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

 

 

 

 

 

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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…

 

 

 

The Finger-Trap

The world we see all around us has been put together by economic forces: just about everything we see in the socially-created world is because of economic forces. If it isn’t there to make money then what’s the point of it? We could of course agree with the above statement happily enough and yet at the same time not consider it a matter of any great importance. We may not see any problem with this at all; we are after all so very used to this way of life that we can’t see the world existing in any other way. Economics has been ‘God’ for a very long time now. Money has made the world go round for a very long time now…

 

And yet what is meant by this thing we call ‘economics’? When we look into it we can see straightaway that it is nothing more than ‘a system that is based on the manipulation of resources for personal gain’. No one can argue with this – that’s what capitalism is all about, after all! At the very root of economic theory is the tried-and-trusted idea that the motivation to personally benefit ourselves is the strongest and most reliable motivational force there is, which – goes the argument – makes it the ideal psychological drive to tie everything to. Whether this is really true or not is highly dubious however – if our motivation isn’t particularly wholesome, then neither will the outcome be! This goes beyond ethics and morality – it is starting to be accepted in the mainstream scientific world that what fulfils us the most – i.e. what is ‘healthiest’  for us – is not to live on the basis of narrow self-interest but on the basis of compassion and empathy, which doesn’t serve the interest of our way of life. Again, this isn’t anything to do with morality or ethics, it just seems to be the way that we are built. Now it isn’t of course exactly ‘breaking news’ as far as the great religions of the world are concerned, but it’s only very recently that a study of the anatomy of the brain shows that when the area of the brain known colloquially as in the centre – otherwise referred to as the medial prefrontal cortex.

 

According to Rebecca Gladding in This is your brain on meditation, it is also called ‘the self-referencing centre’ because it is the part of the brain are used to process information related to us. When the ‘me-centre’ is linked to strongly with other centres, such as the reactivity-producing amygdala, then this is bad news, according to Rebecca Gladding; it’s bad news because we’re always going to be taking things personally and ‘over-reacting’ accordingly. In general, it is clear that when relate to the world (and other people) in a ‘me-centred way’ (i.e. a way that is ‘all about us’) then we won’t have a very good time. We aren’t going to get on particularly well with other people either, obviously enough! This is a modality of functioning (or a ‘modality of being in the world’) that shouldn’t be overly encouraged or promoted, therefore! It certainly shouldn’t be made ‘top dog’…

 

Very obviously, if we are always operating on the basis of self-interest then we aren’t going to feel very fulfilled in themselves; if it were true that self-interest were a ‘healthy motivation’ then the richest people in the world would also be the happiest people and this just isn’t so! We don’t actually need to be experts on neuro-anatomy to see this – it’s as obvious as a nose on your face! How could we not see it? This is the most basic lesson in life there is; we learn it in pre-school and kindergarten – it’s the lesson called ‘learning to share our toys with the other kids’. If we never do learn to share our toys (or, even worse, if we learn to do the opposite and steal all the other kids’ toys so that we have all the toys ourselves) then this is not a very good prediction for us having a happy life! No one is going to be stupid enough to argue with this – how can I be incorrigibly self-centred and yet also be a happy person? There isn’t a person in the world who would go along with this, if they were to actually sit down and think about it!

 

This – as we keep saying – is just common sense – if we think that the world revolves around us then we are in for a rude awakening. If we think that life is all about ‘us securing our narrow advantage’ then we going to have a thoroughly miserable existence. And yet the message we receive every single day from this commercially-orientated world of ours is that the world ought to revolve around us and our wins; the message is that life absolutely is all about securing our own personal advantage. No one can deny this that this is the case – that’s how the consumerist paradigm works, after all – it works by having consumers being highly motivated to play the game that they’re supposed to be playing, and consume! Money is what makes the world go round, after all, as the song says.

 

 

Again, this is most emphatically not a contentious issue – we all know very well that consumerism works by getting people to operate on the basis of personal gain, and putting this uninspiring motivation on a pedestal. Such words as ‘successful’ and ‘winner’ say it all – we can only think well of ourselves when we are visibly better than those around us at obtaining personal gain. This is the measure of us as human beings, this is what determines our worth or lack of it. It sounds like we’re going over old ground here but the simple point that we’re making is this – the inbuilt structure of the world (or system) that we live in guides very strongly in the direction of operating on the basis of personal advantage in everything we do, whilst our actual mental health and well-being lie in exactly the opposite direction.

 

The way that the current set-up works is for each and every one of us to be acting and thinking as entirely ‘self-interested beings’. This is beyond any doubt, this is a ‘given’. We can very easily understand why it is that we are being constantly ‘tilted’ in this direction; why it is that we are being ‘formatted by society to be narcissists’. That’s what is required by ‘the current set-up’. There’s nothing else our particular society can do; that’s the world we have elected – however unwittingly – to go down. That’s the nature of the game that we are playing. Pragmatically speaking, all we can do is ‘go along with it’ – the argument is ‘irresistible’, so to speak. And yet at the same time, when we do ‘go along with it’ this is to the very great detriment of our mental health!

 

Our response to this dilemma (and ‘dilemma’ is putting it mildly) is to ignore it, is to pretend that it doesn’t exist. We never really talk about it, either on the grass-roots level or – unsurprisingly – on the level of public policy. We do hear regular items about how immersion in social media is destroying our ‘resilience’ and turning us all into ‘snowflakes’, etc. etc. , or how sad it is that no one talks to strangers on the bus anymore because we are all too busy looking at our mobile phones. These are all well-known and deeply comfortable topics – they’re comfortable because they are of a manageable size, they are ‘discrete’ and therefore non-threatening issues, but it’s not mobile phones or social media that’s the real problem here but our whole way of life. The set-up that we are caught up in creates mental suffering for us and prevents us from ever expressing (or knowing) our true potential. The system we are part of is, by its very nature, hostile to our mental health, inimical to our true well-being. We just don’t like to see this.

 

No one can say that this is something that we sometimes discuss, either in private or in public. It isn’t. We daily hear leaders of state pontificating about this and that, discussing this weighty matter or that weighty matter, and it all sounds very serious, but at no time does anyone ever point out the fact that the commercially-orientated way of life which we have opted for (the way of life which in which our primary role is that of a consumer) is fundamentally inimical to our true well-being, that it stunts and distort us and prevents us from ‘being what we could be’. No one ever points out that it is impossible to be in this system and yet at the same time grow as the individuals we truly are. And if we refuse to acknowledge this biggest issue of all, the real elephant in the living room, then how can we possibly make out that we are being ‘serious’ or ‘responsible’ about anything? We might as well dress up as clowns and go to work in the circus – that at least would be an honest profession,, that course of action would at least would have some integrity.

 

This is an extraordinary challenge – we live in a world that is fundamentally hostile to ‘who we really are’ and yet always almost always refuse to see it. This certainly isn’t a situation that we can afford to get too complacent about. The world we live in is a world that conditions us to look outside of ourselves for everything that is good, everything that is worthwhile. This has two linked consequences – [1] is that we automatically identify with a contained or isolated sense of self, a tightly-wrapped sense of identity, and [2] is that we are very strongly motivated to act so as to obtain and secure all these ‘good things’, and this misguided motivation is what powers the commercially-orientated way of life and keeps it going. This system we are part of has one agenda and only one agenda and that is to maintain itself or perpetuate itself, and the only way it can do this is to keep us locked firmly into the position of the need-driven and tightly-defined self that always has to be looking out for its own interests.

 

We all know this well enough on one level, it’s just that we can’t afford to focus on it. It’s not pragmatically useful (on the short-term) to focus on it. All the pressure is on us to succeed within the terms of the gain that we have been inducted into from an early age. We have invested so very much in this game that it no longer seems like a game – it’s not a game to us, it’s everything. It’s all we know). We have waded through blood so much that going back is as painful as going forward, as Shakespeare says in Macbeth. We are locked into the contradictory position of ‘looking for our freedom on the outside’ and the more we do this the more unfree we become in real terms. This is a classic example of a ‘Chinese finger trap,’ as Alan Watts points out somewhere – the more we try to free ourselves the more trapped we become! Society happily provides us with limitless ways and means of trying to free ourselves, all of which embroil us all the more in the mess, but no way of actually recognizing our the true nature of our predicament. Freedom is there, but it’s not to be found on the outside…

 

 

 

 

 

Demonic Literalism

To be certain of oneself and one’s place in the world is the greatest of all calamities and it is all the greater for being entirely invisible to us. We carry a huge weight of certainty around with us and yet never think anything of it. We never think anything of it because we never notice it.

 

We consider it normal and correct for us to be certain of ourselves and the world – we are brought up that way, it’s in our culture. It’s in most cultures. Being certain of ourselves and our place in the world is actually seen as a good or healthy thing – it’s seen as being the same thing as ‘being confident’. It’s seen as ‘something to aim for’, something to strive for as best we can. And yet it is the greatest of all calamities – second to none.

 

Being certain of ourselves and the world is a calamity because it means we will never see the truth. We will never see the truth because the truth doesn’t come in the form of mind-created certainties. What can be worse could be worse than never seeing the truth? To be certain that we are right in our views is to be certain that all other ways of looking at the world are wrong and this guarantees that we will have no relationship with reality. Our certainty about the world has ‘severed our connection’ with reality; certainty always servers our connection with reality, no matter what it is that we are certain of.

 

As we have said, being certain of ourselves and the world is normal; it’s how we are – that’s our modality of existence. There is a definite description of things and we just slot straight into this description. We are part of that description. It seems so natural to us that this should be the way that things are that we never think anything of it. It’s not just that we ‘never think anything of it’ but rather that we don’t in any way see it, or have the capacity to see it – conditioning can’t see itself, after all. When we operate entirely on the basis of the definite description that we have slotted ourselves into then there is none of our awareness ‘left over’ to see that we are ‘operating on the basis of the description’. This is where the certainty that we are talking about comes in – certainty arises as a result of us being unconscious of the fact that the description we believe in only is a description. Were we to see that our model of reality is ‘only a model’, our theory only a theory, then all traces of certainty would of course fly right out of the window.

 

We have therefore arrived at a useful way of approaching this whole notion of ‘mind-created certainty’ – certainty, we might say, is the by-product of this business of ‘confusing the description with the thing that has been described’. When we forget that our description is only is a description, and nothing more, then the result is this state of being in which we are ridiculously certain about things. Reality itself never provides us with certainty about anything – is not in the business of providing us with certainty! It’s not in that business at all…

 

This mental state of being ‘certain about things’ isn’t in the least bit synonymous with ‘good mental health’, even if we do tend to indirectly assume that it is. It’s actually more of a blight or affliction than anything else – it’s a dark cloud blotting out the light of the sun. In order to see this for ourselves all we have to do is observe someone we know who becomes – momentarily – more certain about things than they usually are. This happens to everyone on a regular basis; one example being when we find ourselves expressing a viewpoint or an opinion that we very much believe in. If we could see ourselves at such a time (which obviously we can’t) then what we would see would be rather shocking – to be in the grip of a strong opinion or belief as to have one’s humanity replaced by ‘something else’, something that isn’t actually human.

 

There is a horror in this – there is a horror in seeing another human being falling into the state of being possessed by an opinion or a belief because the nature of ‘conviction’ (in all of its forms) is without any doubt completely and implacably opposed to our essential humanity. When we are ourselves in the grip of a strong opinion or belief then, as we have said, we don’t at all see this antithetical mismatch between our own essential nature and the nature of this inhuman mechanical ‘conviction’ that has somehow possessed us – far from being appalled or horrified at what has happened to us we experience intense pleasurable identification, an identification which will express itself either in the form of huge gratification if someone agrees with us, or equally huge displeasure or rage if we come across someone who does not agree with us. A belief is a bias and biases only work in these two ways – it’s always either YES or NO, PLEASURE and PAIN…

 

What the belief does for us is to provide us with a very strong sense of who we are, and this ‘strong sense of identity’ is (in the initial phase, anyway) profoundly euphoric. Having a very strong or definite sense of ‘who we are’ is the source of all euphoria, without exception. What’s going on here therefore is at the belief, at the same time as engendering an intense feeling of certainty about some viewpoint that we hold regarding the outside world, also creates an equally intense feeling of certainty with regard to ‘the one who is holding the belief’. The hidden agenda of allowing oneself to be gripped in this way by some sort of ‘unreasonable conviction’ (and all convictions or beliefs are unreasonable) is that we get to create a strong (if entirely erroneous) sense of who we are.

 

This, then, is why we don’t notice ourselves being ‘possessed by something inhuman’ – we are too hungry for the addictive euphoria that comes with having a definite sense of identity. We’re simply not interested in anything else. We aren’t looking at the process that’s going on at all; we’re just buying into it as fast as we can. We buy into it wholesale. If you don’t happen to subscribe to the very same belief or conviction that I do, then you will spot me being possessed, even though you will probably not understand the process that’s going on in these terms. You will have an intuitive understanding of what is happening to me, without having to put a name on it, and make ‘allowances for me’. We all manifest this peculiar type of insanity from time to time, after all. What also happens however is that the conviction or belief becomes ‘contagious’, and in fact a lot of people at the same time. Whole communities can become infected, as we all know very well – ideas (or ‘memes’) spread like the plague. Jung of course spoke about this sort of thing, which he referred to as a type of ‘psychic epidemic’ that can affect whole nations.

 

On a less obviously ‘pathological’ level we can say that when lots of people share the same belief-structure then this forms the basis for cultures, communities, societies. The same principle remains true however – we achieve ‘community’ at the price of part of our essential humanity (hopefully not too big a part, although it can be). This isn’t the kind of thing we like to go around saying too loudly of course, but anyone with any psychological insight at all knows it to be true. There is no such thing as a healthy ‘group mentality’ any more than there is such thing as ‘healthy group-think’, and this is counterintuitive inasmuch as we generally consider being part of a group as actually being a good thing. There’s also this notion of ‘the therapeutic group’ – which is actually a contradiction in terms, when it comes right down to it! Groups demand the surrender of individuality and he only ‘healthy’ way to live life is as an individual; all groups deny our essential humanity to some degree or other – loose affiliations to a lesser extent, rigid, intolerant, high-conformity groups to a much higher extent. Again, we all know this on some level or other; we just don’t like to admit it to ourselves.

 

In order to be part of the group, a collective (i.e. ‘a participant in the consensus reality’) we need to carry this weight of certainty around with us because – as we have said – it is the ‘shared certainty’ that creates the collective. And yet at the same time (as we have also said) we have made blind to it by the process of adaptation (we have become incapable of knowing that we have taken on this burden) and the reason for this blindness is the nature of certainty itself. Certainty is the type of thing one can’t see beyond, obviously! We are carrying ‘the oppressive burden of certainty’ and the reason we are putting it in these terms is because to be certain is to be ‘shut down’ and to be ‘shut down’ is to suffer. We closed-off to our own true nature (which is rather like being dead!) but rather than perceiving this phenomenon for what it is – which is the pain of not-being – we see it as good thing, we see it as a source of support and security, and so on. We function on the basis of this certainty – we couldn’t carry on in the particular way that we live life for more than a few moments without the fixed basis that we operate from, even though that ‘fixed basis’ isn’t actually any sort of real thing at all.  Our basis (the conventions that we have agreed upon) may not be real, but we need to believe that it is – the challenge of having to live without the framework or matrix we work within would be so great as to be utterly unthinkable to us. What we talking about here is ‘ontological insecurity’ (or ‘fear of the unknown’) and it is this Great Fear that our manufactured certainty acts as a remedy for…

 

There are two aspects to this ‘manufactured uncertainty’ – one aspect, we might say, is the world that we have adapted ourselves to – which is a literal kind of thing (i.e. it doesn’t represent itself to us in terms of poetical, allegorical, or metaphorical meanings, but in terms of unambiguous black-and-white rules) and the other aspect is the fixed or definite idea that we have about ourselves, which presents itself to us in a similarly ‘literal or non-poetical’ way. The very suggestion that ‘who we understand ourselves to be’ would not be a ‘literal’ kind of thing will inevitably sound bizarre and somewhat crazy to us. Poetry, myth or metaphor is fine in its place, we might say, but there can be no time for such arty-farty fripperies when dealing with the real world; similarly, allegorical  language is no good when dealing important stuff such as the question of ‘who we actually are’. Poetry is okay in its place, we say, but the world we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis is not a poetical type of thing – it’s concrete and unforgiving, and it demands concrete responses on our part. If a lion is coming down the road at you and it wants to eat you for breakfast, then you have to do something. You can’t treat the lion as a metaphor for something else. It isn’t ‘a metaphor’ for god’s sake – it’s a lion, end of story!

 

This argument sounds convincing but it doesn’t cut the mustard. It’s just well-rehearsed window-dressing. Of course there are times when we have to take things at face-value and respond accordingly – but that doesn’t mean that we have to go around like idiots taking absolutely everything we come across at face value (which is generally what we do do). Even when we are running for our lives, trying to get away from some concrete danger, that still doesn’t mean that we have to understand life in a concrete or literal way! Man-eating predators are comparatively rare these days but there is a much more dangerous creature out there – a veritable monster, in fact – getting ready to dine on us and we don’t even know that it’s there. We’ve actually made friends with it, and foolishly imagine that it’s going to help us! The ‘monster’ that we’re talking about here is of course the monster of certainty, which is the same thing as ‘the monster of taking things for granted’. When I fall into the trap of understanding myself literally – which is always how the thinking mind presents the situation – then as we have said I have actually disconnected myself from reality. I’m making do with a simulation of myself instead of the real thing, and I’m going to live a life on the basis of this simulation as this simulation on a full-time basis. As Paul Levy says in Are We Possessed,

We then live a simulation of ourselves, miming ourselves, becoming a master copy, a duplicate of our original selves.

All concrete or literal realities are copies, simulations, duplicates. A literal truth, as James Carse says, can be understood as a ‘special case’ of metaphor – it’s a metaphor that wants to ‘rule the roost’, it’s a metaphor that wants to get rid of all other metaphors! Joseph Campbell also argues that concrete explanations (or stories that present themselves as being ‘literally true’) are a ‘special case’ of metaphor in that they claim to be ‘the definitive account’ and out-rule all other possible explanations or metaphors for reality on this account. They are ‘competitive’ and ‘aggressive’ metaphors; they are concrete explanations that wish to eliminate all the opposition.

 

Dogmatic religions are an excellent example of this type of thing, as Joseph Campbell says here in the following passage, (taken from Living Myths: A Conversation With Joseph Campbell)

There’s a mystery dimension in myth—there always is, and you can’t put a ring around it. It’s the difference between drawing a circle on the ground and dropping a pebble into a pond from which circles go out. The myth drops a pebble into a pond, it tells you of a certain center, it puts you on a certain center—what the Navajo call the pollen path of beauty—but it doesn’t give you a definition.

What happens in dogmatic religions, however, is that definitions are contrived to circumscribe the myth and the ritual. I think that what is going on in the Catholic church now is something of a disaster. There you have the inheritance of one of the greatest ritual structures ever, anywhere, and what are they doing to it? It’s really incredible. Instead of simply presenting the mythic ritual beautifully, that rich mythologically-based heritage of beautiful, powerful ritual, for the individual to experience in his own way, they are destroying the clean lines of the rites and insisting, instead, on the dogmas, which are to tell us how we have to interpret our experience. Dogma simply cuts the individual off from his own potential of response.

The essential motif in Christianity – of the God who is killed and is then reborn as a well-known one – it’s a kind of a theme. The stories of Osirus and Odin are two obvious examples – Odin was actually crucified upside-down on the World Tree! This is a deep archetypal pattern whereby light apparently gives way to darkness and yet triumphs nonetheless (although not as an act of cunning but total surrender). Christianity however – as Joseph Campbell says – denies all other examples of the myth and says that its version alone is true. This turns the original myth into an aggressive ‘literal virus’ that infects everything and goes on the rampage. Although at root the story of the death and resurrection of Christ is still a metaphor (i.e. it has a bigger meaning than just the literal one) it has lost the fruitfulness (or ‘potential’) that used to be in it and has now turned into a blank, lifeless form of oppression – ‘the triumph of the letter over the spirit’, so to speak.

 

So as soon as a myth (or metaphor) becomes exclusive, aggressive, competitive, et cetera (i.e. as soon as it ‘goes viral’) then it loses the life that was in it and becomes ‘demonic’ in nature; instead of being ‘life-affirming’ (so to speak), it becomes life-denying. This gives us a very clear way of understanding what it is about concrete certainty that is so ‘monstrous’ – if we may use that word. Even though it might seem ridiculous to speak of ‘the self’ as a metaphor (rather than the ‘final reality’ or ‘concrete thing’) it is only through understanding the self as such that we are able to prevent ourselves from falling into the trap of’ demonic literalism. This is more than just ‘a trap’, this is the ultimate trap – this is the trap of traps. Once in it there appears to be no way out; once in it we don’t even want to find a’ way out’ – the thought never occurs to us! The thought actually couldn’t occur to us, it wouldn’t make any sense to us if it did. Once we see the world from the point of view of the literal self – which is the viewpoint that aggressively tries to out-compete or out-duplicate all other viewpoints (i.e. it is a viral viewpoint) then we aren’t actually interested in seeing the world in any other way. This is an obvious enough point to make once we see it – it simply isn’t possible to be ‘exclusive, aggressive, competitive, et cetera’ and yet at the same time be genuinely interested in other viewpoints, to be genuinely interested ‘what it feels like to be the other person’. This just isn’t going to happen.

 

If we do start to be genuinely interested (i.e. not as a ploy or strategy) in what it feels like to be the other person (or be genuinely interested in what the world looks like to the other person) then what this means is that we have somehow escaped from ‘the trap of being the viral self’. The literal self is a castle with the thickest possible walls and all the doors and windows are locked down. It is ‘a fortification’ – a ‘secure place’. Whilst we can give good appearance of being interested in the world or other people in a non-agenda-based way (or as Antony De Mello says in Awareness, we can give a good impression of being unselfish!) but the literal or concrete self has no such capacity. It can never go beyond itself and this is the price we pay for the security of concreteness. To be concrete is to be separate! To be concrete is always to be separate and that’s the price we pay for being ‘safe’. When we understand the self as a metaphor however (i.e. when we understand that it doesn’t really mean what it says it means) then this understanding connects us. There is no final reality in ‘the self’ – there’s no final reality in ‘the self’ because the state of separation that we bring down on ourselves (through our fear of openness or uncertainty) doesn’t really exist…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pain Of Being A Machine

‘Mental health’ and ‘organisations’ don’t go together – if we have some degree of mental health then we won’t have any more to do with organisations than we can possibly help, and if we are part of an organisation then it goes without saying that the integrity of our mental health is going to be significantly compromised. There are no two ways about this! When we consider the fact that mental health falls within the remit of large and intensely bureaucratic healthcare organisations we can see just how ironic this is, therefore. When an organisation makes it its business to take care of our collective mental health then this constitutes a very big problem. No one – it seems – is even aware of the problem, never mind engaged in doing anything about it. Our situation is very much like lambs being led to the slaughter, which is a metaphor that Gurdjeff used in ‘The Tale of the Evil Magician’ – (taken from thecasswiki.net)

There was an evil magician. He lived deep in the mountains and the forests, and he had thousands of sheep. But the problem was that the sheep were afraid of the magician because every day the sheep were seeing that one of them was being killed for his breakfast, another was being killed for his lunch. So they ran away from the magician’s ranch and it was a difficult job to find them in the vast forest. Being a magician, he used magic.

He hypnotized all the sheep and suggested to them first of all that they were immortal and that no harm was being done to them when they were skinned, that, on the contrary, it would be very good for them and even pleasant; secondly he suggested that the magician was a good master who loved his flock so much that he was ready to do anything in the world for them; and in the third place he suggested to them that if anything at all were going to happen to them it was not going to happen just then, at any rate not that day, and therefore they had no need to think about it.

He then told different sheep…to some, “You are a man, you need not be afraid. It is only the sheep who are going to be killed and eaten, not you. You are a man just like I am.” Some other sheep were told, “You are a lion – only sheep are afraid. They escape, they are cowards. You are a lion; you would prefer to die than to run away. You don’t belong to these sheep. So when they are killed it is not your problem. They are meant to be killed, but you are the most loved of my friends in this forest.” In this way, he told every sheep different stories, and from the second day, the sheep stopped running away from the house.

They still saw other sheep being killed, butchered, but it was not their concern. Somebody was a lion, somebody was a tiger, somebody was a man, somebody was a magician and so forth. Nobody was a sheep except the one who was being killed. This way, without keeping servants, he managed thousands of sheep. They would go into the forest for their food, for their water, and they would come back home, believing always one thing: “It is some sheep who is going to be killed, not you. You don’t belong to the sheep. You are a lion – respected, honored, a friend of the great magician.” The magician’s problems were solved and the sheep never ran away again.

Coming back to our original statement, we might still ask why mental health and organisations don’t go together? How can we make a statement like this? And if there is a grave mismatch between mental health and the all-powerful organizations that we have created to work ‘for our benefit’ then why hasn’t anyone noticed it? As it happpens, this is something that we can be very clear about – it’s not a difficult argument that we are making here but something that is entirely straightforward. All that’s needed is for us to have a clear understanding of what ‘mental health’ is. Mental health is really just another way of talking about freedom (or ‘autonomy’). When we are ‘free to be ourselves’ – without any external influences manipulating us without us knowing that we are being manipulated – then we may be said to be autonomous, then we may be said to be in a state of ‘good mental health’. If on the other hand we are being ‘controlled without knowing that we are being controlled’ (by external influences we know nothing of) then obviously there is no way that this can be said to be ‘a healthy situation’!

 

As soon as we put things like this it becomes clear to all but the naïve that mental health must be a very rare thing indeed in our society! Everything about our culture is about covert control; ‘freedom’ – although we use the word a lot – is simply not on the agenda. No one wants us to be free – even we ourselves probably don’t want to be free, as the psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm has pointed out. With freedom comes very great responsibility after all, and who wants that? The type of ‘freedom’ that we are talking about here isn’t the  trivial freedom to ‘come and go as we please’, but – as we have said – the freedom to be ourselves. ‘To thine own self be true,’ says Shakespeare, but we are blasé about this dictum because we assume – for the most part – that we are already being true to ourselves. This is very far from being the case however. We aren’t being true to ourselves and we can explain why we aren’t very simply – in order to be ‘true to ourselves’ would we would have to be seeing the world in our own unique and individual way and we’re not – we are seeing it in the totally generic way that we have been passively conditioned to. This ‘adaptation to the Generic Reality’ is what Gary Z McGee calls ‘comfortable cowardice’ in his article On Becoming Free.

 

This after all is what society is – society is what comes into being when we all see the world in the same way! That’s the price of admission to society, that’s the price we have to pay in order to be granted ‘membership to the club’ – we all have to agree to see things in the same way, we all have to ‘subscribe to the consensus reality’. This of course happens very early on in our lives and we don’t exactly ‘notice it happening,’ we don’t exactly ‘give our conscious consent’ to the process – it’s just what happens. It’s called ‘the process of socialisation’ and no one ever asks our permission first to see if we want to be socialised!

 

The ‘Great Illusion’ is that we are already free, that we are already ‘seeing things in our own individual way’. Nothing could be further from the truth however. As Erich Fromm says,

Modern man lives under the illusion that he knows ‘what he wants,’ while he actually wants what he is supposed to want. In order to accept this it is necessary to realize that to know what one really wants is not comparatively easy, as most people think, but one of the most difficult problems any human being has to solve. It is a task we frantically try to avoid by accepting ready-made goals as though they were our own.

A big part of the illusion ‘that we are already free’ lies in the fact that we take it so very much for granted that the way we understand life is the only way that it ever could be understood. This being the case we don’t of course feel that we are being manipulated or coerced to see the world in a particular predetermined way! We don’t know that there is always ‘the freedom to see things otherwise’. This is something that you would not be able to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it for themselves – the words just wouldn’t make any sense. ‘We accept the reality with which we have been presented’ – as the line in The Truman Show goes. In this film, Truman Burbank gradually ‘wakes up’ to the fact that everything he has ever been told is a lie, and via this process of ‘seeing through the lie’ he becomes (as his name suggests), a ‘true man’. He becomes true to himself, he becomes the true individual that he already is.

 

This isn’t a question of creating one’s own ideology or philosophy, but simply seeing through what is not true. In the past this has been known as ‘the negative way’ or via negativa. In the same way, therefore, recovering our autonomy doesn’t mean ‘having our own particular opinions about everything under the sun’ but simply seeing falsehood for what it is. Truth is not something we have to loudly ‘assert’, or ‘hold onto’, it is – rather – what emerges all by itself when we find the courage to let it do so. The truth is ‘none of our business’, in other words – it ‘stands by itself’ without any need for assistance or support or or interpretation on our part. It’s not a question of ‘my’ truth versus ‘your’ truth therefore and when anyone (or when any group of people) take it upon themselves to tell us ‘what the truth is’ we can be sure that their so-called truth is anything but true. It is – on the contrary – an aggressive lie and it is by such aggressive lies that society maintains itself!

 

This brings us to the very nub of the matter – the truth isn’t something that can be stated and then agreed upon by the collective, it is something that is seen. It is, moreover, something that is seen only by the individual and no one else. No one else can see it! The collective cannot see it and neither can any paid-up member of the collective. To see the truth requires us to be who we really are and this means discarding the false shell or husk of who we have been told that we are.

 

There is what we might call ‘a Basic Principle’ here and that principle is this: When two or more people agree on ‘what the right way to see things’ is, then that agreed-upon viewpoint acts as ‘an inferior substitute for the truth’. The viewpoint that we have agreed upon isn’t really true for any of us – it isn’t anyone’s way of seeing the world, rather it is Everyone’s way. It’s just a convention that we have all agreed upon for the sake of ‘getting on’. Conventions are ‘things that we have agreed to be true’ – language is a convention, socialised behaviour is a convention, the legal system is a convention, and so on, and it can be readily seen how very dependent upon all these various conventions we are. The danger (the ‘Very Great Danger’!) is however that we will become trapped in our own conventions, trapped in our own systems, trapped in our own devices. What traps us is forgetting that the conventions only are conventions and not reality itself. We take the inferior substitute to be equivalent to the real thing and when we ‘forget’ in this way then our systems end up defining reality for us – they end up defining everything about us! This situation of ‘being defined by some sort of arbitrary external authority without knowing that we are’ is of course (as we have been saying) the complete antithesis of autonomy, the complete antithesis of ‘mental health’, and this is exactly the situation that we all find ourselves in. The irony is that when our lack of autonomy manifests itself in the form of neurotic suffering we go looking for assistance from the very structures and systems that have disempowered us so grievously in the first place. Fromm is very clear about this –

Man does not suffer so much from poverty today as he suffers from the fact that he has become a cog in a large machine, an automaton, that his life has become empty and lost its meaning.

The big problem is however that when we suffer (as we inevitably do suffer) from being merely ‘a cog in a large machine’, we look to that very same machine for help!

 

 

Art: Spell II, by H.R. Giger