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…







The Hunger For Identity

Our neurotic pain comes about both because of the way in which we are compulsively driven to maintain a false and limited idea of ourselves and because of the tremendous constriction of possibilities that this false idea of who we are brings about.

We are ‘caught both ways’, so to speak, we’re caught because of the absolute need to go on maintaining the self-image, which is a job that just goes on and on, and we’re caught because we are forced to live in a world that is predicated upon the supreme importance of this self, the unquestionable centrality of this self. We have made our bed, which took (and continues to take) an awful lot of effort, and so now all that is left is for to lie in it, which turns out to be no fun at all. How can working away ceaselessly at maintaining and refining a situation that denies our true nature be ‘fun’?

The maintenance of the idea that we have of ourselves is a pain and being that self is a pain too, so this isn’t exactly a good situation to be in. It’s also not a situation that we will recognise as being ours – the only time we do start to relate to our situation in a more honest way is when neurosis starts to close its teeth on us and we really and truly start to ‘feel the pinch’. This isn’t to say that we automatically get to understand the nature of our predicament and where our pain is coming from when this happens – the suffering comes first and the understanding comes a lot later, if it does. It is entirely possible to continue suffering for years from neurotic pain without having the slightest bit of insight into what’s going on and this pain-filled delay between ‘feeling the pinch’ and ‘learning the lesson’ isn’t helped by the fact that we live in a society that is not ‘psychologically-minded’, a society that functions by alienating its members both from the natural world and our true (or ‘unprogrammed / spontaneous’) nature. We are after all a distraction-based culture, not an insight-based one!

The chance that we will learn something (learn freedom) from our neurotic suffering is there for sure but one big problem we face is therefore that as a collective we do not acknowledge this pain (or any pain) as being a necessary precursor of insight and that we are – moreover – absolutely dead set against doing so. Society most certainly doesn’ttell us that we should be careful about identifying with the act that we ourselves have put on in case we forget who we really are in the process. Of course we aren’t told this – we’re given the opposite message, we are encouraged to identify as much as we can with the image, the role, the act that we are putting on, in order to conform to the script.  This is only to be expected – society is a game and so we are encouraged to play the game (because the game is no good if we don’t play it). We are encouraged to ‘be what we are supposed to be’ within the generic terms of the narrative that has been provided for us and the narrative doesn’t warn us about itself.

This ‘encouragement’ (if we can continue to use that inappropriately mild word) is indirect rather than direct, implicit rather than explicit, hinted at rather than stated, since no one concerned wants to draw attention to the fact that the game is a game (which really means that the game doesn’t want to draw attention to the fact that it is a game, since we ourselves don’t actually know what we’re doing). We are shown images of adapted game-players (who are so well adapted that they don’t even know that they are playing the game) having a rich and meaningful life and as a result we take on board (quite unconsciously) the message that this is the way to find happiness and fulfilment. Just to give what is probably the most obvious example of this sort of thing, we might point to the advertising industry. We might think that adverts are there to promote the specific product that is being sold but what’s really being sold here is the game itself, as John Berger says in Ways of Seeing. The game is selling itself to us (because if it doesn’t sell itself to us no one else will).

When we look into it we can see that advertising and promotional activity are only a small part of the package, therefore. How people are presented in the media in general is a bigger part because that creates the template from which we unconsciously (or consciously) work. Another key element is what we might call ‘our own individual contribution to the essential lie’ – those of us who are doing well in the game (for example) are tacitly expected to cultivate ‘the mystique of success’ so that the other players will become envious and invest more in the game as a result. On the other hand, those of us who are doing badly according to the high standards of the social adaptation game have to be generally disregarded and – if possible – swept out right out of sight so that the negative side of the theatre doesn’t impinge on us any more than it has to. This accounts for the existence of the stigma attaching to those of us who are affected by mental health conditions. Neurotic suffering is an inevitable result, given our trivial and inauthentic way of life (which is nothing other than ‘the Generic Life’) and given the fact that all we ever do (when we’re in the Generic Mode of Living) is distract ourselves from feeling how we’re really feeling or from thinking what we’re really thinking, it is only natural (in a manner of speaking) that we should distract ourselves from seeing that we are a distraction-based culture. That’s not the image we want, after all.

Another aspect of this is the way in which we blame those who fail in the social game and ascribe that failure to personal shortcomings (or culpability) on the part of those who are conspicuously failing to make the grade, thereby saving ourselves the trouble of having to think any more about them. ‘Judging’ means that you don’t have to think about it anymore and that is of course why we love judging so much – that is the beauty of having a narrow judgmental mind! The fact that we don’t look at anything except in a purely superficial way means that we’re able to carry on playing the game therefore – the status quo can continue unabated (for all the good that this does) and we are – as we have said – all very invested in that. That is our conservatism – we want to ‘conserve the game’ at whatever cost. To play the game is to be invested in the game because when we play we fall into the trap of having to play; the social game is an addiction in other words, just like gambling or taking heroin. We commit to playing the game as much as we do because we think that it’s going to work out for us, even though it never can; the game never works out for anyone precisely because it is only a game. The fact that we continue to think that it’s ‘a good idea’ to carry on with what we’re doing is due to delusion and nothing more.

All of this comes down to one very simple thing – we are encouraged (or rather railroaded) into identifying with a particular limiting image of ourselves (‘limiting’ because all images are limiting). There is a definite or concrete identity there on the shelf and we are manoeuvred into believing that it is us, that it is who we are. Out of our hunger for identity a marriage is made, albeit an unhappy one. We are all too keen to find an identity for ourselves – in current times more than ever. There is a hunger for identity such has never been seen before, it seems, and it is a measure of just how much the all-defining Generic Mind has us in its pocket – effectively cut off from the inner life (which is the only thing we’ve really got going for us) we have no choice but to embrace the outer (or generic) life, which is an inauthentic and trivial life that faithfully reflects societal values but which – in doing so – utterly denies the individual.






Image – ways-of-seeing.com












Purposefulness and Spontaneity

There are two modes in which we human beings can exist, so to speak – one being the spontaneous mode and the other the purposeful one. These are like the ‘two gears’, so to speak. These are the only two gears we’ve got. When we are in Purposeful Mode then everything has to be done deliberately, obviously enough – everything we do has to be done ‘on purpose’! Effort and intention is needed on our part and if we slack off at all then the job won’t get done.The job won’t do itself. In Spontaneous Mode there is no design, no calculation and no intention, as we all know very well. There is attention on our part, and our willing (but not deliberate) participation is needed, but it’s not like laboriously rolling a stone uphill. The project – whatever it is – has a life of its own and we are not driving it. Purposeful activity takes us to an known destination and so it has to be guided and kept on track every inch of the way; spontaneous activity on the other hand takes us somewhere unknown, and because it is taking us somewhere unknown we can hardly ‘guide’ it! This is a genuinely mysterious process, and that’s why so profoundly interesting.

There’s more to it than just this, however. What we’ve said so far is all well-known stuff, but the real nub of the matter is something that we very rarely stop to consider, if indeed we ever consider it at all. The truly remarkable thing is that in Spontaneous Mode there is no ‘actor’ all, no ‘causal agent’, no ‘doer’, and seeing as how this ‘actor’, this ‘causal agent’, this ‘doer’, is a pretty big deal for us, that is a rather significant fact. The purposeful doer is who we think we are, this is our identity and this is obviously very important for us. It goes without saying that our ‘identity’ is very important to us; it would be no exaggeration to say that – for most of us, most of the time – it is all about our identity. Identity is the name of the game, so to speak; identity is the star of the show. When we do something we want everyone to know that we are doing it (or have done it); we need to have ‘ownership’ of it. In our culture prizes are awarded for successful doing, status is accorded (how else would we know if we are winners or losers?) When we win this gives us a very special sort of identity, the sort of identity everyone wants… So it is clearly of the greatest importance that we can lay claim to the ‘doing’ in question so that everyone can know that it is our doing and no one else’s. It is the identity of the actor or doer in question that is being rewarded (or acknowledged), after all.

Where spontaneous activity is concerned this simply cannot be done however – I can be awarded a prize for a portrait or landscape I have painted or a novel or poem I have written but at the same time I know very well that there was no causal agent, no ‘doer’ behind it. It ‘did itself’ and so I can’t have ownership of it; legally I might be able to claim ownership, but in any real sense I can’t. Furthermore, when it comes right down to it, there was no right way to do what was done, and no wrong way either, and so there can be no winners or losers, no successes and no failures. There is no such thing as ‘getting it right’ when it comes to spontaneity because we don’t know where we were going in the first place; if what has been produced is unique then there can be no comparisons with what other people have done either and so there can’t be any competition, dear though that is to our hearts. Psychologically speaking, spontaneity is how we become free from the defined identity or purposeful self; it is how we find release from this cumbersome, awkward, limited and misrepresentative version of ‘who we are’ rather than being a means of consolidating and validating this supposed identity.

This is why we as a culture put such an overwhelming emphasis on games, goals and competitive effort – because it consolidates and validates the concrete identity. This is the real reason we value purposefulness so much – because it has the effect of making the self-concept seem real to us, because it verifies the defined identity. As a culture we are dedicated to the endless celebration of the idea that we have about ourselves and there is no other way of putting this – we are all about ‘the mind-created identity’, as we have just said. That’s the name of the game – creating and maintaining the ego, as if there with this were the best and most inspiring thing we could think of. We pride ourselves as being cultured, mature and sophisticated as a culture, and the best thing we can think of doing – as a collective – is endlessly validating the ego-construct!

From a ‘mental health point of view’, this turns out to be not such a great idea at all (as we might of course expect). To be emphasising goals and games and competitive effort (i.e. to be defining ourselves by ‘comparing ourselves with other people who are playing the same game as us’) is in no way what we might call ‘a healthy way to conduct our lives’. Everyone knows that this is not good news; it brings out the worst in us rather than the best, despite the hype that we are subjected to with regard to the wonderful virtues of ‘competition’ and ‘striving for excellence’, and all of that tiresome old stuff. It’s not really excellence as such that we’re striving for but ‘excellence that I can personally lay claim to’ (i.e. enhancement of the ego) which is how the narrow ‘sense of self’ gets to feel good about itself, however transiently. Spending all our time vainly trying to validate the ego-construct is ‘unhealthy’ in as much as it never leads us the direction of well-being or happiness or anything like that. Quite the reverse is true – we are travelling in the direction of becoming more and more self-engrossed, to the point where narcissism (whether we like to admit it or not) has now become an accepted social norm. When we put all emphasis on the idea we have of ourselves (when we put all our money on purposefulness) then this means – needless to say – that we are neglecting the other, more essential side of ourselves, which is spontaneous in nature rather than purposeful. Actually, even saying this is misleading since the purposeful self isn’t who we are at all, it’s just an act that we put on. It’s an act that we put on because we get rewarded for it; we get paid in cash for successful social adaptation, as Jung says.

If there is a situation where we put all the emphasis on the act we’re putting on then, as a result of ignoring who we are behind this act, this situation is not going to be one that is conducive to our mental well-being, obviously enough! Because of our dedication to the game that we (and everyone else) are playing we ‘forget who we are behind it all’, just as all the mystic traditions say, and in this forgetting there is nothing but misery and confusion; we have allowed our lives to be ruled by ‘wrong things’ and allowing our lives to be ruled by ‘wrong things’ (i.e. by mere mechanical impulses) is hardly going to result in our happiness or fulfilment. We say that happiness, peace of mind, creativity, compassion, well-being, freedom etc, are very important to us, but our overwhelming emphasis on the concrete identity takes us in a quite different direction. Our words and our actions have parted ways therefore, they have nothing to do with each other – we say that we value well-being and mental health and personal growth and yet we put all the emphasis on constructing and consolidating the defined identity and this means that our fine words don’t mean a thing!

The defined or purposeful self can never be creative, never be compassionate, or happy, or peaceful or anything like that. It absolutely can’t. The PS can never be sincere or genuine and if it can’t be sincere/genuine then how on earth is it ever going to find happiness or peace? How on earth are we (when we’re playing at being the concrete identity) ever going to feeling in any way well? If we’re not sincere then that is an impossibility; if we are ‘putting on an act’ the whole time then actual well-being (as opposed to ‘theatrical well-being’) is an impossibility; it’s an impossibility because the defined identity isn’t who we are. Just as long as we put all the emphasis on it we are always going to be fundamentally insincere, fundamentally ‘conflicted’. The purposeful self – no matter how many prizes it wins, no matter how much social approval/validation it gets – can never be genuine. No matter how much it wants to be genuine (and it really does want to be genuine, it wants this very much indeed) it never can be. The purposeful self can never be sincere no matter how hard it tries because it isn’t who we are, and what could be more straightforward to understand than this?

Just as long as we are identified with this narrowly-defined sense of ourselves then this is always the situation we are going to find ourselves in; the situation of wanting very much to be sincere (since that is how we get to know we are ‘a real person’) when this is an absolute impossibility for us is clearly not going to be conducive to any sort of well-being. It’s not actually going to be conducive to anything apart from ongoing frustration and suffering, and this isn’t in the least bit hard to see. Trying to live life on the basis of who we’re not (i.e. on the basis of the socially-approved identity) whilst ignoring our true nature (as if it had nothing to do with us) is not going to pan out well for us, no matter what the mental health ‘experts’ might tell us. The mental-health experts haven’t considered the possibility that we aren’t the ego-construct – if they had then they wouldn’t be advocating going all out to fix that ego-construct every time it starts to struggle. Our culture is simply not prepared to look at this possibility – it goes against everything we believe in.

That we should find ourselves in the situation is no accident however. Whilst being socially engineered to identify one hundred per cent with the purposeful self is not a recipe for happiness and well-being (and doesn’t do us any favours at all) it is very helpful for the system that we are operating in because the more alienated from our true nature we are the easier it is going to be for us to be manipulated or controlled to suit society. The more alienated we are from our true nature the more we are going to have to invest in whatever tactics it takes for us to find this thing called ‘external validation’ and it is our tireless striving for external validation that is driving the social machine and keeping it ticking over healthily. It might be good for the ‘health’ (if we can use that word) of the system that we are part of, but it is definitely not good for us!

To be perfectly blunt about it (and there is hardly any point in being otherwise), living in an overly rational or purposeful society pushes us inexorably in the general direction of becoming humanoid robots; androids without any sense of ‘interiority’. Who needs interiority, after all? And when we have no interiority we can’t know that we haven’t – we can’t know that there even is such a thing in fact. This means that we have no way of directly relating to the pain that comes about as a result of ‘lack of interiority’ and because we have no way of ‘seeing the pain where it belongs’ we go looking for answers on the outside, which only compounds our predicament…







Society Is An Equilibrium State

Shakespeare says ‘Journeys end in lovers meeting,’ – two individuals become one unit and the individuals that were are now gone. We can generalise this line to say (in a much less poetic fashion) that ‘when a group of people agree between themselves as to what life is all about then this collective agreement is the end of all journeys’. The consensus reality is an equilibrium state and an equilibrium state is where ‘all journeys end’. This is the very definition of an equilibrium state. Society is where all journeys end, in other words, and yet despite this we feel no horror at this prospect. Life itself is a journey so if the journey ends then so does life, and how are we to feel okay about this? How do we manage to feel okay about this?

We don’t see it like this of course – we don’t see society as ‘where all journeys end’ but as the very basis of our journey, the very foundation of our journey. Society offers us many potential ‘journeys’, after all. What we miss – because it is so very easy to miss – is that the consensus reality offers us journeys on the basis of ‘who it says we are’, which is a different thing altogether. It doesn’t offer journeys to the individual. The consensus reality – the reality we have all agreed upon, whether we know it or not – has already decided for us what these ‘journeys’ shall be since all the possible trajectories it contains are trajectories that are implicit in this little phrase ‘who it says we are’. We can’t ever depart from the starting-off point and since this starting-off point has nothing to do with who we really are there are no journeys to be made from this basis! Only the true individual can ‘make journeys’ (only the true individual can do anything).

If it is decided for me in advance what my journey shall be, and where it should take me, then this is no journey at all but the very antithesis of that. I can’t go anywhere from the basis of who society says I am and yet I can’t see this. I can’t see this because I can’t see that I am not who society says I am (which is what I agreed to be by default, without realising that I had agreed to anything). We are all of course complicit in becoming who or what the consensus reality says we are but at the same time this is not a complicity that we were aware of at the time. The mechanics of the situation are that we are pressurised to play ball from a very early age – the pressure in question being the reward of approval and acceptance when we do become who is supposed to be, and the punishment (or threat of punishment) of criticism and rejection if we don’t.

What chance do we have as small children of standing firm in the face of the threat of criticism and rejection (which equals abandonment, as Gabor Mate says) and holding true to our path despite the promise of approval and acceptance? Once this pressure gets its grip on us it becomes invisible to us, it becomes normal to us so that we don’t even know it to be there; we are moulded by societal forces without us in any way being aware of this moulding process and the end result of this insidious ‘socialisation’ process is that we agree to be who we are supposed to be without understanding that we have agreed to anything. If we can’t see that we have agreed to ‘things being the way they are’ then as far as we’re concerned just is ‘the way that they are’! We won’t remark on it or make an issue about it.

As a culture, we fondly imagine ourselves to be psychologically sophisticated – we know about socialisation and peer pressure and we even have the term ‘individuation’ in our psychological vocabulary. This doesn’t count for anything however; it doesn’t count for anything just as long as we continue not to know what we are actually talking about! We are paying ‘lip service only’ as it were, because we have no more interest in becoming individuals than we do in spending the weekend camping on Mars. Never was that an age in which so little value was given to true individuality, with the possible exception of Europe in the Middle Ages when our when original or creative thinking was seen as being synonymous with satanic possession!

We don’t think of ourselves in this way of course – we think of ourselves as being a very progressive culture, which is to say, as ‘not being stuck in a rut and looking backwards the whole time’. On the contrary, we will say, we are looking forwards. We are ‘future-orientated’. What we call being progressive really comes down to being blindly committed to a very particular direction, however. We’ve got a very specific idea about what ‘progress’ means and what direction it is to be found in and we are stone deaf to any voices that might be in disagreement with this unexamined idea that we have about it. Our ‘direction’ is very easy to explain – it involves continually improving our technology and our technology is simply about ‘fulfilling our desires in a more efficient manner’. If we think it’s about something else then we are not thinking clearly enough. Our technology certainly doesn’t help us to question our desires, question our direction!

We are a ‘desire-based’ culture, unflattering as this description may sound. We idolize desire and we idolize personal will (which is all about fulfilling our desires, no matter what these desires might be). This is the driving force of our civilisation, as is very apparent when we look at what’s going on with a bit of distance, a bit of perspective. We are all competing with each in order to be more successful than the next person at this business of ‘being able to fulfil our desires’. We look up to those who have the power to fulfil their desires and we look down on those of us don’t have this power – to have no power to obtain or fulfil our desires is a source of great shame in our culture! This is called ‘being a loser’ and there is no kudos for that…

We like to put a different gloss on what we are as a civilisation are all about but that’s only because the actual truth is none-too-flattering, as we have already said. We are a desire-based culture and we are also an illusion-based culture. The two go hand in hand, the two can’t be separated. They can’t be separated because when we desire something what this means is that we are projecting some sort of glamour on the outcome we’re chasing that isn’t really there. That’s what desire is all about – it’s about being seduced by glamour! We could also be said that we live in a ‘glamour-based culture’ therefore and so it should hardly come as a surprise to learn that the image that we have of ourselves, collectively speaking, is a ‘glamorous’ one. To call someone ‘glamorous’ is of course usually a compliment but in this case it isn’t! In this case it simply means that we are not seeing the truth about ourselves. The glamorous image and the actual reality are two very different things, after all…

Society – or ‘the collective for us’ – may be seen as one giant mind; we all understand each other as well as we do because we are all part and parcel of that mind, like bees from the same hive. ‘Coming from the same page on the hymn sheet’ is useful in a practical sense because we can act as a team, and communicate readily, but it is at the same time injurious to our mental health because our growth as individuals is completely stunted, completely repressed. We might be ‘progressive’ in the sense that we are forever refining and developing our technology, and in the sense that we don’t look back at how things used to be but rather we adapt our lifestyle style to suit the latest wave of technology, but we not ‘progressive’ in the sense of ever wanting to develop beyond the hive mind!

When we become part of the hive mind, part of the social group, then this hive mind, this social group may (in theory) ‘go on the journey’ – so to speak – but we as individuals do not, as is very clear when we think about it (which we don’t). There is an urgent motivation to adapt to the social system because that’s what everyone else is doing and because that’s where the prizes are (as Jung sense) but we experience very little in the way of motivation to move beyond it. This particular ‘motivation’ (if we can call it that) is the motivation of growth and as such it is something that each one of us has within us. There exist very effective mechanisms within society to put a lid on his motivation and divert it somewhere else (i.e. in the direction of ‘trying to find recognition and validation within the context of the social game’) as a result we don’t grow’ – growth meaning ‘going beyond who we used to think we were’!

In a nutshell, we want to succeed within society’s terms, not ‘go beyond it’ into dangerous uncharted territory. This ‘uncharted territory’ however is the only place that a journey can ever take place, as Joseph Campbell says. There can be no ‘Hero’s Journey’ taking place within the safe confines of ‘the playpen of the consensus reality’! The so-called ‘journeys’ that we undertake within the playpen which is the sanctified social game are not journeys at all; they are in fact ‘time-wasting exercises in chasing pointless red herrings’. They are a pure diversion…







Being Possessed By The Positive Self

The true nature of who we are isn’t what we say we are, it’s what we don’t say. And yet just about all we ever do is go around saying who or what we are! We weave a dense and sticky web of identity, and then get caught up in it. The more we try to say who we are (and the more we believe in what we’re saying) the more tangled up we get.

The culture that we are part of may be described in lots of different ways – it has been described as a rational culture, a technological culture, a consumer culture, a materialist culture, and so on but what it really is – most essentially – is the culture of the positive self. The ‘positive self’ is the known self, the self that can be described and communicated to others. Our culture is all about the positive self and the reason we can’t see this to be true is because we take the positive self so very much for granted that it’s just not an issue for us. It’s not an issue for us any more than the fact that the sky is blue is an issue. The only time we do get our attention drawn to the limitations of the positive self is when it starts to develop ‘aches and pains’ (so to speak) and then of course we become painfully aware of it, just as we become painfully aware of our kidneys when we have a kidney infection.

This analogy is fine up to a point but where it breaks down is in the fact that the positive self isn’t legitimately part of us. The positive self is a construct, or as we might also say, it is ‘an artificial implant’; just as Carlos Castaneda says that our mind is not our own but a ‘foreign installation’, so too is the thought-created identity that this mind has provided us with. Inasmuch as ‘who we are’ and ‘what we are about’ makes sense to our fellow human beings (or to society in general) then who we understand ourselves to be is an arbitrary mental construct or ‘foreign installation’. We have been tricked in a very fundamental way and there can be no two ways about this. If we are to understand anything in life it ought to be this. If we don’t understand it then everything we do is in vain!

What this means is that ‘the need to exist’ or rather, ‘the need to be recognised as existing’ becomes the same thing as ‘the need to identify with the societal construct of who we are and what we are about’; if we don’t do this then we just won’t be acknowledged as existing. We will be ‘unpeople’. The need to exist and have a place in the world is very strong of course; just as it is natural for a tree to grow and put out roots and branches, it is also natural for us to want to be acknowledged as existing and find our proper place in this world, to ‘belong’, as it is said. But what’s happening here is that this natural urge is being subverted so that all about energy goes in the ‘wrong direction’, so to speak. It’s the wrong direction simply because it benefits the positive self; it benefits the mask we are wearing, and not the one who is wearing the mask. What is beneficial to the image is harmful to us.

The whole of society is nothing more than a game for benefiting the positive or stated self, when it comes down to it. It’s true that our bodies benefit from improved health care, improved sanitation, having an environment to live in which is relatively free from danger and disease, but we never pause to wonder who it is that is routinely inhabiting this body of ours, and whether that inhabitant is us. We never stop to wonder whether it is us, or whether it is some cuckoo-like pretender that been implanted and has somehow taken over! This is of course such an outrageous suggestion that no one is ever going to take it seriously. It’s extremely unlikely that anyone is going to give this idea the time of day – the notion that I might have made the mistake of identifying with false persona, a false self, a false idea of who I am, is not one that is ever going to occur to me, not in the usual run of things. And yet this is precisely the danger that Carl Jung warned of over seventy years ago, the danger that the social persona will ‘grow onto our flesh’ and end up living our lives for us, ‘on behalf of us’, so to speak. After talking about how we can be ‘possessed by ideas’, as strange as this may sound, Jung, in Collected Works 9(1) p, 123, goes on to say this:

A common instance of this is identity with the persona, which is the individual’s system of adaptation to, or the manner he assumes in dealing with, the world. Every calling or profession, for example, has its own characteristic persona. It is easy to study these things nowadays, when the photographs of public personalities so frequently appear in the press. A certain kind of behaviour is forced on them by the world, and professional people endeavour to come up to these expectations. Only, the danger is that they become identical to their personas – the professor with his text-book, the tenor with his voice. Then the damage is done; henceforth he lives exclusively against the background of his own biography. For by that time it is written: “…then he went to such and such a place and said this or that,” etc. The garment of Deianeira has grown fast to his skin, and a desperate decision like that of Heracles is needed if he is to tear this Nessus shirt from his body and step into the consuming fire of the flame of immortality, in order to transform himself into what he really is. One could say, with a little exaggeration, that the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is. In any case, the temptation to be what one seems to be is great, because the persona is usually rewarded in cash.

The writer Colin Wilson approaches this from a different angle when he says that we hand over our responsibility for living our lives to a collection of habits and reflexes which he calls ‘the robot’. (For the sake of convenience) I don’t have to answer the front door myself – my butler will do that for me. Similarly, I don’t have to live my life for myself – the robot will take care of that! As Colin Wilson says here (in a quote taken from a conversation Jeffrey Mishlove on intuitionnetwork.org):

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.

Convenience is of course a great thing as we all know, but when things get this convenient (when convenience gets taken to the logical extreme and we don’t actually have to be there any more) then it stops being ‘convenient’ and becomes something else entirely! It stops being a good thing becomes a very bad thing indeed – after all, who wants to get to the end of their life and only then realise that it wasn’t them that lived it, but rather that the ‘captain at the helm’ was a mere collection of habits and reflexes? That is like having a ghost live your life instead of you because you couldn’t be bothered to step in yourself, because you were ‘otherwise engaged’. Or we could say that it’s like being banned by the authorities from attending your own birthday party – what’s the point of having a birthday party if you yourself are not invited, or if you yourself are a ‘persona non grata’?

This turns out to be exactly the case when cuckoo-like positive self gets to manoeuvre itself sneakily into the ‘prime position’ – the first thing it does is to get rid of any remaining traces of who we really are and thus our true individuality becomes the unwelcome guest, the one who is unceremoniously shown the door every time they put in an appearance. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead there is a line that says something to the effect that if we spend our entire lives being interested in nonsense that has nothing to do with us (and which we’re not even really interested in any way) then at the end of our life we will find that we have been our own betrayers! We’ve done the dirty on ourselves and sold ourselves up the river as a result of identifying with the ‘false or shallow sense of ourselves’, and constantly seeking benefits for this false idea of who we are at the expense of our true nature. In Christianity this is equivalent to the idea of selling us soul to the devil in return for paltry material advantages in this brief lifetime. It might seem like a good time at the time (because we’re not really thinking it through) but when we discover that we have been cheated of the only thing that is actually worth something this is going to be a very hard awareness to have to face up to.

The positive self most definitely is something that we adopt for the sake of convenience.  It is convenient because it is known to us, and thus no work is needed to investigate it (as a philosopher or mystic might do) and it is also convenient because this is how we get to be ‘optimally adapted to the social world in which we find ourselves’. This process (which is very much akin to the ‘slippery slope into addiction’ that is talked about by recovering addicts) starts at a very early age, as we all know. It starts when, as a result of the need to be accepted and loved, we try to become the sort of people that our parents want us to be rather than remaining true to really are. Then at school we are under further pressure to fit into the crowd and be the sort of person who is popular rather than unpopular (or at least, the sort of person who is inconspicuous rather than the sort who sticks out as being somewhat odd and is liable on this account to be given a hard time). This process – needless to say – doesn’t stop at school but continues throughout our adult life too – just as long as we are part of a collective then are going to be under pressure to conform to that collective and this is a process that (as Jung says) brings material short-term benefits at a terrible long-term cost. We spend all our time grasping at tacky phantoms, and missed what was really there.

This cost is – then – that we end up cheating ourselves out of our own lives and the awareness that this has happened (the awareness that this is what we have unwittingly done) is one of the most painful awarenesses is that it’s possible to have, if not the most painful. In our decidedly unphilosophical culture we tend to label this sort of terribly painful awareness ‘depression’ and we think that it is something that can be cured by pills or a dozen sessions of talking therapy, which is rather an odd idea to say the least. As in all the neurotic conditions, we don’t tend to understand our experience in this way when we ourselves happen to be suffering from depression – our social milieu doesn’t support an insight such as this, as we have already said. It is seen as a pathological manifestation, a sickness, and because our experience is so very painful we tend to see it this way too. We certainly don’t think that there is anything good about it. We think that there is something wrong with us, possibly something organically wrong but we also believe that we are suffering from some kind of very serious moral failing (or character failing) as well. We might feel like bad people – undeserving of happiness, and undeserving of life itself. We might feel deserving of punishment or death.

These feelings are real and the pain that is in them is real, but our interpretation is distorted because of our identification with the false self that has been so conveniently created for us by our thoughts, and by the insidious process of socialisation. If I feel undeserving of happiness, undeserving of life, and that there is something terribly wrong with me at my core, this is just a distorted version of the awareness that the positive or defined self is not who I am. I feel like a fake or phony or if I feel that I am not truly alive (but am only a hollow shell) then this too is a distorted echo (or inversion) of the insight regarding the false nature of the positive self, and the way that it functions by passing itself off as what it isn’t.  By association with the false self, we are guilty of the crime of taking what never belong to us, and disenfranchising the true heir (so to speak). As soon as we stop confusing who we are with the positive self these feelings of guilt and self-loathing or self-condemnation will pass, but this can only happen when we see through the superficial culture that surrounds us, which endlessly and pointlessly celebrates the tawdry ‘known image’ in place of the mystery which it obscures.







Celebrating Who We’re Not

Mental health is a state of non-adaptation to our environment. This is of course totally contrary to our usual way of understanding things because our automatic tendency is to see mental health as a state of adaptation, not non-adaptation. To say that someone is ‘maladapted’ is prejudicial, not complimentary. It’s like being a misfit, oddball, or eccentric – who wants to be seen as a misfit, oddball or eccentric?

The thing is however that being a misfit is actually a healthier state of affairs – generally speaking – because there is more autonomy in it. There is no autonomy in being perfectly adapted to whatever society or culture we might happen to be part of – there is zero autonomy here because when we are perfectly adapted to the society we are part of then we are that society and there’s nothing else there ‘in the mix, so to speak. We are a ‘perfect expression of our cultural milieu’ and that doesn’t leave any room for this little thing called ‘individuality’, which happens to be a rather important thing, easy though it is to lose sight of.

Individuality is ‘important’ (if we can use that rather inadequate word) because it’s who we are. We are in our essence ‘non-adapted’, in other words. How can a genuine individual be adapted, after all? When we are socially adapted then we are exactly the same as everyone else who is socially adapted – if we weren’t then we wouldn’t be adapted! We’d be ‘odd’ instead, we’d be ‘unique’. We pay a lot of lip service to the notion that everyone is unique and that we every human being is precious on this account but that’s all it is – empty lip service. Our latent individuality is denied right from the word go – the process of socialisation is by its very nature one in which we are all adjusted to a common template. This truth is too ugly for us to want to face.

To be ‘adjusted’ to our environment (which is, for almost all of us, the same thing being adjusted to society) is to be defined by that environment and – as we have just said – to be defined by our environment (or to be defined by society) is to be that environment, that society. We fit into it and so we are it. Instead of being unique and therefore ‘irreplaceable’ (which is the ideal that we are always paying lip service to) we are regular and thus completely irreplaceable, completely interchangeable. We become generic human units. We don’t like to confront the fact that this is the case because the fact in question is particularly appalling, but this is nevertheless the truth of the matter, as Carl Jung pointed out seventy or eighty years ago, when the world was considerably less uniform than it is today. The more connectivity there is in the world the more we are compelled to adjust ourselves to the ‘mass template’; we’re compelled to adapt to the system because if we don’t then we’re straightaway ‘out of the loop’, and so – in a very real sense – we’re out in the cold.

This is a very straightforward trade-off, therefore – either we go for adaptation to the common template and the chance of success within the terms of the game that is being played, or we ‘go our own way’ in life, in which case we are no longer on the same page as everyone else and do not subscribe to the same value system. We have become ‘irrelevant’ to society (which also means of course that society has become irrelevant to us). This isn’t a particularly hard idea to grasp and neither is it something that will be regarded as being overly controversial, but all the same we have failed – on a very large scale – to apply this basic understanding to the much talked-about topic of mental health. We stop short of seeing the obvious, which is that adaptation to mass society is always injurious to our mental health!

Social adaptation, just to repeat the point once more, means that we come to believe that we are who society says we are. The problem with this (mental health-wise) is that ‘who society says we are’ is not who we really are and so our actual individuality is neglected, ignored, sidelined, and ultimately relegated to the waste bin. Instead, we ‘celebrate who we are not’. Sometimes we don’t celebrate ourselves of course, sometimes we have a poor opinion of ourselves, but exactly the same is true here – instead of ‘celebrating who we’re not’ we ‘have a low opinion of who we’re not, but who society says we are’ and this is exactly the same thing. We are fixated upon a false identity either way. When I feel good about myself it’s because I’m comparing myself to the common template that I’ve adapted myself to and when I feel bad about myself (when I feel like a failure) it is also because I’m comparing myself to the common template, but this template is only meaningful because society itself says that it is. That’s just the game that we are playing, the game that we’re trapped in.

This means that both having good self-esteem and poor self esteem are both equally mentally unhealthy, therefore. These two states are both equally unhealthy because the ‘self’ in question is an arbitrary societal construct that has nothing to do with who we really are. If I seem from the outside to be doing really well in life then everyone will say that this is a good state of affairs but when the socially adapted persona is successful this is bad news from a psychological point of view; it is bad news for the psyche because the true individuality is being repressed suppressed for the sake of a societal construct, for the sake of a societal role! It has often been said that the only thing that really matters in life is ‘having a sense of meaning’ and there is zero meaning in pursuing the ‘false life’ of the arbitrary persona the expense of the actual individuality!

There is, we might say, a type of meaning in the life of the persona, but this is more of a surrogate for meaning rather than anything else. What we’re talking about here is extrinsic meaning, which is the meaning that has been given to us from some external authority. Society tells us who we are and – by the same token – it tells us what is meaningful to us (or to put this another way, ‘the system tells us what we like). When we lead this life, therefore, we will perceive our goals as being meaningful, and we will perceive achieving these goals as meaningful, but this extrinsic system of meaning, when we buy into it, always causes us to lose sight of what really matters to us. We betray ourselves for the sake of getting a stake in samsara, as Sogyal Rinpoche says (although not in exactly those words). Extrinsic meaning causes us to forget about what is genuinely meaningful to us and so this isn’t ‘meaning’ at all but ‘the disguised lack of meaning’…

When the meaning I perceive my life to have for me is really ‘the disguised lack of meaning’ then this clearly isn’t good news as far as our mental health is concerned! It’s actually the worst news possible because what is happening here is that I’m moving deeper and deeper into an existential desert or wasteland and any impression that I might have that ‘things are going well’ or that ‘I’m getting somewhere’ are simply delusions designed to lure us ever deeper into the trap of disguised meaninglessness. Anything that matters to the persona or that is important to the persona is disguised meaninglessness! This social matrix is exclusively made up of stuff that matters or is important to the socialised persona – that’s the whole point of it after all. What else would the social matrix be made up of? When we live the life of the construct that is derived from the social milieu then this is not a ‘healthy’ situation, to say the least…

When we live life on the basis that identity that is constructed by reference to the social milieu then this is an artificial loop that ‘feeds upon itself’, so to speak. It’s an example of Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreality. It feeds on itself and so our actual individuality never comes into it, even though we don’t usually notice this because we have the ‘false individuality’ of the adapted self to trade on instead, which seems to be the real thing as far as we’re concerned. This has to be the case because – as we have already said – our actual individuality is, by its very nature, completely unadapted. Individuality is always non-adapted (or ‘out of equilibrium’) – that’s what makes it individual, or unique, after all!

In our ‘rush to belong’ we’ve lost sight of this and we’ve lost sight of it in a big way – the problem being that when we are ‘100% adapted to the presented reality’ then we have nothing else to go on. In order to see consensus reality for what it is – and not what it presents itself as being – we would have to ‘take a step sideways’, so to speak, and look at it from a non-adapted viewpoint, and that is that very thing we are most disincentivized to do. Who wants to look or be laughed at, after all? Who wants to be an outsider? This is a lesson we learn very early in life. We learn it for sure, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a healthy thing to learn…



Unlived Life

If society is supremely efficient at creating the generic self and if the generic self is not a ‘true basis for living life’ then this means that society is also supremely efficient at creating this thing that is sometimes called ‘unlived life’. Society manufactures unlived life by the gallon, by the cubic kilometre in fact. On the face of it society has one purpose or function, which is an apparently benign one, whilst on another level it has quite another, quite different function – the function of manufacturing ‘unlived life’!

 

‘What sort of commodity is this?’ we might ask, ‘what does unlived life even look like?’ This is a difficult question to answer because it doesn’t look actually like anything. It’s like dark matter – we can detect its influence but we can’t detect it. The effect of ‘unlived life ‘is to cause us to go around being less than happy, less than joyful. It’s a type of invisible misery. This isn’t to say that we are sad however – sadness is a different matter, sadness is actually a sign that we are living our life. Unlived life would be sadness that we deny, sadness that we can’t see to be there. We can’t relate to denied sadness, we can’t detect it, but its influence can be detected. Unlived sadness ‘loads onto us’ in a way that we can’t be directly aware of; it is like a weight or burden that we are carrying without knowing it. We don’t feel it, but from time to time it will dramatically show itself nevertheless. It will show itself on the individual level and also – as Jung says – very dramatically on the collective level. The pain of unlived life drives the collective.

 

A more general explanation of what ‘unlived life’ might be is to say that it has to do with possibilities that we turn away from, possibilities that we never explore. When we talk about ‘having regrets’ with regard to the things in life that we have never done and never will do, but which we would have liked to have done, this is getting close to the mark. When we don’t realise our potential then this is ‘unlived life’. And as Jesus says in Verse 70 of the Gospel of Thomas –

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

 

We started off this discussion by implicating society – society functions (we might say) by apparently offering us many opportunities, many possibilities whilst actually offering us ‘just the one possibility’ (which is to be a socially adapted human being). No matter which road we go down in society, if we let the requirements of this road define us then we are ‘a socially adapted human being’. We are being defined by a collectively applied template of ‘how we should be’ and what this means is that the only choice we are being offered is ‘the choice to do what we’re told’. Everything is ‘coming from the outside of us’ therefore and whatever comes from the outside always comes down to the same thing – loss of freedom, loss of autonomy. Fitting into a structure or system is always a loss of freedom, albeit a loss of freedom that comes ‘with benefits’. We have to be who we are told to be in order to enjoy these benefits, and that places a rather sinister complexion on things, if we were to take the time to reflect on it.

 

The more we adapt to the system, and take our role in life from it, the more benefits we are eligible to receive (assuming of course that we have the required capabilities to go with it). It is also true that the more we adapt, the more we are afflicted with ‘the curse of unlived life’. This is because we have had to make a sacrifice of our true inclinations and interests in order to progress within society’s terms – we are living a life, we might say, but is not our life. I our own life is unlived; no one has claimed it, no one wants it… It could be objected that we also have to make sacrifices in order to cultivate a gift that we might have, and forego the leisurely pursuits that our fellow human beings might be able to engage in, but this of course isn’t the same thing – it isn’t the same thing because we are not sacrificing our creativity and individuality. Adapting maximally to society, on the other hand, always involves sacrificing our creativity and individuality – society is a game (which is to say, it is all about following rules and regulations) and so creativity is the one thing does not go down well here. Creativity is the fly in the ointment as far as society goes. The process of social adaptation – as we have already indicated – is precisely that process whereby we sacrifice our creativity/individuality for the sake of fitting into the hive.

 

This isn’t to say that we can’t live within a community without forfeiting our souls but the ‘global megaculture,’ as E.F Schumacher calls it – which is the culture that has arisen in the technologically advanced nations – has now become so specialised (in terms of the employment niches that we can occupy) that a huge investment of time and energy is needed for us to make the grade to fit into it. A choice has to be made – do I can try to obtain the best possible job (i.e. the highest wage) that I can, which requires massive adaptation, or do I ‘go my own way’ despite the poor employment prospects that this would seem to entail? In addition, gaining entrance into the professional classes not only means that I be more or less guaranteed a good wage, it’s also a guarantee of high social status, so if that is important to me – as it probably will be – then that is something else for me to take into consideration. The cultivation of individuality doesn’t come into this, as we have said, there is an awful lot of training going on and training always comes from the outside and so – when it comes down to it – this is further enslaving and conditioning us rather than allowing us to actually grow.

 

 

There is an anomaly here that we just don’t spot and this anomaly is that whilst we are placing greater and greater reliance on technical expertise, we are placing no value whatsoever on wisdom. Wise human beings aren’t really of any use to the system; why human beings are actually a nuisance or an irritation to the system because they tend to disagree and criticise it! As Noam Chomsky says,

The whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on — because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions.

 

This overvaluing of technical expertise over wisdom is nowhere as poignant as in the mental health services – we get to be fully packed fully paid-up professionals in mental health by adapting ourselves assiduously to the given system, not by striking out alone. Wisdom – we might say – comes from ‘living our own lives’, not living someone else’s (or society’s) idea of ‘what our life should be’. Wisdom comes from ‘lived life’, in other words, not from the ‘unlived life’ that adapting to the social system creates. This is the only place it can come from, obviously enough! It is only through walking our own path that we can become wise, not through trading the well-worn collective path, motivated as we are by thoughts of profit, thoughts of personal advantage. ‘Unlived life’, as we have been saying, creates a form of suffering that we are disconnected from; unlived life IS a form of suffering that we are disconnected from. Given the fact that modern living is so invasive of our space, so undermining of our personal freedom (and who would be naïve enough to deny this?) it is perfectly reasonable to hypothesize that the state of absolute heteronomy that it engenders is what lies behind our neurotic suffering. It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that it is the mass of unlived life that our society produces (as a sort of ‘waste product’, as it were) that results in the ever-increasing burden of mental ill health in the technologically advanced nations that we are currently witnessing. The problem is – therefore – how do we imagine that we are going to remedy the situation by ‘throwing professionals at the problem’, when these professionals aren’t wise enough to understand that the bulk of our mental ill health is societally produced?

 

Mental health – above any other area, we might argue – requires actual human wisdom, rather than spurious ‘technical expertise’. How are we to produce wise human beings however, given that ‘education’ (or ‘training’) has the reverse effect actually producing wisdom? (Given that education is ‘imposed ignorance’, as Chomsky says). Anything generic that comes from the outside always undermines our true individuality and our true individuality, as we have been saying, is the only place wisdom can come from. This presents us with something of a dilemma therefore since, as a culture, we do not value ‘people going their own way’ (or people ‘thinking for themselves’) and yet this is the only way that we can be saved from our self-created neurotic misery. This is an old dilemma as it happens – all of humanity’s great artist and thinkers have come from the ‘undervalued fringes of society’. Very often they have been persecuted and reviled for daring to think outside the box (or daring to ‘live outside the box’); low social status has always been their lot. No respect is accorded them – more to the point. And yet it is from these social rejects (these ‘disrespected ones’) that almost all of our major creative or cultural leaps have come from. True creative thinking can’t come from those of us who are highly adapted for the simple reason that we have already given. ‘Adaptation to the given system’ and ‘creativity’ are two opposite things – the former excludes the matter. And yet without creativity and originality (i.e. ‘that which isn’t imposed from the outside’) how can we hope to survive? Our huge emphasis on conformity above all else isn’t just ‘shooting ourselves in the foot’ – it’s ‘shooting ourselves in the head’!

 

 

The System Can Only Ever Do One Thing

The system can only ever do one thing and that is to keep imprinting on itself on everyone. This is the only action of which it is capable. In the field of mental health, therefore, it is inevitable that our understanding of what mental health means will always come down to the question of ‘how well has the unit taken the programming?’ (although we will not of course frame it in quite these terms).

If the unit concerned has taken the conditioning well then this equals ‘being mentally healthy’ and in cases where there is a problem with the conditioning therapy naturally consists of reinstating it, reaffirming it, ‘reinstalling’ it. Insofar as the individual therapist has himself or herself been socially conditioned this is — as we have just said — quite inevitably going to be the way of things. As a conditioned person, how can I do otherwise than pass on my own conditioning? How can I do otherwise other than assume that the conditioned state is the healthy one, that my way of seeing the world (as a conditioned person) is the right one. That’s what we all do, all of the time. That’s what it means to be ‘conditioned’.

How could I even find work within a healthcare system if I did not show myself to be subscribing wholeheartedly and unreflectively to the viewpoint that everyone else has dutifully subscribed to? This is how it is with all groups — we have to ‘subscribe’ in order to be accepted — and mental healthcare systems (or professional bodies) are of course no exception. Far from being an exception, healthcare systems are even more rigorous about the norms because they have the added excuse of ‘ensuring standards of care’. This sounds highly commendable on the face of it of course and it is on this account well-nigh impossible to challenge — if we do take it into our heads to challenge the norms then we are simply excluded. That’s how we get ourselves excluded, by challenging the norms — that’s the mechanism. Our prospects of future employment in our chosen field immediately become very doubtful indeed, and who is going to risk that? Furthermore, who isn’t going to doubt ‘their right to challenge’ (or ‘their right to question’) in the face of the very solid front presented by everyone else in the field, who — we may be sure — are not going to risk their status (or livelihood) by publicly agreeing with us even if they do happen to have their own reservations about ‘the official line’. We all know that this is the way things work — ‘the day you start working for a big organization is the day you stop thinking’!

The bottom-line is that if we are part of a group, then our allegiance is to the group norms, or to put this another way, insofar as we have been conditioned by the system, we see promoting the values of the system as being consistent with (or as being ‘the same thing as’) good practice. Or as we might also say, if our allegiances to the everyday mind, and the way that it necessarily understands things, then all we are ever going to be able to do is to impose this particular brand of order on everything and everyone we meet, through all of our rational evaluation and all of our purposeful activity.

Mental healthcare can never come about as a result of the successful acting out of our conditioning however. It can never come about as a result of enacting approved procedures and protocols. All that’s going to happen this way is the perpetuation of the particular brand of order associated with our (unexamined) looking at things. All that’s going to come about this way is the reinforcement of the status quo. Genuine mental health means that whatever process it is that is happening is allowed to show itself for what it is. Whatever is emerging is allowed to emerge, and our ‘mental health’ lies precisely in this. Our ‘mental health’ lies precisely in our ability to relate honestly to whatever it is that emerging, and what is emerging will never accord with ‘what we all think it should be’. If there’s anything at all that we can be certain of in this world, it is this.

This principle goes beyond the world of mental healthcare — reality itself (we may say) can be relied upon to never accord with what we can collectively agree for it to be. Our relationship with what is real can’t be decided via a committee, or via any kind of ‘group think’ — this is a matter for the individual alone, unaided. Who can aid us in this matter of establishing a relationship with reality, after all? The more we are ‘aided’ in this regard the more we are put wrong, the more we are led astray. This is the one responsibility that we can’t put onto anyone else, no matter how unequal we might feel to the burden. Reality will always fall foul of the expectations or requirements of the collective and this is just another way of saying that ‘consciousness is always unwelcome in the group’. Only people who agree with the group are welcome in the group, as we all know very well.

When consciousness appears on the scene this is always as a result of the programming failing — the ‘unit’ has failed to take the conditioning. Consciousness is in one sense the enemy of the socially-adapted person because it means that they cannot be socially adapted anymore! When consciousness arrives on the scene this is generally unwelcome to the individual just as it is unwelcome to the collective and so we will all agree to do whatever can be done in order to remedy the unfortunate situation that has come about. Certainly no one is going to be happy about what is going on and look upon it as a precious opportunity for growth. Instead of ‘growth’, we like to talk in terms of recovery, which is a kind of a buzzword at the moment. Recovery means ‘going back’, it means ‘going back to the way we were before’ which was ‘being socially adapted’ (i.e. unconscious).

When we are in the ‘socially-adapted mode’ then we can’t help seeing things this way. The fact that we are socially adapted provides us with a ‘baseline’ and this baseline is — needless to say — what we want to come back to. The baseline is always what we want to come back to when our normal mental functioning has been challenged; the baseline doesn’t offer us any ‘opportunities for growth’ it is true (it was of course never its business to do this) but it does provide us with great sense of security. We want the return of the brand of order that we are familiar with — growth is a very frightening thing, after all. The crux of the matter is therefore that’s what we generally call ‘therapy’ or ‘mental healthcare’ is actually social readjustment therapy, as Alan Watt says. We are being ‘returned to the way we were’ (or, at least, that is the idea). To quote Alan Watts (from Psychotherapy East and West) –

Whenever the therapist stands with society, he will interpret his work as adjusting the individual and coaxing his ‘unconscious drives’ into social respectability. But such ‘official psychotherapy’ lacks integrity and becomes the obedient tool of armies, bureaucracies, churches, corporations, and all agencies that require individual brainwashing. On the other hand, the therapist who is really interested in helping the individual is forced into social criticism. This does not mean that he has to engage directly in political revolution; it means that he has to help the individual in liberating himself from various forms of social conditioning, which includes liberation from hating this conditioning — hatred being a form of bondage to its object.

In practice things don’t always work out so well when we try to go down this road. Things often enough don’t work out so well because it’s not a ‘healthy’ thing to try to go against the movement of growth (which is the ‘movement away from the known’). The impulse towards ‘returning to the way we were’ is not a healthy one; the conservative impulse is not a healthy thing — being driven by ‘avoidance of the new’ as it is, how can it be said to be ‘healthy’? By definition we can say that readjustment therapy is not a healthy thing because to be healthy is to be whole and the life of the socially adapted person is a fractured and alienated one and can never be otherwise. We all crowd together in large numbers but the lives that we lead are never any less ‘fractured’ and ‘alienated’ as a result — we just have company in it, that’s all. We have company in the fractured and alienated life and we can thus validate ourselves, which we do all the time. Society itself is a mechanism for the validation of the group norms!

The journey towards mental health is the journey towards wholeness and wholeness means that we are manifesting our true individuality. The individual is always whole and the whole is always ‘individual’! Naturally wholeness is always individual (or ‘unique’) — what is there to compare it to, after all? The life of the socially adapted person on the other hand is always generic in nature, as we can easily see if we think about it for a moment. If we weren’t ‘generic’ then we wouldn’t be accepted within the group — that is precisely the price we have to pay in order to be accepted within the group. If we weren’t generic then we would be ‘different’ or ‘strange’ and if we were ‘different or ‘strange’ then there would be no place for us in the group.

Just as the journey towards mental health is the journey to wholeness (i.e. the journey to ‘who we really are’) it is also the journey away from all that is familiar and comfortable, and this is why we tend very much not to like it. ‘Growth’ is a word that we all bandy about freely and are generally very comfortable about, but the reality itself is far from comfortable. ‘Comfort’ is not a word anyone in the throes of growth would ever use. Growth is something we have to do alone, without the assistance of anyone else, as we have already intimated. We have to break away from our ‘support system’. No one can tell us ‘how to grow’ or provide us with any handy suggestions or advice. There are no ‘hacks’ for growth! What we can do however is provide an environment which is supportive of growth, rather than being inherently critical of it.

To be pushed right out of our comfort zone and at the same time to have this process universally regarded as ‘something pathological that needs to be reversed’ makes the situation so much harder — the experience becomes actually punishing. The experience of those of us who are going through a mental health crisis is generally a ‘punishing’ one of course, but this is because the attitudes that exist in society, both within ourselves and society at large. Our experience is punishing (as opposed to being simply painful) because it is being negatively evaluated on all sides — it is punishing because we understand that we are ‘wrong’ to be feeling this way. We may not be overtly criticised or blamed or judged (although on the other hand we might well be) but implicit in the response of everyone we meet is the deeply ingrained idea that what is happening should not be happening. This is the attitude of everyone concerned — it is my attitude and it is also the attitude of all the mental healthcare professionals I meet, and this is not helpful. ‘Negative evaluation’ is a ‘mechanical reaction’ and mechanical reactions are never helpful when it comes to mental health!