Almost all of our mental activity, all of the stuff that goes on in our heads, is happening as a result of our identification with what Wei Wu Wei calls the ‘I- concept’. All of this constant agitation, this constant busyness, this constant yearning and striving, is happening in relation to the concept that we have of ourselves, and the crucial point here is that this concept doesn’t actually refer to anything existing in reality.
The undeniable fact that we are always being unsettled, agitated or disturbed by this ‘background mental activity’, the fact that we are forever being pulled ‘this way and that’ shows that we don’t realise that the I-concept has no correspondence with actual reality. We don’t see that at all and this is why we never have any peace of mind. If we ever do have peace of mind (which can still happen every now and again, but not because we have done anything to bring it about) then that would mean that we are no longer acting in relation to (or on behest of) the concept that we have of ourselves and what a blessed relief this is! That’s why it is a relief – because the self-concept isn’t there with all its demands, all its hopes and fears, all its constant unremitting agitation. When we talk about ‘peace’ or ‘tranquillity’ this is what we actually mean – we mean peace from the I-concept (not peace for that I-concept).
We don’t see it like this of course – we see ‘peace’ as being something to be gained by the I-concept and then enjoyed by it. We see peace as being some sort of ‘prize’ to be won, in other words – maybe we can go somewhere to find it, or meet someone who will help us discover it, maybe we can learn some sort of discipline to help us gain it. Maybe relaxation techniques or practising regular mindfulness will work. We’ve actually got a backwards way of looking at things therefore and the chances are that we will never realise this. It’s not part of our culture to have this particular realisation, after all! Our culture assumes (just as we individually assume) that the I-concept is rightfully supposed to be at this very centre of things, that everything should happen for the I-concept’s benefit. Modern ‘consumerist’ culture works by encouraging the tendency which we already have to believe that we are the I-concept, and – as a result – put all of our eggs into this particular basket.
There are problems associated with living life on the basis of the celebrated and highly-esteemed I-concept, however, and these are problems that can’t ever be solved! They can’t ever be solved because the root problem is ‘us thinking that we are the idea that we have of ourselves’ and we aren’t about to address this core problem any time soon. We spend our whole lives trying to sort out this problem and that problem but the root problem we never go anywhere near. The root problem we never even want to talk about. This makes our collective endeavour in the area of mental health rather ridiculous – if we spend all of our time searching for answers to the secondary problems that have been caused by the invisible ‘root problem’ and yet never come close to addressing the original problem itself, what does this say about us? What exactly is going on here?
What we are actually trying to do in the field of mental health is ‘avoid the main issue by chasing red herrings’ and we all take this business of chasing red herrings very seriously (as we’re supposed to). We have a high opinion of ourselves and our endeavours and what we have so far (supposedly) learned in our endeavours. We talk endlessly about ‘research’ in psychology as if this research has ever actually informed us of anything useful, which it absolutely hasn’t. Since when has research in psychology revealed anything interesting, let alone genuinely helpful? All the research in the world is useless if it is based on a confused (or back-to-front) way of seeing things. If this is the case it doesn’t matter how impressively rigorous we are. The scientific spirit – we might say –has to do with the commitment to uncover the truth regardless of how that truth may conflict with our precious beliefs and opinions and this is what sets science apart from most other human endeavours (which – for the most part – come down to the attempt to validate our pre-existing beliefs and opinions). This is not at all what is happening in psychology however because everything we do in this field is done on the basis of the core assumption that ‘we are the I-concept’.
This necessarily means that our understanding of what mental health entails or consists of is going to be totally skewed – when we talk about ‘mental health’ – as we do very freely – what we mean is ‘mental health for the idea that we have ourselves’. This is inevitably going to be the case when we are investigating matters from an exclusively rational point of view; when we are looking at things in an exclusively rational way we are only ever going to be dealing with our own ideas – rationality doesn’t believe in anything else but its own ideas, its own theories. The thinking mind won’t have any truck with anything that doesn’t dovetail neatly with its own pre-existent assumptions about the world and what this means (when it comes down to it) is that it won’t have any truck with anything other than its own ideas. Thought is a closed system, in other words, just as David Bohm says. The result of this rational approach advises that we cause ourselves to become flatly incapable of seeing the absurdity of imagining that they could ever be any such thing as ‘the mental health of the I-concept’.
The idea that we have of ourselves can’t have any sort of mental health for the simple reason that it is only an idea. The I-concept can never be ‘mentally healthy’ because it is only a concept (i.e. it isn’t real). We can relate this back to what we were talking about a short while ago about ‘peace’ coming about as result of the absence of the I-concept – all of the mental agitation which we notice going on in our minds on a full-time basis is due (we were saying) to the belief that we have that we ‘are’ this concept. This identification is what drives almost all of our thinking; almost everything that happens in our heads comes about as a consequence of us being totally convinced that we are the idea of ourselves and so to try to figure out how the I-concept can enjoy peace or tranquillity is absurd because this construct is itself the cause of our agitation, the true origin of our ‘lack of peace’. The self-construct – being a construct – requires constant maintenance, constant defending and constant promoting, and so there is no peace ever to be had here! No matter what else a life of the ‘self-construct’ might entail, it will certainly never entail peace.
Another way of putting this is to say that the type of life that we lead when we are living in the ‘conditioned realm’ is a life of perpetual struggle, a life of constant striving, a life in which we are continually (and unsuccessfully) trying to control both ourselves and the world around us. The concrete sense of self is a striver and it can never not strive – it might drive itself mad with its own unremitting striving (or controlling) but it can never figure out a way of ‘not striving’ or ‘not controlling’, however much it may want to. Our collective endeavour in the field of mental health, for the most part, comes down to the efforts of this very same I-concept to find ‘a remedy for itself’, we might therefore say. The more purely rational the approach, the more true this is, and in the case of modern psychology – which is overwhelmingly rational – this is very starkly the case. We are being super-clever in order to cure ourselves from the curse of our own cleverness (although we won’t of course ever see things like this).
One problem that arises for us when we live life (or attempt to live life) on the basis of the I-concept is that we are forever striving, forever struggling, forever analysing and calculating, forever plotting and manipulating, and this is all very wearisome for us. We try to improve our situation by investing in control (or more effective control) but this is a slippery slope because the more we control the more we have to control. ‘Once you pop you can’t stop’, as the Pringles ad says. The more we get drawn into controlling the further we move away from who we really are; the more we invest in cleverness, the more alienated we become from our true nature and from the world around us. Our neurotic mental suffering quintessentially comes down to this ‘alienation’ – what could be worse than living in a state of alienation from our own true nature, or from the world into which we were so innocently born? We start off innocent, but we all-too-quickly become corrupted by ‘the ways of the world’. This is – moreover – an alienation (or corruption) that we do not understand or in any way acknowledge. We’re alienated but we don’t know that we are alienated and the reason we don’t know this is because we are so well-adapted to the artificial world that we have created for ourselves – we’re too well adjusted to the ‘Designed World‘ that we have so industriously constructed all around us.
The Designed World is the world that perfectly fits the needs and desires of the I-concept and were the case that this limited identity really is ‘who we actually are’ then all would be well – there will be no major problems involved. But there are problems involved, irreducible problems, problems that can never be fixed, and these problems come about – as we have said – as a result of our hapless identification with the I-concept. Being identified with the self-construct doesn’t mean that we are the self-construct however – it just means that we are confused! Or as we could also say – it just means that we now live in a very narrow, artificial way that can only exist or seem to be meaningful to us because all traces of ‘who we truly are’ have been denied. We have been ‘subsumed within the game’, in other words, and the game is a heartless kind of a thing. There’s nothing in the game other than struggling and we don’t even know what it is that we are struggling for. There is nothing in the game but suffering when it comes down to it but we deny the suffering, or minimise it and ascribe it to all sorts of false causes, ‘causes’ that we can imagine we can solve by the judicious application of even more ‘cleverness’, even more control’…
The cure for the pain that is engendered by the game (or rather engendered by the fact that we are playing the game without knowing it) isn’t to learn to ‘play the game better’ (i.e. ‘optimization’) but to abandon it altogether, which is the ‘radical solution’ that no one wants. Instead of taking the mind-created sense of self so very seriously, and doing our level best to ‘fix’ it and return it to its state of imaginary mental health – which is the phantom which keeps on eluding us – what’s genuinely would help us would simply be not to take this mind-created sense of self so very seriously, and there are no fancy ‘scientific’ ways of doing this! There are no methods for not taking ourselves so seriously (any more than they could be such a thing as ‘a method for understanding jokes’) – techniques for this do not (and cannot) exist. No ‘tricks’ exist by which we can pull this off and this is what has us so baffled, since all we know or believe in are our tricks…