The Social Sickness

What is winning and what is losing? What does it mean to be a success and what does it mean to be a failure? Usually – almost always – we are in far too much of a hurry to ask these questions. We are in too much of a hurry to win rather than lose, too much of a hurry to succeed rather than fail. That’s ‘the name of the game’, as they say.

As is the case with all games, unreflective action is the thing – we struggle to get it right and not get it wrong, without ever looking into the all-important question of why the one thing would be ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’. We never ask what should be the ‘all-important question’. The point of the game however is not to test the validity of the framework which we are operating within, or query the meaningfulness of our goals – if we did that then there would be no more game. The whole point of playing a game is to accept the framework unreflectively, to take it for granted that the goals are meaningful and see where this exercise gets us. We proceed on the given basis and that is what makes it possible to play the game, as we all know.

The thing about being a winner or loser, a success or a failure, is that we can’t for the life of us see that this is only a game! In everyday life, when I feel myself to be a success’ I feel very good and other people will envy me my success and want to be like me. When I perceive myself to be a loser or a failure then I will feel very bad in myself and other people will be glad not to follow my example – they will be happy not to be me. We look up to people who are designated as successes and down on those who are regarded as failures and this – whether we want to admit it or not – is what society is all about.

When we feel ourselves very strongly to be ‘failures’ in our lives this constitutes intense suffering and there is no way that we perceive this suffering to be merely ‘part of the game we’re playing’. There is absolutely no way in which we perceive ‘being a failure’ or ‘being a loser’ as merely being designations in the game, something that only makes sense within the context of the game that’s been playing. If we did, then we wouldn’t of course be feeling so bad. It’s precisely the fact that we don’t know that we are playing a game that makes the pain we are in so cruel. What is essentially happening here is that we have taken the game of society (for the game of ‘the social value system’) so very seriously that it is causing us great suffering. This is a type of sickness therefore.

In the same way, when we go around feeling good about ourselves because we have a high status in terms of the social hierarchy then we are basing this good feeling on an illusion. This too is a sickness, and it’s a sickness that we ‘enjoy suffering from’, so to speak. We think that we are enjoying it, at any rate, even though enjoyment that is based on an illusion can’t be worth very much really! It’s all just fantasy currency after all, just like the pretend-money in a game of monopoly. When we feel good about ourselves because of an illusory value system this isn’t just an empty hollow good feeling, a good feeling that has no basis or substance at all, it is also something that prevents us feeling good in a real way. When an illusion thrives, the real gets neglected.

When we feel bad because we have not made of ourselves what society says we should have, then this is clearly an affliction, this is clearly not a healthy situation. I might be feeling bad because of an illusory value system, but the fact that I am feeling bad is real all the same. So the curious thing about this social game that we are playing without knowing it is that when we ‘win’ this is bad for mental health, and when we ‘lose’ then this is bad for our mental health too! Both possibilities equal suffering – the suffering of not being true to who we really are, the suffering that comes when we neglect the truth in favour of an illusion. We make a big deal of ‘mental health’, and go on about it the whole time, but the unpalatable truth is that our collective way of life is itself a harmful or life-denying illusion!

To be mentally healthy – we might say – is to realise that being a success is just empty as being a failure, and that to believe in either label is to bring unnecessary suffering upon ourselves. One way we have a meaningless good feeling that effectively cuts us off from our true nature, the other way we have a meaningless bad feeling that just as effectively alienates us from who we truly are. When we realise this however what is more than likely to happen is that we will ‘redefine the rules of the game that we are playing’ and start playing for ‘spiritual development’ instead of ‘social status’ and ‘material gain’, which were the old milestones. This is what Sogyal Trungpa calls spiritual materialism and this is really just another (improved) way of trying to be ‘winners’ rather than ‘losers’.

When we play the game of ‘spiritual materialism’ then being a winner basically means ‘becoming more spiritual’, which is the greatest joke ever. We really do want this advancement for ourselves and we think that we will be better off in a real way when this happens. Straightaway therefore, we have the same old entrapping polarity of ‘gain versus lose’, ‘succeed versus pain’, ‘right versus wrong’. What does it mean to be a success rather than a failure in this new context, however? What does it mean to be ‘a winner’ within the terms of this particular game? To be a ‘winner’ – no matter what game we might be playing, no matter what goal we might be chasing – always implies ‘being a loser’; we could therefore say that ‘being a winner’ is defined in terms of ‘not being a loser’. This is a very strange tautological definition therefore – if I am a winner then that means that I’m not a loser and if I am a loser then that means that I am not a winner!

This may seem like mere verbal trickery but is much more than this. If we can understand this point then that immediately takes us to the very root of this whole issue. The point is that ‘being a winner’ (or ‘being a success’, or whatever) is merely a label, and all labels are by their nature ‘self-contradictory’, just as all ‘judgements’ or ‘definite statements’ are self-contradictory. This – in essence – means that they don’t actually have any reality to them. Labels or definite statements are so very superficial, so very ‘skinny’ that nothing at all separates the positive statement or the positive definition from its negative counterpart! As we have just said, ‘being a winner only makes sense in terms of ‘not being the loser’ and vice versa. A winner is a loser and a loser is a winner, therefore.

To feel good about being the one and bad about being the other is therefore quite absurd; to spend all our time chasing success and fleeing from the spectre of failure is ‘a theatre of the absurd’. This goes much deeper than we might imagine – when we ask ‘what does it mean to be a winner?’ or ‘what does it mean to be a loser?’ the answer is plain, if we want to see it. It means being a label, being a concept, being a ‘two-dimensional mental construct’. But more than this, we can apply this insight to the question of ‘what does it mean to be a self?’ The concept commonly known as the self only ever has two possibilities open to it – the possibility of doing well and the possibility of doing badly, the possibility of getting it right and the possibility of getting it wrong, the possibility of pleasure and the possibility of pain. The everyday oh-so-familiar sense of self is a polarity, in other words and it can never be more than a polarity. We don’t perceive it as such but such it is; the self is a polarity and polarity is a trap for consciousness.

To say that the self is a polarity might sound a bit odd but on reflection it is undeniable. The self gets to be the self via the all-important boundary that separates it from everything that is not it (which is to say, ‘the rest of the world’). This is a ‘co-dependent pair of opposites’ just as <winner/loser> or <up/down> is. As we have just said, each opposite is defined by saying that it is not the other, which is a closed loop of meaning. In the case of the boundary that separates ‘me’ from ‘the other’, ‘me’ is ‘me’ because it is not ‘the other’ and ‘the other’ is ‘the other’ because it is not ‘me’, and this is, as we have said, a tautological (or ‘empty’) definition. ‘Self’ and ‘other’ can only be defined in terms of each other and means that the two definitions don’t actually mean anything. It’s a game, a ‘closed loop of meaning,’ and yet we have been tricked into believing that it is real. Our sickness is therefore (as we have said) the sickness of believing that a game is not a game…








The Negative Side Of Positive Thinking

We are all so hung up on ‘positive this’ and ‘positive that’ and there is actually something rather sinister about this. What does this say about us? Why should we be so hung up on positive ways of looking at the world. Why should we be so fixated upon the so-called need to ‘think positively’? The answer is clearly that we are rather frightened of the alternative, which is where we get caught up in negative ways of looking at the world instead; our ‘attraction to the positive’ is the very same thing as ‘our aversion to the negative’ and what this means is that our so-called ‘positive attitude’ – no matter how inspiring it may on the face of it seem to be – is actually fear in disguise. We’re so afraid that we daren’t admit to ourselves that we are afraid, and so we run around ‘never mentioning the negative possibility’ and we think that this is a great thing to do! Deep down we may not think that this is such a great thing to do but we will certainly say that it is. The whole point of positive thinking is after all that we try to override our semiconscious doubts with loud assertions of what we would like to see as being true.

 

Positive thinking is de rigueur when we are in the grip of fear; it’s the only option open to us – anything else would take courage! On the face of it, denying fear (saying a big hearty “NO” to fear) is the helpful thing to do because it makes us feel better! We seem to be ‘turning the tables’ on fear in this way – we’re getting ‘one up’ on it! We’re showing fear who’s boss; we’re ‘turning the negative into a positive’ and this (in the short term at least) makes us feel good. If we were to look into this a bit more closely however – which we are very much inclined not to do! – then we would see that we have actually put ourselves in a far worse position than we were in before. We have made things worse by trying to make them better.

 

Instead of a genuine, honest-to-goodness sense of well-being, what we have now is a fake sense of well-being, a phoney sense of well-being.  If something is fake or phony then this means that there are some serious drawbacks to it, naturally enough. Drawback Number 1 (we might say) is that the sense of ‘well-being’ which we are enjoying is very superficial, very two-dimensional and Drawback Number 2 is that that this sense of well-being is very brittle, very easily threatened or destabilised. Another way to put this last point is to say that the type of good feeling we have when we slant things positively to ourselves is always dependent upon our own successful controlling, which means of course that we can never really relax. We are always having to manage the situation either in terms of ‘controlling external circumstances’ or in terms of ‘positive self talk’, which is to say, putting a favourable spin on the world.

 

Very clearly, this is NOT a great situation to put ourselves in – the only type of good feeling we are ever going to have is a fake or second-rate one and we’re going to have to do all the work ourselves to maintain the flimsy charade that ‘all is well’. It’s not a very good type of good feeling (i.e. it’s ‘an inferior product’) and we have to work hard for it, which is not the case with the genuine sense of well-being. Furthermore, we are never going to be in a position to be truly honest about anything or truly sincere about anything because if we do start being honest or sincere then we are in danger of bringing the whole house of cards going down around our ears. By the same token, we are always going to have to be superficial in our approach to life because if we aren’t then the chances are that we are going to ‘give the game away’ (which is to say, the chances are that we going to find out that the world isn’t the way we keep saying it is).

 

Without knowing it, we are going to be fighting against truth itself, and because we are ‘fighting against truth itself’ we’re not able to know what that the so-called ‘bad outcome’ which we constantly trying to keep at bay really is. Because we have made truth into ‘the enemy’ we have made ourselves permanently confused: either we will be fighting against the bad outcome unconsciously (and putting all our efforts into ‘positive projects’ of one sort or another) or we will start to have some kind of uncomfortable awareness of an ill-defined ‘ominous possibility’ that is waiting in the wings, a looming spectre which we will feel a tremendous sense of dread about. We won’t be able to know that this ominous outcome (so-called) is actually not ominous at all but something genuinely wholesome and helpful. The truth is of course always wholesome and helpful; whether we realise it or not the truth is always our friend. It doesn’t get us into the terrible mess that lies do! We can’t see that the possibility we are fighting against is actually helpful to us because we are orientated in completely the wrong way; we are ‘orientated in completely the wrong way’ because we have tied our sense of well-being to our ability to spin things in a positive way.

 

All of this stems from this very simple (and apparently quite harmless) trick of taking control of the meaning of things rather than letting that ‘meaning’ emerge all by itself, as it will. Of all the ‘bad habits’ in the world, this habit of slanting the meaning of our situation so that it appears more palatable, more encouraging, less frightening, etc has got to be the worst! As the Pringles ad says “Once you pop you can’t stop’! Once we start this business of ‘positive thinking’ then we can’t stop – it’s a slippery slope just like taking heroin is… We can’t stop with the positive thinking because by thinking positively we have weakened our ability to see the truth for what it is, which makes it all the more likely that we will go down the road of ‘slanting perceptions of reality’ the next time a challenge comes along, which will in turn weaken our ability to bear the truth still further, and so on and so forth. This is a ‘one-way street’, in other words, and it doesn’t go to a good place!

 

It’s not just positive thinking in the classic ‘motivational seminar’ sense that we are talking about here of course – just as long as we are identified with the Mind-Created Sense of Self we are always going to be looking at the world in a ‘positively slanted way’ rather than simply ‘seeing it straight’. The Mind-Created Sense of Self is after all a mere illusion and – as an illusion – it absolutely needs to be looking at the world in a distorted kind of way. It needs to be looking at the world in a biased or distorted way if it is to survive. Illusions always need more illusions, just as lies always call for more lies! Illusions definitely don’t need ‘the truth’, whatever that might prove to be. The more we identify with the illusionary sense of self that is provided for us by the thinking mind the hungrier we become for a ‘favourably distorted view of reality’. The more dependent we become on positive-type illusions to make us feel better then at the same time the more frighteningly vulnerable we become to the ‘unfavourable’ or ‘negative’ type of illusions. Identification with the illusion causes us to become more and more dependent upon ‘flattery’ and more and more reactive towards to ‘insults’, in other words.

 

We might perhaps wonder why it is that the thinking mind provides us with what we calling an ‘illusory’ view or image of ourselves. It might seem unfair to say (as we are saying,)that thought always creates a ‘false picture’ of who we are. The point is however that thought was never ‘meant’ (if we can put it like that) to ‘tell us who we are’. That was never its job. We are using the tool of thought for quite the wrong purpose and if we do this we’re going to get in trouble. Thought as a tool for ‘solving problems in the outside world’, not a tool for ‘telling us who we are’! We can’t know who we are by thinking about ourselves – that is a ridiculous way to go about things. Why on earth would we want to think about ourselves (i.e. look at ourselves from some kind of external or artificial or abstract viewpoint) when we could actually just be ourselves?

 

This is actually this is the very nub of the matter. As Alan Watts says, we can’t objectively ‘know’ ourselves (i.e. we can’t ‘know ourselves as an object of thought’) because in order to do this we would have to step outside of ourselves, we would have to divorce ourselves from the actual truth of our situation, and start playing this game of ‘being what or who the thinking mind says we are’. We can’t ‘see ourselves from the outside’ but what we can do is ‘be ourselves as we actually are’ and ‘ourselves as we actually are’ doesn’t need to buy into illusions in order to feel good. Even expressing things like this is deceptive – ‘ourselves as we actually are’ isn’t any sort of a ‘self’ at all really because ‘who we are’ isn’t ‘an object’, because ‘who we are’ isn’t ‘a thing’. We’d have to jump right out of the world of objects and things to understand this, and we don’t even know that this is possible!

 

Our true nature is consciousness and consciousness is something that exists in an ‘unconditional’ rather than a ‘conditional’ way (which is to say, it exists in a way that has nothing to do with the rules and regulations of the thinking mind). Consciousness is not an object and only objects are subject to the framework of right and wrong, the polarity of positive and negative, that rationality takes for granted. Once we fall into that trap seeing ourselves as objects (or ‘things’) then we obliged to think positively (we are obliged to try to control our situation so that things happen the right way rather than the wrong way). Consciousness (which, as honest self-observation will always show, is our true nature) has absolutely nothing to do with the tiresome and demeaning polarity of ‘right versus wrong’ or ‘positive versus negative’, so why would we ever want to go down that road? Why would we ever wish to bring that curse down on ourselves?