False Health

It is remarkable how much we talk about mental health when we, as a culture, have so little understanding of what this actually means. Just by taking a moment to look around us we can tell that – culturally speaking – we know (and care) nothing at all about mental health. All politicians and business leaders ever talk about is the economy and the importance of having growth in the economy, as if this were somehow going to solve all our problems. But what is ‘the economy’ other than the lynchpin of runaway consumerism, and what is consumerism other than the voracious pursuit of distractions? It is abundantly obvious that most of the goods and services that we are provided with are not being sold to us for the sake of improving the quality of our lives, but in order to make money for those selling them on the one hand, and – more importantly – for the sake of perpetuating the whole set up! This is what John Berger says in Ways of Seeing – we might think that an advert is seeking to promote the particular product being showcased but the more important function of the advert (or as Berger says, of ‘publicity’) is to sell our whole way of life. When we talk about the need to perpetuate the system then – needless to say – what we talking about here are ‘mechanical forces’, and if we elect to be ruled over by mechanical forces then the very last thing we can expect to obtain as a result of good mental health!

 

We can’t have it both ways – we can’t have a way of life that devotes itself to distraction and yet at the same time get to talk about mental health as if we actually genuinely care about it! It is very straightforward to tell the difference between the way of life that is orientated towards distraction and a way of life that isn’t. One way to talk about this difference is to say that a life that is orientated around distraction is a life orientated around the false, mind-produced image of the self. If I am operating from the standpoint of the mind-produced image of the self (which is of course never anything more than an idea) then it goes without saying that I’m only going to be interested in distractions! What else could I possibly be interested in? If I were to take an interest in the truth then this would – very painfully – show up the falsity of my basis, and that wouldn’t be very much fun for me; if I went down this road far enough then I would have to give up this illusory self-image of mine and I don’t want to give it up! All of my efforts, all of my striving, all of my activities are for the sake of promoting and affirming this illusory self-image and ‘having a relationship with the truth’ most definitely ISN’T for the sake of the self-image. Nothing could be clearer than this – the self-image (although it won’t ever admit it) doesn’t want to have any truck with the truth…

 

The self-image is interested only in the sort of things that validate its supposing existence and these just happen to be the sort of things that our society specialises in producing. This type of validation is exactly what our way of life provides us with. Could anyone really say that our generic ‘mass culture’ produces or encourages anything that has the function of drawing our attention to the falsity of our assumptions, and thereby helps us to wake up from the stultifying collective dream that we are all stuck in? Of course no one would ever say this – the idea is simply laughable. There is nothing in our designed world that has the function of reminding us who we really are; there is nothing in our environment that is there to help bring consciousness to us. There are no lamps to guide our way, only disinformation, only state-sponsored mirages. Drawing attention to the truth is not what’s going on here at all – all the stuff that is thrown at us by society has the express purpose of steering us in another direction entirely. We are bombarded every day with messages that have the specific function of orientating us towards the mind-produced illusion, towards delusion and not to the truth. As Sogyal Rinpoche says, our society specialises in ‘selling samsara’.

 

‘Samsara’ may simply be taken as meaning ‘the life of the false, mind-produced self’, and when this is the only life we know then – naturally enough – this ‘life’ is going to be all about distraction! As we have already said, what else would it be about? When we talk about ‘mental health’ in connection with this world of distraction, this ‘life of the mind-produced self,’ then we are talking utter nonsense, therefore. There’s no ‘health’ here and there never could be – this is the very antithesis of mental health – this is ‘the forgetting of our true nature’. The ‘forgetting of our true nature’ means that the thing that is most precious to us, most vital to us, has been lost and something else – some ‘false idol’ – erected in its place. The loss of what is most precious to us is nothing other than a wound, therefore – we have sustained a wound and as long as we remain oblivious to this wound then we can hardly claim to be interested in or orientated towards mental health! To claim this is simply farcical.

 

Just because it is straightforward – in principle – talk about what the differences between ‘something that operates as a distraction’ and ‘something that doesn’t’, this doesn’t mean that it’s equally straightforward to know the difference in practice, of course. Knowing the difference between ‘an impulse that is directed towards the truth’ and an impulse that is directed towards ‘perpetuating falsehood’ can be extraordinarily difficult in practice, particularly in a collective milieu where values have been inverted and self-distraction is celebrated as a way of life. Obtaining food, shelter and companionship (for example) is not a distraction or a validation for the false self, but all three of these things can become distractions, can become validations, as basic and as essential as they are. We could be dining in a fine restaurant for example, which is something that the self-image likes very much and derives a whole heap of self validation from! Having a fine big house to live in is another wonderful validatory asset for the poor insecure self-image, and so – as everyone knows – is the practice of ‘hanging around with the right sort of people’. We take care to associate ourselves with winners at the social game rather than losers and this (we hope) will reflect well on us…

 

These are of course rather crude illustrations of how basic needs can become contaminated with the pernicious illusions of the mind-created self-image, but they make the point perfectly well. If we wanted to have a slightly subtler example, we could think of the whole field of social interaction. On the one hand the arena of social interaction is a great opportunity for honesty and self-discovery and the development of empathy / compassion, but on the other hand it is – in practice – a veritable morass of subterfuge, lies and compulsive game-playing. In a culture that placed more emphasis on personal integrity, candidness and self-exploration, and less emphasis on self-image and role then social interaction would present a huge possibility for growth, but this isn’t how things work. Almost invariably we interact on the basis of our ‘masks’, on the basis of our ‘roles’, on the basis of our ‘personas’, and we don’t have a clue that this is what we are doing. Out of this ‘unconscious dishonesty’, therefore, no good can come to anyone. No one benefits in this game, in other words.

 

John Berger is also referring to what we have called ‘the contamination of needs with the pernicious illusions of the mind-created self’ when he says that publicity ‘feeds upon the real’. Our needs are real, Berger says, but the web of illusions that capitalist society spins around it is not:

Publicity is effective precisely because it feeds upon the real. Clothes, food, cars, cosmetics, baths, sunshine are real things to be enjoyed in themselves. Publicity begins by working on a natural appetite for pleasure. But it cannot offer the real object of pleasure and there is no convincing substitute for a pleasure in that pleasure’s own terms. The more convincingly publicity conveys the pleasure of bathing in a warm, distant sea, the more the spectator-buyer will become aware that he is hundreds of miles away from that sea and the more remote the chance of bathing in it will seem to him. This is why publicity can never really afford to be about the product or opportunity it is proposing to the buyer who is not yet enjoying it. Publicity is never a celebration of a pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of others. Publicity is about social relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others.

Another possible way of looking at the basic problem here is to say that it has to do with our confusing of ‘quality-of-life’ with ‘standard of living’. This thing called ‘standard of living’ is essentially a societal construct in that what constitutes ‘a basic standard of living’ has to do with our particular conditioned way of living life, rather than anything else.  It basically defined in economic terms, in terms of ‘buying power’, and this definition links very closely (of course) with the measure of the economic health of the nation, which is to say the Gross National Product. SOL is a measure of our ability to take proper advantage of the goods and services being produced by our society and although this includes essentials such as food and clothing, it is to a large extent a measure of ‘social adaptation’, i.e. it is a measure of how well we are able to function in the socially-prescribed way.

 

Quality of life however is not this, although there is a lot of confusion on the subject. For example, according to the Wikipedia entry QOL is linked to SOL and it is defined in terms of how well one’s own life ‘coincides with’ the expected standard. This type of ‘equilibrium-based’ definition is very deceptive, however; something very important is missing and we can’t see what it is. If QOL were all about matching either our or society’s expectations for life then this would be distinctly dire situation. In order for life to be life – and not some routine or habit that we are automatically repeating – it has to contain elements that are completely irrelevant to our expectations. It has to contain ‘randomness’, so to speak. Another way of putting this would be to say that in order for life to be life it has to ‘go beyond the known’.  Most of us would be rather unlikely to agree with this statement of course – our idea of life ‘as it should be’ is life that fits in with our expectations, rather than a type of life that is irrelevant to them or doesn’t correspond to them at all! This is because we are – generally speaking – pretty much stuck in the Goal-Orientated mode. Life, for us, is a matter of asserting our unconscious assumptions, whilst validating this activity as ‘achieving our goals’.

 

This is fine in one way (because it’s what we want and what are comfortable with) but it’s not so fine in another way – it’s not so fine because a life that does not go beyond our expectations for it is not life at all, as we have just said. It’s a ‘shadow-version’ of life. Life that does not disagree with (or deviate from) our ideas of it is ‘the Rational Simulation of Life’ and if we were to put forward a handy, all-purpose definition of what ‘mental health’ is, we could say that – essentially – it is where these two things – ‘life’ and ‘the rational simulation of life’ are not taken to be one of the same thing. That’s all we have to say! If they are taken to be ‘one and the same thing’, then we have a situation where ‘life itself is not allowed to happen’, a situation where life is actually repressed or denied, and this – when it comes down to it – is a state of pure suffering. This suffering itself is not ‘mental ill-health’ – mental ill-health (so to speak) is ‘where we are suffering but do not know it’, or ‘where we are imprisoned but make a virtue of our imprisonment’; mental ill-health is where we are in denial of our suffering and go from day to day firmly believing that everything is okay, that everything is ‘as it should be’. In the Rational Simulation of Life everything is always as it should be’ and this is precisely the problem; there is something very seriously wrong when ‘everything is as it should be’! When our suffering finally manifests itself (because the mechanism of ‘pain suppression’ (or ‘illusion-validation’) is not working as effectively as it used to) then we are very much inclined to call this state of affairs ‘mental ill-health’. It is this ‘manifest suffering’, that occurs when the when our mechanisms for illusion-validation are no longer working, that we are fond of seeing as ‘neurotic mental illness’. We are seeing neurosis ‘back to front’ therefore – we are seeing unconscious adaptation to a mind-produced illusion (or ‘the Rational Simulation’) as being healthy and the perception of the mind-produced illusion as being what it actually is (i.e. entirely sterile, pointless and futile) as ‘the illness’. We are orientated towards ‘a false version of health’, in other words.

 

Living in the Rational Simulation of Life isn’t the sickness; living in the Rational Simulation of Life and not knowing it is the sickness. When we live in the RSOL and we know it then we have ‘a relationship with the truth’ this and this is a sign of health! It might be a sign of health but it’s a painful sign and so we’re not very fond of it, all the same. When we are living in the RSOL and we don’t know it (i.e. when we don’t have a relationship with the truth of our situation) then ‘the truth’, when it appears (as it must do at some point) is going to be two things to us – [1] is that it is going to be very unwelcome to us, and [2] is that it is not (at first, at least) going to be recognisable to us as the truth. For this reason, we going to mobilise all our resources against it; we going to fight against it with absolutely everything we’ve got. We’re struggling to achieve ‘a false version of health’ – we don’t see ourselves as ‘fighting against the truth’ however, on the contrary, we see ourselves as ‘fighting against a very bad outcome’…

 

When we talk about mental health therefore, what we are inevitably going to mean by this – just as long as we are unconsciously socially adapted, that is – is a mode of being that is entirely ‘congruent with our ideas of life’ whilst at the same time not generating the suffering and meaninglessness that necessarily follows on from this. This means that mental health for us is completely unattainable since ‘restriction’ and ‘the pain of restriction’ cannot ever be separated! We can’t have one without the other, we can’t have our cake and eat it… What we have here is an impossible definition of mental health therefore and this means that it is quite, quite unattainable, just as all illusions are unattainable. We would be kept busy forever, trying to attain it, and we are going to be kept busy forever trying to attain it. This sort of exhausting futility (known as the Wheel of Samsara in Buddhism) is what living in the Rational Simulation of Life is all about

 

 

Art: Consumer Culture / Atomic Age Abundance, by Sally Edelstein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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