘whatever cost,’ to allegiance to the lie, no matter what price we might have to pay for that unwise affiliation. These two things are frankly incommensurable – we can’t ‘serve two masters’ in this regard, if we do then, according to Luke 16:13 we ‘…will be devoted to the one and despise the other’. Or as we read in 1 Corinthians 10:21: ‘You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.’

 

If we have no unexamined allegiance to our unconscious assumptions then we are free to do anything – we are free to let any idea go, no matter how attached to it we might be, and this is what mental health truly consists of. Mental health is all about courage therefore – we are not being governed by a hidden (or not so hidden) core of fear, which is what lies behind the security-seeking ‘concrete mindset’ that we keep talking about. So what we are really saying here is simply that fear and fearlessness are incommensurate – fear is after all the only possible reason we would swear allegiance to a bunch of unconscious assumptions! ‘Conscious assumptions’ are on the other hand a totally different matter: we can operate on the basis of assumptions if this turns out to be useful for practical purposes (i.e. if making assumptions in some particular matter actually works) but that doesn’t mean that we have to make a religion of them! We can use rules when it suits us to do so, in other words, but that doesn’t mean that we have to let these rules have free reign to determine everything about us.

 

When we make a religion of our unexamined assumptions (which necessarily involves making the act of questioning them ‘heretical’ or ‘taboo’) then the only possible reason that could lie behind this is fear. Nothing else would make us do such a stupid thing! What we are essentially doing here is that we’re putting all the money we’ve got on a totally mad gamble – the totally mad gamble that our unexamined assumptions will somehow turn out to be correct, even though we’re not going to actually look at them.  We’re acting out of fear rather than wisdom. The fact that we are so very reluctant to investigate our own brash claims ought in itself to be enough to tip us off that something fishy is going on. Any impartial observer could tell us that there is something extremely dodgy going on here when we behave like this but somehow we turn this dodgy manoeuvre around so that it becomes something to feel good about. We have made our lack of honesty and integrity into a virtue to be proud of – the classic ‘red-neck’ trick!

 

This then is exactly how the Generic Mind works, by turning its inflexibility, blindness and aggression into a virtue, into something to be proud of. We are proud of our fixed identity; it’s the thing we’re most proud of – we’ve actually made it into something essential, something we can’t ever let go of. We’ve made it into something we can’t even think of ever ‘letting go of’. This throws everything we think and everything we perceive one hundred and eighty degrees out, so to speak. Our understanding is what of what is meant by ‘mental health’ is turned on its hand, as we have said. Our understanding of what is meant by the term ‘mental health’ is turned on its head to mean the automatic validation of what we have arbitrarily taken to be true, the aggressive promotion of what we have arbitrarily taken to be true, and that isn’t health by any stretch of the imagination! That isn’t health – that’s inverted health, that’s ‘the sickness that masquerades as health’! Health isn’t where we spend all our time glorifying our own stubborn ignorance and making a virtue of it; health is where we find the courage within us to start looking at these assumptions, and seeing them for what they really are. Mental health necessarily involves rebelling against the collective mind-set therefore, and this is particularly true in the highly conservative area of mental healthcare…

 

 

Image – New York Bushwick Street Art, from rebelone.de

 

 

 

 

 

The Secret World Of Suffering

The most terrible ‘mistake’ we could ever make would be to miss the point of what life is all about and spend all our time preoccupied with something else, something that isn’t life, something that has nothing whatsoever to do with life. What bigger mistake could there possibly be than this? What worse screw-up could there be than this?

 

This is of course a rhetorical question because we never could make a bigger mistake than this. You really would want to kick yourself for making a mistake like this – you’d want to kick yourself particularly hard! The point we’re making here is of course that this is exactly the mistake that we – as a culture – are making; we are making precisely this mistake and we are far too stubborn to listen to those amongst us who try to point this fact out. We absolutely won’t be told.

 

This is an astonishing statement to be able to make – it is a staggering statement to hear as well (if, that is, we were able to hear it). How could we have got things so wrong? It is however very clearly the case that very few people are ever going to take this on board, and of those who do see it, none of them have a position in the rigid hierarchy of society and this means that no one is going to listen to them even if they were to say something about it. We only listen to people in positions of authority, and positions in people in ‘positions of authority’ (those people whose opinions get listened to) are inevitably the most heavily conditioned of us all, as Noam Chomsky points out. Who cares what the misfits and eccentrics think, when by definition what they think doesn’t matter?

 

The two main ‘parts’ of life, we might say, are ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ and – as things stand in our society – neither of these two things has anything to do with life. We could just as well say that neither of these two things ‘have anything to do with who we really are’, which is another way of saying the same thing. Most work doesn’t require us to be able to ‘tap into who we really are’ – it’s hardly necessary to point this out! No one is going to pay us to ‘be ourselves’; quite the contrary is true – most of us are actually being paid to be who we aren’t! As Philip K Dick says in Do Androids Dream, ‘we are required to go against our own nature’. The other way of putting this would be to say that ‘no one is going to pay us for doing what we would do anyway’ but only for ‘doing what we don’t want to do’, and therefore wouldn’t do, and that this is why we are being paid. We’re being paid to compensate us for doing what we don’t want to do…

 

In a rather simplistic way, we could say that when we have a job we have a role to play and that role isn’t us, obviously. This in itself is harmless enough: if I am a waiter then I can step out of role when I’m not working. I know very well that I’m not this role and, what’s more, it is probably that I can even be myself, to some extent, when I am in role at work – I don’t have to act like some kind of robot, after all. If I happen to be working in a very expensive restaurant then I will be required to be ‘more in role and less myself,’ it’s true, but I still know that it’s only a role. The problem is however that in the last few hundred years in particular life has become more complicated and our roles have become ever more two-dimensional, or artificial. As the social world becomes more abstracted from nature, and the demands that the natural world place on us, our conditioned sense of who we are gets correspondingly more removed from who we really are. The ‘natural world’ is replaced by the ‘designed world’ and so thought becomes the guiding principle rather than the natural (or ‘spontaneous’) order of things. Thought itself gives us roles to perform, roles that are – moreover – extremely hard to see through. We have ‘ideas about ourselves’, in other words, and we live our lives on the basis of these ideas.

 

It’s actually extraordinarily hard to not do this – we never stop to consider that the ideas we are living our life on the basis of are only ideas. Who does that? The urgency to ‘get on with life’ is such that we never had time to stop to reflect on matters such as this. Certainly don’t feel that we have the time to do much in the way of reflecting, or philosophising The whole ‘trip’ of thought is that it never allows us to pause to consider the fact that the thoughts which we are basing our lives on are only thoughts – if we did this then we could there would be the chance of radical change in our lives. As it is however, there is no chance of radical change, and we don’t miss this possibility either! We don’t miss it because we are convinced – without ever reflecting on the fact that we are convinced – that everything we could ever possibly want or need or aspire to is to be found within the realm of trivial change (which is the only type of change we know or understand). And because the realm of trivial change is the only type of change we know, we don’t see it as being ‘trivial’, obviously!

 

When we are ‘in role without knowing that we are in role’ then it is of course the case that the only type of change that we will ever know or acknowledge is change of the trivial variety. The only way there could be radical change would be that if we were to come out of role, but because we don’t actually know that we are ‘in role’ we are profoundly incapable of conceiving of or in any way comprehending that possibility. This then gives us a very neat way of looking at the mechanism by which we can miss the whole point of ‘what life about’ without knowing that we have missed anything – a whole world becomes invisible to us when we ‘are in role without knowing that we are’, a whole world that is actually the only word there is! What other the world could there be than the world we see when we are not in role, after all? The world we see when we look through the conceptual filter of the thinking mind isn’t the world at all, and – as we have already said – this isn’t something that we ever stop to reflect on.

 

When we are in role without knowing it then we are not at all interested in any other world than the world that makes sense from the point of view of the ‘part’ that we are playing. Because nothing else is of any interest to us, the possibility of our lives changing in a radical way is not going to be a possibility that we are in any way curious about. If we ever were to have the inking that that there were such a possibility – which we will inevitably do from time to time, no matter how carefully we organise or regulate our lives – then our only response will be fear. We will be terrified without knowing why we are terrified; we will be afraid without being interested in finding out why we are afraid. When we are in role without knowing it (or conditioned by thought without knowing it) then awareness of the type radical change that we have implicitly denied is bound to manifest as ‘ontological terror’.

 

If we were in role but at the same time knew ourselves to be in role then the possibility of radical change, the possibility of ‘dropping out of role’, would of course not be terrifying to us. It would simply represent a greater degree of freedom; it would represent ‘blessed relief from the onerous set of restrictions that we are operating under’. It would be ‘good news’ not ‘bad news’, in other words. When we are unconsciously identified with the part that we are playing however then – as we have said – radical change is synonymous with ‘ontological terror’ and for this reason we are going to take very great care never to permit any awareness, however faint, of the possibility of such a thing. What this means therefore is that we are straightaway going to be constrained to ‘a false life’! We are confined to an area of experience that has nothing to do with who we really are, but only to do with who we are playing at being. This ‘area of experience’ is the world which only makes sense in relation to the identity we mistakenly think we are!

 

There is a very interesting question that comes up here and that is the question of whether it is possible for us to continue in life in this very restricted mode of being (the mode of being in which we think trivial change is the only type of change there is) and yet remain undistressed by this fundamental restriction? Can we get off ‘scott free’, in other words? In one way we might come to the conclusion that it is indeed possible for us to continue indefinitely in this mode without ever missing the wider reality from which we are cut off; we might come to such a conclusion as a result of our observations of the people around us, the people we know and have regular interactions with. On the whole, people seem to be getting on well enough, and if we take into account the media’s unduly positive representations of how we are getting on then it would seem that we are certainly not distressed or troubled by our ‘lack of Wholeness’. Life has never been better, if we are to believe the media’s super-glossy representations of modern life!

 

We could on the other hand make the sober point that there is an invisible side to society, a side that isn’t on general display, either in terms of how human life is represented to us by the media, or in terms of how we personally wish to see it. What we are talking up here could be spoken of as ‘a secret world’ – the secret world of unacknowledged suffering. We ‘filter for misery’, as psychiatrist Scott Alexander puts it – we see the world as being a happier place than it really is. To a significant extent, we also filter other people from seeing us as being miserable, of course. On the outside we might seem to be fine – or ‘halfway fine’ at least – but what’s really going on with us on the inside? How would it feel if we really tuned in to ourselves, instead of only going on the images that we are fed? This secret world is the world of the ‘walking wounded’, we might say – we are still functioning (in some kind of a fashion) and we can still keep up the front (more or less) but the passion (or ‘sense of meaning’ with regard to life) has long since fled. This is the world we don’t see represented very often, or even at all; there can be no doubt that it is a substantial world, that there are many of us in it. Statistics do not exist to tell us just exactly how big this world is however; there are no stats to draw on here since this type of profound alienation from life is the norm rather than the exception!

 

When we can’t keep up the pretence anymore (and are forced to ‘declare our hand’) then this means that we have automatically graduate into another ‘secret world’, which is the secret world of overt or acknowledged mental suffering, where there is at least now a degree of honesty about what’s going on. This too can rightly be spoken of as ‘an invisible world’ inasmuch as we are no longer part of ‘visible society’. Whilst it is true that there is a movement to bring the various types of ‘mental ill health’ into the public consciousness (in contrast to the policy adopted in Victorian times where the main purpose of the asylum, as Erving Goffman says, was to ‘segregate the mentally unwell’ so that us normal folk would never have to have the unpleasant experience of actually encountering them) our approach to the whole matter of mental suffering is still to see it as some sort of pathological process that can be cured without ever having to look at the deeper causes that might exist in society itself. We’re trying to be more inclusive, which is good, but we still don’t want to look into the real causes of mental suffering, and so we’re not actually going to get anywhere with our efforts.

 

We certainly don’t see any connection with the profound artificiality of modern society and the way in which – ultimately – it causes us to ‘miss the very point of life itself’, as we put it earlier. Who amongst those of us who are adapted (and therefore invested) game-players are ever going to admit to such a thing? We are not exactly inclined to ‘ask big questions’, we are not exactly very likely to start wondering if our whole way of doing things (or seeing things) is wrong – on an individual level it usually requires a massive crisis to bring such questioning about and on the level of the ‘collective mind’ which is society, even the biggest crisis isn’t going to trigger honest reflection of this sort. The generic/collective (or ‘adapted’) mind isn’t able to ask big questions like this – it has an unholy terror of them. Our only option in this case is to assume that the patterns of mental suffering that we are witnessing are due to individual pathology that can (hopefully) be cured without bringing into question the overall structure we are adapted to, which is the game we are committed to playing without knowing that we are.

 

 

In short, we just don’t want to see that 100% adaptation to society causes us to miss the key point of life itself. We just don’t want to see it and we won’t see it. Society causes us to ‘miss the point’ by giving us a false basis upon which to live life and – as we have argued – the way in which it does this is by compelling us to see ourselves as being who it says we are. ‘The system says who we are’, in other words – it defines everything about us and we’re perfectly happy about that! There can be absolutely no doubt that this is what society does. Just to emphasise the point that we have already made: society would not be society unless we were all socially constructed, socially conditioned. If we all came ‘out of role’ at the same time, where would society be then? What would happen to the collective way of seeing things if we did this? Society is after all nothing more than a set of agreements that we covertly make with each other and what we are ultimately agreeing to is to be ‘in role’ without acknowledging either to ourselves or anyone else that we’re actually doing anything at all!

 

In conclusion, the point that we never want to look at is that it is utterly impossible for us be mentally healthy (or ‘mentally well’) and be socally conditioned at the same time and the reason for this is that being socially conditioned or socially adapted means that we are who society says we are rather than who we actually are, and if we’re not who we ‘actually are’ then it is absolutely the case that we’re not living life. We might be doing something else alright but whatever the hell it is that we’re doing we’re definitely not living life. We’re ‘playing at living life’, which isn’t the same thing at all…

 

 

 

 

False Health

It is remarkable how much we talk about mental health when we, as a culture, have so little understanding of what this actually means. Just by taking a moment to look around us we can tell that – culturally speaking – we know (and care) nothing at all about mental health. All politicians and business leaders ever talk about is the economy and the importance of having growth in the economy, as if this were somehow going to solve all our problems. But what is ‘the economy’ other than the lynchpin of runaway consumerism, and what is consumerism other than the voracious pursuit of distractions? It is abundantly obvious that most of the goods and services that we are provided with are not being sold to us for the sake of improving the quality of our lives, but in order to make money for those selling them on the one hand, and – more importantly – for the sake of perpetuating the whole set up! This is what John Berger says in Ways of Seeing – we might think that an advert is seeking to promote the particular product being showcased but the more important function of the advert (or as Berger says, of ‘publicity’) is to sell our whole way of life. When we talk about the need to perpetuate the system then – needless to say – what we talking about here are ‘mechanical forces’, and if we elect to be ruled over by mechanical forces then the very last thing we can expect to obtain as a result of good mental health!

 

We can’t have it both ways – we can’t have a way of life that devotes itself to distraction and yet at the same time get to talk about mental health as if we actually genuinely care about it! It is very straightforward to tell the difference between the way of life that is orientated towards distraction and a way of life that isn’t. One way to talk about this difference is to say that a life that is orientated around distraction is a life orientated around the false, mind-produced image of the self. If I am operating from the standpoint of the mind-produced image of the self (which is of course never anything more than an idea) then it goes without saying that I’m only going to be interested in distractions! What else could I possibly be interested in? If I were to take an interest in the truth then this would – very painfully – show up the falsity of my basis, and that wouldn’t be very much fun for me; if I went down this road far enough then I would have to give up this illusory self-image of mine and I don’t want to give it up! All of my efforts, all of my striving, all of my activities are for the sake of promoting and affirming this illusory self-image and ‘having a relationship with the truth’ most definitely ISN’T for the sake of the self-image. Nothing could be clearer than this – the self-image (although it won’t ever admit it) doesn’t want to have any truck with the truth…

 

The self-image is interested only in the sort of things that validate its supposing existence and these just happen to be the sort of things that our society specialises in producing. This type of validation is exactly what our way of life provides us with. Could anyone really say that our generic ‘mass culture’ produces or encourages anything that has the function of drawing our attention to the falsity of our assumptions, and thereby helps us to wake up from the stultifying collective dream that we are all stuck in? Of course no one would ever say this – the idea is simply laughable. There is nothing in our designed world that has the function of reminding us who we really are; there is nothing in our environment that is there to help bring consciousness to us. There are no lamps to guide our way, only disinformation, only state-sponsored mirages. Drawing attention to the truth is not what’s going on here at all – all the stuff that is thrown at us by society has the express purpose of steering us in another direction entirely. We are bombarded every day with messages that have the specific function of orientating us towards the mind-produced illusion, towards delusion and not to the truth. As Sogyal Rinpoche says, our society specialises in ‘selling samsara’.

 

‘Samsara’ may simply be taken as meaning ‘the life of the false, mind-produced self’, and when this is the only life we know then – naturally enough – this ‘life’ is going to be all about distraction! As we have already said, what else would it be about? When we talk about ‘mental health’ in connection with this world of distraction, this ‘life of the mind-produced self,’ then we are talking utter nonsense, therefore. There’s no ‘health’ here and there never could be – this is the very antithesis of mental health – this is ‘the forgetting of our true nature’. The ‘forgetting of our true nature’ means that the thing that is most precious to us, most vital to us, has been lost and something else – some ‘false idol’ – erected in its place. The loss of what is most precious to us is nothing other than a wound, therefore – we have sustained a wound and as long as we remain oblivious to this wound then we can hardly claim to be interested in or orientated towards mental health! To claim this is simply farcical.

 

Just because it is straightforward – in principle – talk about what the differences between ‘something that operates as a distraction’ and ‘something that doesn’t’, this doesn’t mean that it’s equally straightforward to know the difference in practice, of course. Knowing the difference between ‘an impulse that is directed towards the truth’ and an impulse that is directed towards ‘perpetuating falsehood’ can be extraordinarily difficult in practice, particularly in a collective milieu where values have been inverted and self-distraction is celebrated as a way of life. Obtaining food, shelter and companionship (for example) is not a distraction or a validation for the false self, but all three of these things can become distractions, can become validations, as basic and as essential as they are. We could be dining in a fine restaurant for example, which is something that the self-image likes very much and derives a whole heap of self validation from! Having a fine big house to live in is another wonderful validatory asset for the poor insecure self-image, and so – as everyone knows – is the practice of ‘hanging around with the right sort of people’. We take care to associate ourselves with winners at the social game rather than losers and this (we hope) will reflect well on us…

 

These are of course rather crude illustrations of how basic needs can become contaminated with the pernicious illusions of the mind-created self-image, but they make the point perfectly well. If we wanted to have a slightly subtler example, we could think of the whole field of social interaction. On the one hand the arena of social interaction is a great opportunity for honesty and self-discovery and the development of empathy / compassion, but on the other hand it is – in practice – a veritable morass of subterfuge, lies and compulsive game-playing. In a culture that placed more emphasis on personal integrity, candidness and self-exploration, and less emphasis on self-image and role then social interaction would present a huge possibility for growth, but this isn’t how things work. Almost invariably we interact on the basis of our ‘masks’, on the basis of our ‘roles’, on the basis of our ‘personas’, and we don’t have a clue that this is what we are doing. Out of this ‘unconscious dishonesty’, therefore, no good can come to anyone. No one benefits in this game, in other words.

 

John Berger is also referring to what we have called ‘the contamination of needs with the pernicious illusions of the mind-created self’ when he says that publicity ‘feeds upon the real’. Our needs are real, Berger says, but the web of illusions that capitalist society spins around it is not:

Publicity is effective precisely because it feeds upon the real. Clothes, food, cars, cosmetics, baths, sunshine are real things to be enjoyed in themselves. Publicity begins by working on a natural appetite for pleasure. But it cannot offer the real object of pleasure and there is no convincing substitute for a pleasure in that pleasure’s own terms. The more convincingly publicity conveys the pleasure of bathing in a warm, distant sea, the more the spectator-buyer will become aware that he is hundreds of miles away from that sea and the more remote the chance of bathing in it will seem to him. This is why publicity can never really afford to be about the product or opportunity it is proposing to the buyer who is not yet enjoying it. Publicity is never a celebration of a pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of others. Publicity is about social relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others.

Another possible way of looking at the basic problem here is to say that it has to do with our confusing of ‘quality-of-life’ with ‘standard of living’. This thing called ‘standard of living’ is essentially a societal construct in that what constitutes ‘a basic standard of living’ has to do with our particular conditioned way of living life, rather than anything else.  It basically defined in economic terms, in terms of ‘buying power’, and this definition links very closely (of course) with the measure of the economic health of the nation, which is to say the Gross National Product. SOL is a measure of our ability to take proper advantage of the goods and services being produced by our society and although this includes essentials such as food and clothing, it is to a large extent a measure of ‘social adaptation’, i.e. it is a measure of how well we are able to function in the socially-prescribed way.

 

Quality of life however is not this, although there is a lot of confusion on the subject. For example, according to the Wikipedia entry QOL is linked to SOL and it is defined in terms of how well one’s own life ‘coincides with’ the expected standard. This type of ‘equilibrium-based’ definition is very deceptive, however; something very important is missing and we can’t see what it is. If QOL were all about matching either our or society’s expectations for life then this would be distinctly dire situation. In order for life to be life – and not some routine or habit that we are automatically repeating – it has to contain elements that are completely irrelevant to our expectations. It has to contain ‘randomness’, so to speak. Another way of putting this would be to say that in order for life to be life it has to ‘go beyond the known’.  Most of us would be rather unlikely to agree with this statement of course – our idea of life ‘as it should be’ is life that fits in with our expectations, rather than a type of life that is irrelevant to them or doesn’t correspond to them at all! This is because we are – generally speaking – pretty much stuck in the Goal-Orientated mode. Life, for us, is a matter of asserting our unconscious assumptions, whilst validating this activity as ‘achieving our goals’.

 

This is fine in one way (because it’s what we want and what are comfortable with) but it’s not so fine in another way – it’s not so fine because a life that does not go beyond our expectations for it is not life at all, as we have just said. It’s a ‘shadow-version’ of life. Life that does not disagree with (or deviate from) our ideas of it is ‘the Rational Simulation of Life’ and if we were to put forward a handy, all-purpose definition of what ‘mental health’ is, we could say that – essentially – it is where these two things – ‘life’ and ‘the rational simulation of life’ are not taken to be one of the same thing. That’s all we have to say! If they are taken to be ‘one and the same thing’, then we have a situation where ‘life itself is not allowed to happen’, a situation where life is actually repressed or denied, and this – when it comes down to it – is a state of pure suffering. This suffering itself is not ‘mental ill-health’ – mental ill-health (so to speak) is ‘where we are suffering but do not know it’, or ‘where we are imprisoned but make a virtue of our imprisonment’; mental ill-health is where we are in denial of our suffering and go from day to day firmly believing that everything is okay, that everything is ‘as it should be’. In the Rational Simulation of Life everything is always as it should be’ and this is precisely the problem; there is something very seriously wrong when ‘everything is as it should be’! When our suffering finally manifests itself (because the mechanism of ‘pain suppression’ (or ‘illusion-validation’) is not working as effectively as it used to) then we are very much inclined to call this state of affairs ‘mental ill-health’. It is this ‘manifest suffering’, that occurs when the when our mechanisms for illusion-validation are no longer working, that we are fond of seeing as ‘neurotic mental illness’. We are seeing neurosis ‘back to front’ therefore – we are seeing unconscious adaptation to a mind-produced illusion (or ‘the Rational Simulation’) as being healthy and the perception of the mind-produced illusion as being what it actually is (i.e. entirely sterile, pointless and futile) as ‘the illness’. We are orientated towards ‘a false version of health’, in other words.

 

Living in the Rational Simulation of Life isn’t the sickness; living in the Rational Simulation of Life and not knowing it is the sickness. When we live in the RSOL and we know it then we have ‘a relationship with the truth’ this and this is a sign of health! It might be a sign of health but it’s a painful sign and so we’re not very fond of it, all the same. When we are living in the RSOL and we don’t know it (i.e. when we don’t have a relationship with the truth of our situation) then ‘the truth’, when it appears (as it must do at some point) is going to be two things to us – [1] is that it is going to be very unwelcome to us, and [2] is that it is not (at first, at least) going to be recognisable to us as the truth. For this reason, we going to mobilise all our resources against it; we going to fight against it with absolutely everything we’ve got. We’re struggling to achieve ‘a false version of health’ – we don’t see ourselves as ‘fighting against the truth’ however, on the contrary, we see ourselves as ‘fighting against a very bad outcome’…

 

When we talk about mental health therefore, what we are inevitably going to mean by this – just as long as we are unconsciously socially adapted, that is – is a mode of being that is entirely ‘congruent with our ideas of life’ whilst at the same time not generating the suffering and meaninglessness that necessarily follows on from this. This means that mental health for us is completely unattainable since ‘restriction’ and ‘the pain of restriction’ cannot ever be separated! We can’t have one without the other, we can’t have our cake and eat it… What we have here is an impossible definition of mental health therefore and this means that it is quite, quite unattainable, just as all illusions are unattainable. We would be kept busy forever, trying to attain it, and we are going to be kept busy forever trying to attain it. This sort of exhausting futility (known as the Wheel of Samsara in Buddhism) is what living in the Rational Simulation of Life is all about

 

 

Art: Consumer Culture / Atomic Age Abundance, by Sally Edelstein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Is Mental Health?

Mental health is a ‘counterintuitive’ kind of thing, which is to say, it isn’t at all what we think it is. Mental health definitely isn’t ‘what we think it is’ because anything we think is bound to be ‘just another idea’ and mental health (or well-being) is not an idea! The intellectual approach to ‘wellness’ is always going to miss the point; it’s always going to be looking in the wrong direction.

 

This isn’t the easiest point to make because we always assume that our thoughts correspond to something real, which of course validates them and gives us reason to ‘take them seriously’. We can’t legitimately assume this in the case of mental health however. We can’t assume that our idea of mental health has any correspondence with the actual thing itself because mental health can be best described as ‘that state in which we are not being controlled or regulated by our own thoughts.’ This is a ‘negative definition’ – it’s not saying what the state of wellness or well-being is, it’s saying what it absolutely isn’t.

 

This is a somewhat subtle idea – it’s a ‘subtle’ idea because if we don’t know that we are being controlled (or determined) by our thoughts in the first place then of course we aren’t going to see mental health in the way that we have just described. We’re not going to see it as the state of being free from the controlling influence of our thoughts. The truth is however – as quantum physicist David Bohm says in his book Thought as a System – that thought controls everything about us –

But you don’t decide what to do with the info. Thought runs you. Thought, however, gives false info that you are running it, that you are the one who controls thought. Whereas actually thought is the one which controls each one of us.

We have unwittingly given thought the job of ‘telling us what is real and what is not real’ and so of course it’s going to ‘control everything about us’! How could it not? What freedom do we have left to us then? When an agency exists which tells us what is real or not, then this is the ultimate form of control…

 

The state of being in which we ‘automatically believe everything our thoughts tell us’ isn’t a healthy state at all, and yet this is the situation almost all of us are in. We would see that this is our situation straightaway if we actually took the trouble to look into it – our strings are being jerked this way and that by thought every minute (if not every second) of the day! ‘Don’t believe everything you think!’, as the internet meme says. But unless we have at least a bit of insight into the relationship between ourselves and our thoughts we won’t understand this at all. Our default setting – as we have said – is to automatically believe everything we think! When it comes down to it, we believe (or assume) that we actually are our thoughts, as Eckhart Tolle says. We don’t ‘separate ourselves from our thinking’ at all! Our thinking is at the very core of us, and it doesn’t actually belong in this position.

 

Our ‘relationship’ with the thinking mind is quite simply therefore that ‘it controls us’. The relationship here is that of the slave to the master and we are the slaves! We are all enslaved by the rational mind and yet no one you meet will believe this. There are times however when the truth of this statement becomes starkly obvious to anybody – when we are suffering from OCD for example this becomes very clear indeed. In this case whatever the thinking mind tells us to do we do, no matter how nonsensical or painfully time-consuming this is. We just can’t disobey it, as anyone who has ever suffered from OCD will be happy to tell you! The thinking mind is – at root – a machine and when it controls us we become a machine as well. This is probably most clear in the case of obsessive compulsive disorder, but it is also more or less obvious in all the neurotic conditions. Neurosis is the pain of being a machine.

 

It goes without saying that it’s not a good thing to be ruled by the machine which is the thinking mind and – as a consequence – become rigid and mechanical ourselves. It doesn’t feel good to be at a machine! It’s not a pleasant situation to be in, by any means. The more rigid and mechanical we become in our interactions with the world the more suffering we incur, and there is no limit to how much suffering we can incur. Neurotic suffering goes on and on forever and as long as we are identified with thought this is all we have to look forward to, so to speak. If we want to know what’s on the menu, it’s neurotic suffering…

 

Saying all this does throw light on what mental health is however. If the situation where thought is the master and I am the slave is mentally unhealthy (because it constantly pits me against myself and – as a consequence – generates unending unnecessary suffering) then the situation where the thinking mind doesn’t control or define my reality must be the mentally healthy situation. I’m not going to be put into a narrow little box the whole time then; I’m not going to be ‘suffering for its benefit’. The thinking mind is a tool, after all, and a tool is only useful when it is being used wisely. In the meditation traditions it is often said that thought is like fire in this respect – it makes a very good servant but an appallingly bad master! When the fire stays where we want it stay (in the fireplace or stove, for example) then it is of great use to us; when however it jumps out of the fireplace and takes root in the house we’re living in, in the curtains or in the furniture in the living room, then it becomes the most terrible tyrant imaginable. It’s not going to give us a break.

 

The same is manifestly true of thinking – when we have a problem that needs to be solved then thinking is the right man for the job, but when the thinking gets out of hand and starts telling us who we are and what we should be doing in the world and ‘what life is all about’ then it has become the very opposite of useful! What sort of situation is it anyway when the tool starts defining and controlling the so-called ‘user of the tool’ and creating all the parameters of his or her existence? This is called ‘being a prisoner of one’s own device,’ or ‘being hoisted by one’s own petard’. This situation might also be spoken of in terms of ‘booking into the Hotel California’, which – as we all know – is something that is very easy to do but very far from easy to undo…

 

Mental health – we might therefore say – is when we do begin to separate ourselves from our thoughts. It is the situation where we aren’t being constantly defined by the operational limitations of the mechanism of thought. We don’t have to ‘get rid’ of our unwanted thoughts or attempt to ‘control’ them or anything like that; there’s no ‘control’ involved, only awareness, which is incomparably more powerful. Only thought controls; only thought wants to control! What else does ‘control’ mean other than trying to get ourselves and the world to accord with our ideas, our mental pictures of ‘how things should be’? Through awareness we see that we are not our thinking (we see that ‘we are not our mind,’ as Eckhart Tolle puts it) and the separation then takes place all by itself. Thought doesn’t have to make it happen – thought CAN’T make it happen. Thought CAN’T free us from itself! ‘To see illusion is to depart from it,’ says the Buddha in The Sutra Of Complete Enlightenment.

 

The big problem that we have in understanding mental health – both collectively and individually – is that we think it is something that can be achieved via exercising the thinking mind, as if there is some kind of clever trick that thought can pull off for us. We’re asking our jailor for help in getting out of the prison! We want to hand over even more responsibility to the runaway train of the rational mind. “Please Mr Thought,’ we’re asking, “can you wave your magic wand over us and free us from the terrible affliction of our neurosis?” This belief, needless to say, simply exacerbates and prolongs our suffering – the runaway thinking mind is the cause of our troubles, not the cure! Putting on our white coats and becoming all ‘professional’ and ‘clinical’ about neurotic suffering, and attempting to treat it within the sterile confines of a psychiatric hospital, as if it were something we can ‘cut out’ of ourselves using the sharp instrument of rationality, is a prime manifestation of the underlying glitch, not the solution to it…