The Heteronomous Mode

We could very easily spend decades (or even centuries) discussing what is right with society and what is wrong and still not get anywhere. This is a ‘hoary old chestnut’ – we each have our own opinions on the subject of ‘what’s wrong with the world’ and we are generally more than happy to talk about it pretty much ad infinitum. All of the ways that we commonly have of looking at this question miss out on something fundamental, however; we almost always fail to take into account what might be called the ‘psychological factor’ (which is to say, the question as to whether the social system we’re in favour of will help us to fulfil our true potential or whether it won’t). This – needless to say – turns out to be THE crucially important question to ask; the only thing here however being that we never do ask it. For the most part, we don’t even think of asking it.

We don’t know enough to ask the question because we don’t know anything about our ‘true potential’ (as is generally the way with potential); what’s more, we are being constantly fed all sorts of societal propaganda about what life is supposed to be, and what we’re supposed to be, which (inevitably) has absolutely nothing to do with our actual nature. This is what present day civilization excels at – persuading us that ‘we are what we aren’t’, persuading us to adapt ourselves in ways that will bring us nothing but misery. It’s ‘good to excel’, we might say – our culture adores excelling in whatever form it may take (since this is how we ‘distinguish ourselves from the masses’) – but excelling at whatever society tells us we should be excelling at is simply a sneaky way of controlling us, a sneaky way of enforcing social adaptation.

This line of reasoning brings us closer to an understanding of what we mean by the ‘psychological factor’ – the all-important psychological factor that we don’t ever (in our headlong stampede in the direction of progress) stop to consider, which has to do with the ‘wholesomeness’ (or lack of it) of the way of life that we are so busy creating for ourselves. We are led by ideas or trends that – for whatever reason – get amplified by society and which, as a result, go to form the basis of our way of understanding things. This is a classic positive feedback mechanism and we can explain what this means by looking at the phenomenon of celebrity. What positive feedback means in relation to celebrity may be expressed by saying that ‘the more famous you get, the more famous you get’. Whatever random fluctuation it was that started the ball rolling doesn’t really matter here since the phenomenon of fame doesn’t necessarily depend on anything outside of itself (which is to say, it’s perfectly possible to ‘become famous for being famous’, in which case, if I do become mega-famous, then this doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with any virtue on my part.

Another good example of this sort of thing would be fashion – things become fashionable (we might say) simply because they’re fashionable. If – for whatever reason – enough people take an interest in some nascent trend then, purely because of this interest, lots more people are going to become interested as well and so in no time at all the whole thing (whatever it is) is going to ‘take off’, is going to ‘skyrocket’. Again – as in all such positive feedback phenomena – there doesn’t have to be any good reason for what’s going on; the phenomenon feeds on itself (as we see illustrated in the ancient symbol of the self-eating serpent, the Uroboros). From the standpoint of sociology (or social psychology) we can say that this is a fundamental principle, i.e., we can say that, in a group (where everyone is necessarily ‘externally directed’), positive feedback loops are how things get to happen.

We might imagine that this process can be controlled (or ‘directed from behind the scenes’) but the whole point of positive feedback processes is that they aren’t controllable; they are – on the contrary – out of control. Control is on the contrary always a negative feedback mechanism; positive feedback – in contrast to this – is ‘the system running away with itself’. If it were the case that positive feedback loops could be deliberately engineered, then we would be doing that already. Anyone finding a way to get some sort of promotional material to ‘go viral’ would be able to sell this trick for billions – this is advertising’s ‘holy grail’ and no one has as yet found it. There is no such thing as ‘a formula to predict whether a meme is going to go viral or not’. What we’re saying here therefore is that there’s simply no such thing as progress in the way that we tend to think there is; what we call ‘progress’ is merely movement in the direction of ‘optimizing whatever it is that happens to be trending at the moment’, and when we say this then it does not of course sound quite so inspirational. It’s ‘utter garbage’ (albeit garbage that we are all pretty much obsessed with).

All of this is inherent in the nature of social groups – when we are members of a group then, as we have been saying, we are necessarily ‘externally directed’, we are necessarily in ‘Heteronomous Mode’. We are – in other words – orientated towards the ‘outside of us’ rather than ‘the inside’. We take our cue from the ideas that are circulating in the social matrix, not from our own insight, not from our own unique perspective on things. If ideas arise within us that aren’t congruent with the ideas that are circulating on the outside, that do not make sense in relation to the official viewpoint then we will disregard them, we will repress them, in fear of being embarrassed, in fear of making fools of ourselves. In order to be valid, an idea must be agreed upon by the collective; in order for society to hold together, we have to suppress our own creativity. To quote James Carse –

It is a highly valued function of society to prevent changes in the rules of the many games it embraces… Deviancy, however, is the very essence of culture. Whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past, is culturally impoverished.

Just as we become culturally impoverished as a result of ‘following the script’, so too do we become personally impoverished as a result of being ‘heteronomous rather than autonomous. When we are always deferring to ‘what’s on the outside’ then this means that we are ‘neglecting what’s on the inside’, and that means that our ‘inner life’ becomes impoverished. It doesn’t just become impoverished, it becomes non-existent; it gets so we don’t even know what ‘an inner life’ is.  We now have the outer (or generic) life in place of the inner one but the thing about this is that the generic life isn’t actually life at all – it’s merely a mechanical formula, a meaningless script to be endlessly repeated. We can come back to the idea of potential here – merely living the generic (or socially prescribed) life then we are of course merely what we have been defined as being and this means – quite simply – that we don’t have any potential. The game we’re playing denies our potential – it automatically denies our potential since because the game (or the script) doesn’t recognise anything but itself and ‘itself’ doesn’t have any potential. It is only what it is defined as being; ‘what you see is what you get’, so to speak – there is no more.

Instead of potential (which is the same thing as depth) the prescribed life has ideals which we are continuously being pressurised to accord with. The better we are at reflecting society’s ideals (which on the level of the individual are quite meaningless) the more we are rewarded; far from realising our potential therefore we are ‘mimicking some sort of external standard’, some sort of ‘artificial template’ that has nothing to do with us. The more effort and time we put into actualising the societal template the further away we move from realising our potential; these two things – ‘optimising our game’ – and ‘personal growth’ are absolutely incompatible. One does not grow as a person by striving mightily to ‘be what society wants us to be’, in other words (which, when we put it like this, would seem to be pretty much undeniable). The social world – despite all its protestations to the contrary – doesn’t care one jot about our personal growth or well-being; on the contrary, its continued integrity depends upon us not growing, us not realising our potential. Its continued existence depends on our obedience, not our growth! The social system can hardly be blamed for this either, since it is functionally incapable of being otherwise; The responsibility lies squarely with us, not the collective which we hand over all responsibility to.

Our mental health can’t be ‘handed over for the collective to take care of’; Other things can be – the transport system, the water or electricity supply, the distribution and storage of foodstuffs, the treatment of sewage, and so on – but this thing that we call ‘mental health’ absolutely can’t be – mental health has nothing to do with arbitrary standards (or parameters) that have been set by a collective! Mental health has nothing to do with ‘conforming to an ideal’ – when we conform to an ideal this benefits the system that we are conforming to but it sure as hell doesn’t benefit us! We’re the ones who suffer here, not the system. We can’t expect a system that is made up of fixed rules or regulations to help us grow as the individuals we (potentially) are; we can’t expect this any more than we can expect it to somehow ‘cure’ us of the malaise that itself has brought about in us. And yet we do expect it to – it simply never occurs to us that there might be something deeply wrong with this bland assumption of ours…







Image credit – The New European

Living The Stereotype

We live our lives in a world that is made up of other people’s thoughts, other people’s thinking. This is an idea which we can all relate to on a more-or-less superficial level, but which actually goes far deeper than we might imagine. We generally believe that thought ‘sheds light on the world’ and that each idea (once it has been scientifically approved of and added to our store of knowledge) takes us a little bit further in the direction of the truth, but that just isn’t how thinking works! We don’t – as a culture – validate thoughts or ideas for ourselves because they are true, but because they fit what we want to hear, because they provide us with ontological security. Each additional thoughts or idea about reality takes us further and further away from the truth, not closer to it. We claim – both individually and personally – to be interested in knowing the truth, but this doesn’t actually turn out to be the truth! We lie when we say we’re interested in the truth…

Living in a world that is constructed out of other people’s thoughts (which is what Robert Anton Wilson refers to as ‘our consensus reality tunnel’) turns out to be a total disaster because it takes something very important (or rather something essential) away from us and that is the chance that we have to live our lives ourselves, ‘first hand’, as it were. When this possibility is taken away from us this leaves us nothing with nothing at all – just a faded copy of life, just a poor shadow of the real thing. We are left in the position of having been cheated out of life itself and yet – despite this – we never protest. We don’t take to the streets in outrage – we don’t even see anything wrong with this way of doing things. As G.I. Gurdjieff says,

This strange trait of their general psyche, namely, of being satisfied with just what Smith or Brown says, without trying to know more, became rooted in them already long ago, and now they no longer strive at all to know anything cognizable by their own active deliberations alone.

Not only do we see nothing wrong with this setup, we see it as an opportunity for us to advance ourselves, an opportunity for us to do well in life and prove our worth. What we don’t stop to consider in our mad rush to make something of ourselves (and to avail ourselves of whatever is out there to to be availed of) is that there is something essential which we’ve quite forgotten about. We’ve forgotten to ‘check things out for ourselves’ rather than taking everything on trust and this means that we are in great danger of proceeding on a totally false (if not to say totally ludicrous) basis. And if our starting-off point is wrong then it doesn’t matter how much effort we put into what we’re doing, it’s all going to be ‘precious drinking water poured into the parched desert sands’ -we’ll never get it back and it won’t do the slightest bit of good to anybody. This is what J.G. Bennett refers to as the principle of Waste.

It’s as if we’re handed a parcel upon entering this world, and we’re told that it contains something very valuable in it (namely life) which we must be sure not to waste or throw away, but then we never bother to take a look at so as to see what it really is. Other people have told us what’s in it, what it entails, and how should go about living it, etc., and so we never bother to find out for ourselves. We take what we have been told on trust, just as those who are telling us took it on trust, and as a result of this misplaced trust we enter into the Circle of Confusion which is what ensues when ‘everyone copies everyone else’. We are provided – in effect – with The Book of Rules and all the emphasis is on correctly following these rules. No emphasis at all is placed upon investigating the rules and checking out their provenance. Quite the contrary is true – we are actively discouraged from doing so. We will be punished most severely for questioning them, for daring to think that we know better…

There are rewards for believing in the Presented Reality (in the same way that Jung says that there are rewards for pretending to be identical with our societal roles or masks) and this is what causes us to adapt to the template that is being offered to us. We’re getting on board with the story that’s being told us (because that story seems to be ‘where it’s at’, ‘where it’s all happening’) but it turns out that this is a path that takes us nowhere at all since it’s not actually our life we’re living but someone else’s second-hand idea about what that life should be. ‘Agreeing with the idea’ brings approval and acceptance and all that sort of stuff, but because the idea we’re agreeing with is what we might call ‘a hollow cliché’ or ‘blank stereotype’ this act of reckless identification it’s hardly going to pay out any dividends for us further down the line, which we’ve been told we can expect. We’ve been told that if we follow the rules then we’ll go to heaven but that just isn’t true – it’s just a device to sucker us, it’s just a trick to get us to play ball…

It’s not that anyone is deliberately deceiving us (although this can happen too, of course) there’s nothing deliberat a about what we’re describing here since everyone else is in exactly the same boat as us. Everyone else is doing exactly what we’re doing, which is ‘trusting the story of things that is being put about’. We might feel that we’re different and individual and not like every other random person on the street but inasmuch as we are buying into the same story of things that everyone else is buying into we are just another version of them. We’re another version of them because ‘the story of things’ we buy into defines us (rather than vice versa) – it tells us who we are and we can’t help believing it. ‘Heedless social adaptation’ is a mistake that we’ve been making for as long as human beings have existed; it’s a mistake that everyone makes, a hole that we all fall down, and – what’s more – it’s a mistake we don’t ever seem to learn from, a hole that we never climb out of. We just keep on repeating the same old mistake over and over again.

We’re drowning in a sea of ontological insecurity but instead of helping each other we’re pulling each other down (in our panic) into the mire of false identification; it isn’t the ‘sea of ontological insecurity’ that’s the mire but rather our attempted solution to it. Just as a drowning man might drown someone who comes to try to save him (unless they are cautious) so too we make matters worse for ourselves by trying to hold onto (and thereby ‘make real’) stuff that isn’t real. The only thing that can save us from our fate – the fate of ‘unquestioningly holding on to the official-but-untrue narrative of things’ – is the courage to go it alone, the courage not to grasp on to the framework of ideas that everyone else has grasped onto in the attempt to save themselves. Trying to save ourselves doesn’t work – trying to save ourselves is how we sink ourselves! The only thing that does work is for us not to attempt to save ourselves (which means not compulsively buying into some convenient narrative’). When we try to save ourselves we enmesh ourselves in thought all the more and thought – like a heavy iron chain – unfailingly sinks us. Thought is ‘our attempt to hold on’ and the problem with this – as we’ve just said – is that there’s nothing there to hold onto. This means that it is our ‘attempted holding on’ that is the problem, and not the lack of anything to hold onto.

There is – we might say- a ‘psychological principle’ here that we can’t afford to ignore, a principle which states that a generic, virally-propagated idea of ‘what our life should be’ isn’t a legitimate substitute for us discovering, first hand (in a totally unique fashion) the truth for ourselves. Ignoring this principle means that we will pay a very high price in the form of suffering and while it’s easy enough to say the word ‘suffering’ and talk about it as if we actually know what we’re on about, when the thing itself comes along it’s a different story. The mistake we make is to ‘go along with a cheap copy for the sake of not having to make too much effort’ which – as everyone knows – is always a false saving. If I were to have an operation to replace a valve in my heart with a prosthetic unit then you can be sure that I won’t go for a ‘knock-off copy of a reputable brand’ just for the sake of saving a bit of money, and yet – when it comes to life itselfit seems that we couldn’t care less! It looks very much as if – for us – ‘saving money’ is the only consideration that matters…






Identity Politics

In our mass-minded culture we are completely obsessed with this thing called ‘identity’ and the problem with this is that the identities which we are so obsessed with have nothing to do with who we actually are. They couldn’t be further away from it. No matter what identity we might pick to take shelter behind it’s never going to be anything even remotely connected with our actual nature. We’re talking about fake identities therefore; we’re talking about mistaken identities, misleading identities, manufactured identities – anything thought identifies as ‘us’ is always going to be a ‘false identity’ and – therefore -it is always going to be a dead end. As Alan Watts has so often said, ‘who we are’ is a negative thing not a positive one. We can only say what we’re not, not what we are – to say ‘what we are’ is to hand ourselves over to the tender mercies of ‘the Great Labelling Machine’! When I identify myself as this, that or the other then I confuse myself with an image, with a category of thought…

When we say what something is (or what we are) then this is simply the action of thought. We’re ‘identifying with the label’ in other words, we’re identifying with a mind-created description, we’re fitting in with a purpose-made category. We don’t get this at all however – our understanding is that the label or description stands for something in the real world. This is the very essence of what it means to be ‘unconscious’ – that we relate to our thoughts, our ideas as if they were the things that they supposedly represent. This is Baudrillard’s ‘realm of the hyperreal’ in a nutshell. This is the world of abstract ideas, the world of ‘dissociated or disconnected literal signifiers’ that we are compelled to adapt to if we are to be taken seriously by our fellow human beings; it is the game we’re obliged to play along with if we’re not to be shunned by all the other game players.

When we talk about ‘playing a game’ this doesn’t necessarily sound like such a bad thing but in psychological terms playing a game translates as ‘avoiding reality’, which – as we might suspect – isn’t a move that’s going to do us any good. There are consequences to avoiding or denying reality – burying one’s head in the sand doesn’t mean that ‘everything’s going to be fine’, it just means that we’re convinced everything’s going to be fine when – actually – it isn’t. This isn’t a playful game, therefore – there’s nothing cheery or light-hearted about it. It is – on the contrary – deadly serious; there’s no humour here at all, only ‘obeying the rules’, only ‘doing what you’re supposed to do’. This is – in other words – The World That Fear Made. We’re not denying or avoiding reality ‘for fun’ but because we are frankly terrified to do otherwise. We’re following the rules like machines because that’s the only way safety is to be found. It’s the only thing we can do, if we are to escape our fear.

The other way of putting this is to say that the social game is all about control – things have to be controlled because otherwise they will stop being what they’re supposed to be and they will start to be something else instead. And this is the one thing that can never be allowed to happen – not when we are afraid of ‘the unforeseen circumstance’. Life has to be controlled every step of the way; the basic gist is that our lives have to be strictly regulated to prevent ‘the bad thing’ from happening. We don’t exactly know what this bad thing is, but that only makes it more frightening! It’s a nameless fear and nameless fears are by far the worst kind…

If we didn’t control then then things wouldn’t get to be defined anymore – the meaning things have for us would drift and who knows where this could end? ‘Out of control’ is scary precisely because it is ‘out of control’ – it’s scary because we are no longer in the position of being able to say what will happen next… For us – in our everyday mode of consciousness – the meaning of things is very much something that needs strictly controlling at all times, therefore. It can’t be allowed to get away from us. This is absolutely crucial – the world must be a blank canvas for us to paint our meanings onto, it cannot be allowed to turn the tables on us and tell us that what we think is true isn’t. When we’re in Unconscious Mode and the world starts manifesting its own meaning then this is very disturbing for us – we don’t in the least bit like it. No one likes to wake up, as George Gurdjieff says – no one likes their dream to suddenly start falling apart…

Definitions (or literal descriptions) are another way of talking about the control of meaning therefore – we ourselves say what things mean, we ourselves impose the order that we wish to see in the world. We speak ‘on behalf of nature’, as James Carse says. We have silenced the gods and put ourselves in their place. If we were not to control the meaning of things then this artificial setup of ours would disappear without a trace, and so this is where the necessity for ‘joined up controlling’ (controlling with no break or pause) comes in – once nature has been successfully subjugated then we’re left to take charge of everything ourselves…

We end up therefore in this position where we are obliged to be controlling all the time – thought has created the world that is made up of rigid narrow literal meanings and it is our job to maintain it. We’re obliged to maintain the artificial world that thought creates precisely because it is artificial, precisely because it isn’t a naturally occurring thing, and the driving force behind our incessant controlling is fear. Fear doesn’t represent itself as fear however – represents itself as ‘free, volitional activity in the service of a genuinely good cause’ (i.e., the upholding of some extremely important principle or value). There is no important principle of value here however – only the undeclared need to hide away from the truth.

Identity or self is thus our way of hiding from the truth, curious though this may sound. This ‘truth’ includes the truth about ‘who we actually are’ of course, and the truth about ‘who we actually are’ is just as frightening to us as the truth about anything else! It’s the same truth, it’s what Buddhists call ‘the truth of emptiness’. This doesn’t mean that there is ‘no content’ involved but rather that this content, which is endless, can never be defined. Our labels are hollow (or empty) but the potentiality which they arise from isn’t – potentiality isn’t empty or limited, but anything that is pulled out of the undefined state of potency (or latency) inevitably is. To reify a phenomenon is to make it redundant – we end up with appearances which seem to be solid, but which have nothing at all behind them. Things don’t have to be said to be true in order to be true, in other words; the irony is that when we assert our truths in a concrete or literal fashion (as we very much like to) then they automatically become lies – to seize hold of something is to lose it.

Our longing for identity is our fear of our own incomprehensible potential therefore – we’re fleeing from the nameless unspeakable depths, we’re fleeing from the ‘infinite bewildering expansiveness of reality’ for all we’re worth and we find refuge from it by latching limpet-fashion onto some two-dimensional identity or other and ingeniously claiming that this ‘ten-a-penny cheap-ass identity’ is ‘the whole of who we are’. We could also say that our obsession with identity (which is our fear-driven avoidance of our true nature) is our way of ‘not taking on any responsibility’ but instead of seeing this dereliction of responsibility as being the result of fear we see it as a glorious achievement, we see it as something to be proud of, something to shout out triumphantly from the rooftops…

To live in a culture which is all about identity is to live in a culture where consciousness has been outlawed and where everything is seen backwards. We’re putting all our money on the wrong thing – we are energetically promoting the causes of misery, ignorance and confusion whilst at the same time claiming to be experts on everything under the sun! We could say many things about ‘the failings of society’ – we could say that it is based on the principle of inequality and exploitation, we could say that it’s full of corruption and power games, we could say that it’s all about striving for superficial values like money and status, but we are missing the point when we make these arguments. The point that we’re missing is that – as a culture, as a society – we are 100% dedicated to promoting distractions and avoiding the truth. That’s our game, that’s what we’re all about, and the thing about this is that when we are ‘100% dedicated to promoting distractions and avoiding the truth’ then there is clearly no way we are ever going to admit to this!






Image – 4kwallpapers.com




The Generic Self

There are, we could say, two paradigms, two ways of seeing or doing things, one of which is very familiar to us and the other much less so. The ‘unfamiliar paradigm’ is counterintuitive in nature and this explains why it is so rarely heard of; we can relate it to the ‘spiritual principle’ which says – ‘What you hold onto you lose, and what you give away comes back to you’. This is contrary to our common sense and as a result no one is going to take it seriously – if we hear this idea articulated we will scoff at it. This is why our whole way of life, our whole modus operandi, is based on the other paradigm, which is the obvious one – the one that does appeal to our common sense.

The other (obvious) paradigm is predicated upon the premise that ‘if we hang onto something tightly enough then we will get to keep it, whilst if we give it away, then someone else will have it and not us.’ This paradigm is super-obvious and everyone understands it, but at the same time it puts us completely wrong. It totally ‘wrong foots’ us. The whole of our civilization is based upon this premise, and it has been for a very long time, but this way of doing things has never resulted in anything apart from interminable violence, confusion and misery. From a psychological point of view, it couldn’t be clearer that living life in this narrow, self-orientated way is an utter unmitigated disaster, both for the individual concerned and for the community as a whole. This is the recipe for a thwarted and unfulfilling life, and yet we all still worship and admire billionaires, as if they have somehow uncovered the very secret of life! We hang adoringly upon their every word… Living life on the basis of ‘the unexamined idea that we have of ourselves’ is absolutely the least wise, and most suffering-producing thing we could ever do, and yet – on the positive side – it does drive the economy.

Were we to be a culture that is based on psychological insight (and if we were therefore possessed of a certain degree of wisdom), then we would be organised along very different lines – an infinitely greater value would be placed upon our mental well-being in this case! As things stand however we organise ourselves along the lines of ‘how we might best perpetuate the dysfunctional modality of existence that we have evolved for ourselves’. We pay lip service to the idea that we value human freedom and happiness, but this couldn’t be further from the truth – we value the system that we’ve been indoctrinated into and we will sacrifice whatever we have to in order to keep it going. It is – we might say – the ‘dark idol’ that we worship and sacrifice our children to. We pay lip service to the idea that we value human freedom and happiness but that’s just an empty formula. We claim to have psychological understanding but what our so-called ‘psychology’ comes down to is how to keep us functional whilst at the same time working strictly within the restrictive system. Working strictly within the system makes us unwell however and so our interest in psychology is all about keeping us on our feet by ‘managing’ this unwellness one way or another, in whatever way we can.

This is why we are as fond of the word ‘management’ as we are; in the world of mental healthcare we are continually talking about ‘managing this’ and ‘managing that’, and what this comes down to is keeping the distress within tolerable limits. We even have a type of psychological strategy that we call ‘distress tolerance’. In one way it could be said that our problem is that ‘we want to have our cake and eat it’ inasmuch as we want to maintain and perpetuate the system that we are part of at the same time as having the sense that we are leading meaningful lives, and feeling that we’re living autonomously (which is of course the only way to live!), but in another way we could say that this isn’t really a dilemma for us at all since our allegiance has already been decided – our allegiance is very much towards ‘perpetuating the established setup no matter what the cost might be’. It might be said that it is something of a marvel that no one ever seems to see this but – on the other hand – maybe it isn’t so much of a marvel once we consider that we are completely dependent upon the set-up that we have unwittingly created. We’ve lost our natural resilience and so we have to rely on the ‘artificial life-support system’ that is society instead. We are ‘dependent upon the Matrix’, even though the Matrix is a prison-system that is ruthlessly exploiting us and making us unwell.

We come across this idea in many places – we could go so far as to say that anyone who has ever looked into it has come to the same conclusion. Johann Hari for example, quotes Professor Tim Kasser as saying – ‘…we live in a machine that is designed to get us to neglect what is important about life’. According to Gabor Mate, to give another example, ‘Illness in this society, physical or mental, they are not abnormalities. They are normal responses to an abnormal culture. This culture is abnormal when it comes to real human needs.’ In the following passage taken from her book Psychology with a Soul (1987. P 185-6), Jean Hardy, surveys the history of this discussion –

The idea had long been current in the nineteenth century that the ‘benefits of civilization and morals… had been acquired at the cost of man’s natural happiness… that civilized man remains forever an unhappy creature.’ (Henri F. Ellenberger) It is possible to see the growth of therapy as a response to the effects of industrialization and materialism on the inner life of individuals – the personal and collective load that every child in touch with feeling and not fragmented has to bear in a society with such meaningless injustices and horrors, known to all though more and more efficient communications, is considerable; this is the impact of Foucault’s writing, tracing the relationship between civilization and madness. ‘Look hard enough at reason,’ Foucault seems to be saying, ‘and you will find madness.’ And again, ‘madness came to be seen as the reverse side of progress: as civilized man became further removed from nature, the more he exposed himself to madness.’

The point is that society places no value on genuine human potential – it’s only interested in running the machine (which it conflates with ‘our own best interest’). Society makes us into the way it wants us to be, and then it takes care of us – after it has moulded us in its own image. It’s not really ‘taking care of us’ therefore, any more than social adjustment therapy (as Alan Watts calls it) is taking care of us. ‘Social adjustment therapy’ is all about looking after society’s needs, not ours (and the same can of course be said regarding our education system). Odd as it might sound to say, nothing in our collectively agreed-upon way of life is for the benefit of who we really are who or what it is for the benefit of is our collectively agreed upon idea of who we are, which is – to be perfectly blunt about it – a ‘phantom entity’. It’s not a real thing. The whole setup is there for the sake of this phantom entity, every little bit of it, and so our efforts might be compared to ‘throwing money down the drain’, or ‘pouring precious drinking water onto parched desert sands’. It’s a ludicrous, pointless exercise, and yet it is one we take very, very seriously. We’re putting all the resources at our disposal into the task of ‘making life as good as possible for the phantom entity which is the ‘Generic Self’ whilst totally and shamefully ignoring and neglecting who we actually are. Who we actually are has been entirely forgotten about…




Im
age – imdb.com








Life In The Generic World

The Generic World runs on assigned meaning (as opposed to meaning that is innate, or inherent). We are – in other words – told what things mean in the Generic World. The meaning of our existence is imported from ‘the outside’, we might say. When we are told ‘what things mean’ then, in this process, we are very effectively made into prisoners – there is no better way of making people into prisoners than this. As actual individuals, we have been quite nullified.

There is no better way of making people into prisoners than by telling them what things mean and this is what we do all the time. We take a pride in telling recently arrived human beings what things ‘mean’, what reality consists of, what ‘life is all about’, and so in this way we pass on our lack of originality to the next generation. We pass on the prison to them, and we call it ‘culture’! This however only culture in the sense that it is the ‘culture of the prison’. Generic culture is always the culture of the prison…

When we are prisoners of the Generic World that nothing matters more to us than making sure that our offspring are prisoners of it too – ‘Well, my upbringing never did me any harm’, we say. We validate the state of being imprisoned and we want it for everyone. There is something frankly scandalous about the thought of someone not wanting to subscribe to the generic view of things, to the view of things that we all agree with. It’s as if we’re saying ‘Well – if I have to live in the Generic World then so do you!’  Only this isn’t a conscious attitude but an unconscious (or implicit) one – our conscious attitude is to validate the adapted modality of being, to say that it’s a good thing.

In terms of ‘group morality’ subscribing to the Generic World is the worthy and responsible thing to do – we get a pat on the back for this, we obtain the legitimacy that comes with being a member of the club. We have proved ourselves in this way, we have demonstrated our reliability and so we can be trusted. The converse is also true, of course – if we don’t sign up, or if, for whatever reason, we aren’t able to say the sort of things that we have to say in order to show as we are part of the group, then we’re left out in the cold. Not being a member of the group is immoral as far as the group is concerned…

The details or particulars of the Generic World have nothing to do with the truth, however – ‘generic’ (or ‘agreed-upon’) values and ‘the truth’ have nothing to do with each other! It’s all just a matter of spotting what everyone else takes for granted, and then taking it for granted too, in the very same way that they do. It’s all a matter of ‘working out what the game rules are and then following them as if you had been doing so all your life, following them as if you had always known them to be true…’ This is social adaptation in a nutshell – we have to forget that we were ever ‘un-adapted’, we have to obscure the fact as to the best of our ability. Nothing else is real but the game.

This is ‘an act of conformity’ rather than a ‘creative’ one; adapting to the template is what it needed rather than any actual originality. We create the Generic World via an act of mass conformity and then we ‘flip everything over’ so that conforming to the script that has been handed to us is ‘the great virtue’, and having our own individual take on things is ‘sheer wrongheadedness’. If we want to be truly accepted into the club then we have to fool ourselves along with everyone else; it is necessary for us to resolutely ‘turn our backs on the truth’. This act of ‘reality-denial’ is the price of admittance to the club.

We can’t ever let on that we’re conforming however, that wouldn’t do it all. On the contrary (as everyone knows), we are obliged to put on the show that this is what we really think all by ourselves, and that it isn’t the case that we are simply being coldly calculating in this regard (because we know what side our bread is buttered on). If we don’t sound properly sincere in our strenuous proclamation of loyalty to the generic values then this is the same as not conforming – we’re only pretending to conform in this case and so we’re going to be caught out. We’re not pretending sincerely enough…

So the situation is that – although we aren’t being true to ourselves – we have to pretend that we are. We have to pretend not just to others but to ourselves too – there must be no hint, on any level, that the show actually is ‘only a show’. We are copying from the template rather than being creative, and yet it is necessary that this act of mimicry present itself as being somehow ‘original to us’. We are reading from the script but we have to pretend that we’re being spontaneous; we are acting in a calculated way, looking for a very specific advantage, and yet we have to convince ourselves that we’re not. This is the tightrope we have to walk.

The Generic World is a very superficial kind of place, therefore. Everything has to exist on the one single level of meaning – if there were any other possible levels of meaning, or ‘levels of description’, then this would spoil the game. If there was ‘anything else’ then this would seriously distract from the effect. The generic world is a very bland one in other words, it’s a world that is entirely without nuance, entirely without individuality.  It’s a literal world. Or – as we could also say – the Generic World is the Image World, the world that is made up of two-dimensional meanings.

In the two-dimensional world of mass-produced literal truths – which is the world that thought creates – there can only be the one meaning for things,  the meaning that has been written down, the meaning that has been set down in law, the meaning that all right-thinking people subscribe to, and the consequence of this is that all other meanings are heresies that have to be dismissed, dangerous lies that have to be fought against. Everything is very obvious, very unambiguous in the Image World, and so the message is that we ‘just have to get on with it’. What we’re supposed to be ‘getting on with’ is entirely banal however – everything is always banal in the two-dimensional image world but we – for the most part – are too consumed by the game to ever notice this. The utter absurdity of ‘life in the Generic World’ is quite lost on us…




Image – wallpapertip.com




Image

Society Is Based On Violence

Human beings love to control other human beings and there’s no arguing with this – it’s what we do, it’s our number one preoccupation. We don’t want to admit it but this is how it is. Controlling each other is ‘the name of the game’, it’s what it’s all about. To exist as the compartmentalized rational ego is to be inescapably committed to non-stop controlling.

We wouldn’t put it as bluntly as this of course. Even the most shameless dictator wouldn’t put it as bluntly as this – what we generally say to excuse our controlling is that things just aren’t right the way they are and so we want to make them right, which – on the face of it – seems like a highly commendable motivation on our part. Or if it’s other people we’re talking about, then we say that other people aren’t seeing things the right way whilst we are and so it is incumbent upon us to educate them in this regard, to show them the right way. This is an old, old line of course – it’s the oldest line there is, in fact. On the one hand we have the control, and on the other the justification for that control, and that’s how human society works.

What we don’t focus on when we automatically justify our controlling is the way in which it is us who get to SAY what the right way is or is not. A vampire has been put in charge of the blood bank, a biased person has been put in charge of the argument, which means that any talk of what is ‘right’ or ‘not right’ is just a very thin disguise for our visceral need to be in control, a transparent and derisory justification for it. Controlling – when we’re talking about the ‘psychological’ rather than the ‘pragmatic’ side of things – is simply about getting our own way, it’s simply about ‘getting to be the one who says what goes and what doesn’t go’. We automatically throw in some justification in for this most basic of behaviours – we might invent some religion, some philosophical or political set of ideas, for example, but that’s all it is really is the insecure rational ego trying to assert its supremacy wherever it can. I don’t seek to control because I’ve got the ‘right idea about how things should be’ (which is a meaningless thing to claim) I control because it feels good to do so, I ‘control for the sake of controlling’, I control because doing so satisfies some deep-down unacknowledged need that I have.

Everything in society is about control – society is simply about ‘regulating human beings so that they can be relied upon to behave in a generic way’. How we think is regulated, how we behave is regulated, how we see the world is regulated, and all of this is just ‘regulation for the sake of regulation’, or ‘adapting to the coercive system just for the sake of having a coercive system to adapt to’. We never, ever say this however – we talk about values or principles or ideals, which makes what we’re doing unquestionable, ‘for the greater good’, etc. When a bunch of people get together and – through the process of social adaptation – tacitly agree on what the right way to live life is then a kind of ‘mass justification’ sets in which is extremely hard to go against. If we can’t (or won’t) go along with the group norms then we will feel deeply ashamed, as if we had betrayed life itself in some inexcusable way, rather than it simply being the case that we have exercised our innate freedom with regard to whether we want to play the social game or not, with regard to whether we want to ‘do what everyone else is doing or not’.  Deviance is only a sin because the group makes it so, in other words, because it needs for it to be. Rules create ‘rule-breakers’.

What we don’t focus on is the fact that control – when it’s people were talking about – is always an act of violence. This means that society is fundamentally based on violence, as Krishnamurti says, and if society is fundamentally based on violence then what good can possibly come out of this? We blame the individual perpetrators of violence (or anti-social behaviour) – we have a whole self-serving ideology in place which says that crime comes about comes about because of ‘bad people’, ‘bad actors’, because of people who freely (if unaccountably) choose to behave in a certain way. This means that the role of society must be to make an example of these individuals by locking them up in prison, or punishing them in some other way (whilst in doing so cleverly exonerating the collective of us for any responsibility). We wash our hands of the miscreants, the wrong-doers. But how can we do this if the whole of society is actuallymade up of violence, made up of control? We make an example of the offender in order to create the impression that this is a special case, and not reflecting the values that we as the collective hold, and this is flagrantly not true. It’s a barefaced lie. The truth of the matter is that the individual concerned is not skilful enough, or clever enough, to disguise their violence by hiding behind some untouchable institution, some collectively held ‘value system’ that will justify our behaviour. The more unquestionable the institution, the more irreproachable the cause, the more safety it provides us with to freely enact our violence.

As has often being pointed out, in the social system that we have created for ourselves the real criminals never (or at least rarely) get caught and punished. On the country, they are generally rewarded for their violence, they are as a rule celebrated for their skilful and ruthless exercise of social control, and the reason for this is that they have been clever enough to align their interests with those of society. We are in effect singling out and punishing those who are doing exactly what we’re doing, only less successfully. As a culture, we fervently worship success in whatever form that may take, but at the same time we take care to never look into what exactly this so-called ‘success’ actually involves, or what we actually mean when we say the word. As long as I am ‘successful’ (i.e., good at doing whatever has been collectively validated as important or meaningful) then no one is going to look any deeper into it, no one is going to be asking any awkward questions – if the group validates it then it must be okay. Thus, as P.D. Ouspensky says, ‘the biggest crimes escape being called crime’

In existing criminology there are concepts: a criminal man, a criminal profession, a criminal society, a criminal sect, and a criminal tribe; but there is no concept of a criminal state, or a criminal government, or criminal legislation. Consequently, the biggest crimes actually escape being called crimes.

 Singling out individuals for punishment because they exemplify – in a blatant way – the violence which we all tacitly agree to subscribe to (but which we deny all the same) is of course violence itself. The denial of violence is itself violence – everything violence does to justify itself, excuse itself, validate itself, is also violence. Nothing can ever come out of a situation that is fundamentally based on aggression apart from more aggression, in whatever disguised form it may take. As Krishnamurti points out, even if we say that we want to be non-violent (and do our best to bring this about) this remains an act of violence; we imagine that by turning violence upon itself we can undo it, but this is not the case. All we get then is a ‘double dose’ of the poison, like a person who is angry with themselves for being angry, or like someone who is judgemental towards themselves because they are so judgmental. Conventional morality – which has the stated aim of improving human behaviour, of making it less violent) only has the effect of compounding the problem. What happens then is that we turn our violence (which is the only tool we have) against the impulses that are arising, in a moment-by-moment basis, within us. We’re ‘exercising self-control’, as it is said, but since control is itself violence we‘re not ever going to get anywhere like this.

All of our aggression, all of our violence, all of our vicious judgmentalism, all of our control, comes down to thought and because it comes down to thought it can never be cured by thought, remedied by thoughts, ‘fixed’ by thought. ‘Every thought is a judgement’, as Eckhart Tolle says – every thought is ‘a last word’, a ‘black-and-white statement of supposed fact’. Our thinking works, in other words, by saying what things are (or what they are supposed to be) and so when we say that we are suffering as a result of having too many ‘shoulds’ or ‘ought’s or ‘musts’ or ‘have to’s’ in our vocabulary what we mean is that we are suffering as a result of thought. All thought has this dictatorial nature; thought is ‘the Tyrant Holdfast’, as Joseph Campbell puts it. Once thought says what things are (and we fall for this) then nothing else can follow on from this apart from controlling. If we know what things are, or how they should be, then there is simply no room for anything else but controlling, obviously. There’s no room for anything else other than ‘trying to get things to accord with our unexamined ideas about how they should be’ and this is – therefore – the very root of all the trouble and suffering that comes our way in this world.  

Thought corrupts all of our relationships – there can’t actually be any such thing as ‘relationship’ when thought is involved. Relationship depends upon openness (which is to say, it depends upon us not taking our own viewpoint, our own position, as being absolutely unquestionable) but that’s just not how thought works. Thought can never question its own basis. The only type of activity thought can ever produce therefore is the controlling sort, the violent sort, tyrannical activity, it asserts itself in all things, and it can’t not do. Thought is ‘a machine for setting certain taking-for-granted (or unquestionable) values’; it’s certainly not the case that thought is a machine that can question its own functioning, question its own rules – no machine can do that! Our relationship with ourselves is corrupted along with our relationship with others; all we can ever do – when we are operating on the basis of the Thinking Mind –  is to project our ideas ‘of how things should be’ (or ‘how people should be’) on everything and everyone we come across, and this includes ourselves. When we say that we want to ‘improve ourselves’, for example, what we really mean is that we are ‘dead set on forcing ourselves to accord with whatever ideas we might have on the subject, no matter how stupid, unrealistic or downright ridiculous these ideas might be’. We’ll never gain any insight into how ridiculous or unrealistic our ideas are because all our attention is directed towards getting things to be the way thought says they should be, with no attention left over for questioning or examining these assumptions. Control is always blind, in other words.

In order to step out of the self-imposed prison of our own thoughts, our own prejudices, we would have to be OK about relating directly to life’s inherent uncertainty (or lack of convenient definition), and that’s where the big stumbling block lies. We’ve been ‘institutionalised by the thinking mind’, so to speak, what this means is that we’re used to being spoon fed, we’re used to having everything spelled out to us in black and white terms, despite it being the case that these black and white terms don’t actually exist outside of the thinking mind. We are habituated to having our food handed to us pre-chewed and pre-digested (thus saving ourselves from having to go to the trouble ourselves). How much easier after all is it to go along with the picture of things that we have been given than having work it out for ourselves? Once we’re in the habit of doing this then suddenly having to deal with an undigested reality is always going to come as a major shock to the system. But the price of keeping the security that thought offers us is that we have to live on the basis of control and – as we’ve said – the problem with this is that we are never going to be able to have an actual genuine relationship with anyone or anything. The ‘controller’ (whether they happen to be successful or unsuccessful) is always going to be fundamentally disconnected from reality, and this is therefore a modality of existence – a ‘fear-based modality of existence’ – that has precisely nothing to recommend it…





Image – alchetron.com






The Collective Life

Whenever a bunch of people get together and agree between themselves about what life is (or what it ought to be) then this is where life ends, this is where life ceases and is replaced by something else. Instead of life, there is then only conformity to the established pattern, compliance to the unspoken group rules. Instead of spontaneity, therefore, there is only control…

Whenever two or more people get together and agree what reality ‘is’ that’s where reality ends. That’s ‘the murder of the real’ right there, just as Jean Baudrillard says. We’ve swapped ‘what’s going on’ for ‘what we think is going on’ and we’re a lot worse off as a result. Instead of being able to relate to what is actually real, we can only relate to what people say is real, to what people tell us is real. We can only accept as real what we are supposed to accept as real.

This is the phoney life therefore, and what takes place in the consensus reality is always a phoney life, no matter how much we dress it up. Even the very best of what consensus reality has to offer us is phoney – it’s phoney all the way through, it’s phoney from top to bottom. If we had any respect or regard with the authentic then we’d have nothing to do with a collective viewpoint, nothing to do with what people say is real. What greater disempowerment could there be than being in the situation where we are told ‘what reality is all about’, whilst having the ability to think for ourselves systematically undermined almost from the word ‘Go’?

When we get together and agree what life is (or what life should be about) then what we are agreeing upon is an idea. This is ideology, nothing more. When two or more of us come together and agree what reality is then what we are agreeing on is a theory, a model, a hypothesis. There is no agreeing on reality itself – reality can’t be agreed upon because it isn’t a logically consistent system and so can’t be wrapped up in a description. And even when I agree with myself about what’s going on, about ‘what life is all about’, I am departing from the real. When I agree with myself  then I straightaway substitute my thoughts about life, my ideas about life, my beliefs about life for the thing itself. Somehow my beliefs about life have become more important that the thing itself, and this is how it is for all of us – it’s our tawdry second-hand ideas that we venerate, not the actual truth of our situation.

Beliefs are always banal – there never was such a thing as ‘a belief that is not banal’, ‘a belief that is not infinitely tedious’, so what is it with our desperate need to believe in something, anything?  Why are we in such a rush to sedate ourselves with bland certainties? If I agree with myself about ‘what it’s all about’ then I am agreeing with an idea, I am agreeing with some mental construct or other, which means that I am seeing reality via this mental construct, in terms of this mental construct, which means that I’m not seeing reality at all. I’m only seeing what my thoughts are showing me and so the one thing I’m never going to come across is any sort of ‘independent truth’.

We can’t ever know what reality is, we can only agree on what we think it is, on what we say it is, and that’s not the same thing at all. That’s just our biases or prejudices speaking, that’s just our ideology. When it comes to reality, there is no conclusion that we can come to which won’t be absurd – every conclusion we jump to, every thought that we have, every idea that we eagerly buy into equals ‘us shutting the door on reality’. We’re shutting the door on reality and then – bizarrely – we’re taking that shut door to be the same thing as reality, and we couldn’t make a more stupid mistake than this if we tried.

What we’re essentially doing here is that we are creating ‘logical systems’, logical systems which then turn around and enslave us completely. We then become tools of the system, pawns of the system, extensions of the system. Every agreement we make results in the creation of a logical system and logical systems (when we don’t stay 100% alert to the danger) always enslave us. When we take the system that thought creates to be reality itself then how can it not enslave us? The only way to be not to be enslaved by thought is to see our ideas to be ‘mere ideas’, our beliefs to be ‘mere beliefs’, our ideology to be ‘mere ideology’, and we aren’t exactly in a big hurry to do this. The ‘prejudice’ – which is to say, ‘the preformed image of what things are’ – has too much of a hold on us for that…

If we had any actual curiosity about what ‘existence’ is all about, then we wouldn’t agree with anything. We wouldn’t be looking for something to agree with – we wouldn’t agree with anything or anybody and we wouldn’t even agree with ourselves. As Kurt Vonnegut points out, we don’t agree with others because of any regard we might have for the truth, we agree with each other in order to be friendly, in order to ‘get on’, in order to be ‘part of the group’. We’re looking for benefits, in other words; we’re enacting a strategy so as to obtain a desired result. We’re not members of society because we have any curiosity about the truth of things, in other words – that’s something different entirely!

Another way of putting this is to say that all agreements are made for political reasons; we make agreement for political purposes and as everyone knows politics had never had anything to do with the truth. Politics is about power alignments, it’s about benefits it has to do with pragmatic short term usefulness and the truth is never useful! All art is useless, as Oscar Wilde says, and so too is the truth. The truth is of necessity quite useless to us. If we could put the truth to some use then that would be setting something above the truth, it would be saying that there is something (some goal or outcome) which is more important than the truth, and there isn’t.

There’s nothing more important than the truth and when we act as if there is then we will find out – at some point or other – that what we’re living is a lie. And (almost inevitably) we do act as if there is a value which supersedes the truth, a value which we take to be ‘above and beyond the truth’ – we will never come out and say this, but we act as if the truth were subsidiary to certain concerns all the same. What that ‘value’ is can be talked about in various ways – we could say (as we mentioned earlier) that ‘getting on with people’ or ‘fitting in’ is one value that we place higher on the list. We could say that ‘being on the same page as everyone else’ is, for purely practical purposes, more important than the truth; this is a default rather than a conscious decision, but it is one that we make all the same.

We could also say, as Jung does, that the reason for this sorry state of affairs is that ‘collective function’ is just so much easier than ‘individual effort’. It is vastly easier to agree with everyone else, as we know very well – we might talk very casually and knowledgeably about ‘peer pressure’ as if it’s something that only teenagers are susceptible to, but we are all victims of peer pressure, whether we want to admit it or not. We’ll go with the crowd every time. But no matter how forbiddingly difficult it is not to agree with the group mind (not to mention ‘not agreeing with our own mind’, which is harder still) the alternative is utterly ignominious – unless we rebel both against societyand our own minds we’re going to have to live out the course of our lives in a crass ‘second-hand version of reality’, a dire version of reality that is lacking in even the tiniest bit of originality, a thoroughly dismal version of reality that is really a joke that is being played on us…




When Consciousness Is The Enemy

The ego’s Number One Concern is that it should not see itself for what it is. If we could understand this then we would understand everything! If we could understand this then we would be freed from the web of illusion that the ego is forever spinning…

The ego’s game is to run away from seeing itself: to succeed in this game is pleasure, to fail pain. This game is all-consuming, which is to say, it doesn’t leave any space for anything else. The whole point is that there is no space left for anything else; if we saw that there was something else, something beyond the game of good and bad, right and wrong, pleasure and pain, then the game would be over at that point. Then there would be no game.

The game allows no space for anything that is not the game and that is how all games work, by eclipsing reality, by substituting themselves for reality. The game for us is all there is, and for this reason it cannot be seen to be a game. Right versus wrong, pleasure versus pain, constitutes a continuum and there is no place to be on this continuum that is not about winning failing or succeeding, gaining or losing. We cannot have any awareness other than the compulsive type of awareness that is conditioned by polarity, conditioned by the continuum of [+] and [-].

We have no choice but to be busy when we are playing the game, in other words, and this busyness consumes our attention, with nothing at all left over. Being busy in the way that we are (being constantly concerned with the need to succeed rather than fail) is what keeps us from ever seeing the ego for what it is. Succeeding rather than failing is all the ego cares about, and this is just another way of saying that all the ego cares about is itself, which is not exactly news to anyone! That’s what makes the ego ‘the ego’, after all.

There’s more to this than meets the eye, however (or less to this than meets the eye, if we want to put it that way). We all know that all the ego cares about is the ego – that’s common knowledge – what we don’t see is that this self-obsessed ego doesn’t actually exist. When we identify with it as a viewpoint and put all our attention onto the never-ending business of ‘trying to win rather than lose’ then this absorption in the game of gain versus loss creates the very strong impression that there is someone there to either succeed or fail, win or lose. The more we struggle the more we reify the concept of ‘the struggler’!

This is the ‘fruit’ of our non-stop busyness, therefore: the fruit of our non-stop busyness is the perception that ‘I am this self’ (which is also the perception that ‘I am not anything else’). Here in the Western world we place a very high value on being busy, on industry, on the production of ‘stuff’  – ‘the devil finds work for idle hands’, we say, but the real reason we value busyness and striving for success so much is that we wish to reify the concept of ‘the one who is striving’, ‘the one who stands to be either a success or a failure’. This is a basic insight.

All our efforts are going into the project of creating (or trying to create) a comforting illusion therefore, and were we to see this it would of course put a very different complexion on how we view our activities. There’s nothing so very inspirational about this after all – what’s so inspirational about spending our entire lives creating and maintaining a suffering-producing illusion (because that’s what the ego is), without ever having a clue as to what we’re really doing and not wanting to know either? This is hardly the sort of behaviour we can feel good about, or award ourselves medals for, and yet – somehow – we do. That’s exactly what we do.

Consciousness is our enemy when we are in this modality of being; were we to gain insight into what we’re doing, and what our motivation is behind it all, the game would we be well and truly up for us. This is why we have so hysterically demonised the use of psychedelic drugs, for example – because we absolutely do not want to have any insight into what the real reason for all our activity is. We absolutely don’t want to see the ego for what it is – which is to say, a phoney, a pretender – an impostor hiding behind a smokescreen of fake, time-wasting activities. This is what gives rise to the ‘taboo against knowing who you are’ that Alan Watts talks about. This is why we are conducting a covert ‘war against consciousness’.

It’s perfectly understandable that we don’t want to see this, therefore – it’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to see, an extraordinarily challenging thing to see. Catching a glimpse of what we’re really up to with this business of identifying with the ego (and our consequent total immersion in the game of pleasure versus pain, advantage versus disadvantage) is something rather like catching a glimpse of the devil himself! No one wants to see the devil but when we’re not aware of him (when we have our heads firmly in the sand) then we’re in trouble! When we talk about the Shadow this is what we really talking about; the shadow is a code word for our awareness of the dodgy business that’s secretly going on in the background; we have been recruited into a pattern of thinking, a pattern of behaviour, that is supposedly all about celebrating life, enjoying life, exploring life, but which is actually the very antithesis of this. It is actually an act of denial.

There is a smokescreen of nefarious activity going on that we get lost in, absorbed in, caught up in, which implicitly claims to be legitimate but which is actually all about perpetuating our web of illusions. It’s nefarious because by lavishing all our attention on the fake we miss out on the real. By devoting ourselves to the false, we neglect the true. We don’t realise it, but we are betraying ourselves – we’re betraying ourselves because we are forever striving to benefit who we aren’t at the expense of who we are.

We do gain awareness of this, ever so often, and when we do there is generally a lot of pain involved. There is pain because of the difficulty in processing the initial revelation, and there is pain because of the awareness that everything we have painstakingly invested in over the years is no use to us at all. This is a long drawn-out process of disillusionment and disinvestment and there is nothing we like less than disillusionment and disinvestment. If we could ‘stick the course’ then the insight – however bitter – would liberate us, but the chances are that we will be discouraged from this and rather than sticking the course we will attempt to reverse the process and run away from the painful awareness. Running away from unwanted awarenesses is – after all – a long-standing habit of ours…

Society itself – which is the game of the ego writ large – will discourage us from ‘staying the course’. The type of ‘painful awareness’ that we’re talking about here involves disillusionment not just with the social world that we have adapted (which is based on the values of competition, goal-orientatedness, and self-promotion) but also with ourselves, with our own ‘personal game’, so to speak, and for this reason the process of disillusionment is pathologized on all sides. Our painful awareness is treated like a sickness – we will be told that we are suffering from a mental health condition. We are almost inevitably going to ‘side with the game’ (or side with the consensus view) in this and this is of course hardly surprising given that ‘the game is all we know’. We don’t know that ‘the game is only a game’, and as a result we are much too frightened to let go of it…





Art: GOOD AND EVIL, (Straatkunst), on pinterest.ie







The Power Game

According to psychotherapist Morgan Scott Peck, neurosis is where we take on too much responsibility (where we take on an unrealistic degree of responsibility) whilst sociopathy is where we take on too little (or more often, none at all). This might sound a little over-simplistic on first hearing but it turns out to be a very useful way of thinking about things. It can give us a way of understanding how society works. A closely related psychological dichotomy would be to contrast people who have a tendency to blame others in times of difficulty and those who automatically blame themselves instead. When we blame ourselves for everything then we are clearly taking on too much responsibility and if on the other hand it is never our fault, no matter how damning the evidence, then obviously the converse is true.

In the most general terms this comes down to our style of dealing with pain – either we displace it onto other people (or onto the world in general) or we internalise it or swallow it down ourselves. This corresponds to Chogyam Trungpa’s dichotomy of ‘acting out’ versus ‘repressing’, which are the ego’s only two ways of dealing with pain. These are our two conditioned ways of dealing with pain that are – actually – not ways of dealing with pain! If we are considering the dynamics of society as a whole we can say that society must therefore consist, to a large extent, of [1] people who take on pain that doesn’t really belong to them and [2] people who pass on (or try to pass on) pain that is legitimately theirs, and which they won’t ever own. To give a very simple example, in the first case if I am having a run of bad luck and nothing is working out for me then I assume that I must be a flawed or defective person and that I just don’t deserve good things to happen to me, and if I have the other style of dealing with pain then I’m convinced that it’s someone else’s fault instead and get angry with them about what I think they’re doing. I want to find a scapegoat in other words, whereas in the first case I will make myself into the scapegoat.

We can see this dichotomy very clearly in abusive relationships – the fuel for the abuse – so to speak – is that I as an abuser have a lot of emotional pain that I am absolutely determined to take no responsibility for and so what I want to do is find someone who will take on the job feeling the pain for me, so I don’t have to. None of this can be transparent however – I can’t let myself know that I’m making you take on pain that is rightfully mine and not yours because this in itself would be a painful awareness and my whole orientation is towards avoiding pain or displacing it elsewhere. Because this is my orientation I have to really believe that it’s your fault, I have to be convinced that it’s your fault, and for your part, you have to be convinced – if possible  – that it really is you who is to blame (maybe not because of anything specific that you have done, although very often of course it is) but simply because you are a crappy worthless person who deserves to take the blame. I will tell you this over and over again, just to make sure it sinks in. This is what abusive relationships are all about, as we all know.

Abuse happens all the time of course – it’s a big part of life, whether we realise it or not. ‘You’re a crappy person,’ we say, hoping that this will stick, hoping that our target won’t ‘turn it around on us’ and send the label back to us with even more force that we put in it. This is what a row is – two people each trying their best to be the one dishing out the shit rather than the one who has to take it. Someone has to take the blame, someone has to take the negative kudos, and so we have to struggle to make sure it isn’t us. We have to struggle to be the winner and not the loser. This is no minor psychological oddity that we’re talking about here, therefore; what we’re looking at is the basic human game – the power game, the game of one-upmanship. This is why society – any society – is always based on a power hierarchy – as is well known by everyone, the higher up the hierarchy we are the less shit we have to take! If we make it to the very top then we don’t take any shit from anyone – we don’t take it, we give it. And – by the same token – if we are right at the bottom of the power pyramid then everyone can take a dump on us; everyone can shit on us because we have no status and so there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. We can’t even displace it onto someone else because there’s no one below us – we just have to suck it up.



If we say that society (any society) is a power hierarchy, underneath all the gloss, then this makes it plain what the game is here, this makes it clear what our motivation to play the game is – we want to (spuriously) validate ourselves by climbing as far up as the ladder as we can. This is why those of us who make it to the upper levels of the power structure – the aristocrats, so to speak – look so pleased with themselves. It is almost inevitably the case that we will assume that our position is the result of our own virtue, our own worthiness, our own innate ‘superiority’ (if we get to get right down to brass tacks) and so this is why we feel so good about ourselves. It’s not the case that we are at the top of the power hierarchy because of our innate superiority however, but rather it is the case that we get to feel superior because we are now in the position of being able to downwardly displace all of our angst and insecurity down to the lower levels. It’s the other way around – we’re not at the top of the pyramid because of our any special virtue that we might possess, but because our elevated position allows us to get away with defining ourselves as being especially worthy, especially deserving of the comfortable position we are in. We feel superior because we are able to define all those below us in the hierarchy as being unworthy, feckless, lazy and generally undeserving. It is this trick that allows the crude game of capitalism to remain respectable.

It might be imagined that we cherish power for lots of reasons but, as Nietzsche says somewhere, power is all about allowing us to say what the truth is. This is what we are ultimately playing for. When we’re at the top of the pyramid then we get to be the one who defines reality and we will do this to suit ourselves, naturally enough. We create the game that everyone else has to play and this game is invariably rigged in our favour; we say that the game is ‘fair’, but actually it’s anything but. It is said that ‘power corrupts’ but the corruption doesn’t lie in the temptation to use that power to gain material benefits – although this of course comes into it – but to use that power so as to be the one who says what reality is.  This means we are always going to come out on top; we are always ‘right’ and anyone who disagree with us is always going to be ‘wrong’. This is what happens in all social groups (all organisations, all institutions, etc) – the powerful say what is true and what is not true so that the only way to ‘get ahead’ is to play the game that has been given to us to play, which means that even if we win (especially if we win) we’re winning against ourselves. When sociologists say that ideology is the invisible prison that we ourselves constructed and maintain, this is what they mean. In society, it is always the case that we keep ourselves prisoner – we ourselves put in the work to do this, no one else. Or as Carlos Castaneda puts it, the strategy of the predator is to give us its own malign mind, and this way we are defeated whatever we do. Our very winning is losing.

Games don’t offer us the possibility of winning (which is what they claim to do) they are the way in which we get to be ‘trapped in someone else’s reality’, which is a situation that is never going to work out for us. Most of us want to ‘do the right thing’ and so our motivation is not malign, the only thing here however is that we never think about who it is that has said what ‘the right thing’ is, and this is our downfall. As Philip K Dick says, this is ‘service in error’ – it’s not enough that we are essentially goodhearted and genuinely want to do the right thing in life, we also have to be curious about what is going on and question the authorities which we serve. The only problem here is that ‘the authorities’ inevitably define ‘questioning’ as ‘a very bad thing’!







Making The Ego Great Again

The paradigm we operate under, in this modern rational era of ours, is the ‘Ego-Repairing’ one. Any mental health problems we have are always seen (either implicitly or explicitly) as being due to a lack of buoyancy or resilience on the part of the all-important ego. Our ego isn’t confident enough and so this missing confidence – so it seems to us – needs to be reinstated (however we are going to do that). Our ego-strength is insufficient for the daily demands that are being made upon it, we say, and so we need to build it up again. This is all we need to know about the Ego-Repairing Paradigm – it is nothing if not obvious!

This approach doesn’t work, however. We’re nothing if not determined in our attempt to make it work but we’re also remarkably reluctant to look at the fact that we aren’t really getting anywhere with it. We don’t have a lot – if anything – to say about this, and the reason for this is possibly that we simply can’t see any other approach that we could take. We can’t see what else we could be doing and so we really don’t want to admit that we might have gone down a dead end. If it’s the only game in town then we are obliged to keep on playing it, no matter what secret doubts we might have on the subject. The important thing is not to talk about these doubts, and we don’t!

Our problem is that we are taking a very narrow view of things and can’t for the life of us see that we are. This is what the rational ego is – it’s a narrow view of the world that we can’t – from this self-same vantage point – see to be narrow; it is a narrow viewpoint that has on this account become subjectively everything to us, a viewpoint that has subsumed within itself the whole of what is possible. The rational ego isn’t really who we are, in other words – it’s just a narrowing down of attention that we can’t see to be a narrowing down of attention. It is a limited or superficial version of who we are that we can’t see to be superficial or limited. This being so, it clearly doesn’t make any sense to see mental health as being somehow synonymous with having a ‘new and improved ego’. The robustness of the ego isn’t really the thing here. Bolstering up the beleaguered ego isn’t the healthy thing to do – it isn’t healthy because ‘healthy’ means whole and that is exactly what the rational ego isn’t. The ego thinks that it is ‘the Whole of Everything’ (it’s ‘a fraction that thinks itself to be an integer’, as Joseph Campbell says), but it isn’t. It thinks that it is (or should be) the boss, but it isn’t. It’s a fake boss, a usurper, just like the infamous Sheriff of Nottingham was a usurper.  Our ego wants to be ‘It’, as Alan Watts says, but it isn’t ‘It’. The self-construct can never be ‘It’! That I am It (or could be It if I try hard enough) is a vain fantasy that I keep on buying into; this is what repairing the ego construct is all about – ‘making the ego great again’, when the plain truth of the matter is that it never was.  The over-inflated, over-valent ego is a sickness we cannot see as such – we are busy worshipping a false god here!

The rational ego-identity is essentially nothing more than a boundary or dividing line, when it comes down to it. Thought fragments, as David Bohm says, and the ego-identity is the fruit of that fragmentation. The rational identity is constructed on the basis of the boundary between self and other and – whilst we might not disagree with this (how could we?) – what we don’t tend to think about, or talk about, is that where we draw this dividing line (or how seriously) we take it is entirely up to us. That depends upon how free we feel, how relaxed we feel. On a ‘good day’ we don’t bother hiding behind our ego boundaries so much at all; on a good day we can even ‘forget ourselves’ for a while. We can get ‘out of our heads‘. The times when we are happy and at ease are not the days when we are busy affirming our thought-created identity! What we don’t want to look at – in other words – is the way in which the concrete identity or ego is our own construct.

How sharply we perceive the boundary between self and other depends upon the state of mind that we’re in, it depends entirely upon our ‘inner state’. It depends upon how ‘up tight’ we are – when we feel that we are threatened then we retreat back into our shelter (so to speak) like a snail going back into its shell or a sea anemone snapping back into its thick protective trunk or capsule, and when that threat has passed then we slowly and tentatively come back out again and extend ourselves into the world. So the sea anemone’s trunk isn’t ‘who we are’ – who we are is the gracious flower-like creature that we see when there isn’t a threat. When we’re in the grip of fear then we retreat into the Domain of Thought – we retreat into the Domain of Thought and straightaway become sharply defined and thereby isolated – the pain or distress that we’re feeling isn’t due to the fear (contrary to what we might believe) it is due to us narrowing ourselves, it’s due to the sharpness of the divide between the self and the rest of the world, and the acute sense of separateness that this has created. We’re too ‘boundaried’, in other words. We might think that being boundaried is a great thing, but it turns out that it isn’t at all. How can being fragmented (or being isolated from our environment) be a good thing after all? We obtain the rewarding feeling of ‘increased psychological security’, but this safe place – as every psychotherapist knows – turns out to be our prison.

We exist somewhere between the two extremes of ‘being total trapped’ and ‘being totally free’, it might be said. In the first case, we experienced a profound suffering that comes when all we know is ‘the self in its isolation’, and in the second case there is the incomprehensible relief that comes when there is no more dividing line. Where we exist on this range of possibilities is dependent upon how tightly we are clinging to our boundaries (or contrariwise, upon how willing we are to let go of them). The former is a ‘positive’ act in that it has to be carried out deliberately whilst the latter is a ‘negative’ one since it involves surrender rather than aggressive self-assertion. It is incongruous therefore that our default position (the position that we as a culture insist on) should be that our mental health comes out of the healthiness or robustness of our mind-created boundaries, the mind-created boundaries that separate us from what is actually real.

This isn’t to say that the answer to our difficulties is simply to erase the boundary between self and other (in the spirit, it might seem, of the Buddhist slogan ‘no self no problem’) – the process by which we go beyond our notions of who we think we are (or the process by which we extend ourselves, as Scott-Peck says) is a very slow one and it proceeds in an organic way. This type of change cannot be achieved ‘convulsively’, as Jung puts it, as a result of us willing it to happen. That is merely the characteristic hubris of the ego-construct. The natural order of things has to be respected and that natural order is in no hurry to get to some crappy mind-created goal! The Dao cannot be rushed, but the point is not to ‘rush’ it but to trust it and stop trying to impose our own ideas on it quite so unreflectively. To keep on trying to repair the ego past the point where this endeavour becomes pragmatically untenable is only making more trouble for ourselves. We are creating ‘New Improved Suffering’, so to speak. We are in fact guilty of ‘socially engineering narcissism’ under the guise of promoting mental health!

If on the other hand we were to reverse our tactics and try to get rid of the egoic identity then this also backfires on us – who is it that wants to get rid of the ego identity other than that same ego identity, after all? Who wants to get rid of the self apart from the self? Where does our intention to change our thinking come from apart from this very thinking itself? Despite appearances to the contrary, there’s nothing that needs to be repaired – when we get to the point where we feel that we need to repair the ego (or shore up the boundaries of the self) this means that we have in fact outgrown it and so the helpful thing to do here is to see this and assent  – to whatever extent we are naturally able to  – the process that it is – of its own accord  – unfolding. This is ‘trusting the natural process’, and nothing comes harder for us than this! The ‘Non-Repairing’ (or ‘Non-Fixing) Paradigm is a subtle approach in a world where subtlety is not part of our repertoire. The ‘Non-interfering Paradigm’ is a subtle approach in a world where the only thing we seem to understand is having a great big hammer, and not being shy to use it…