The Social Sickness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Therapy Or Brainwashing?

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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




Art: Taken from a-tour-of-melbourne-street-art