The Lure Of The Generic

We fear the individual, the unique and we are attracted to the generic, the regular. Our aversion to the unique is the same thing as our attraction to the generic. The movement towards the generic is the movement away from the unique. Our attraction to the latter is our fear of the former.

 

But why would this be true? Why do we fear the unique so much? Why are we so averse to it? This is actually a very strange thing – it’s a very strange thing because the unique is the only thing that’s real. Everything is unique when it comes right down to it – how could there be something genuinely ‘real’ that isn’t also unique? By the same token therefore, the generic isn’t real – there’s no actual content in it, no content at all. There is nothing in the generic yet we are drawn so strongly to it; we are drawn to it like moths to a candle flame.

 

It’s easy to see why ‘the generic’ (or ‘the regular’) has no content. The generic only gets to be the generic because it belongs to a class (i.e. to ‘a genus’) and yet classes are only there because we say that they are. We get out our ruler, our measuring stick, and we mark off what is in the class, and what is not, and that’s how we create this thing that we’re calling the ‘generic world’. But if the generic only comes into being because of our ‘classes’, because of our artificial ‘divisions’, then how can it be real? How can reality come out of unreality? How can the ‘generic world’ – which is the only world we know or believe in – be any more real than the unreal categories from which it is constructed? This point is made very clearly here by Alan Watts –

I have said that one of the great meanings of nature in the West is “classification”: “What is the nature of this thing?” In Greek, physis – from which comes our physics – has to do with the world as apprehended in a certain way: the world is apprehended according to its classes, and those classes are abstract. When we say of something, “It is immaterial,” “It doesn’t matter,” that means it has no quantitative measure. It doesn’t amount to anything; it doesn’t add up to anything. It is unquantified. But what we need in life is not so much quantity as quality. Mere quantity is absolutely abstract. It’s the quality, the essential taste, the flavor of life, the meaning of it, that is the important thing.

There are ways of measuring qualities, but in our language you always have to turn them into quantities. When a cook, standing over a stewpot, adds salt, takes a taste, puts in a little more, tastes again, and then says “Now that’s just right,” we can have someone stand behind him and record the actual quantity of salt added. And that would be the quantitative abstraction that corresponds to a taste experience that was not an abstraction at all. However, in order to bring people back to the real world, you have to temporarily suspend their abstract thinking, because it is through abstracting that you get the notion that you are one thing and I am another, and that events are separate from each other, in the same way that minutes are separate. We try to draw the lines on our watches that separate one minute from another as finely as possible because we want to know exactly the moment one minute turns into another. And those lines, by their very thinness, show us how abstract, tenuous, filmy, and unreal they are. They are measures; but don’t confuse measure for what is measured. The world that can be seen and felt without abstractions is the world in which you are connected to everything that is, to the Tao and the whole course of nature. However, you have been taught differently because you have been hoaxed and wangled by people who chatter and explain, and who have already hypnotized themselves into a view of the world that is quite abstract, quite arbitrary, and not necessarily the way things are at all.

What we are essentially doing in life is therefore ‘fleeing from the real and gravitating to the unreal’. This is what it’s all about. This is the basic tropism involved (which we might also call ‘the basic tropism of unconsciousness’ and which is also sometimes called ‘the law of fear’). Once we see this then it is not too hard to get a handle on what is happening here – we’re busy ‘escaping from reality’, which is actually not to radical an idea for us to get our heads around. ‘Escaping from reality’ is a fairly familiar kind of concept for us – anyone with any self-awareness at all is aware of this (at times overwhelming) impulse that exists within us. The more insight we have into our underlying motivation to find safety in systems (and our love of orderliness and predictability) the more clearly we see this ‘impulse to hide away from reality’.

 

How does this apply to what we started off talking about, however? Why would we be ‘attracted to the generic and repelled by the unique’? One point that presents itself straightaway has to do with what we could call ‘ease of processing’ – basically, we can process the regular but we can’t process the irregular. Of course we can process the regular – the regular gets to be the regular in the first place via ‘logical processing’, and so naturally it is amenable to logic. The great thing about the regular or the generic is that we can ‘generalise our learning’ – once we find out how to do something in one situation then we can apply this principle ‘across the board’ and this makes life a lot easier. Is it any wonder that we like the regular, the generic as much as we do? Is it any wonder we like things to be neat and orderly? This is as true in the field of mathematics as it is in everyday life. Until comparatively recently chaos and chaotic processes were completely ignored as James Gleick says in his book Chaos, and were never to be found mentioned in any mathematics textbook. Rudy Rucker in his book Infinity and the Mind points out that even the ancient Greeks – who with the likes of Euclid and Pythagoras pretty much started off mathematics – despised the regular and considered it lacking in the perfection that all numbers ought to possess –

It is possible to regard the history of the foundation of mathematics as a progressive enlarging of the mathematical universe to include more and more infinities. The Greek word for infinity was apeiron, which literally means unbounded, but can also mean infinite, indefinite, or undefined. Apeiron was a negative, even pejorative word. The original chaos out of which the world was formed was apeiron. An arbitrary crooked line was apeiron. A dirty crumpled handkerchief was apeiron. Thus, apeiron need not only mean infinitely large, but can also mean totally disordered, infinitely complex, subject to no finite determination. In Aristotle’s words, “… being infinite is a privation, not a perfection but the absence of limit. . .”

There is even a story that Pythagoras secretly drowned one of his students on a boat trip because he discovered an irrational number, a number that failed to meet the required standard of perfection. One version of the story says that the student (who was a guy by the name of Hippasus) was killed for coming up with the so-called ‘golden ratio’, another version says that he was eliminated coming up with the square root of two, which is another irrational number. Mathematicians and scientists have traditionally had problems with irregularity, and so do the rest of us – we don’t like things that don’t obey the rules; we don’t like things that aren’t amenable to analysis.

 

The irregular or unique can’t be generalised, obviously. When we confront the irregular there is nothing that we have learned beforehand that can help us, and whatever we learn now won’t be any good to us in any other situation! There is no generalization possible. We can therefore say – on the basis of what we have just discussed – that what repels us about the unique is its difficulty, i.e. what it ‘requires’ from us. The unique requires something very particular from us; it’s not just a matter of hard work’ – although that comes in it into it as well, of course. A unique situation requires that we ourselves have to become unique. This is a very remarkable thing to consider – when we generally come across problems or difficulties what we do is to look in our toolbox to see what tricks or strategies we have there that might help. We are looking for the right size of screwdriver, the right size of spanner, and once we find it then it’s just a matter of doing whatever we have to do with the tool and then it’s ‘job done’.

 

When we come up against a situation where there isn’t some kind of ‘standardised fix’, where there isn’t any tool (or strategy) in our toolbox that will get the job done, then we are ‘thrown back on ourselves’. What are we going to do? How are we going to tackle it? It’s no good asking anyone else for advice or looking it up on the Internet – this problem is for us and us alone. It’s ‘uniquely ours’. This is a very particular kind of demand that is being made and us therefore; we are being asked to exercise a muscle that we have never exercised before, and this hurts. When a particular muscle has been developed then it actually feels good to use it, as we all know, but when the muscle hasn’t been developed at all, and we don’t even know where that muscle is (or even if we have one in the first place) then this is a very different story. To say that what we are being asked to do is hard is a masterful understatement!

 

When I come up against a truly unique situation and all my tools or strategies are ‘no use to me’, then what I’m being asked to do – so to speak – is to manifest my true unique nature. This is the ‘muscle’ that I have never up to this point developed; this is the muscle that I don’t know where to look for, or even know if it’s there at all (and almost certainly I will say and believe that it isn’t there). Of all the challenges that we could ever possibly be faced with this is the greatest. There is no greater challenge than this – there simply isn’t ‘any such thing’ as a challenge that is greater than the challenge to dig deep and manifest our true unique nature. Rather than undertake this challenge therefore, we retreat (as we have said) into ‘the world of the generic’. We retreat into the Consensus Reality where all the answers are provided for us, and where – as a result – we never have to worry about ‘manifesting our own unique nature’.

 

This ‘retreat into the generic world’ puts us in a very strange situation, however. It’s not just that we prefer to have ‘ready-made problems’ handed to us, as Eric Fromm says (so that we can tackle them with ready-made methods, with strategies taken straight out of the super-convenient ‘Book-of-Strategies’) – it’s that the ‘sense of ourselves’ that we have, the ‘sense of ourselves’ that we operate out of, has also been provided for us. It’s the whole package.  Our sense of identity comes to us straight ‘off-the-shelf’ (or out-of-the-brochure’) and is delivered right to our front door the same way everything else is – that’s what the Generic World is all about, after all! What we’re talking about here is the ‘Common Domain’, it’s the formula-driven, mass-produced world of Jung’s Everyman.

 

This all sounds very easy, all very convenient therefore, but what we don’t see is that there is no place in this generic world for us as we really are! That’s the whole point of the exercise, after all – the whole point is that we don’t have to’ dig deep’ and find out who we really are. That’s the ‘advantage’ that we’ve been angling for the whole time! The so-called ‘advantage’ of life in the Generic World is that we never have to dig deep. The advantage of life in the Generic World is that we never get essentially challenged so that we have to ‘discover who we really are’. All the challenges that we meet in the GW (the trivial challenges that have been ‘engineered into the system’) are ‘dummy challenges’ – they are challenges that really only exists for the sake of ‘reaffirming or confirming the reality of the Generic Self’). This so-called advantage however the same time ‘the Very Great Disadvantage’ – it is also – unbeknownst to us – The Great Calamity.

 

The ‘Very Great Disadvantage’ is that there is no place that we have created for us, as we truly are. One analogy might be to say that it’s like being in an abusive/controlling relationship where the other person controls everything about us, including how we actually see ourselves: the ‘advantage’ of this situation is that we don’t ever have to think for ourselves (that after all is the one thing we are never allowed to do) and yet obviously this is the disadvantage at the same time. Another way to analogize our situation is to say that it is like sending a surrogate to live our life for us – a very crude and robotic sort of a surrogate, a surrogate without any of the finer feelings of which we are innately capable. This is like Colin Wilson’s idea of the ‘internal robot’ which he talks about here in this quotation from The Intuition Network:

Yes, well, you see, the basic point about the philosophy of Gurdjieff, and I suppose about my own basic ideas, is this recognition that we have inside us what I call the robot — a sort of robot valet or servant who does things for you. So you learn something like talking French or driving a car or skiing or whatever, painfully and consciously, step by step. Then the robot takes it over and does it far more quickly and efficiently that you could do it consciously. However, the important thing is not to interfere with the robot once he’s learned it, because you completely screw him up if you do. Now, the robot does all these valuable things like talking French and so on for us. The trouble is he also does the things we do not want him to do. We listen to a piece of music; it moves us deeply the first time. We read a poem, we go for a country walk, whatever, and it moves us. But the second or third time you do it, the robot is listening to the music or reading the poetry or doing the country walk for you. I said I’ve even caught him making love to my wife. And this is our real problem — that the robot keeps taking us over and doing the things that we would rather do. Now, Gurdjieff recognized this; he talked about the machine. Gurdjieff, of course, would walk into, let’s say, the dormitory of his students at midnight, snap his fingers, and everybody had to be out of bed and in some complex position within two seconds flat. Obviously he would keep people at a certain level of tension by doing this. Do you remember that Sartre said that during the war, when he was in the French Resistance and he was likely to be arrested and shot at any moment, he never felt so free. And obviously you would in these circumstances — you keep your energy so high because of your sense of crisis, that you would feel far more free. Now this is clearly the secret of freedom — keeping your energy so high that the robot is a bit like the thermostat on the wall which turns on quite automatically when your energies drop below a certain point, and then suddenly, without even noticing it, you’re living mechanically, robotically, instead of with the real you. The interesting thing is that it’s only a matter of one degree. Therefore, if it’s just one degree to turn on to the robot, it’s only one degree of effort to turn the robot off.

It’s certainly very convenient to have the internal robot take care of all the details of our live for us. By this same argument it is all the more convenient (it is ultimately convenient, we might say!) when the robot takes over completely and actually goes right ahead and lives our life for us in its entirety, whilst we ‘fall asleep at the wheel’, so to speak. We’ve ‘gravitated to the generic’ like moths to a candle flame and the result of this is that the robotic surrogate gets to live our life for us. This doesn’t work however – it’s a cheat that couldn’t possibly ever work! Only I can live my life and if I try to get the robotic surrogate to take on this ‘responsibility’ for me all I’m doing is creating suffering the like of which I can’t even begin to comprehend. According to Erich Fromm,

The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life.

The movement towards ‘unconsciousness’ is therefore the movement towards self-destruction – nothing good can come out of putting all our money on the strategy of running away from our own true nature, after all! Nothing good can happen as a result of embracing the Generic Mind. All that happens when we fall ‘asleep at the wheel’ is that dark forces which we know nothing about are all too quick to take over the vehicle, and drive it over a cliff…

 

 

 

 

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The Greatest Calamity

When we allow ourselves to be completely defined by the thinking mind, the mind that evaluates and categorizes, then the result of this – quite simply – is the self. That’s how we get to experience life on the basis of ‘the self’ (instead of ‘in some other way’). Unless something is unambiguously defined in a black-and-white way then we are unable to identify with it, and without identification there can be no self.

 

‘Identification’ simply means that I see some fixed position, some fixed viewpoint as being ‘me’ – it’s the fixed nature of the position of the viewpoint that allows for the possibility of making any kind of ‘literal statement’ about the world. How can we make a literal statement if there is not a ‘literal’ (or ‘concrete’) point of reference to make it from? Literal statements actually are the fixed point of reference projected outwards onto the world. As soon we say this, we get a strong hint as to what the ‘calamity’ to which we are referring might be – identification means that everything I see and experience from the point of view of that ‘fixed position’ is already inherent in that position, and between my perception of myself as being ‘this viewpoint’ and ‘the world that I perceive around me’ (which is as we have said tautologically contained within my assumed frame of reference) what else is there? For me, that is everything – that represents the alpha and omega of my total field of possibilities.

 

The principle behind what we are saying here is very clear – when I identify with the fixed position then I am just not going to be able to perceive anything that does not ‘agree’ with this fixed reference point of mine. I won’t be able to see anything other than those things that make sense in relation to the fixed reference point that I have tacitly accepted as being ‘the only possible way of looking at the world’ – naturally enough! So what has happened is that I have become sealed off within a closed system. No possibility of ‘radical reorganization’ exists within a closed system – clearly there can’t be any such because what makes the closed system into a closed system is the fact that there are restrictions placed on what can be allowed to happen in that system. The ‘self consistency’ of logical systems depends upon the limits that are placed upon what is allowed to happen within that system – which is of course the very same thing as saying that logical systems ‘function as such on the basis of rules’! No one is going to argue with this…

 

There is no calamity involved in allowing everything that happens in a logical system to be determined by rules – that’s how logical systems work, as we keep saying. But what is good for a logical system (such as the national railway system network or a big modern hospital) is not good for us as individual human beings. The one does not imply the other, and although this may seem like a very obvious point to be making it clearly isn’t a point that we understand in any practical way because the story of mankind is very much the story of how we have allowed our own systems to enslave us and make us miserable as a result of this wretched state of enslavement. This is the one mistake we keep on making over and over again and the fact that we are repeatedly making it is very clearly because we do not understand what we’re doing! We’re not even close to understanding what’s going on – we are forever focusing on improving the systems that enslave us rather than looking at how we can become free from them.

 

Society is a logical system and we are all defined by it, no matter what we might like to believe. We don’t want to believe that we are defined by society, we want to believe that we are ‘unique individuals living our own unique individual lives’, but this is simply not true. How could it be true, when we are not actually putting any effort into it? Being the unique individual that one genuinely is isn’t just something that ‘falls into our lap’, like a ripe fruit when the tree is shaken – it can only come about via arduous effort. This isn’t ‘effort’ as we usually see it either – it isn’t  effort that is made in a particular direction, effort that is directed towards a particular or specified end. We not ‘improving ourselves in line with some idea that we might have with regard to how we or someone else might think we ought to be improved’. That is merely ‘optimization’ and optimization is the process of adapting ourselves to some kind of logical system. Optimization is movement in the direction of losing autonomy.

 

The effort involved in becoming the true individual that one actually is (or rather that one could be) is of an entirely different nature to this – it involves what the alchemists of old called the Opus Contra Naturam – the ‘work against nature’. Rules or precedents exist that propel us in a certain direction – the Opus Contra Naturam means not going in this direction! The work against nature is of course what Carl Jung calls individuation. Individuation (or rather ‘the fruit of the individuation process’) isn’t something that just ‘falls into our lap’ (as the socialised identity does) – it emerges slowly as a result of our struggle to be true to ourselves (or ‘find ourselves’) in the face of a hostile environment, which is what the social system is as regards our genuine individuality. The inertial forces that are ranged against us are immense and implacable and it is as everyone knows much easier to just give into them and be like everyone else! At least then we will have company, rather than feeling very much on our own and in danger of feeling that the ‘fault’ lies within us, and not within society as a whole.

 

So society is one big machine that that we have to struggle against in order not to be defined by it, but the other manifestation of ‘the machine’ is the thinking mind, which is what we started off by talking about. We’re caught between the machine on the inside and the machine on the outside, and neither of them has any tolerance at all for ‘who we really are’ – the machine – any machine – understands only mechanical things, and ‘who we really are’ is not mechanical. Or as we could also say, ‘a machine only understands defined things, and who we are is not capable of being defined’. The problem is however that who we understand ourselves to be is both defined and limited, and as such the one thing that it fears more than anything else is a reality that is not defined, a reality that is not limited. There is no challenge for the conditioned self that is greater than this; the unlimited / undefined reality is not merely ‘a challenge’, it is its greatest terror!

 

We see ‘being defined’ as being a strength – we know who we are, we know what we think, we know what we like and what we don’t like, and this seems like a strong position to be in. Almost anyone you talk to will tell you that this is a strong position to be in – society will tell you this. It is however strong only in a very limited way – it’s like being a world-renowned expert in a very narrow field – without any doubt we are formidably strong within the parameters of our specialization and if our area of specialization were ‘the whole world’ then we would be genuinely strong! But because our area of speciality isn’t the whole world (obviously enough!) we aren’t ‘strong’ at all –we only have a kind of ‘pretence’ at being strong and inasmuch as we allow ourselves to believe in this pretence of ours (which is easily done) we get to imagine that we are strong when we are not. When we fall into the trap of believing our own pretence we make fools of ourselves, in other words, and ‘making a fool of oneself without being able to see it’ is not a genuine form of strength.

 

Although this might at first glance seem like a somewhat obvious and therefore trivial example to give, it only takes a moment of reflection to realise that what we are talking about here is the situation of the conditioned (or ‘mind-created’) self. The mind-created self gets to feel robust and unrealistically confident in its outlook (if not downright arrogant!) because of the way in which it believes in a strength which it doesn’t actually have. The traditional virtue of humility originally meant something like ‘the awareness of the fact that we don’t really know anything’ (as opposed to what we usually take it to be, which is ‘the theatrical effort of the arrogant self to try to show that it is not arrogant when the truth is that it simply can’t help being so’). The incentive for us to fall into the trap of ‘believing in our own pretence’ (or ‘believing that our very limited area of specialisation is the whole world when it plainly isn’t’) is that it creates a feeling of ‘ontological security’ for us – a feeling of ‘security-of-being’ that we just can’t obtain any other way.

 

Being defined gives us a sense of security therefore, but only when we been live in a world that is made up of nothing more than our own mental projections. If we want that feeling of being secure – the feeling of being secure that comes from being totally defined – we have to pay the price of having to live in a very small world – the very small world of our own thoughts, our own expectations. What else are our thoughts anyway, if not ‘expectations of the world’? We don’t know that we are living in this absurdly small world, but that doesn’t alter the fact that we are, and there are going to be consequences to this choice that we have made, even though we don’t know that we have made it.

 

It’s not a good thing to shrink down in this way – it brings suffering, and not only does it ‘bring suffering’, it brings ‘suffering-without-the-capacity-to-bear-it’. Within this ‘absurdly small world’ (which is the only world that makes sense to the defined self) we are constantly subject to ‘irritations’ of a totally trivial nature. We can say that these irritations are of ‘a totally trivial nature’ because precisely they are irritations that make sense to the defined self, and the ‘defined’ (or ‘mind-created’) self is itself completely petty, completely trivial! We all know this on some level or other – we are all deeply familiar with the pettiness of the everyday self. The only time we aren’t aware of this is when we are wholly identified with this self, which is – needless to say – all too often! This is a calamity in itself; to be infinitely petty in the scope of our concerns, without knowing that we are because we are so caught up in them – is without any doubt a terrible calamity. We only need the smallest bit of imagination to appreciate just how terrifying a fate this is.

 

That’s only the beginning of it however. In order to enjoy the ‘sense of security’ that comes with being narrowly defined we need to restrict ourselves to ‘living within a very small world without knowing that we are’ and in one way this seems to be a price that we are willing to pay. There are however distressing consequences to this manoeuvre that only become apparent after a while. The ‘consequences’ that we talking about can be understood in terms of counterproductivity – ‘counterproductivity’ means that we that when we exert ourselves to accomplish one aim (and thereby hopefully resolve the situation in some way) other problems – which we have not foreseen – immediately come into play. And when we try to fix these unexpected problems what happens next is of course that a whole clutch of new problems come into being which also need to be fixed, and so on and so forth. On the ‘macro-scale’ this sort of counterproductivity is fairly well-known to us – our linear/technological approach to managing our environment is always rebounding on us in various unexpected (and unwanted) ways, as Gregory Bateson pointed out back in the 1960s. Ivan Illich also speaks of what he calls ‘specific counterproductivity’ in the fields of education, communication, transport and health.

 

We are at least’ halfway aware’ of counterproductivity on the macro-scale, whether it is in regard to the planetary ecology or industrialized society, but we are almost entirely blind to what we might call ‘intrapersonal counter- productivity’, which is the result of us trying to control or regulate ourselves. No matter how free we try to be in ourselves the mere fact that we are defined (just as the world we live in is defined) means that we are already controlled in the most profound way possible, even before we do anything else. This is like being ‘strangled at birth’! Intrapersonal counterproductivity is where we try to obtain a benefit for ourselves but incur suffering instead (or where we try to avoid pain, and instead of avoiding it we bring it down on our heads a thousandfold). The more common term for this is of course neuroticism and the concrete or literal self is the source of all neurotic counterproductivity…

 

 

 

Therapy Or Brainwashing?

There is something particularly odious – in my view – about the way in which we in the West approach what (until very recently) used to be called ‘mental illness’. We may use a slightly different terminology now, preferring to talk in terms of ‘conditions’ rather than ‘illness’, but our approach is still the same. There is something very unpleasant – toxic even – in our attitude, and this unpleasantness, I think, stems from our fundamental lack of respect towards the experiences of the people we, as mental health professions, are dealing with.

 

In a nutshell, we’re arrogant; we’re arrogant because we are so convinced that our ‘neat and tidy’ rational way of looking at the world – which we did not arrive at ourselves but rather passively absorbed from the cultural milieu (in a ‘default’ way that requires no effort on our part) – is the right way that we can’t even come close to empathizing with other, often very different, perceptions of reality. This is precisely where our unconscious arrogance lies therefore – it lies in the fact that we (by some special virtue of our own) know what the right way to view reality is. The great philosophers of the past may not have known what the right way to look at reality is, but somehow we do…

 

Not everyone is guilty of this unconscious disrespect of course. The point we are making is that the ‘disrespect’ is systematic – it’s built into whole structure of things and so it’s always going to set the tone. It’s always going to be the dominant influence. Disrespect is always systematic where there is an inbuilt ‘power differential’, when one group of people have more power given to them by society than another, and this is exactly the state of affairs in psychiatry, or in the mental health industries in general.

 

A crude but nevertheless very effective way of determining whether a power differential exists between the professionals whose job it is to work with people suffering from mental health conditions and the people themselves is to ask the question ‘Who is the most successful in society’s terms, a consultant psychiatrist or clinical psychologist (for example) or a psychiatric patient? We’re not supposed to ask this question, of course. It is very politically incorrect suggest that patients might be granted lower social status in the basis of the fact that they are patients (i.e. on the basis that they are not, in most cases, highly qualified professionals but are, rather, sufferers of a mental health condition); it is politically incorrect to suggest it but that doesn’t mean that it is true. We all know that it is true…

 

We don’t want to admit that the actual patients themselves may not have the same social status as the healthcare professionals who are trained to treat them but at the same time we all know very well that this is the case. Society operates purely on the basis of status and prestige, whether we want to admit it or not. Society operates on the basis of the power gradient that exists between those of high status and those of low, and it would be foolish in the extreme to pretend otherwise. Society isn’t a ‘free’ kind of an affair; it’s coercive, in other words. It’s based on following rules….

 

When you as a patient look across the desk at the mental health professional who is dealing with you it is evidently the case that you are looking at someone who has more power than you; this isn’t just power in terms of how we usually understand ‘social status’, it is power in the sense of ‘Which one of us has the authority to say what the proper way to see the world is?’ Power is a basic part of all human interactions – every time we interact with someone we are involved in a struggle (whether we are conscious of it or not). We are involved in the struggle to see who has the power to define the ‘consensus reality’ that is to be negotiated in the interaction. This contest can be very subtle, or it can be very unsubtle indeed! When we are involved in an argument, for example, then this is an unsubtle example of ‘the struggle to see who can define reality’! Our current way of understanding mental health conditions is a perfect illustration of ‘something that has been defined by the powerful’ – when depression (just to give one example) is defined as ‘a mechanical malfunction of the brain’ then this is ‘disrespect’, this is ‘an abuse of power’.

 

There are times when human interactions are not based on power, it is true, but my point is that they are comparatively rare. Interactions that are not based on power are interactions that are based on love, and love – as we all know – is not usually part of the equation! All interactions that are based on the roles we are playing, or the social personas that we are acting out, or on the unquestionable rules that exist in the social game, are predicated upon power. All games full stop are predicated upon the use of power, and we’re all playing games of one sort or another almost all of the time, whether we realize it or not. To not play a game is to be ‘totally honest’, and how often can we afford to be totally honest in a human interaction? When we see our therapist or our psychiatrist or our psychologist the chances are very much that we’re playing a game here too. We’re playing ‘the patient / therapist game’, as Ram Dass says in the following passage-

Then I was a therapist and so many hours a week I had somebody sitting on the other side of the desk, and he was playing patient, I was playing doctor I would run thru my list of theories as he would run through his list of symptoms and we’d compare them and match them up and, you know, it wasn’t enough. It didn’t quite gel.  It was as if psychology had a reason to be as defensive as it was.

The patient / therapist game is a very comforting and familiar one to be sure, but that doesn’t mean that it’s therapeutic! Whilst a good old-fashioned power hierarchy has everything to do with the way we organize social groups (in baboons as much as humans) it has nothing to do with therapy. Therapy isn’t an exercise in power-play, it isn’t an exercise in ‘doing what you’re told’ (or ‘doing what you’re expected to do’). A power gradient between two people (or two groups of people) equals disrespect. The use of power IS disrespect! That’s the whole point – what the use of power comes down to is ‘My way of looking at the world is more valid than your way’. ‘Might is right’, would be another way of putting this. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, what we call truth is simply ‘an interpretation’ and the one who has the most power is – naturally enough – the one whose interpretation passes into law! This is why Nietzsche talks about ‘the impossibility of truth’ –

Against [empiricism], which halts at [observable] phenomena—‘There are only facts’—I would say, no, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact ‘in itself’: perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing.

‘Everything is subjective [for example, a figment of your reasoning mind],’ you say; but even this is interpretation. The ‘subject’ is not something given, it is something added and invented … [Is] it necessary to posit an interpreter behind the interpretation? …

In so far as the word ‘knowledge’ has any meaning, the world is … interpretable, otherwise it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings—‘Perspectivism’.

Those who have the power have the right to say what is true and what is not true. It is not just that the powerful ‘decide upon the agenda’, the powerful decide on what game we should be playing (or to put this another way, the powerful decide what reality should consist of, what it is and what it isn’t). Inasmuch as society is a power hierarchy therefore, it is the top of the hierarchy that tells us what reality is, and we don’t get to question it. We don’t even know that our perceptions of reality have been defined for us! So if we’re in this situation of not being aware that our perceptions of reality have been defined for us (because we’re ‘socially adapted’) then it is inevitably the case that we will impose the very same assumptions we have passively absorbed upon everyone else we meet, without realizing that we are doing this.

 

This is of course a very important thing to be aware of, but when we’re talking about therapy, it becomes even more critical, even more poignant. Being unconsciously socially conditioned means that we are incapable of engaging in ‘honest human interaction’ – the only type of honest human interaction is after all that interaction which takes place without an assumed context, and because we can’t SEE our assumed context, that just isn’t possible. We’re not aware that we’re seeing the world via the lens of our social conditioning and this (as we’ve just said) means that we’re imposing that conditioning on everyone we meet, without knowing that we’re doing it. We’ve been set up as virally-infected ‘zombie-units’ whose job it is to unconsciously propagate the ‘officially approved view or interpretation of reality’ whilst imagining the whole time that we are acting as independent agents!

 

This situation is good from the POV of ‘perpetuating the socialized view of reality’, but not good from the POV of anything that might properly be called ‘therapy’! ‘Therapy’ and ‘brainwashing’ aren’t supposed to be the same thing, after all, and yet we confuse the two all the time… If we’re working in the field of mental health therefore, then the only way we can AVOID imposing our unexamined assumptions on everyone we meet is by taking the trouble to ‘examine’ them (and thereby examine ourselves). This isn’t what happens though – instead of becoming less programmed when we get trained as therapists or doctors or psychologists we get more programmed; instead of becoming more broad-minded we become narrower, as is always the way with specialization…

 

 

 

Art: Taken from bbc.com/ a-tour-of-melbourne-street-art

 

 

 

 

Invisible Aggression

It’s something we don’t ever seem to see or appreciate in any way but every time two people meet there is always  some kind of ‘power struggle’ going on. So-called ‘communication’ occurs in accordance with a pre-established power-structure. We all know that there is a power hierarchy going on in society and that those persons with high status can wield authority over those with lesser status (or perhaps no status!) but what I’m talking isn’t so much that but a type of ‘confidence’ thing which determines who can push their reality on someone else. This is a contest that goes on (in most cases) without us without realizing that it does and that’s why it might seem strange to suggest that it is such a basic part of human interactions.

 

One reason we don’t usually notice this power struggle going on because most of us have already tacitly agreed to buy into the same consensus reality, and once we have agreed to do this then obviously there is no more struggling! This is like saying that when the ancient Romans conquered a country then there was peace – this is perfectly true but we shouldn’t let the existence of this peace (the Pax Romana, as it was called) blind us to the fact that it was achieved by aggression. When the Roman Legions entered your country this was not a peaceful thing! The same is true with regard to the ‘peace’ that prevails in the consensus reality, the version of reality that we have all agreed to believe in – there might be no more struggling going on but this doesn’t mean that the situation isn’t the result of aggression.

 

When we agree with aggression then that aggression straightaway becomes invisible and if we agree to the structure (whatever it is) that was there beforehand without ever noticing that we have actually ‘agreed’ with anything then this creates the very compelling illusion that there was no violence, no aggression involved. When we meet the consensus reality we almost always do agree with it instantaneously and the reason we do this is because there is a type of trickery going on. The trickery is that the consensus (or ‘tacitly agreed-upon’) reality isn’t presented as a ‘version’ of reality, or an ‘interpretation’ of reality but simply as ‘reality itself’. The aggression that we’re talking about here isn’t by any means overt therefore, but rather it is something very sneaky. It’s so sneaky that we never see it happening – we don’t see ourselves as ‘agreeing to go along with a particular interpretation of reality’ but as ‘agreeing with reality as it actually is’, which is a very different thing indeed.

 

If I go along with reality as it actually is in itself then of course I don’t see this as me ‘caving in’ as a result of some sort of act of aggression – I see it as me being sensible and well-adjusted. Not to go along with reality would be a form of maladaptedness; we could see it as a pathological form of maladaptedness even. But if it is a ‘version’ of reality that we are automatically going along with then even though it could still be a form of useful (or even necessary) adaptation – particularly if it’s the dominant version – this doesn’t alter the fact that we have just been beaten or subdued in what amounts to a covert power-struggle. The aggression isn’t up-front and so we don’t recognize it as such, but it is aggression none the less. What we are calling the ‘consensus reality’ is disguised aggression therefore and because it is there is always going to be a flip-side of suffering and misery involved. When we cave in to aggression always results in suffering because we have lost our autonomy, and it is impossible to hand over our autonomy without suffering the consequences. We might ‘want a peaceful life’, but there is inevitably a price to be paid for this type of ‘peace’…

 

In one way, we need hardly go into the reasons why ‘handing over our autonomy’ is inevitably going to result in suffering. My autonomy isn’t just some minor attribute of my being, it’s who I am and so if I hand this over then I’m handing everything over. It’s not a thing that we can afford to relinquish, no matter what we might think that we’re gaining as a result. In a one-to-one relationship with another person ‘handing over my autonomy’ would mean that I am letting that person determine everything about me, because they are more aggressive, more powerful than I am. I am letting them ride rough-shod all over me and I have agreed to this arrangement because it’s the only way I can get any peace. The aggression in the situation will become invisible to me just as soon as I adapt myself completely to their way of thinking but this does not means that I am going to be happy as a result. I am going to be very far from happy – I’m going to be in a state of profound unhappiness, whether or not I am willing to acknowledge the fact. I have, after all, achieved ‘peace’ at the price of betraying my own true self…

 

It’s as if ‘who I really am’ doesn’t actually exist – it certainly isn’t acknowledged as existing by anyone involved! We have pushed it to one side; we have acted as if it doesn’t matter. This is after all the aim of all aggression, all violence – to get rid of the opposing viewpoint, to get rid of anything that stands in the way of the aggressor. In the hypothetical case that we have just been discussing, I get peace by identifying totally with my aggressor’s will, so that it now seems like my will. This way there is no longer any conflict, there is no longer any struggle, any fighting. But even when I do identify 100% with my aggressor’s point of view, so that my separate will, my separate point of view, no longer seems to exist, this doesn’t mean that who I really am has somehow ceased to exist. My true self is still there even in its absence – it’s just that it now manifests as pain!

 

Our relationship, as socialized human beings, with the ‘consensus reality’, is exactly analogous with the hypothetical scenario that we have just been talking about. Our situation is exactly analogous to an abusive relationship, even though we can’t see it as such. We can’t see it as such because we no longer have any connection with our true selves – that’s how effective the process of socialization has been. When we have adapted ourselves to the consensus reality then there is no other reality as far as we are concerned; if we came across the true (or unconditioned) reality we would not recognize it – we would reject it or run away from it as if from something completely alien to us. The same is also true for ‘who we really are’, the same is true for ‘our true nature’ – if we came across it we would not be able to relate to it in any way, such is the extent of our alienation from ourselves…

 

So when we have been effectively socialized, and have accepted the consensus reality as the only reality there ever could be, then the ‘true self’ (or our ‘true nature’) is absent. It has been gotten rid of. But in its absence it is still present – it is present in the form of pain. Absence of being (or absence of our true nature) is always pain. We reject and attack this core of pain as much as we can, of course. Either that or we repress and deny it as much as we can, which is the other possibility. We all tend to opt for one strategy or the other – either we adopt the strategy of ‘acting out the pain’ by directing our aggression outwards towards others or we repress the pain and act – therefore – aggressively towards ourselves. As a collective, our undying commitment and enthusiasm towards passing on the consensus reality to all new members of society can be seen as ‘the acting out of our unacknowledged inner pain’ therefore, and if we do experience the pain self-doubt or anxiety or lack of confidence in ourselves, etc and we blame ourselves for this (for being somehow weak or a failure) then this is the very same aggression, only in this case it is being directed at ourselves.

 

Our inner ‘core of pain’ isn’t just how we get to know about the loss of our autonomy, the disconnection from our own true nature, it is what our own true nature has now become for us. This is another way of saying that our pain is legitimate and cannot be attributed elsewhere (i.e. either to circumstances or to what other people have either done to us or not done for us). If therefore we go looking for our true selves this pain is what we will find! If we want to be authentically ourselves, or be ‘true to ourselves’, then we will have to ‘be’ this pain! Needless to say, this is the very last thing we want to do – we want to get shot of the pain not ‘own it’, or ‘be it’. Our every instinct tells us to get rid of the pain in any way that we can and when we can’t do this, and when the pain becomes chronic and unendurable, then we go to seek professional help to rid ourselves of it. The pain is now made into a ‘technical problem’ and technical solutions are sought, be this through medication or be it through rational therapies. We apply all of our resources to fixing the problem of the pain and this is – of course – the very antithesis of ‘owning it’. We’re busy disowning it as hard as ever we can…

 

Everyone jumps on this ‘fixing’ or ‘curing’ bandwagon of course because its seems so obviously the right thing to do but the ‘fixing of the problem of the pain’ in what is called neurotic mental illness is actually nothing more than a renewed effort to eradicate our true nature. We couldn’t do it the first time around so we’re coming at it again, with new and better techniques… And yet if our first attempt to eradicate the true self caused such misery, what new and hitherto undreamt of dimensions of pain await us when we put our white coats on and start getting all technical and scientific about it?

 

 

 

Art: William Kurelek (1929-1977) I Spit On Life