The Self Can Never Be Improved

Two ideas that we are very much unacquainted with in the field of mental health are [1] the idea that we cannot change our mental state on purpose and [2]  the idea that our concept of ourselves, the ‘ego’, cannot ever be ‘improved’ or ‘redeemed’ in any meaningful way. These two ideas are clearly very closely linked and both of them are equally unacceptable to us!

 

If we take the second idea first, we can fairly easily see that the idea of ourselves can never be improved or redeemed – the idea that we have of ourselves will always be just that, an idea – it can never be ‘worked upon’ in such a way so as to make it be not an idea. We like the idea of ‘turning ideas into reality’ it is true but this is one idea that will never become reality. Actually – of course – if we are to be strict about it – we would have to say that no idea can ever truly be made into reality. Ideas are ideas and reality is reality; ideas are ideas by virtue of the fact that they are ‘made-up things’ (or ‘constructs’), whilst reality is reality precisely because it hasn’t been made-up, precisely because it isn’t a construct. No matter how much we improve a construct it’s never going to become ‘not a construct’.

 

There is no big problem in understanding this point – where the big problem comes in however is in us understanding that what I call ‘myself’ actually is an idea, is a construct. We have an awful lot riding on the idea of ourselves not being merely ‘an idea’ – 99% of everything we do (as Wei Wu Wei says) is done for the sake of this construct and so to reveal ‘the idea of ourselves’ as being just that we demolish everything we have either attained or think we might be able to attain in one stroke. The perception that this particular idea isn’t an idea is the hook that we hang our whole lives on. That’s the linchpin for the whole shebang, so naturally we aren’t going to take kindly to having it knocked. We would have nothing to hang our narrative on then! It would be like having a fine collection of expensive shirts or a magnificent collection of stylish and fashionable outfits, but no wardrobe in which to hang them. More to the point, it would be like having the most wonderful hat in the world but no head to wear it on. It is easy enough to put forward the argument as to why our sense of ourselves is no more than an idea, no more than a concept, if only it were possible to find someone to listen to it. Everything we relate to via the thinking mind and take on this account to be real is a construct or idea. That’s how the thinking mind works, after all – it has all these ideas about the world and it automatically projects them out onto the world, and we then happily relate to these projections as if they were not our own ideas, as if they were not our own concepts. That’s basic psychology – albeit a basic psychology that we are never taught in any psychology courses! There is a very easy test we can carry out to see if the ‘reality’ we are perceiving is bone fide or if it is merely a formulation of reality that is being mechanically presented to us by the conceptual mind and that is to notice whether what we are perceiving is engendering a state of wonder in us – if it isn’t then we know that it is a routine construct of thought that we are encountering and not reality itself, which always gives rise to wonder. The routine constructs of thought can engender other types of emotional reaction in us, it is true, but never wonder.

 

We live – for the most part – in a world that is made up of our own projections and that is a very dismal thing to consider. The key thing about our own projections is that they unfailingly remind us of ourselves; they unfailingly remind us of ourselves in either a euphoria-producing way or a dysphoria-producing way. In what may on the face of it sound like rather simplistic terms, we could say that our projections are always either ‘slanted towards the positive’ or ‘slanted towards the negative’ – either we are given the impression that our situation is improving and feel optimistic as a result or we are going to be deflated and demoralised by the perception that things are dis-improving, by the perception that things are going in a bad direction. Although this might sound like a rather over-simplistic way of understanding what’s going on this ‘positive versus negative polarity’ is inherent in the very idea of ‘projection’ – since all my projections are centred upon me, and since all I care about (as an ego) is whether things are going to pan out in a way that is [1] to my advantage or [2] not to my advantage then very clearly there are only two types of meaning that my projections are ever going to hold for me. Either I’m going to be attracted to them because they spell good news or I’m going to be repelled because they spell bad news; either I’m going to be full of desire, or I’m going to be full of fear.

 

It is actually impossible for the Mind-Created Self to live outside the ‘closed world’ that is made up of its unrecognised projections – the process by which the MCS relates to its projections as if they weren’t its projections is the process by which the MCS gets to exist as a going concern! That’s the whole mechanism right there in a nutshell. So if we think it’s rather strange that the everyday self or ego should be relating to its projections in place of reality, and doubt that this actually happens as much as we are saying it does, it will come as a far greater surprise (or rather shock) to consider the suggestion that it cannot do otherwise, no matter how hard it might stretch or strain itself. In another way it surely shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that the idea which we have of ourselves can’t actually ‘make out’ in the real world, but only in our ‘idea of the world’. Naturally the self which is a construct of the system of thought can only exist in a world that is also a construct; this is like saying that ‘who we are in the game that we are playing’ can only exist within the artificial terms of the construct that is ‘the game’. The character in the game cannot escape from the game, no matter how much it might like to believe that it can! As Greg Tucker says, the dreamer cannot leave the dream that the mind is dreaming and lead a life that is outside of the dream, independent of the dream, no matter how much effort it puts into proving that it can.

 

As Greg Tucker argues, everything we do in life is secretly for the sake of proving to ourselves that the dream isn’t a dream’, and that we do have a life that is exists outside of this narrow artificial context, and – on an unconscious level – we might say that this unconscious agenda equates to the urge that we all experience to ‘progress’ in life, to ‘improve’ ourselves or our situation. The everyday self or ego (the default setting for how we understand ourselves) is invariably perceived – once we start reflecting on the matter, which is of course something that we don’t always do  – and so are perennial urge is the urge to redeem the lowly (or inferior) situation of the self, and make it ‘worthy’ in some way. This struggle might be seen in terms of general moral improvement, or it might be seen in religious traditional religious terms as being ‘saved’ by Christ rather than remaining a poor sinner headed for damnation. In a more materialistic frame of reference we will understand the redemption of the everyday self in terms of gaining prestige and status in society, of becoming a ‘somebody’ rather than a ‘nobody’. And if we happen to be ‘spiritual materialists’, to use Chogyam Trungpa’s phrase, then we are going to try to ‘redeem the ego’ by teaching it how to be mindful, by training it to be compassionate and accepting and non-judgemental and so on. It’s all the same thing however, it’s the very same thing dressed up in different guises because what we’re trying to do is something that simply can’t be done. We are trying to improve the mind-created self or ego but there’s no ‘improving’ to be done here. ‘It is what it is’, as people often say.

 

The rational self or ego can’t be trained to be non-judgemental, accepting and compassionate – it would be easier to train a herring to bark, or train a caterpillar to pull a cart. The rational self or ego is a mechanism and as such it can only ‘obey rules’ and there is no sincerity in this. It can only do what it sees as being right (or, on occasion, rebel by doing the exact opposite of obeying and react against the rule, which is also a rule, which is also obeying). The rational self or ego is always the same – it can disguise itself in various ways (it can even disguise itself as a saint or enlightened teacher) but the underlying motivation or agenda never changes, not even by a bit. The ego is always the ego. The other way that we have of trying to ‘redeem the self’ is by this thing that we call therapy, and this brings us to the other impossibility that we have mentioned, which is ‘the impossibility of changing our mental state on purpose’. This – needless to say – is something that we have immense resistance to seeing. Just about everyone you talk to is going to tell you that they can change their mental state at will – most of what we do is done for the sake of changing our mental state, after all (although we don’t usually see things like this). I feel unhappy or dissatisfied in myself and so I do something in order that I might feel better! These are all examples of a change in mental state – or that is at least how we take it. If I’m feeling a bit down I can eat a slice of cake, if I’m anxious I can seek reassurance, or – if I am more psychologically minded, I can do some progressive muscular relaxation or perhaps take a few mindful breaths. If I’m feeling bitter or resentful or hard done by, then I can spend a few moments looking at inspirational memes on my phone, or I can start keeping a gratitude diary, and so on.

 

It might sound as if we’re being rather facetious here but the point is that mental health is – for us in the Western nations – all about using recipes or methods – if you feel like this then do X, and if you feel like that then do Y… It’s all about technical procedures and the implication is very much that we can change our mental state on purpose, which is laughable nonsense. What we don’t (or can’t) see is that feeling satisfied/unsatisfied, validated/devalidated, pleased/annoyed, hungry/satiated, etc are the two sides of the same coin. Feeling euphoric and feeling dysphoric (for whatever reason) are the very same bipolar mental state, which is the bipolar mental state associated with the Mind-Created Self, as we have already said. We believe ourselves to have a wide range of emotional states that we can experience during the course of our day-to-day lives but our emotional palette isn’t as diverse as we might think. All of our basic everyday emotions are states of mind that are based upon the ego’s perception of how well it is doing versus how badly it is doing, i.e. whether it is ‘winning’ or ‘losing’. All of our common emotional states are related to the question of whether the game we’re playing is going well for us or not and the problem with this is that we never acknowledge ourselves as playing a game. The ‘lower emotional register’ corresponds to what Tibetan Buddhism calls ‘the six poisons’ (or ‘the six worlds’) and what Christianity referrs to as ‘the seven deadly sins’. Essentially, these are games that are played by the self without it realizing that it is playing games (and this relates to what we were saying earlier when we said that the self creates itself by playing a game without acknowledging that it is). All of our common emotional states are ‘self-ish’ states, in other words; they are self-ish inasmuch as they only make sense in relation to the Mind-Created Self. Anger relates to insults that the ego receives, envy and jealousy relate to the question of whether someone else has got what the ego thinks it should have, desire relates to the self’s need to accumulate wealth or commodities (or the need to enjoy the pleasure associated with ‘obtaining good things’), pride relates to the polarity of validation versus devalidation (i.e. the age-old question of ‘Am I great or am I rubbish?’) and so on. I might argue that feeling in good form (rather than in bad form) isn’t a lower emotional state but it is because all that it means is that the MCS is doing well in its games; it’s won the lottery – so to speak – and that accounts for its good humour – if things went the other way and it ‘lost out’ (or didn’t get its own way) then that good humour would turn into bad humour in a flash, showing that both ‘emotions’ are really just the same thing…

 

All the ‘lower emotions’ are nothing other than the reflection of the self – the self is bipolar and so are all of the afflictive emotions (as Sogyal Rinpoche puts it). The lower emotions equal the Mind-Created Self and the Mind-Created Self equal the lower emotions. So at this point we can see how it is that neither the state of mind that we happen to be in at the time, or the state of identification that we’re in with the mechanism of the self (which is all of the time), can ever be changed ‘on purpose’. We imagine that we can meaningfully change our state of mind (from a painful one to a pleasurable one) and this is what drives us in all of our ego-games – this is the ‘freedom’ that we think we have in everyday life. We imagine (and this ‘act of imagination’ might be better referred to as ‘an absolute unquestionable conviction’) that we can win rather than lose (if we play our cards right, that is) and this belief is pure jet-fuel for us – it keeps us on the go all day long! This type of motivation can only come about when we DON’T see that winning and losing are the same thing therefore (or when we don’t see that both winning and losing equal ‘the self’ and that the self can never be changed or improved or redeemed). ‘Winning’ is my own projection and so is ‘losing’ but if I see this then there will be no more vindication in the former and no more demoralizing ‘loss-of-face’ in the latter and that would mean that the game cannot continue.

 

If I want to enjoy the euphoria of winning then I can’t let myself see that winning is ‘my own projection’, obviously enough. That’s a game-spoiler. More than this though, if I want to carry on being the concrete self then I mustn’t let myself see that my projections are ‘my projections’ because (as we said earlier) not seeing this is the very mechanism by which the everyday self gets to exist. It’s only when I believe in ‘winning’ as an actual real thing that the one who is either going to win or lose (the MCS) can continue to have its (virtual) existence. This being so, it is no surprise at all that we have such immense, implacable resistance to seeing that [1] We can never change our mental state of purpose and [2] the rational self or ‘ego’ can never be redeemed or improved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…