The Imaginary ‘Mental Health’ of The I-Concept

Almost all of our mental activity, all of the stuff that goes on in our heads, is happening as a result of our identification with what Wei Wu Wei calls the ‘I- concept’. All of this constant agitation, this constant busyness, this constant yearning and striving, is happening in relation to the concept that we have of ourselves, and the crucial point here is that this concept doesn’t actually refer to anything existing in reality.

 

The undeniable fact that we are always being unsettled, agitated or disturbed by this ‘background mental activity’, the fact that we are forever being pulled ‘this way and that’ shows that we don’t realise that the I-concept has no correspondence with actual reality. We don’t see that at all and this is why we never have any peace of mind. If we ever do have peace of mind (which can still happen every now and again, but not because we have done anything to bring it about) then that would mean that we are no longer acting in relation to (or on behest of) the concept that we have of ourselves and what a blessed relief this is! That’s why it is a relief – because the self-concept isn’t there with all its demands, all its hopes and fears, all its constant unremitting agitation. When we talk about ‘peace’ or ‘tranquillity’ this is what we actually mean – we mean peace from the I-concept (not peace for that I-concept).

 

We don’t see it like this of course – we see ‘peace’ as being something to be gained by the I-concept and then enjoyed by it. We see peace as being some sort of ‘prize’ to be won, in other words – maybe we can go somewhere to find it, or meet someone who will help us discover it, maybe we can learn some sort of discipline to help us gain it. Maybe relaxation techniques or practising regular mindfulness will work. We’ve actually got a backwards way of looking at things therefore and the chances are that we will never realise this. It’s not part of our culture to have this particular realisation, after all! Our culture assumes (just as we individually assume) that the I-concept is rightfully supposed to be at this very centre of things, that everything should happen for the I-concept’s benefit. Modern ‘consumerist’ culture works by encouraging the tendency which we already have to believe that we are the I-concept, and – as a result – put all of our eggs into this particular basket.

 

There are problems associated with living life on the basis of the celebrated and highly-esteemed I-concept, however, and these are problems that can’t ever be solved! They can’t ever be solved because the root problem is ‘us thinking that we are the idea that we have of ourselves’ and we aren’t about to address this core problem any time soon. We spend our whole lives trying to sort out this problem and that problem but the root problem we never go anywhere near. The root problem we never even want to talk about. This makes our collective endeavour in the area of mental health rather ridiculous – if we spend all of our time searching for answers to the secondary problems that have been caused by the invisible ‘root problem’ and yet never come close to addressing the original problem itself, what does this say about us? What exactly is going on here?

 

What we are actually trying to do in the field of mental health is ‘avoid the main issue by chasing red herrings’ and we all take this business of chasing red herrings very seriously (as we’re supposed to). We have a high opinion of ourselves and our endeavours and what we have so far (supposedly) learned in our endeavours. We talk endlessly about ‘research’ in psychology as if this research has ever actually informed us of anything useful, which it absolutely hasn’t. Since when has research in psychology revealed anything interesting, let alone genuinely helpful? All the research in the world is useless if it is based on a confused (or back-to-front) way of seeing things. If this is the case it doesn’t matter how impressively rigorous we are. The scientific spirit – we might say –has to do with the commitment to uncover the truth regardless of how that truth may conflict with our precious beliefs and opinions and this is what sets science apart from most other human endeavours (which – for the most part – come down to the attempt to validate our pre-existing beliefs and opinions). This is not at all what is happening in psychology however because everything we do in this field is done on the basis of the core assumption that ‘we are the I-concept’.

 

This necessarily means that our understanding of what mental health entails or consists of is going to be totally skewed – when we talk about ‘mental health’ – as we do very freely – what we mean is ‘mental health for the idea that we have ourselves’. This is inevitably going to be the case when we are investigating matters from an exclusively rational point of view; when we are looking at things in an exclusively rational way we are only ever going to be dealing with our own ideas – rationality doesn’t believe in anything else but its own ideas, its own theories. The thinking mind won’t have any truck with anything that doesn’t dovetail neatly with its own pre-existent assumptions about the world and what this means (when it comes down to it) is that it won’t have any truck with anything other than its own ideas. Thought is a closed system, in other words, just as David Bohm says. The result of this rational approach advises that we cause ourselves to become flatly incapable of seeing the absurdity of imagining that they could ever be any such thing as ‘the mental health of the I-concept’.

 

The idea that we have of ourselves can’t have any sort of mental health for the simple reason that it is only an idea. The I-concept can never be ‘mentally healthy’ because it is only a concept (i.e. it isn’t real). We can relate this back to what we were talking about a short while ago about ‘peace’ coming about as result of the absence of the I-concept – all of the mental agitation which we notice going on in our minds on a full-time basis is due (we were saying) to the belief that we have that we ‘are’ this concept. This identification is what drives almost all of our thinking; almost everything that happens in our heads comes about as a consequence of us being totally convinced that we are the idea of ourselves and so to try to figure out how the I-concept can enjoy peace or tranquillity is absurd because this construct is itself the cause of our agitation, the true origin of our ‘lack of peace’. The self-construct – being a construct – requires constant maintenance, constant defending and constant promoting, and so there is no peace ever to be had here! No matter what else a life of the ‘self-construct’ might entail, it will certainly never entail peace.

 

Another way of putting this is to say that the type of life that we lead when we are living in the ‘conditioned realm’ is a life of perpetual struggle, a life of constant striving, a life in which we are continually (and unsuccessfully) trying to control both ourselves and the world around us. The concrete sense of self is a striver and it can never not strive – it might drive itself mad with its own unremitting striving (or controlling) but it can never figure out a way of ‘not striving’ or ‘not controlling’, however much it may want to. Our collective endeavour in the field of mental health, for the most part, comes down to the efforts of this very same I-concept to find ‘a remedy for itself’, we might therefore say. The more purely rational the approach, the more true this is, and in the case of modern psychology – which is overwhelmingly rational – this is very starkly the case. We are being super-clever in order to cure ourselves from the curse of our own cleverness (although we won’t of course ever see things like this).

 

One problem that arises for us when we live life (or attempt to live life) on the basis of the I-concept is that we are forever striving, forever struggling, forever analysing and calculating, forever plotting and manipulating, and this is all very wearisome for us. We try to improve our situation by investing in control (or more effective control) but this is a slippery slope because the more we control the more we have to control. ‘Once you pop you can’t stop’, as the Pringles ad says. The more we get drawn into controlling the further we move away from who we really are; the more we invest in cleverness, the more alienated we become from our true nature and from the world around us. Our neurotic mental suffering quintessentially comes down to this ‘alienation’ – what could be worse than living in a state of alienation from our own true nature, or from the world into which we were so innocently born? We start off innocent, but we all-too-quickly become corrupted by ‘the ways of the world’. This is – moreover – an alienation (or corruption) that we do not understand or in any way acknowledge. We’re alienated but we don’t know that we are alienated and the reason we don’t know this is because we are so well-adapted to the artificial world that we have created for ourselves – we’re too well adjusted to the ‘Designed World‘ that we have so industriously constructed all around us.

 

The Designed World is the world that perfectly fits the needs and desires of the I-concept and were the case that this limited identity really is ‘who we actually are’ then all would be well – there will be no major problems involved. But there are problems involved, irreducible problems, problems that can never be fixed, and these problems come about – as we have said – as a result of our hapless identification with the I-concept. Being identified with the self-construct doesn’t mean that we are the self-construct however – it just means that we are confused! Or as we could also say – it just means that we now live in a very narrow, artificial way that can only exist or seem to be meaningful to us because all traces of ‘who we truly are’ have been denied. We have been ‘subsumed within the game’, in other words, and the game is a heartless kind of a thing. There’s nothing in the game other than struggling and we don’t even know what it is that we are struggling for. There is nothing in the game but suffering when it comes down to it but we deny the suffering, or minimise it and ascribe it to all sorts of false causes, ‘causes’ that we can imagine we can solve by the judicious application of even more ‘cleverness’, even more control’…

 

The cure for the pain that is engendered by the game (or rather engendered by the fact that we are playing the game without knowing it) isn’t to learn to ‘play the game better’ (i.e. ‘optimization’) but to abandon it altogether, which is the ‘radical solution’ that no one wants. Instead of taking the mind-created sense of self so very seriously, and doing our level best to ‘fix’ it and return it to its state of imaginary mental health – which is the phantom which keeps on eluding us – what’s genuinely would help us would simply be not to take this mind-created sense of self so very seriously, and there are no fancy ‘scientific’ ways of doing this! There are no methods for not taking ourselves so seriously (any more than they could be such a thing as ‘a method for understanding jokes’) – techniques for this do not (and cannot) exist. No ‘tricks’ exist by which we can pull this off and this is what has us so baffled, since all we know or believe in are our tricks…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working Via Pressure

Our default operational mode is to work via pressure. Not to work under pressure that is, but by means of pressure. Pressure means that the reason we are doing this or doing that lies outside of ourselves — we are trying to obtain what has been defined by thought as a ‘desirable outcome’ or we are trying to avoid an ‘undesirable outcome’. We are always either seeking advantage or sidestepping disadvantage but either way the reason for our activities lies ‘outside of ourselves’. We’re fixated upon a world that is external to us.

We can’t really see this properly because it’s so very normal for us. We don’t understand what’s being said here because ‘the outside’ is all we know. The point is however that the motivational force acting on us isn’t really ‘an expression of who we really are’ — is not intrinsic, it’s extrinsic. Something else — our thinking, our ideas about ourselves and the world — is telling us that such and such an outcome is good, or that such and such an outcome is bad. What extrinsic motivation means (when it comes down to it) is that we are compelled to act based on what our thinking tells us and our thinking isn’t us. Thought is always ‘an external mechanical authority’: we are compelled to act this way or that based upon what we see as necessity; we are under pressure to act and — more than this — we’re under pressure to succeed within the terms that have been given to us.

The difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation couldn’t be greater therefore — how could there be a bigger difference than that between a force that is acting on us from the outside (which has nothing to do with our true nature) and the free expression of who we actually are? What we are actually asking here is of course ‘What could be a bigger difference than the difference between slavery and freedom?’ We can hardly hope to smudge the distinction between these two things! And yet despite the complete lack of similarity between these two forms of motivation we very rarely make any distinction — the gulf between freedom and slavery is glossed over as if it doesn’t exist. In short, we don’t see the difference between being acted upon by forces that come from outside of ourselves and acting in accordance with our intrinsic nature (without there being any ‘compulsion’ involved whatsoever).

The reason we can’t ‘see the difference’ is of course because we have internalised these external forces — we have been doing this since an early age. This is what happens when we are brought up in environment that is based on controlling, as is almost always the case. Most families are controlling, and our ‘collective’ families — which is society — is always controlling. Society functions on the basis of conditioning — not on the basis of freedom, not on the basis of encouraging everyone to think for themselves and be whatever it is in their nature to be. Another way of putting this is to say that we are ruled by belief, and our beliefs are forced upon us from the outside. Beliefs are always denying of individuality/autonomy and yet we persist in thinking that belief — the enforcement of ideas upon people from the outside — is a good thing.

We think that ‘passing on belief’ is a good thing because we feel that what we are believing in is actually true, but the thing here is of course that we only think that our beliefs are true because we ourselves have been have already been conditioned by them! We are being ‘obedient to the belief’ in thinking that ‘the belief is true’ — all beliefs require us to accept them as being actually ‘true’. No matter how palpably foolish or preposterous a belief might be it will always require us to accept it as being absolutely true. So because we live in, and have been brought up in, a ‘coercive environment’ which doesn’t allow us to think for ourselves (or be ourselves) we can’t tell the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, despite the immense gulf between the two. We have no ‘inner life’ of our own, only the beliefs and opinions and viewpoints that have been put into us. We dream what we have been told to dream, and that’s what makes the (consumerist) world go round. We all have to value and desire the same stupid things; we all have to be walking down the same well-worn path.

Having no genuine life of our own means that we have to ‘run on pressure’ — that’s all that’s left to us in the absence of ‘interiority’. Not knowing who we really are, all we can do is rely on various types of pressure — pressure to do this, pressure to do that, pressure to do the other. This very easily gets to be all too much for us and so then we become candidates for stress-management, candidates for anxiety-management (or perhaps anger-management). This is a very great irony, if only we could see it. All over the world stress-management programs are being taken seriously and staff are being sent to them by companies, hospitals, organisations of all sorts, all of which institutions operate in the first place only by ‘putting pressure on their workers’. When the pressure gets too much we are told to go on a stress-management course, which involves us ‘putting pressure on ourselves not to be so pressurised’. Anything that is based on a generic way of doing things, a ‘one size fits all’ method, is pressure. We learn ‘skills’ it is true, but skills are rules: ‘skills’ equals ‘rules’ and ‘rules’ equal ‘pressure’. Rules are of course the very quintessence of pressure.

We are a certain way (stressed out, anxious, or angry) and so then we put ourselves under pressure (however subtle) to be a different way. Whichever way you look at it is still pressure — the only thing that wouldn’t be pressure would be where we are able to give heartfelt permission for that pressure (stress or anxiety) to be there, but in order to do that we would have to have a sense of genuine interiority, we would have to have an ‘inner life’. Or to put this another way, we would have to have ‘inner freedom’ (which means ‘freedom from rules’). We would have to have inner freedom since without it we cannot give permission for anything — without inner freedom we can only ever ‘control or be controlled’.

The same is true for CBT and all cognitive therapies — my thoughts are putting pressure on me one way or another (they are putting the ‘big squeeze’ on me, so to speak) and so I use the techniques of CBT to prevent these thoughts from controlling me in the way that they are. I am using the ‘pressure’ of the techniques in order to counteract the pressure that the negative thinking is putting on me, and so I’m ‘using pressure to counteract pressure’. This may offer temporary relief (and then again, it may not) but the end result is not going to be good for me either way, since I have merely been drawn in deeper to the web of control and counter-control. There is no freedom here, for sure! What would help me is (again) for me to find it within myself to unconditionally allow these painful or worrying thoughts to be there; then — with no more resistance to feed on — the thoughts would lose their power over me. Without inner freedom (or inner peace) I cannot do this however, and the one thing CBT can never teach me is how to find inner peacefulness.

Anything we do in the name of therapy — if it does not result in the development of a sense of our own interiority, or connection with our own ‘inner life’, is a farce. If I’m troubled in my mind then teaching me strategies to ‘manage’ these troubles just adds to my burden — that just adds to my bondage, my slavery to thought — and it is this slavery that lies at the root of all my problems. We don’t even know the true meaning of the word ‘freedom’ however — all we know methods of control, and control — no matter how successful it might be it seem to be at first — always leads to more dependency upon control (which is a loss of freedom). The greater our initial ‘success’ therefore the more dependent (or ‘enslaved’) we are going to become later on. The root of all our psychological problems lies in the fact that we are running entirely on pressure (entirely on extrinsic motivation) and that — as a consequence — we know nothing else. We don’t have any concept of what intrinsic motivation is; for us to know that we would first have to have some sort of genuine ‘inner life’, a life which is by its very nature ‘independent of what happens on the outside’, and which does not — on this account — need to protect itself by investing more and more in control…

The Purely Conceptual World

We have been given a ‘purely conceptual world’ to live in. Because it is a world that is ‘purely conceptual’ this means that there is nothing at all in it. A purely conceptual world is a world with absolutely nothing in it and yet that’s all we are being given. It’s not worth sitting around and waiting hopefully for ‘something else’ to come out of this world because nothing is going to come out of it no matter how long we might wait! It is absolutely the case that we have been given a purely conceptual world to live in and it is also absolutely the case that we are sitting around waiting for something good to come out of it even though nothing good ever can. This is exactly our situation. We go through life thinking that we’re up against this problem and that problem and that we have got this issue and that issue to contend with, and in a (subjective) way this may indeed be said to be true. The underlying problem however – the problem that we can’t ever see – is that we’re stuck in a purely conceptual reality.

 

To talk about ‘a conceptual reality’ is of course an oxymoron – it can be the one way or it can be the other but it can’t be both. We have reality or we have the concept of it but we can’t have both because the two things are as far apart as any two things ever can be. The conceptual reality is like the reality of a film set that, from a certain angle, looks like the real thing, but which can’t ever be investigated from any other angles without it being instantly revealed for what it is. The whole point is not to investigate it from other angles. ‘Life in the conceptual reality’ means making very sure indeed that we only ever do look at things from the proper prescribed angle therefore. If we look at it any other way then the illusion is abruptly shattered; the ‘magic’ that keeps the film real is lost and then we are confronted with the distinctly un-magical nature of the situation.

 

Our allegiance is always to the reality that is being created by the rational mind rather than anything else and we show our allegiance by feeling cheerful when our thoughts indicate that we should be cheerful and being downbeat and morose when they indicate that this is the appropriate reaction. If I think that I’m doing well then my mood improves, and if my thoughts tell me that my prospects are poor then my mood is correspondingly down in my boots. Such is our loyalty to thought that we were put ourselves through all this on a daily basis. We will suffer all sorts of indignities rather than doubt that what our thoughts are telling us about the world.

 

So if our loyalty to thought causes us to make fools of ourselves by becoming elated or depressed at the drop of a hat, bobbing up and down meaninglessly like corks floating in a choppy sea, then our loyalty to the conceptual mind causes us to devote our attention to a superficial pseudo-reality that has nothing interesting about it at all. So on the one hand we’re making a big song and dance about nothing at all the whole time, and allowing ourselves to be serially transfixed by banalities (when we could be paying attention to something that was genuinely interesting instead, i.e. the real world as opposed to the theatrical one) and on the other hand we are obliged to be very rigid and controlling with our perceptions in case we discover that the drama which is keeping us entertained (or ‘transfixed’) is nothing more than a hollow sham.

 

When we tease these two ingredients apart – the inherent dullness of the pseudo-world that we are compelled to believe in and the (usually) invisible anxiety that is attendant upon the maintenance of this fragile artificial world view – we can see something very significant, we can see two elements of depression and anxiety clearly revealed. What else is depression other than the discovery (the unwilling discovery) that the life which we have placed so much stock in (the life which we have been encouraged to place so much stock in) is utterly devoid of any worth or meaning, and that the ‘sense of self’ which has been constructed in relation to this artificial life is fake and lacking in any genuine sincerity or integrity? And what is anxiety apart from this invented – but all too believable – need to make something work that is never going to work?

 

Our encultured response to depression is to say that it is some kind of mechanical defect and that the life which we construct in relation to the ‘purely conceptual world’ which we have been provided with is authentic and meaningful and interesting and all the rest of it. That this is the case is not up for negotiation; that’s not on the table at all, and so any intimation – no matter how convincing it might be to the individual concerned – is inevitably going to be dismissed out of hand. The possibility of not dismissing it out of hand is something that never even crosses our threshold of consciousness. It never makes it that far, it’s shot down without any further ado, and so the message that the condition is screaming so loudly is roundly ignored by everyone concerned – everyone apart from the sufferer themselves, that is (who can’t really ignore it). This denial of the very obvious message behind depression suits the rest of us very well therefore but it doesn’t help the sufferer at all. Far from helping them, denying the reality of what they are feeling makes their suffering even worse – it is made worse because we – in our professional cleverness – have arrogantly denied the meaning of their most intimate personal experience. This experience – far from being pathological in nature – is actually profoundly healthy and this is the possibility we can never allow for.

 

In the case of anxiety our response is exactly the same. We are receiving a message against our will, we are receiving a message but we are fighting against it every step of the way – we are fighting against it for all we’re worth because it is so very inimitable to us. What the anxiety is telling us – in no uncertain terms – is that the endeavour which we are engaged in is untenable, that it is just not going to work out for us. It’s not going to work out for us because it is all taking place on a false basis; everything is always taking place on a false premise in the purely conceptual world because it is in the nature of concepts to be false. It’s a false basis because ‘the concept of me’ is trying to achieve ‘the concept of something else’; ‘the concept of who I am’ is trying (inevitably) to achieve some goal or other and goals are concepts just as anything else in the PCW is!

 

Anxiety is the same story as depression because the message is so strong, and because it hits us on such a deep level that we just can’t override it, or ‘conveniently reinterpret it’ as everyone else can. We feel it in our bones, so to speak. We feel it on a level that is deeper and more profound than the level of our thinking and so even though thought has been our master up to this point, it has finally being trumped stop trumped by reality (albeit a reality that we don’t like). It can’t stand up to our deeper intuition, even though it tries its hardest to do so. Thought isn’t really the master after all – it only pretends to be. Wisdom comes about as a result of suffering, Aeschylus says. Aeschylus also says that wisdom comes about ‘against our will’.

 

Naturally wisdom comes about against our will – what we are learning undermines everything we believe in, after all. It undermines everything we have invested ourselves in so deeply. If only we are able to understand what Aeschylus is talking about here deeply the process that we are undergoing would be so much less punishing for us. If we were able to have some insight into this timeless truth that would make such a profound difference to our experience, even though the process would continue just the same.

 

If we were supported in this crucial understanding (which could only happen if we as a culture were more psychologically aware, or even psychologically aware at all) we would have a far better chance of having this insight ourselves and then as a result of this insight we would still be mechanically struggling against the awareness that it brings us but we would be at peace with our own struggling. We would be ‘at peace with our own struggling’ (as strange as this might sound) because we would understand it but the problem is that the social milieu within which we are enfolded in is profoundly dismissive or denying of any such insight. We cannot after all – as we have already said – countenance for a second the suggestion that the PCW is devoid of any worth or meaning, or any actual reality. We couldn’t get our head around this suggestion even if we tried – that isn’t a thought that we are able to have.

 

Suppose that I do have the thought that ‘all my thoughts are devoid of substance’ – if I were to entertain this thought (the thought that ‘my thoughts are hollow’) then I would be ‘trusting my mental process in order to discount that very same mental process’ since ‘my thoughts are devoid of substance’ is itself a thought. The thinking mind never really sees through itself, even if it does play at it. When we talk about ‘the hollowness of the PCW’ we are of course talking about the hollowness of thought and so this ‘blankness’ or ‘emptiness’ is something that can never be known about on the basis of the PCW. We can talk about it, as we just have done, we can intellectually play about with the idea quite easily, but it’s a sham – not something that is actually helpful. It is very likely to be ‘helpful in reverse way’ because the more we intellectually play about the concept the more we become trapped in the intellect that is doing the ‘playing about’! We can as a culture field any number of intellectual heavyweights capable of discussing the hollowness of thought but that’s not going to help anyone, least of all them.

 

What does help is to focus solidly on two points: [1] that society provides us with a purely conceptual world to live in, a world that we are almost incapable of ever questioning, and [2] that the invisible hollowness that is inherent in the PCW ultimately manifests itself as neurotic suffering (which is displaced suffering, suffering which we cannot see for what it is, suffering the origin of which is entirely obscure to us. As a culture, we see ourselves as being very resourceful, very practical, and very capable; we also see ourselves as having an unprecedented amount of knowledge at our fingertips  – more knowledge than human beings have ever had available to them throughout the whole course of our history. That is unquestionably how we see ourselves. The thing about this however is that it is all a joke if we can’t see that being adapted to a purely conceptual world renders our lives completely sterile, completely meaningless, completely futile, and that this is the ‘Soul Sickness’ that Jung warned about over 80 years ago now:

Deviation from the truths of the blood begets neurotic restlessness, and we have had about enough of that these days. Restlessness begets meaninglessness, and the lack of meaning in life is a soul-sickness whose full extent and full import our age has not as yet begun to comprehend.

As Jordan Peterson says in one of his lectures, psychologists these days are strongly discouraged from mentioning Jung’s name in academic circles; to do so would be the kiss of death because everyone would then realise that you are ‘soft in the head’, so to speak (which is to say, not appropriately rigorous and therefore scientific enough in your demeanour).  No one would ever take anything you say seriously again after this fatal faux pas. No one would ever heed your words ever again. This fact in itself tells us everything we need to know about contemporary psychology! By trying so hard to be ‘scientific’ (whatever we might imagine that to mean) we have departed from our subject. Modern psychology is – at best – a source of confusion. It is a source of confusion because it traps us even more in the purely conceptual world under the pretext of somehow ‘illuminating’ us! Rational ‘therapy’ does the very same thing – under the guise of ‘freeing’ us from our thought-created suffering it compounds that suffering further. All rational therapies do this – there is no way that they can’t, of course…