The naïve approach to psychological therapy is to imagine that the therapeutic process is something that we both instigate and orchestrate ourselves – we believe the process to be – to a large extent at least – under our control. This belief has the consequence that if the therapy is unsuccessful then this must be due (to some part at least) to the person undergoing the therapy not trying hard enough, or not trying consistently enough. We might – as therapists – not like to acknowledge the inherent judgement here, but to the extent that we believe the therapeutic process to be purposeful, we must also – on some level – be allocating blame. We are – after all – taking the view that the person engaging in the therapy is responsible for the process themselves. That’s pretty much the whole point of the therapy – we are providing the tools by which change can be effected. We provide the tools (that’s our job) and then we want the person to ‘take responsibility for themselves’ (as it is said) and put these tools into action. We have taken care of our side of the deal after all, so now it’s up to them.…
This is where the confusion creeps in – we do indeed have responsibility for ourselves, but not in the way that is being implied here. Our responsibility (using the word carefully here, which is to say, not in any crude moralistic sense) is to be honest with ourselves (i.e. ‘not to lie to ourselves’. And if we do lie to ourselves – which is of course perfectly normal – then we take ownership of this as much as our awareness allows us to. We might well be lying to ourselves it’s true, but that doesn’t mean that we have two validate our lies to the hilt! We don’t necessarily have to invest in propping the lies up. The basic point that we’re making here is that we can’t have the responsibility to change ourselves; we can’t have the responsibility to change ourselves simply because that is not possible. How can we be ‘responsible’ for something that isn’t in any way possible for us to do? That isn’t a ‘responsibility’, that’s a ‘double-bind’! One of the easiest things in the world is for a therapist to double bind his or her client and the chances are very much that no one will ever notice this happening, either the therapist or the one having the therapy. The fact that both parties involved are utterly unaware of the double bind doesn’t make it OK however – obviously that doesn’t make it OK!
One of the biggest delusions going is the delusion that – if we try hard enough – we can change the way we are. This is why we are forever condemning our fellow men and women – because we firmly believe that they could change their behaviour if only they wanted to. If they don’t change their behaviour (the behaviour that is annoying us) then it is probably because they don’t want to, or can’t be bothered to. It is remarkably foolish however to think that people could change (as in ‘improve’) themselves if only they wanted to, if only they tried hard enough. We would only have to reflect on the matter for a few moments to see the flaw in this reasoning. Do we really imagine life to be as simple as this? We all have a tendency to act in such a way as to cause both ourselves and others unnecessary suffering – that is the human condition, as we can see merely by taking a look around us – and so is it really just a matter of us ‘copping on’ and giving ourselves (or perhaps someone else) a damn good kick in the pants in order for all of this to change? If this were the case wouldn’t we all have done this centuries ago – millennia ago, even? How do we persist in thinking that an ‘exertion of will’ is all it takes? How do we persist in not seeing how foolish it is to persist in this utterly ridiculous belief?
This whole business of ‘purposeful morality’ provide us with a good illustration of the utter futility of trying to change ourselves on purpose. We can keep ourselves in check (for the most part, at least), but only at the price of being constantly at war with ourselves. It’s as if ‘virtue’ means being totally repressive of ourselves, totally controlling of ourselves – the more we keep ourselves down the better a person we are, according to this view. This approach certainly hasn’t worked out for us in terms of public morality – people haven’t improved as far as their moral calibre is concerned as a result of being subjected to two thousand years worth of Christian ethics; if anything we are – in the developed nations of the West – more self-obsessed than we have ever been at any point in human history. It could be argued (and has been argued) that our present unfortunate narcissistic condition is a result of the decline of religion in modern times but this argument doesn’t hold much water. In Ireland (just to give one example) when the Catholic Church had near absolute power in the land and even the government and police deferred to them, great evil thrived under these conditions. History shows that religious folk are often capable of greater cruelty then their not-so-religious compatriots because they feel so justified in their attitude and actions. Overall, it is abundantly clear that ‘trying to be better people on purpose’ not only doesn’t work, but that it is actually counter-productive in terms of the stated goal. Trying to force ourselves to be good (which necessarily means repressing the part of us that isn’t up to scratch) empowers the shadow like nothing else. The shadow loves repression.
We can apply the same lesson to therapy – how do we ever imagine that people can – no matter how motivated they might be – change themselves to be a better way on purpose? What a lack of insight this shows! Do the therapists who espouse this approach have experience of changing themselves in this way? We can all change ourselves on the short term of course (always assuming that the incentive is great enough) – a leopard can indeed change its spots, if there is enough money in it! Similarly, if our aim is simply to change our behaviours or attitudes in order to escape or ameliorate the pain we are in without looking any deeper into ourselves we can – by dint of our efforts – effect a type of temporary change, a type of ‘elastic’ change, but nothing about us will have genuinely changed. Superficially perhaps, we can change ourselves – fundamentally, we cannot. We can put on lots of different masks, and convince ourselves that we are the person that the mask shows, but the one thing we can’t do is change the one who was wearing the mask!
The problem is that we are a superficial, image-obsessed culture and as such it doesn’t really make much sense to expect of ourselves that we should look more deeply into things when it comes to matters of mental health (or when it comes to any other matters either, come to that). We don’t breed philosophers, we breed businessmen and salesmen. We are very good indeed at selling stuff but not so good at checking to see if what we are selling so cleverly is actually worth a damn! There is absolutely only one thing that can help us when it comes to the restoration of our mental health however and that is not being superficial! What this means for a start is not trying to do ‘therapy’ out of a book or manual but – rather – drawing upon our own personal experience and understanding. ‘Doing it by the book’ is great for some things, but not for therapy. Therapy (if we are to agree that there is such a thing) comes out of a person, not a book or manual or some accepted protocol’. Life simply doesn’t work like this – it demands more of us than mere ‘off the shelf’ generic answers.
If we say that therapy is some kind of ‘order’ or ‘logical understanding’ that is imposed on us from the outside, by someone who – in their official capacity – ‘knows better than we do’, then this means that there is no therapy. This isn’t therapy at all, it’s merely brainwashing and brainwashing never improved the mental health of those being brainwashed – although it is undeniably good at changing their behaviour and way of thinking in the short term! If on the other hand we define ‘therapy’ by saying that it is essentially all about the recognition and appreciation of innate processes, processes that are already happening by their own accord, then we can perhaps allow that there is such a thing.
The bottom line is that therapeutic change is ‘facilitated by consciousness, not ‘imposed by strategic action’. Consciousness – on the part of the person concerned and those around them – does not ‘cause’ growth any more than the sun ‘causes’ seedlings to sprout and fruit to magically appear on trees. There is no causal relationship, no compulsion, no issuing of ‘instructions’ concerning the best way to grow or develop – the sun simply provides the necessary conditions for growth and other than that it is completely non-interfering. It does not applaud the seedlings when they grow nor does it criticise or question them if they don’t – the sun is fine either way! In the same way, consciousness is simply ‘there’– it has no agenda whatsoever. Consciousness has no agenda whatsoever and this is what makes it so tremendously different from the thinking mind, which cannot ever ‘not have an agenda’!
It is precisely this – the lack of any agenda, the lack of any bias – that makes it possible for consciousness to facilitate growth (or ‘therapeutic change’, just as it is precisely the fact that the thinking mind cannot not have an agenda that means that it ought not to be allowed anywhere near a therapeutic process! As soon as we can see this it becomes very clear where we are going wrong in our culture as regards this thing called ‘therapy’, or this thing called ‘mental health’. In our spectacular blindness, we have put thought in charge of everything! We have put thought in charge of therapy as if its brisk, necessarily cold and goal-orientated approach has any place here. As if mental health or well-being were a goal. We have put in place a ‘bureaucracy of thought’ to manage people’s mental health – if we knew how, we would turn mental healthcare into an algorithm to be fed into the health board’s computer network, and turned into an official procedure along with everything else. What we are always doing is ‘building machines to help us manage life’ and whilst this seems to work in some areas (‘seems’ being the operative word) it most certainly doesn’t work when it comes to mental health. Who ever heard of such a thing as ‘a machine to support us in our mental health’?
Machines are necessarily injurious to our well-being, to our mental health, when they are allowed to get involved. A ‘machine’ doesn’t have to be made of metal and plastic or cogs and wheels – any form of organisation that is based on rules is a machine. A hospital is a machine, a company or organisation is a machine, society itself as a machine. The designed world that we have created for ourselves is a machine and in order to survive within it ourselves we are obliged to turn ourselves into machines too. We have to ‘compromise ourselves’, in other words, in order that we might live in this world. We have to go against our true nature, as Philip K Dick says.
Compromising ourselves by becoming more and more ‘machine-like’ causes mental ill-health; adapting ourselves to society causes mental health, as Foucault says. Machines cause mental ill-health because they don’t give us space to be who we are. Society causes us mental ill-health because it doesn’t give us the space to be who we are. We could perhaps respond by saying, “Well in that case we will programme the machines to give us space to be ourselves” but that won’t work because no programme for that exists, nor could exist. We can’t adapt society to give us to give space to us either by passing the appropriate legislation because that legislation doesn’t exist – there is no formula to for providing space and so this is the one thing a machine can never do. That would be like having a rule that says there must be no rules! Only conscious human beings can be non-judgemental. Only conscious human beings can be non-judgemental, and there is an acute shortage of ‘conscious human beings’. Society doesn’t value them, after all – it has no regard for them whatsoever…