Selling Narcissism

The social life is one in which we are perpetrating a kind of hoax, with ever without ever focusing on the fact that this is what we are doing. We are perpetrating a hoax on ourselves, in other words. We very much tend to think that society (or the social life) is about something else, something eminently practical, but – primarily – this is the function that is being served. We are maintaining a fiction, we are validating a ‘purely arbitrary narrative’. No one who has ever studied society would ever claim otherwise.

 

One simple way to talk about this hoax is to say that we have been sold the idea that it is possible (and not just possible but highly desirable) to have a type of life that in reality it is just not possible to have. This is a rather big hoax therefore since, if we fall for it (as we generally do) then instead of living the life that it IS possible for us to live, we will be forever trying to live a life which we simply CAN’T live, no matter how hard we may try to do so.

 

As we have said, this is very far from being an obvious point; it’s so far from being obvious that most people wouldn’t get it no matter how much effort you were to put into trying to explain it. Of all the difficult things to explain this is right there at the top, and – not only is it challenging to explain and challenging to understand – the plain fact of the matter is that we absolutely don’t want to understand it anyway. We are very much invested in not understanding it; our whole lives – obviously enough – have been invested in this hoax and so can we really aren’t going to be open to this type of discussion.

 

One way that we could look at the hoax in question however is to say that it revolves around the idea that it is ‘good to be a narcissist’! This not ever stated like this of course, but that’s what it comes down to. We are presented with the idea or image of this type of life (the narcissistic type of life) and along with the image come all sorts of subtle (and not so subtle) incentivizations for us to conform to it. We are ‘sold the package’, in other words. We are sold the package and, as Sogyal Rinpoche says, we are sold it with superlative skill. Our great expertise as a culture lies precisely in promoting this particular illusion.

 

We are skilfully manoeuvred not only into believing that the narcissistic life is a very rewarding and satisfying one, but also into believing that it is the only type of life that there ever could be! Add into the equation the fact that everyone around us is also falling for this story hook, line and sinker, then the chances are that we will never smell a rat. The chances that we won’t fall for this hoax are microscopically tiny. There is a rat however and as it happens it is rather a big one. It’s a very big rat indeed! This is King Rat that we talking about here – the Great Granddaddy of all rats and there should be no doubt about that! This is the hoax of all hoaxes and no one seems to know anything about it. The problem is that we don’t know anything else – we don’t have anything else to go by. This is a lot like living in a dysfunctional family or being in an abusive relationship – we think what we going through is normal, we don’t realise that we are being taken for a ride. We mistake our prison for reality.

 

The nature of our prison (which is ‘the prison of narcissism’) is that it is entirely hollow, without any genuine substance (or ‘goodness’) to it at all. It is – we might say – ‘fundamentally unwholesome’. Our primary activity involves striving perpetually to bring in some kind of actual substance into our lives, or perhaps fooling ourselves into believing that there is some kind of substance there when there just plain isn’t. An example of how we cultivate this particular illusion is given by John Berger – the trick that we use (according to Berger) is that we go to a lot of trouble to create an impression or image of ourselves that makes it look as though we’re having a good time even though we’re not really, so that we can make other people envious of us. This is what Berger calls glamour.

It is true that in publicity one brand of manufacture, one firm, competes with another; but it is also true that every publicity image confirms and enhances every other. Publicity is not merely an assembly of competing images: it is a language in itself which is always being used to make the same general proposal. Within publicity, choices are offered between this cream and that cream, that car and this car, but publicity as a system only makes a single proposal.

It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more.

This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer – even though we will be poorer by having spent our money.

Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.

 

When we see that other people are envious of what they think we’ve got, then we can logically infer that there must have something there to be envious of! This then is John Berger’s explanation of what the hoax is. We might naïvely think that – in this consumer society – we invest all our energy on buying products so ‘the products will make us happy’, but this isn’t it – we are acquiring all the stuff and the status that goes with it in order that others might think we are happy, which then allows us to feed off the illusion that they have about us. Deep down we know that we can’t buy happiness but, what we can do is construct a believable illusion of us having a good time, having a meaningful life, so that we and others can believe in this illusion – the illusion that it is possible to live the type of conditioned life society promotes and actually benefit from this. The purest example of this is of course social media – why else would we spend so much of our time posting images of ourselves having a good time if we weren’t trying to construct a ‘believable illusion’?

 

Nothing we have so far said comes across as being too formidably difficult to understand, which is what we started out by saying. When the ‘difficulty’ comes in however is with the actual reason for the narcissistic life being so hollow, so devoid in substance or meaning. Why is the narcissistic life a life that is ‘impossible to live’? One way of looking at this is to think in terms of the Buddhist idea of ‘the good mind versus the bad mind’ – the good mind is the mind of compassion, and ‘the bad mind’ is the mind of self-interest or self-cherishing. If we live on the basis of the mind of compassion then there is meaning in our lives and we can actually grow; if on the other hand we live on the basis of self-interest or self-cherishing then our lives inevitably become sterile and joyless and there can be no growth. Who could possibly disagree with this?

 

All religions who have the function of teaching the compassion is better than selfishness (or at least they started out that way), but the point is that this is not merely a matter of ‘utility’; if we actually sat down and thought about it we would see this psychological truth very clearly – there can be no meaning in the life of the narcissist. We don’t of course ever see ourselves in this way; we have identified NPD as a designated psychiatric condition, it’s an ‘official diagnosis’, but this makes it even easier not to recognise that narcissism, to some extent or other, is pretty much the norm in our society. It also effectively distracts us from seeing that our consumer society actually relies on us falling into the trance of narcissism. We pathologize narcissism and promote it both at the same time therefore, which is rather conflicted of us, to say the least!

 

The ‘hoax’ that is being perpetrated in society (and very effectively too) is that it is possible to live in the Narcissistic Mode (even though we won’t call it that) and also at the same time lead a meaningful and fulfilling life, and because of the way that societal pressure works we feel obliged – without reflecting on the fact very much – to maintain the fiction that we are having that we are happy, that we are having the life we want to be living, et cetera. In this is what ‘living the life of the image’ is all about. This is where all the emphasis goes – into fooling ourselves (and others) that we are all having a great time having a great life. That however is quite impossible – obviously it’s quite impossible! What we are trying to do here is create the impression that everything is good is if the impression itself were the thing that mattered and not what the impression is about.

 

In very plain and simple terms what we’re doing here is to pretend to ourselves that the idea which we have (about ourselves or about life) is the real thing, and that therefore that this idea that we have (without realizing that it is only an idea) is the only thing worth concerning ourselves with. The idea we have about who we are and what life is all about is not just ‘important’ to us therefore, it is so overwhelmingly important that it obliterates all awareness of anything else. And even though it is very easy and very straightforward to make such a statement it doesn’t actually help us any to do so because we are all so totally convinced that ‘the idea is the thing’. This is our blindness. We are so convinced that we simply can’t be told otherwise, and this isn’t any sort of hyperbole – if you try to suggest to anybody that their idea of ‘who they are’ is nothing to do with ‘who they really are’ and you will be met with a blank look. Either that or the person you are talking to will automatically think that they know what you mean without really knowing…

 

There is a difference between the two things however and that difference is the biggest and most profound difference there ever could be. What we’re talking about here is the greatest gulf there is, no words exist that can express the enormity of this gulf and yet if you try to get this point across to someone you will almost certainly discover that you just can’t do it. If our mental health rests upon anything then it rests upon an awareness or appreciation of this gulf, an awareness or appreciation of this discontinuity, and – we keep saying – our awareness in this on this score is zero. We don’t appreciate that there is any fundamental  / irreconcilable mismatch between the conceptual world which we are so very familiar with, and the world as it is in itself.

 

This is easy to show – if our ‘awareness of the discontinuity’ wasn’t zero, wasn’t nonexistent, then every time we talked about ideas or thought about the world then we would do so in an ironic way. Our entire language will change accordingly in other words – we would no longer be talking in such a dull, flat, ‘concrete’ way. This becomes particularly pertinent in the case of our approach to mental health. If you were (for some reason) to open up any psychology textbook or journal you will immediately see the dullest, flattest, most concrete pseudo-technical language you could ever possibly imagine. There is very little in the world less interesting, less vibrant, less ‘coma-inducing’ than this type of stuff. The same will be true if you were to eavesdrop on a bunch of mental healthcare professionals talking shop (CBT or DBT therapists for example) – the language being used in this type of setting is invariably concrete, technical and dull – you’d feel like yawning and going to sleep on the spot if you didn’t have your professional image to maintain!

 

What life comes down to when we have no awareness of the discontinuity between thought and the reality is ‘the worshipping of the image’. Everything is about the image; nothing exists apart from the image – so what else could we possibly do other than ‘worshipping the image’. This is what narcissism is – it’s the worshipping the image which we call ‘the self’. In terms of mental health care, and our whole societal approach to mental health, what happens is that we – very absurdly – get diverted into promoting and maintaining the idea of ourselves, the image we have of ourselves. We are trying to protect and perpetuate a construct in other words, and the health or well-being of the construct – needless to say – has nothing to do with actual well-being! The construct doesn’t have any well-being anyway – there is no way for a construct to be well or not well, healthy or not healthy because it is only ‘a construct’! Within the narrow terms of the game that is being played the health of the concept does mean something (just as it does in any regular role-playing game on a computer or game console) but this doesn’t translate into actual reality. It doesn’t translate into actual reality at all. The reverse is true in fact because the more we cherish the concept or idea of ourselves the more we deny our true nature, and ‘denying our true nature’ is a recipe for all sorts of mental suffering!

 

So in a way (a very narrow way) it could be said that our fixing-type therapies are ‘genuinely technical’ – the only proviso being that they are all about ‘maintaining the health of the construct’, which is an unreal and therefore irrelevant thing. The poor inadequate self-construct is under siege from reality and it urgently needs some sort of support if it is not to give way under the strain; when this happens then in colloquial terms we call it a ‘mental breakdown’. Our general understanding of a mental breakdown is that it is just about the worst thing that could ever happen to us – it’s the ultimate personal catastrophe. In real terms however to see that the mental construct or idea that we have of ourselves is not all that it is cracked up to be (i.e. that it is not as important as we think it is) the most helpful thing that could ever possibly happen to us. When this happens we have the possibility of establishing a relationship with our true nature and establishing a relationship with who we truly are (outside of the narcissistic game that we are playing) is what mental health really all about. The one thing that it isn’t about is repairing our narcissistic bubble, which is all our culture cares about…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mental health in the Cybernetic Age

The fruit of our collective human endeavour is not quite what we think it is – the impression we have of ourselves is very much that we have been steadily improving our situation over the centuries and that we have – at this point in time – achieved something that is pretty much unprecedented. What we have achieved is unprecedented to be sure, but not in quite the way that we like to imagine it is!

 

What we have actually achieved is to have created an unreal world for ourselves and this kind of thing always comes with certain disadvantages, naturally enough! It is perfectly straightforward to explain how we have achieved this remarkable feat of ‘creating an unreal world’ – it’s very straightforward indeed, as it happens. We have created an unreal world by assiduously adapting ourselves to a system of meanings that we ourselves have created. We have become the victims of our own construct, therefore. We have been ‘trapped by our own device’!

 

It’s not so much the physical environment that we’re talking about here – although that of course comes into it – but the system of meanings that we have overlaid the physical environment with. We don’t live in the physical environment after all but rather we live in a hyperreal world of ascribed meanings that we have superimposed upon that environment. We have in other words adapted not to the world as it is in itself but to the world that is made up of meanings that we ourselves have arbritrarily come up with. This is what Jung is saying in this passage taken from CW Vol 10, Civilization In Transition

The danger that faces us today is that the whole of reality will be replaced by words. This accounts for that terrible lack of instinct in modern man, particularly the city-dweller. He lacks all contact with life and the breath of nature. He knows a rabbit or a cow only from the illustrated paper, the dictionary, or the movies, and thinks he knows what it is really like – and is then amazed that cowsheds “smell,” because the dictionary didn’t say so.

 

When Jung talks about the whole of reality being replaced by words this is the same thing as talking about reality being replaced by thoughts or ideas and there is – needless to say – is very significant difference the world itself and the ‘rational overlay’ that we replace it with. The problem here is that no matter how successful we are at the task of adapting ourselves to the system that we have collectively constructed, this does not in the least bit translate (or ‘transfer’) to the world that we did not create, which is ‘the world of reality’. And not only does it not ‘transfer’ there is actually an ‘inverse law’ operating here such that the more we optimise our performance within the terms of the game that we are playing the more removed (and therefore alienated) we are from reality itself. This isn’t a particularly hard thing to see – if we were to spend years in front of an X-box then this clearly isn’t going to help us out there in the real world; quite the reverse is going to be true, as we all know.

 

Skills learned in games can transfer to other aspects of life that are also purely ‘rule-based’, but this is beside the point since other aspects of life is also rule-based’ are also games, they’re just different games. The key difference between games and ‘unconstructed reality’ is precisely that unconstructed reality can’t be understood in terms of rules. If we think that everything that life can be mastered by merely by ‘grasping the underlying rules’ then we are in for a very big surprise, as experience always shows. Life (or reality) is never as simple as we take it to be and this is the only ‘rule’ (although it is more of a principle than a rule) that we need to learn! As long as we remember this then we won’t go too far wrong…

 

Saying that life is never as simple or straightforward as we understand it to be as just another way of saying that there’s more to it than our theories or models allow for there to be; or as Shakespeare puts it, There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. There is more to the world than ideas our about the world (which is to say, the world is not the same thing as our idea of it). In mathematics this principle is expressed very precisely by Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which – according to the Wikipedia entry is widely if not universally thought to show that the attempt “to find a complete and consistent set of axioms for all mathematics is impossible.”

 

In the physical sciences this principle finds expression in chaos and complexity theory. According to Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers (1985) therefore:

No single theoretical language articulating the variables to which a well-defined value can be attributed can exhaust the physical content of a system. Various possible languages and points of view about the system may be complementary. They all deal with the same reality, but it is impossible to reduce them to a single description. The irreducible plurality of perspectives on the same reality expresses the impossibility of a divine point of view from which the whole of reality is visible.

In more down-to-earth language, we could simply say that there is always going to be something is always something that is going to surprise us, no matter how smart we might think that we are.

 

The process of ‘gaining wisdom’ in life might be explained therefore in terms of us learning – through first-hand experience – that this principle of incompleteness, this business of discovering that our theories, models and ideas about the world are always incomplete. We might (if we were naïve enough) think that gaining wisdom means ‘knowing more and more about the world’, but that is not at all, as many philosophers have of course pointed out. Having said this, whilst it is very clear that the process of learning about the world is the same thing as ‘learning that there is more to reality than ideas or beliefs about it’ it is also crucially important to acknowledge that this process very often doesn’t happen, or is indefinitely delayed.

 

We could suggest three main reasons why this process of learning might be stifled or indefinitely delayed. One reason would be where there is a belief structure that is particularly strong and where that belief structure is supported (or even enforced) by the culture that we are part of. Organised religion is of course a well-known culprit here – where there is some kind of dogmatic system of religious belief then discovering that ‘there is more to the world and our beliefs about it’ is strictly prohibited! Making a discovery like this immediately puts the person at odds with everyone else and leads to heresy, which is the crime of ‘not seeing the way the world in the way we are supposed to see it’. Heresy is of course the ultimate crime in a dogmatic system of religious belief.

 

Another possibility is where we have a strong belief that is not validated or supported by everyone around us but which we adhere to all the same. This type of belief also ‘holds us captive’ and prevents us from venturing beyond it and discovering that it is not ‘all-explaining’ in the way it seems to. A paranoid worldview would be one example of this; it is extraordinary hard to see that there is more to the world than our paranoid ideas about it – if we could do this then we wouldn’t be paranoid! Chronic anxiety would be another example – if I am acutely anxious then my (unexamined generally) hypothesis is that ‘if I don’t control successfully then things will go very wrong’. Anxiety – we might say – equals this underlying hypothesis plus a deep down lack of confidence that we can in fact control successfully. Because we are so defensively occupied therefore, we are simply not going to have the time to explore any other alternatives to our unconsciously held hypothesis. It is going to be too frightening for us to take the risk of doing so.

What we looking at here are instances of what we might call ‘chronic non-learning’ and we could go on exploring such instances indefinitely. What we are particularly interested in looking at in this discussion is something quite different however – what we are looking at here is ‘chronic non-learning as a result of being too adapted to the consensus reality that is society’, and this is something that we are almost entirely blind to. As Jung (1958, p 81) argues in The Undiscovered Self, the pressure to adapt to the social world is so great (and in the potential rewards so large) that it is almost inevitable that we are going to forget everything else in pursuit of the goal of ‘100% adaptation’ –

Nothing estranges a man from the ground plan of his instincts more than his learning capacity, which turns out to be a creative drive towards progressive transformation of human modes of behaviour. It, more than anything else, is responsible for the altered conditions of our existence and the need for new adaptations which civilization brings. It is also the source of numerous psychic disturbances and difficulties occasioned by man’s progressive alienation from his instinctual foundation, i.e. by his uprootedness and identification with his conscious knowledge of himself, by his concern with consciousness at the expense of the unconscious. The result is that modern man can know himself only in so far as he can become conscious of himself – a capacity largely dependent on environmental conditions, the drive for knowledge and control of which necessitated or suggested certain modifications of his original instinctual tendencies. His consciousness therefore orientates itself chiefly by observing and investigating the world around him, and it is to its peculiarities that he must adapt his psychic and technical resources. This task is so exacting, and its fulfilment so advantageous, that he forgets himself in the process, losing sight of his instinctual nature and putting his own conception of himself in place of his real being.  In this way he slips imperceptibly into a purely conceptual world where the products of his conscious activity progressively replace reality.

When we are 100% adapted to the ‘purely conceptual realm’ then there is of course no chance that we will ever go beyond the system that we are adapted to, which is what we would need to in order to see that the whole thing is only an ‘arbitrary construct’ (and is on this account fundamentally unreal).

 

The immediate pressure to adapt to the social milieu is all but overwhelming of course – sometimes it actually is overwhelming! The rewards for successful adaptation aren’t just practical (or ‘material’) either; when we can’t ‘fit in’ this is acutely distressing for us in a psychological sense and this can be seen as an even bigger motivation for us to adapt to social world than the fact that we need to be part of it in order to have friends and some means of ‘making out’ in the world in the collectively agreed-upon reality. An important ‘additional factor’ – which would not have been so much in evidence when Jung was writing back in the first half of the Twentieth century – is something that we might perhaps call ‘the Dawn of the Hyperreal Era’ (in honour of Jean Baudrillard). We could also speak in terms of ‘the Advent of the Cybernetic Age’, which is an age in which everything happens in the head’, nowhere else, as Reggie Ray suggests here in this quote taken from psychologytoday.com

People are disconnected from their bodies, from their direct experience of life, more and more so as our cybernetic age reaches literally insane intensity; hence people are no longer able to find the depths, the sanity, the health, and the feeling of well-being that only their bodies can offer. We are all talking, thinking heads, more and more cut off from anything actually real.

There is no harm in talking about things, just as there is no harm in thinking about things; when all we do is to talk about things or think about things however then this is another matter entirely! We could equally well say that is no harm in the Cybernetic Age just as long as we don’t dive headfirst into cyberspace and try to act out the entirety of our lives in this abstract, non-corporeal realm. When this happens – when we jump head first into the purely formal realm that we have created for ourselves (which is as we have said an artificial world that is made up only of meanings that we ourselves have made up) then insoluble problems inevitably start to arise.

 

The essential problem here is that when we adapt to an unreal world then we ourselves inevitably become unreal too. We won’t look unreal or feel unreal, but that doesn’t count for a lot – all that does is to prevent us from seeing the truth about ourselves! If I was unreal but could see that I was then this would in itself be a ‘real thing’ after all. Saying that we ‘become unreal’ sounds outlandish but it isn’t. This shouldn’t be taken as some improvable ‘metaphysical assertion’ – it is on the contrary a very practical type of thing that we are talking about here. When we tell someone (or ourselves) to ‘get real’ this isn’t metaphysics, it simply means that we are being encouraged to come out of our ideas about the world (which is a counter-productive situation) and back to the actual thing itself. It is – in other words – a very basic thing that we’re talking about here! What could be more basic than this?

 

‘Resilience’ is a buzzword these days and we can very easily see that there must be a link between the notion of ‘being resilient’ and the notion of ‘being real’. Real people are resilient, obviously! There has been a lot of concern voiced in recent years that we are becoming less and less resilient as the generations succeed each other. This is a road that is very clearly not leading us to a good place. Various hypotheses have been put forward and what people generally say that there must be it must have something to do with the modern way of life – which certainly seems pretty fair guess. Through ‘less direct’ contact with the world (and the people) around us – because more and more of life happens via a digital interface – we become more and more fragile, less and less able to deal with ‘direct contact’. Direct, unmediated contact with the world around us can actually become frightening – it easily gets so we’d much rather just stay in our cocoons..

 

It’s not just that we have difficulty interacting with the world when there is no digital interface involved (if we can allow that this is the problem) – alongside the difficulty in directly interacting with our environment (or aspects of our environment that are unfamiliar to us) there comes a whole gamut of mental health issues that are created by the sense of ‘alienation’ – which is of course what disconnection (or ‘digitally-mediated connection’, which is the same thing) comes down to. Research in the UK has shown seems to show that the percentage of third level students suffering from anxiety, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, self-harming behaviour and suicidal thoughts is increasing; in a research report (2019) published by the Society for Research into Higher Education Dr Yvonne Sweeney and Dr Micheal Fays state that –

In 2015/16, 15,395 UK-domiciled first-year students at HEIs in the UK disclosed a mental health condition – almost five times the number in 2006/07. This equates to 2 per cent of first-year students in 2015/16, up from 0.4 per cent in 2006/07.

The possibility that this is a real trend here is clearly a matter of great concern; it might well be the case that when Jung said that the greatest danger we face in modern times is the danger posed by the insidious onset of hyperreality (although he didn’t use those exact words) he was hitting the nail right on the head. Ironically, social media is now full of speculative reports that excessive absorption in social media is distorting the whole business of ‘what it means to be a human being’ and turning us into self-absorbed ‘snowflakes’.

 

College authorities across the world have been responding to this situation by offering courses and workshops on resilience training, which on the face of it sounds like an excellent idea. The only problem is that we don’t understand this matter of ‘resilience’ for what it actually is. This is very evident when we consider that our current idea of resilience that it involves the acquisition and implementation of various strategies and skills as an effective countermeasure to the problem.  As soon as we see that ‘being resilient’ is just another way of talking about ‘being real’ however, then the idea that we can become real by means of utilizing strategies and skills starts to look a lot less convincing. Can there be such a thing a strategy for being real? Is inner strength really just a matter of having the right skills and knowing how to use them? Therapies such as DBT assume that this is indeed the case but when if we were to reflect at all on the matter (which isn’t something that we aren’t particularly prone to doing in the world of mental healthcare provision!) we would see that skills and strategies are a substitute for inner strength not a way of attaining it. Carl Jung made this same point over fifty years ago when he said that ‘rules are a substitute for consciousness’.

 

The point here is of course is that to go down the road of optimizing strategies to compensate for our lack of autonomy, our lack of ‘inner strength’, our absence of ‘consciousness’ we are accentuating the problem not solving it! We will no doubt be able to obtain measurable short-terms benefits this way (which will encourage us that we are on the right track) but these short-term benefits are only achieved at the price of a long-term collective ‘mental health disaster’. It’s ‘short-termism’ and we all know where short-termism gets us. We ought to know where it gets us to by now, at any rate. There is no such thing as ‘a strategy for becoming real’! Quite the contrary is true – strategies in mental health exist for the purpose of compensating for our lack of inner strength; they exist for the purpose of covering up this core deficiency. Our approach of assuming that what we call ‘resilience’ can be acquired via training and workshops is making what the deepest aspect of what it means to be a human being into something totally trivial – apparently, there is a recipe for becoming resilient just as there is a recipe for cooking spaghetti bolognese or baking fruit scones. There’s probably a YouTube tutorial on it, just as there is for everything else. This isn’t to knock online tutorials – it’s just that when it comes to the matter of how to go about ‘being a human being’ we’re looking in the wrong place; we should be ‘looking within’, not ‘looking on the outside’ for what someone else might have to say!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playing The Game

One thing we never properly understand is the true function of the power differential in society. We can of course observe, as did Alfred Adler, that there is this drive to obtain and exert power (which Adler derived from Nietzsche’s subtler concept of the ‘will to power’) which effectively incentivizes us to climb as high as we can up the social hierarchy. There are obvious benefits to this – from the biological point of view, having a high social status means (for males, at any rate) that we will have a better chance of passing our genetic material on to future generations, which is of course what the basic biological game is all about. In societies all across the world there are male hierarchies of power but the incentive to compete for a place in them is clearly not about having the precious opportunity to father more babies than lower status males can! That old-fashioned biological imperative obviously doesn’t apply to us – it might be true for baboons but it isn’t particularly the case for humans anymore. There is however another benefit to being ‘high status’ and that is the psychological one of feeling better about yourself, of having a ‘positive image’ of yourself. This is of course the ‘lobster effect’ spoken of by Jordan Peterson.

 

But we can go deeper than this and (following Nietzsche) argue that the greatest benefit of being high up in the power hierarchy is that we get to be the one who says what is true and what is not true. We get to be ‘the one who defines reality’ in other words and this can (obviously enough!) bring many benefits. The cliché is that ‘power corrupts’ but it would be more accurate, and more telling, to rephrase this as ‘the ability to define reality corrupts’! If I have the power to define reality than I am pretty much untouchable; if I have the power to say what reality is and what it isn’t then I can get away with just about anything. How can I get caught out when ‘everything I do is right’ (or when ‘everything I do is eminently justifiable’) and you can be sure that everything I do will be excused in this way if I’m the one in charge of the ‘official validation procedure’!

 

We all know that totalitarian regimes stay in power or consolidate their power by ‘saying what is true and what is not true’, so as to always paint themselves in a good light (no matter what atrocities they may have committed). This is familiar territory – we need only to think of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is a low-down dirty trick to redefine reality so that you can’t be seen as the scoundrel you are, and is also a trick that no dictator, no ruling elite, has ever shied away from! When you are in charge of what is true or not true it’s very hard not to abuse this power. What makes this so tempting is that when we distort reality to favour ourselves we believe in the distortion just as much as everyone else does. We never have to see that there is any ‘distorting of the truth’ taking place. ‘Telling a lie’ and ‘believing in the lie’ become one and the same thing.

 

This power of being able to distort the truth and straightaway believe our own distortion isn’t reserved for those at the very top of the social hierarchy of course – we all have this power, and we all use it. We are all ‘corrupt dictators’ when it comes to our own private reality bubble and if we think otherwise then that’s simply because we’re naïve. The difference is however that whilst we might be able to fool ourselves readily enough in any given situation, we are unlikely to be able to fool very many other people. Things change when we get up to the top of the hierarchy however; it all becomes remarkably effortless then – we are automatically on the right side of history, so to speak. We are automatically validated just by our very position, and this allows us to get away with a great deal – if we want to that is, and we almost certainly do!

 

We might argue with this by saying that, whilst it probably true that those right at the very top of the pecking order can get away with more, if they want to, this hardly explains the existence of power hierarchies in society and everyone’s need or desire to compete for the best possible position in them. We obviously can’t all ‘make it to the very top’ and most of us have no such ambition, but there is another dimension that comes into this and that is a dimension that we are – for one reason or another – particularly blind to. It’s not just that our self-esteem and confidence ‘go up when our social status is high’, that’s just a small part of it; there is another factor here that we are most unlikely to spot and that has to do with our ability to ‘pass on’ our own acknowledged existential pain and insecurity. The idea that this should be a significant (or maybe even an essential) factor in everyday human psychology is rather foreign to us – it’s not really part of our understanding with regards to the question of ‘how people interact’. Naturally it isn’t – if it was then this would compromise the mechanism by which we ‘pass on’ (or ‘displace’) our angst onto the people around us.

 

This is not something we focus on, and – as we have just said – this isn’t an aberration or an accident. There is a self-serving mechanism right at the core of ‘the everyday self’ that we never read about in any psychology textbook and that is the mechanism for getting rid of our inner pain without us knowing about it. It doesn’t make sense to us that we should have to have such a mechanism because – unsurprisingly enough – we see the situation of ‘being self’ as a perfectly legitimate state of affairs. It isn’t, though – it is on the contrary an artificial situation that has to be constantly propped up. Another way of putting this would be to say that the everyday self is an inherently insecure kind of ‘virtual entity’! When I have identified with ‘the idea that I have of myself’ (and the idea everyone else has of me too) – which is almost always – then I inevitably have to be doing something to ‘keep myself propped up’. I need to be continually validating myself in other words, and this is a job that I simply can’t get away from. I may not see what I’m doing (in fact it won’t work if I see what I’m doing) but this doesn’t mean that I’m not doing it.

 

Our assumption is that the self doesn’t need continually propping up, that it doesn’t need to be validating itself time and time again, and the reason we think this is because – as we have just said – we think that the idea which we have of ourselves isn’t a construct (just like all the other ideas that we have). To see this would constitute a total revolution in the way we perceive the world and our resistance to encounter such a radically new way of seeing things is of course always going to be maximal. Straightaway, therefore, we can see that there is some kind of ‘secret strain’ or ‘secret tension’ going on and that this tension itself is pain that needs to be promptly displaced if the integrity of the game is to be preserved. This might be said to constitute the type of ‘core existential pain’ that is contingent upon our conditioned mode of being in the world, but this is only the beginning. Just to cover up the awareness of how the self is being artificially presented to us not as a construct, but as an independently existing entity in its own right, isn’t good enough – the self-concept just can’t exist as some kind of ‘neutral player’, so to speak, it needs to be ‘head and shoulders above all the other players’, if possible. Or, alternatively, it needs to be head and shoulders above the environment that it finds itself in, which is to say, it has to be calling the shots and not the environment. The self-concept has to be ‘winning at its game’, in other words, whatever that game might be.

 

As Alan Watt says, the ego constantly has to be playing the game of ‘one-upmanship’. It has to do this in order to offset its ‘central weakness’ which is that it needs to be special in order to exist, whilst actually it isn’t special at all! The mind-created sense of self can never get away from this need to compete – even when it tries to be ‘humble’ and ‘unassuming’ it tries to be better at this task than anyone else! Essentially, it is the case that the mind-created image of ourselves is always aggressive (or rather we are always aggressive when we think that we are the self-image or self-concept). The self-image can’t not be aggressive because that is how it sustains its very existence, and this necessity is what no one seems to understand. We imagine that it must be possible for us to cooperate and be essentially peaceful and non-judgemental beings, when this is actually incompatible with our ‘identified’ nature, our nature as ‘conditioned beings’! On the surface of things, it appears that we do cooperate in society, for the most part, anyway; we not all out on the street fighting each other, at any rate (although that can easily happen if we have too much to drink). We may easily imagine – therefore – that humankind’s basic aggression has been sublimated and long last been turned into something more ‘productive’.

 

As we keep saying however, the type of aggression that we looking at here isn’t biological in nature – it’s psychological. Is the invisible aggression of projecting the thinking minds outwards onto the world and trying to make the world ‘be what we think it ought to be’ and ‘mean what we think it should mean’. This is the fundamental invisible and unacknowledged aggression of rationality. There’s still plenty of old-fashioned aggression around of course, but it is not so much ‘out in the open’ for the most part; when we look around us therefore, it does seem perhaps that the basic biological aggression has been sublimated into socially accepted channels. If we think that the aggression is gone however we’re very much mistaken; it’s merely been turned into the ‘manipulation of meaning’! We can’t see anything particularly forceful or coercive going on in the public arena perhaps, but that’s simply because everyone is perfectly happy to buy into the officially-manipulated version of reality – we are all quite docile in that respect. The tremendous homogenisation that’s taken place in the Western world with respect to culture is evidence of very great aggression; via the systematic manipulation of meaning, life has been turned into purely generic affair and the life of the autonomous individual doesn’t count for anything. Nothing ever happens that has not been programmed to happen, no one ever thinks what they are not supposed to be thinking.

 

Psychological aggression (as we have said) is where we control reality without admitting that we are doing so, which is something that’s going on a scale ‘hitherto undreamt of’. The question is therefore – who is manipulating reality, who is calling the shots with regard to all this control? This is – needless to say – a question that gets asked an awful lot; it’s a ‘classic conspiracy-type’ question, and anyone in this world who is even a little bit alert can smell a conspiracy going on somewhere. This isn’t an unfortunate mental aberration either – it’s just basic intelligence. Someone, somewhere, is cooking the books! Whole sections of potential reality been closed off to us on a permanent basis and no one is admitting to this. Something fishy is going on with the reality supply and anyone talks about it gets treated as if there’s something wrong with them; anyone talks about it is treated as if they’re mentally unwell. The official line is always that there is no funny business going; the official line is always that realty isn’t being tampered with. The official line, by definition, is always that ‘what we see in front of us the only reality that is’…

 

We could – if we wanted to – focus on the vexed question of who is at the very top of the power hierarchy. Who are the elite, who are the sinister manipulators? This is always a fascinating matter to think about for sure, but it’s much more fruitful to consider the uncomfortable question of ‘what’s in it for us‘. The point is that as far as most of us ‘invested players’ are concerned it doesn’t – in any practical way – matter who is at the top of the pyramid of power just so long as someone is. As long as someone is in charge then there will be such a thing as a tightly-organised hierarchy, and as long as there is such a thing as a tightly-organised hierarchy then we will be able to jockey for an advantageous position within it. This line from the film Sin City is rather pertinent here, where Senator Roark states that power comes from-

….lying big, and gettin’ the whole damn world to play along with you. Once you got everybody agreeing with what they know in their hearts ain’t true, you’ve got ‘em by the balls.

As long as we have a good position in the power hierarchy then we will be ensured of being able to invisibly displace our acknowledged existential pain on those who are either below us in the pecking order, or on the same level. We will do this of course at the same time as ‘sucking up’ to those above us – we fawn on those with more power and demean those with less. The times when we actually see this sort of thing going on however only makes up the very tip of the iceberg – we can see when a bully is doing their bullying (if the matter is brought to out in the open) but what is far harder to spot is the way in which this very same thing goes on in all ‘mechanical or role-based interactions’ between people. To exist within the hierarchy is always to displace pain (and also to have pain displaced onto us, if we not at the apex of the food chain).

 

This doesn’t mean that people never genuinely ‘kind’ to each other – we can meet with kindness wherever we are (although it’s more commonly encountered on the lower strata of society, where people are less concerned with status and have less to lose therefore by ‘dropping out of the game’) but when this happens it’s always because the people concerned have dropped out of the game and are responding autonomously, not as they have been told to respond by their social conditioning. Unless we disregard the rules of the game and become our true spontaneous selves, there is no way that we can be kind; unless we are being our true spontaneous selves then we are inevitably ‘passing on pain’. If we remain ‘plugged into the system’ (and continue to believe in the basic structure that is provided by society) then we are always going to be imposing that structure on everyone we meet, everyone we interact with, and this is an act of aggression. I aggress you and you aggress me – we both keep ourselves in our respective boxes, and the only real ‘winner’ therefore is the system itself. By seeking personal advantage all that happens is that we strengthen the machine (or the game) even more.

 

So much of what passes for ‘communication’ isn’t anything of the sort – it’s just control, it’s just ‘the use of power’. Communication can only take place between those on an equal footing. Anything we say that places any kind of constraint (or expectation) and the person we are talking to (when they are unacknowledged assumptions that are being imposed) is aggression, this control, and control is in itself paint displacement. The imposition of structure is paint displacement – this is obviously the case since there’s always an immediate penalty’ once we fail to accord with the structure that’s being presented to us. If we get it ‘wrong’ we are blamed’, in other words. If we disobey we get punished, and this is paint-displacement pure and simple. Those at the top of the pyramid are always right, whilst those at the very bottom are always wrong!

 

Even though we’ll never admit it to ourselves, being part of a determinate structure always creates pain (which is equivalent to saying, as we did earlier, that ‘being conditioned creates pain’, or that ‘being identified involves pain’). We have surrendered our actual autonomy after all, and the loss of autonomy is pure pain. We might as well say that ‘the loss of who we really are’ is pure pain; obviously it is – what could be a greatest source of suffering than this? The result is therefore that there is all this ‘free-floating’ pain in society and that is why we have to be so competitive, that is why we always have to be playing games. That’s why we have a top and a bottom to society; that’s why there has to be a hierarchy. This way we get to have ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and the losers get to carry the pain for all the rest of us! The hierarchy (or game) is a pain-displacement mechanism, therefore! The ‘losers’ don’t really deserve the pain that is being put on them of course but if the pain-displacement mechanism is to work someone has to be nominated as being worthy of blame, someone has to be seen worthy of ‘negative judgement’! Our ‘social hierarchy’ is all about pain displacement therefore, is just that we not accustomed to seeing things this way.

 

 

The significance of there being a hierarchy of power in society is therefore to a large extent a psychological one therefore in that it allows us to define ourselves, and ‘defining ourselves’ is how we keep the insecurity of our basic undefined situation at bay. If I am fully-defined then so too is the world around me fully-defined since I define my world and my world defines me, and so this leaves no ‘uncharted corners’ anywhere to worry about. Everything is neatly taken care of – too neatly in fact, because a completely defined situation is a highly uncomfortable one. It is a profoundly inhospitable one – there is irreducible suffering in it, as we keep saying. This sets up another problem therefore – we started off with the problem of ontological insecurity and then when we solve this we found that we had another problem in its place which is the existential pain of conditioned existence (the existential pain of ‘pretending to be who we aren’t’) and so – with great ingenuity – we solved this by creating a structure that has a top and a bottom! This way we can play the game of one-upmanship that Alan Watts talks about and those who do well in the game will obtain game. Opting for the safety of conditioned or defined existence inevitably brings about pain but we have found a way of using that pain (or the need to avoid it) as currency in a game, a game that has no end, a game that has no ‘happy resolution’…

 

 

 

 

Image: nzfilmfreak.com

 

 

 

 

 

Loyalty To The Lie

The social life is one in which we perpetrate a kind of hoax without ever focusing on the fact that we are doing so. We could also say that the social life is a life which revolves around maintaining a fiction that we do not ever admit to being such. We think that society, or the social life, is all about something else, something more honest, but – primarily – it is this (i.e. ‘perpetration of the hoax or fiction’) that is the function that is being served.

 

One way to talk about this hoax is to say that we are being sold the idea that it is possible (and not just possible, but highly desirable) to have a type of life that in reality it is just not possible to have. This is rather a big hoax therefore since if we fall for it (as we generally do) then instead of living the life that it IS possible for us to live, we will be forever trying to live a life which it is simply not possible to live, no matter how hard we try.

 

This is very far from being an ‘obvious’ point however. It is so far from being an obvious point that most people would not get it no matter how much time and effort you might put into trying to explain it. Of all the difficult things to understand, this is right there at the very top, and not only is it challenging for us to understand (even if we did want to) the plain truth it is that – deep down – we absolutely don’t want to! We really, really, really do not want to ‘get it’.

 

One way that we could look at the hoax is to say that it revolves around the idea that ‘it is good to be a narcissist’! It is not ever expressed like this of course but that’s what it comes down to – we are presented with the idea or image of this type of life (this narcissistic type of life) and along with this idea and the images that go with it come all sorts of subtle (and not so subtle) incentivizations. We are ‘sold the package’, in other words. We are sold the package and, as Sogyal Rinpoche says, we are sold it with superlative skill.

 

We are skilfully manoeuvred not only into believing that the narcissistic life is potentially a rewarding and satisfying one, but also into believing that it is the only sort of life there ever could be. We are manoeuvred into believing that it is the only possibility. Add into the equation the fact that everyone around us is also falling for this hoax hook line and sinker, then the chances that we will ever smell a rat are practically zero. The chances that we won’t fall headlong into this trap – i.e. the trap of ‘narcissistic withdrawal from reality’ – (along with everyone else) is astronomically tiny.

 

There is a rat however and it is very big one. It is a very big rat indeed! This is King Rat were talking about here – the Great Grand-Daddy of all rats, and there should be no doubt about this. This is ‘the hoax of all hoaxes’ and no one seems to know anything about it. The problem is that we don’t know anything else; we don’t have anything else to go on. It’s like being in the dysfunctional family or in an abusive relationship – we think that what we are going through is just normal, we don’t realise that we have been taken for a ride. We have mistaken our prison for reality.

 

The nature of our prison (which, as we have said, is the prison of narcissism) is that it is entirely hollow, without any genuine substance or ‘goodness’ to it at all. Our activity involves therefore striving perpetually to bring in some actual substance into our lives, and/or fooling ourselves into believing that there is substance there when there isn’t. An example of how we cultivate this particular illusion is given by John Berger – the trick that we use (according to Berger) is that we go to a lot of effort to create an impression (or image) of ourselves that makes it look as if we having a good time (even though we’re not) so that we can make other people envious of us. This he calls glamour; The happiness of being envied is glamour’, Berger says. When we can see that other people are envious of what we’ve got, then we can logically infer that we must have something there for other people to be envious of! Other people think we’ve ‘got it’ and so we think that too.

 

This then is John Berger’s explanation of what ‘the hoax’ is. We might naïvely think that – in this consumer society – we invest all of our energy in buying products so that the products will ‘make us happy’, but this isn’t it – we’re buying all the consumer-type stuff in order that other people might think we are happy, which will then allow us to feed off the illusion that they have about us! Deep down we know that we can’t buy happiness but what we can do is to construct a believable illusion of us having a good time, having a good life, being happy, etc, so that both ourselves and others can believe in it. The purest example of this is of course social media – why else would we spend all our time posting images of ourselves having a good time if we weren’t trying to construct a believable illusion?

 

Nothing we have so far said comes across as being too formidably difficult to understand, even though this is what we started out by saying. Where the ‘difficulty’ shows itself however is in understanding the actual reason for the narcissistic life being so hollow, being so devoid of substance. Why is ‘the narcissistic life’ ‘impossible to live’? One way of looking at this is in terms of the basic Buddhist idea of ‘the good mind versus the bad mind’ – the ‘good mind‘ being the mind of compassion, whilst the ‘bad mind’ is the mind of self-interest or self-cherishing. [The mind of self-cherishing is ‘bad’ not for any moral reason but simply because it always leads to suffering]. If we live on the basis of ‘the mind of compassion’ then there is meaning in our lives and we grow as people as a result; if on the other hand we live on the basis of self-interest and self-cherishing then our lives become sterile and joyless and there can be no growth. All that can grow is greed, and the need for power or control.

 

All religions have the function of teaching morality (or at least they started out this way!), but the point is that this is not merely a matter of ‘social utility’ – it’s not mere ‘convention’ we’re talking about here but something much deeper. If we actually sat down and thought about it we would see this truth very clearly – there can be no meaning in the life of a narcissist. We don’t of course ever see ourselves as such; we have made Narcissistic Personality Disorder into a designated condition in DSM-5 but this makes it even easier not to recognise that narcissism (to some extent or other) is pretty much the norm in our society. It also distracts us from seeing that our consumer society actually relies on us operating as narcissists. We both pathologize narcissism and promote it at one and the same time therefore, which is rather conflicted of us, to say the least!

 

The ‘hoax’ that is being perpetrated in our society (and very effectively, too) is that it is possible to live in Narcissist Mode and lead a meaningful and fulfilling life at the same time and because of the way societal pressures work we feel obliged – without ever reflecting on the matter very much – to maintain the fiction that we are happy, that we are having a good time, and so on and so forth. This is what ‘living the life of the image’ is all about. This is where all the emphasis goes – it goes into fooling both ourselves and others that we are having a great life inside of our narcissistic cocoon. This however is (and always will be) quite impossible, as we keep on saying. That’s a non-starter. That’s just not going to happen…

 

The hoax – therefore – is to get us to try (and keep on trying) to live a type of life that is impossible to live, and we collude in this hoax by maintaining the fiction as best we can, without realizing that this is what we are doing. Sometimes of course we just can’t maintain the fiction any more, and when we can’t we feel very bad about that – we feel very bad about it because we’re ‘loyal to the lie’. We don’t realize that we’re ‘loyal to a lie’ but we are – that’s why we are at such pains to maintain and protect the self-image’, that’s why we always see having the self-image tarnished or shown up in a bad light as being such an unmitigated disaster…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Finger-Trap

The world we see all around us has been put together by economic forces: just about everything we see in the socially-created world is because of economic forces. If it isn’t there to make money then what’s the point of it? We could of course agree with the above statement happily enough and yet at the same time not consider it a matter of any great importance. We may not see any problem with this at all; we are after all so very used to this way of life that we can’t see the world existing in any other way. Economics has been ‘God’ for a very long time now. Money has made the world go round for a very long time now…

 

And yet what is meant by this thing we call ‘economics’? When we look into it we can see straightaway that it is nothing more than ‘a system that is based on the manipulation of resources for personal gain’. No one can argue with this – that’s what capitalism is all about, after all! At the very root of economic theory is the tried-and-trusted idea that the motivation to personally benefit ourselves is the strongest and most reliable motivational force there is, which – goes the argument – makes it the ideal psychological drive to tie everything to. Whether this is really true or not is highly dubious however – if our motivation isn’t particularly wholesome, then neither will the outcome be! This goes beyond ethics and morality – it is starting to be accepted in the mainstream scientific world that what fulfils us the most – i.e. what is ‘healthiest’  for us – is not to live on the basis of narrow self-interest but on the basis of compassion and empathy, which doesn’t serve the interest of our way of life. Again, this isn’t anything to do with morality or ethics, it just seems to be the way that we are built. Now it isn’t of course exactly ‘breaking news’ as far as the great religions of the world are concerned, but it’s only very recently that a study of the anatomy of the brain shows that when the area of the brain known colloquially as in the centre – otherwise referred to as the medial prefrontal cortex.

 

According to Rebecca Gladding in This is your brain on meditation, it is also called ‘the self-referencing centre’ because it is the part of the brain are used to process information related to us. When the ‘me-centre’ is linked to strongly with other centres, such as the reactivity-producing amygdala, then this is bad news, according to Rebecca Gladding; it’s bad news because we’re always going to be taking things personally and ‘over-reacting’ accordingly. In general, it is clear that when relate to the world (and other people) in a ‘me-centred way’ (i.e. a way that is ‘all about us’) then we won’t have a very good time. We aren’t going to get on particularly well with other people either, obviously enough! This is a modality of functioning (or a ‘modality of being in the world’) that shouldn’t be overly encouraged or promoted, therefore! It certainly shouldn’t be made ‘top dog’…

 

Very obviously, if we are always operating on the basis of self-interest then we aren’t going to feel very fulfilled in themselves; if it were true that self-interest were a ‘healthy motivation’ then the richest people in the world would also be the happiest people and this just isn’t so! We don’t actually need to be experts on neuro-anatomy to see this – it’s as obvious as a nose on your face! How could we not see it? This is the most basic lesson in life there is; we learn it in pre-school and kindergarten – it’s the lesson called ‘learning to share our toys with the other kids’. If we never do learn to share our toys (or, even worse, if we learn to do the opposite and steal all the other kids’ toys so that we have all the toys ourselves) then this is not a very good prediction for us having a happy life! No one is going to be stupid enough to argue with this – how can I be incorrigibly self-centred and yet also be a happy person? There isn’t a person in the world who would go along with this, if they were to actually sit down and think about it!

 

This – as we keep saying – is just common sense – if we think that the world revolves around us then we are in for a rude awakening. If we think that life is all about ‘us securing our narrow advantage’ then we going to have a thoroughly miserable existence. And yet the message we receive every single day from this commercially-orientated world of ours is that the world ought to revolve around us and our wins; the message is that life absolutely is all about securing our own personal advantage. No one can deny this that this is the case – that’s how the consumerist paradigm works, after all – it works by having consumers being highly motivated to play the game that they’re supposed to be playing, and consume! Money is what makes the world go round, after all, as the song says.

 

 

Again, this is most emphatically not a contentious issue – we all know very well that consumerism works by getting people to operate on the basis of personal gain, and putting this uninspiring motivation on a pedestal. Such words as ‘successful’ and ‘winner’ say it all – we can only think well of ourselves when we are visibly better than those around us at obtaining personal gain. This is the measure of us as human beings, this is what determines our worth or lack of it. It sounds like we’re going over old ground here but the simple point that we’re making is this – the inbuilt structure of the world (or system) that we live in guides very strongly in the direction of operating on the basis of personal advantage in everything we do, whilst our actual mental health and well-being lie in exactly the opposite direction.

 

The way that the current set-up works is for each and every one of us to be acting and thinking as entirely ‘self-interested beings’. This is beyond any doubt, this is a ‘given’. We can very easily understand why it is that we are being constantly ‘tilted’ in this direction; why it is that we are being ‘formatted by society to be narcissists’. That’s what is required by ‘the current set-up’. There’s nothing else our particular society can do; that’s the world we have elected – however unwittingly – to go down. That’s the nature of the game that we are playing. Pragmatically speaking, all we can do is ‘go along with it’ – the argument is ‘irresistible’, so to speak. And yet at the same time, when we do ‘go along with it’ this is to the very great detriment of our mental health!

 

Our response to this dilemma (and ‘dilemma’ is putting it mildly) is to ignore it, is to pretend that it doesn’t exist. We never really talk about it, either on the grass-roots level or – unsurprisingly – on the level of public policy. We do hear regular items about how immersion in social media is destroying our ‘resilience’ and turning us all into ‘snowflakes’, etc. etc. , or how sad it is that no one talks to strangers on the bus anymore because we are all too busy looking at our mobile phones. These are all well-known and deeply comfortable topics – they’re comfortable because they are of a manageable size, they are ‘discrete’ and therefore non-threatening issues, but it’s not mobile phones or social media that’s the real problem here but our whole way of life. The set-up that we are caught up in creates mental suffering for us and prevents us from ever expressing (or knowing) our true potential. The system we are part of is, by its very nature, hostile to our mental health, inimical to our true well-being. We just don’t like to see this.

 

No one can say that this is something that we sometimes discuss, either in private or in public. It isn’t. We daily hear leaders of state pontificating about this and that, discussing this weighty matter or that weighty matter, and it all sounds very serious, but at no time does anyone ever point out the fact that the commercially-orientated way of life which we have opted for (the way of life which in which our primary role is that of a consumer) is fundamentally inimical to our true well-being, that it stunts and distort us and prevents us from ‘being what we could be’. No one ever points out that it is impossible to be in this system and yet at the same time grow as the individuals we truly are. And if we refuse to acknowledge this biggest issue of all, the real elephant in the living room, then how can we possibly make out that we are being ‘serious’ or ‘responsible’ about anything? We might as well dress up as clowns and go to work in the circus – that at least would be an honest profession,, that course of action would at least would have some integrity.

 

This is an extraordinary challenge – we live in a world that is fundamentally hostile to ‘who we really are’ and yet always almost always refuse to see it. This certainly isn’t a situation that we can afford to get too complacent about. The world we live in is a world that conditions us to look outside of ourselves for everything that is good, everything that is worthwhile. This has two linked consequences – [1] is that we automatically identify with a contained or isolated sense of self, a tightly-wrapped sense of identity, and [2] is that we are very strongly motivated to act so as to obtain and secure all these ‘good things’, and this misguided motivation is what powers the commercially-orientated way of life and keeps it going. This system we are part of has one agenda and only one agenda and that is to maintain itself or perpetuate itself, and the only way it can do this is to keep us locked firmly into the position of the need-driven and tightly-defined self that always has to be looking out for its own interests.

 

We all know this well enough on one level, it’s just that we can’t afford to focus on it. It’s not pragmatically useful (on the short-term) to focus on it. All the pressure is on us to succeed within the terms of the gain that we have been inducted into from an early age. We have invested so very much in this game that it no longer seems like a game – it’s not a game to us, it’s everything. It’s all we know). We have waded through blood so much that going back is as painful as going forward, as Shakespeare says in Macbeth. We are locked into the contradictory position of ‘looking for our freedom on the outside’ and the more we do this the more unfree we become in real terms. This is a classic example of a ‘Chinese finger trap,’ as Alan Watts points out somewhere – the more we try to free ourselves the more trapped we become! Society happily provides us with limitless ways and means of trying to free ourselves, all of which embroil us all the more in the mess, but no way of actually recognizing our the true nature of our predicament. Freedom is there, but it’s not to be found on the outside…

 

 

 

 

 

The Shoe-Leather Of Samsara

What society tells us is important doesn’t really matter. What our minds tell us is important doesn’t really matter either – neither society nor the thinking mind knows what really matters. Neither society nor the thinking mind have any wisdom in them – all they contain are innumerable recipes from the past, formulae from the past, pre-established patterns that we are compelled to adhere to, pressurized to adhere to. As Krishnamurti says, there is no actual intelligence there.

 

So what does matter then? What does ‘wisdom’ tell us? It’s actually much easier to say what doesn’t really matter than what does. It’s easier to point out the ‘red herrings’ as being red herrings than it is to point out what it is that truly matters in life and the reason for this is that ‘pointing out things’ almost invariably brings our unexamined assumptions into play and it is our ‘unexamined assumptions’ that always put us wrong. As a general principle, we can say that the ‘False Task’ in life is the task of validating our unwarranted assumptions and thus preventing ourselves from seeing that they are only unwarranted assumptions, whilst the ‘True Task’ (so to speak) is to see through all the clutter, all the rubbish, all the hocus-pocus, all the time-wasting nonsense masquerading as ‘the truth’.

 

In short then, society is always recruiting us into the task of validating and upholding its collective assumptions. That’s what it does. That’s what society is all about and this has got nothing whatsoever to do with uncovering the truth either about ourselves or the world we live in. Human society hasn’t (and never has had) anything to do with establishing a relationship with the truth – on the contrary, it’s all about ‘worshipping false idols’. It’s hard to see how anyone, looking honestly at the world that we have created for ourselves, could fail to observe that this is what is going on. How could we not see something as obvious as this? ‘If it were a dog it would bite you’, as the saying has it. The extent to which we have been recruited into worshipping all these ‘false idols’ is the extent to which we have turned our backs on what really matters to us. The degree to which we have been enlisted in the ‘False Task’ is the degree to which we have ignored the True Task, which is – as we have suggested – uncovering the actual truth about things.

 

Society is in the business of selling illusions, as Sogyal Rinpoche says. We think it’s about something else but it isn’t. We work all our lives in order to earn the money to be able to afford these by wonderful illusions and if we are diligent enough and hard-working enough we might get to accumulate a big pile of them! It makes us feel very bad if we aren’t able to accumulate all the illusions that we are led to believe we ought to be accumulating and yet if we do ‘succeed’ and manage to do what society tells us we ought to be doing then we’re still no better off! What good are illusions going to do us anyway? They’re only ever going to distract us what really matters. The pursuit of society’s goals is only ever going to waste our time; we’re wasting our time if we ‘fail’ and we’re wasting our time just as much if we ‘succeed’. We’ve been taken as suckers either way. No matter how we do in the game we’re wasting our time – the game is nothing more than a big red herring, after all. Society is nothing more than a big red herring. All the things that the thinking mind gives us to concern ourselves with, preoccupy ourselves with, worry about, are red herrings. That’s the name of the game…

 

Understanding this straightaway points us in the direction of understanding what ‘really does matter’. The thing that ‘really does matter’ is uncovering the truth that has been hidden so well, as opposed to burying it ever deeper. Even those elements within society that ostensibly claim to be concerned with the truth (especially those elements of society that claim to be concerned with the truth, such as education, religion and spirituality) are red herrings. As we’ve just said, that’s the nature of the game that we are playing! Education and religion have nothing whatsoever to do with orientating people towards the truth – all they do is encourage ‘mass mindedness’, all they do is brainwash us all the more effectively because we actually think we ‘know’ something! So-called ‘spirituality’ is no better – for the most part it just sells us ‘candy-coated dreams’; it sells us the illusion that we are (or could be) ‘living a more spiritual life’. This is a very nice illusion to have and we are very happy to buy into it by going on this course or that course, taking part in this online seminar or that online seminar, following this teacher or that teacher. That’s not how it happens though – seeing through all the falseness in our lives is an individual endeavour, something we do ourselves, on our own, working against the entire tide of collective thinking as we do so. Surrounding ourselves with the new (supposedly ‘enlightened’) type of collective thinking isn’t going to help us any. That’s why joining groups or organisations, no matter what they claim to be about, always has the opposite effect to the one intended – we become more brainwashed, not less. All that’s happening is that we are subscribing to ‘society in a different guise’.

 

The problem with the mass-mind phenomenon that we might call ‘online spirituality’ (which is a phenomenon that is currently burgeoning) is that we imagine that by adopting a new language, a new way of looking at the world and the new way of living or behaving in the world that goes with it we imagine ourselves to have become ‘more spiritual’. We imagine that we have become more spiritual because we have ‘changed our outfit’, so to speak. We’re wearing a new set of clothes. But becoming more spiritual doesn’t mean ‘becoming more spiritual’! It doesn’t mean becoming anything. That’s not it at all. That’s an escape, an evasion. If we want to see through all the falseness then adopting a spiritual lifestyle (a new, improved way of thinking and behaving) isn’t going to help us any – that’s just going to confuse us into thinking that those ‘falsehoods’, those ‘self-deceptions’, those ‘inner contradictions’ are no longer there. We’re going to become bliss ninnies, imagining that everything is OK when it isn’t! We might have the teachings of all the masters at our fingertips but diligently ‘counting our neighbour’s gold’ isn’t going to improve the state of our bank account any…

 

 

The only thing that’s going to help us see through the falsehoods that live in us is to consciously live our life as it actually is, and be ourselves as we actually are. This isn’t very glamorous and it certainly isn’t going to make our lives any easier but it will certainly open our eyes! We wear out the shoe-leather of samsara by walking on it, as Chogyam Trungpa says somewhere…

 

 

Art: Detail from Banksy’s Injured Buddha

 

 

 

 

 

Society Will Format You

Society will format you. People will format you. Your friends and relations will format you. Nature herself will format you. This being so, shouldn’t we just let ourselves be formatted? Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen, after all? On purely practical terms, we could ask how we could possibly get on in a formatted environment if we ourselves are going around being unformatted. We wouldn’t ‘fit in’, after all…

 

It’s not as simple as that, however. If we just ‘succumb to the pressure’ or ‘succumb to the inevitable’ then that doesn’t work either. Short-term practicality isn’t everything – that brings its own problems! The thing is – as the lyrics of the song by Black Uhuru say – ‘life is a test’. Life itself is testing us, we might say, so simply going along with the overwhelming pressure could be what the system says we should be is not a satisfactory answer to this test. It’s not a ‘satisfactory answer’ by a long chalk!

 

To passively allow ourselves to be formatted, without even passing any heed to what is going on here is the ‘ultimate irresponsibility’. To be who we are told to be the ‘ultimate irresponsibility’! When we succumb to the pressure to be who or what we are told to be then something rather important is left out of the equation – what we could have been, if we hadn’t allowed ourselves to be formatted. This is something we shall never find out in this case; ‘what we could have been’ will haunt us to the grave, in this case. ‘Allowing yourself to be formatted’ is the same thing as ‘being unconscious’ and being unconscious is ‘the easy option’ – it’s the easy option because everything is decided for us and all we have to do is just go along with it! This is the easiest thing we could ever do – it is a total ‘abdication’ of our own responsibility of finding out ‘what it’s all about’. We take the easy option and we run with it. We become a clone of everyone else.

 

‘Responsibility’ is a funny word. The way that it’s usually used is to mean that we have to act in line with what is expected of us. To be ‘responsible’ to do what we are led to believe we have to do, what we ought to do. To be ‘responsible’ is allow ourselves to be controlled, in other words! To be responsible is to allow oneself to be ‘passively formatted’. Even the word itself has become a way of bullying or browbeating people. True responsibility, we might say, means not allowing ourselves to be formatted, just for the sake of convenience, just for the sake of fitting in. This is ‘the test’ – the test is to see whether we can be true to ourselves in the face of overwhelming pressure to be false, and as a consequence sell ourselves short just for the sake of having ‘an easy life’. In biblical terms this equals ‘selling our birthright for a mess of pottage’ – this is exactly what is meant by that phrase.

 

There is no moral pressure in this test however, and that’s the hard thing for us to understand. There is no ‘external authority figure’ waving the finger at us, poised between condemning us on the one hand, and approving of us on the other. How ridiculous is this – it makes absolutely nothing of us. Everything depends on what others say, everything depends on what other people have already decided for us – what we ourselves feel we want to do or be doesn’t matter at all. The notion that that ‘reality’ (or ‘the universe’) is putting pressure on us ‘to be one way rather than another’ is utterly absurd! Life’s test isn’t the type of ‘test’ that we automatically tend to think it is therefore – it’s us working out what’s right for us, without anyone else influencing us in this. It’s up to us and no one else; to put this in the simplest terms ‘true responsibility’ is nothing other than freedom itself, therefore.

 

We inhabit a heavily-formatted environment. ‘Not succumbing to the formatting’ is a societal crime – this is a transgression, an aberration that won’t be tolerated. We like to talk about an ‘open society’, a ‘tolerant society’, an ‘inclusive society’, but this is just another level of gloss, designed to distract us from what’s really going on. It’s window-dressing, in other words; it’s like a corporation which has a highly publicised ‘anti-bullying policy’ that is nevertheless predicated upon the practice of bullying and exploiting its employees. What better camouflage could such a company have? The minute there is any talk of bullying fingers will point at that prominent anti-bullying signs – “that sort of thing doesn’t happen here, you will be told. It’s a well-known fact that we are an anti-bullying organisation!”

 

Society is a mechanical thing and there’s no way that it can be directed to be non-mechanical. It is coercive and there’s no way that legislation can be passed to make it non-coercive. There’s no way anyone can be directed to be non-coercive or non-mechanical! There is no training that we can go on to teach us this; training can teach us to be mechanical in a different way perhaps, but this is no help. Mechanical is mechanical, and that’s all there is to it. The only thing that could really help us would be to be non-mechanical and only we can do that. That’s our responsibility – as we have already said – society has no role to play here. The moment we stop looking for answers from the Group Mind is the moment we stop being a machine. The moment we stop looking for answers from the Generic Mind is also the moment we stop looking for the generic mind to define us, to tell us ‘who we are’. Freedom means ‘freedom from being told who we are’, in other words.

 

This is what ‘being responsible’ and ‘being irresponsible’ really comes down to, therefore – if it means anything being ‘responsible’ means that we don’t allow someone else (or something else) to tell us who we are. Being ‘irresponsible’, on the other hand, is where we do allow this. This is our ‘essential malaise’, this is the malaise which we all suffer from – we allow ourselves to be told who we are by external factors. The absolutely preposterous claim that is being made here is that – somehow – other factors are ‘more important’, and we should let ourselves be defined (or formatted) for the sake of ‘the greater good’. No one ever puts it quite like this of course; instead, we are beaten about the head with endless talk about our so-called ‘responsibilities’ and pressurised to do what’s expected of us. Instead of being reprehensibly ‘wilful’ or ‘defiant’ or ‘resistant’ or ‘selfish’ we are told that we should join in with what everyone else is doing; without these words being used, we are told that we should ‘play the game’. The more people play this game (which is of course not seen as a game) the more powerful the argument becomes.

 

At any one point in time two very different roads lie ahead of us therefore. One is the road of adaptation where everything is all about according better and better with the template that has been provided for us. The motivation here is entirely external in nature – we are rewarded if we get it right and punished if we don’t. Reality ‘already exists’, in other words – reality is a known fact, a closed book, and so all that’s left for us to do is get on in this pre-defined reality in the way that we have been told to. This is – needless to say – life as most of us know it – our lives are always subservient to the mechanical reality that has been imposed upon us; we are slaves of the reality that our formatting determines we shall perceive and believe in. To allow ourselves to be formatted is the same thing as ‘accepting the reality that someone else has designed for us’.

 

The other road therefore, is the road of non-adaptation (so to speak), which doesn’t really sound like a very positive thing to us! The need to function optimally within the system that has been provided for us is no longer the ‘be all and end all’. This isn’t to say that it is no longer a consideration, but rather that it is no longer ‘the most important thing’ (or ‘the only thing’). Something else other than adaptation has now become more interesting!  We are now interested in something other than ‘the mere mundane practicalities’ of our situation. When it comes down to it of course, the mere practicalities are never actually ‘interesting’ at all – that’s the wrong word to use. Practicalities – by definition – aren’t interesting of themselves; they are only of value inasmuch as they serve some greater end. That’s the only reason we bothering with them in the first place, after all! We are either trying to obtain the outcome that we want or avoid the outcome that we don’t want, but neither of these forms of motivation have anything to do with ‘interest’. We have already made up our mind with regard to what we want or don’t want and so we’re not interested in anything other than that outcome that we have already decided on, and this therefore means that we’re not really ‘interested’ (‘open’) at all…

 

Wanting very much to see a particular outcome take place or wanting very much to avoid a particular outcome has nothing to do with ‘being interested’ in anything. We are not interested in the thing that we are trying to avoid – obviously – and we are also not interested in the thing that we are trying to obtain, which is perhaps not quite so obvious! We are interested in obtaining the goal to be sure, but we are not in any way genuinely curious about what that thing is. The ‘desired outcome’ is only ever a token and we don’t really want to look any closer than this. We don’t want to go any deeper than this superficial ‘tokenistic’ level. If we did look any closer then we would of course have to start asking what the token is a token for, and that would open a whole big can of worms! For one thing, we would see that our motivation is not at all what we took it to be, and that would take the wind out of our sails for a start. For another thing, we would then find out that the token represents something that isn’t actually real and that would take the last tiny bit wind out of our sails….

 

Extrinsic or external motivation is a trick, in other words, and we don’t want to find this out. That’s the thing we have to avoid finding out about at any cost. This isn’t such a hard idea to understand – we all know what that ‘playing a game’ involves chasing outcomes that don’t really matter outside of the game – this understanding isn’t going to be beyond anyone’s grasp! We all know what is involved in playing games. In the formatted world that is created by thought we are motivated by what the formatting says is important; the formatting says ‘this matters to you’ or ‘that matters to you’ and we duly go along with that it. We duly go along with it (when we are formatted then we have no choice but to go along with it!) But this doesn’t mean that it really matters to us. What really matters to us has been lost, covered up, and we are forever being pointed in the ‘wrong direction’ by our formatting, by our thoughts. We are forever ‘chasing red herrings’ and whether we catch these red herrings or whether we don’t catch them makes not the slightest bit of difference! We’ve ‘forgotten ourselves’ either way and this is what ‘being formatted by society’ is all about. It’s ‘the taboo against knowing who you really are’ as Alan Watts puts it. Our allegiance is to the façade not to the truth; our allegiance is to the system that represents (or rather misrepresents!) reality, rather than that which is supposedly being represented.

 

The irony is that the system of formal (or literal) representations which we have such absolute allegiance to doesn’t care for us one bit – it never did care about us and it never will. It is in fact completely ‘malign’. The system of formal representations only ‘cares’ about itself (inasmuch as a mechanical thing can be said to ‘care’ at all); it will ‘look after us’ (after a fashion) only if we serve its ends. The price of this however is that we understand ourselves only in the way that the system wants us to understand ourselves. The price is that we let ourselves ‘be defined by the system’ in other words, and this means that even if there is some ‘benefit’ to be gained as a result of the whole exercise (which in the ultimate analysis there isn’t because the system isn’t actually real), then it certainly isn’t going to be us that gains it…

 

 

Image – 9 (2009 animated film)