The Two Paradigms

Two paradigms exist in mental health, whether this is acknowledged or not. One is the positive paradigm, which is all about ‘structure-maintenance’ and ‘structure-consolidation’, whilst the other is the negative paradigm, which we may explain by saying that it is all about ‘structure-transcendence’. ‘Structure-transcendence’ – obviously enough – means going beyond the structures or systems that we have grown dependent upon, and which therefore define us.


If you were talk to anyone in the field of mental health then the chances are almost one hundred percent that they will understand ‘good mental health’ to be synonymous with ‘maintaining and consolidating the structure known as the rational ego’. Everyone understands mental health this way – this is the only way of understanding it that we have, collectively speaking. We have this basic attitude in life, this basic set of values, and we apply to everything; it’s a basic fundamental orientation so of course we apply it to every situation. To not do so would simply never occur to us! The more pressure we’re under the more we draw upon (and rely upon) our basic orientation, naturally…


There are times however when we are forced by circumstances or by extreme experiences to go beyond this basic orientation, and then (as far as the people around us are concerned) it’s as if we are speaking a foreign language! It’s as if we have lost our grip on reality and have started raving – we’re saying things that don’t make any sense at all. When we adhere to the ‘equilibrium’ (or ‘structure-based’) view of mental health then everything of course comes down to skills. Regaining our mental health is seen to be something that comes about as a result of us and learning, and then putting into practice, specially prescribed skills. When we are trying to restore an equilibrium value then this absolutely is a matter of using skills (or of ‘being skilled at utilising methods or strategies’) – there is no question about this. Structure-maintenance translates into control.


When we talking about structure-transcendence however then control isn’t going to have any part to play – the whole point of control is to bring things back to normative values, not free us from the gravitational pull of these values. It’s not just that this is what control does, it’s what control is! Control is a matter of ‘bringing things back to normative values’, control equals ‘returning the system to designated its designated equilibrium values’. If mental health were all about optimisation with regard to a particular way of being in the world, a particular way of interacting with the world, then skills and strategies would rule the day, but things are not this simple. Our mental health isn’t by any means a measure of how assiduously we stick to ‘the known’; on the contrary, mental health can be seen as a ‘reaching out to the unknown’, a movement out of equilibrium!


No obscure arguments or philosophies are needed to backup this observation – how can ‘staying the same’ be the healthy way to be? If you were to find yourself exactly the same person 10 years on, 20 years on, 30 years on, so that you are expressing the very same opinions, keeping the very same routines, getting involved in the very same discussions, the very same dramas as you always did, would you consider this healthy? Is ‘structure optimisation’ really the healthy option, or is it ‘healthy’ to change? Which feels better? Are we even truly alive if we don’t ever change?


Similarly, someone who never thinks or looks ‘outside the box’ can hardly be regarded as being particularly mentally healthy – if I’m concrete in my approach to life and always stick to the known, the tried and trusted strategies, the conventional way of doing things, and censure anyone who doesn’t do as I do, then this means that I am being governed by fear. This is a common enough modality of existence that we talking about here to be sure (the commonest, in fact!) but that doesn’t make it into a healthy way to be. It’s ‘normal’ but it’s not good! Acting on fear causes us to contract and react violently against anything that contradicts our closed way of life; if fear were not governing our lives then things wouldn’t be the same at all – we would be completely different in our attitude in this case. We would be open rather than closed, and this makes all the difference in the world.


It’s not overstating matters to say that almost all of our troubles are caused by this tendency of ours to ‘close-down’, or ‘shut ourselves off’ as a result of running from fear. The denial of fear always shows itself in the form of aggression; the attempt to escape fear breeds violence and intolerance, both directed towards others and ourselves and this violence / judgementalism justifies itself in the name of the ideal that is being promoted, it is seen as a ‘means to an end’ and this end is held to be so important as to make all possible means, however extreme, acceptable. When we are ‘governed by fear’ then we are uphold one specific way of doing things, one specific way of seeing the world, as being supremely important, as invalidating all others, and the reason for this is because this ‘idealised’ pattern of doing things is seen as our way of escaping the fear that drives us – our only way of escaping the fear that drives us.


It’s not that we are aware of this of course; we’re not aware that we are being governed by fear and so naturally we don’t see what we’re doing as ‘trying to escape fear’. We don’t see that our violence and intolerance towards ‘all other ways’ is a result of our belief that the way of seeing the world we are adhering to represents some sort of ‘magic formula’ that will save us from the nameless threat that is lurking in our unconscious. We are driven by these forces, these beliefs, and that means that we are in no way aware of them. Fear becomes the very basis of our world and so it is not something that we can see; it gives rise to a particularly aggressive and insensitive way of relating to the world, but – as we have just said – we see our behaviour as being necessitated by some great good that is either to be achieved, or upheld. If someone were to come up to us and put forward the suggestion that our way of seeing things is as precious to us as it evidently is because it ‘unconsciously represents’ a solution to the fear that is gripping us then we simply wouldn’t understand what they were talking about. We undoubtedly take against them for what they are saying – our precious ‘ideal’ (whatever might happen to be) is being disrespected, after all. ‘If you aren’t for us, then you must be against us’, the logic of fear says.


The question then arises (if we are talking about this thing called ‘mental health’) as to what the consequences might be for us living in this rigid conservative modality. If this concrete mode of existence isn’t healthy (as clearly it isn’t!) then how does this ‘lack of health’ manifest itself? Very simply put – and this is a very straightforward matter to talk about – being ‘shut down’ in the defensive/aggressive mode means that we will suffer, it means that we will feel bad. This is the inevitable consequence of being ‘shut-down’. We then either displace this pain onto others, and become even more aggressive than we were before, or we blame ourselves for it and become even more self-critical, even more controlling and punishing of ourselves. Whether we are harsh (if not to say positively hateful) to others, or to ourselves makes no difference; either way we have become ‘our own enemy’ – in the first case we afflict ourselves collectively whilst in the second case we afflict ourselves ‘personally’. Quite aside from the original suffering, we now have the extra suffering of our reaction to the original pain to contend with, and this is a spiral of thinking and behaving that feeds on itself and – with grim inevitability – becomes ever more toxic, ever more destructive.


What we are saying here therefore is that it is ‘structure-maintenance’ and ‘structure-consolidation’ that lies at the very root of our troubles. It is not going to be any kind of a ‘remedy’, therefore. We are holding on ever-tighter to our ‘pattern of being in the world’ (which is a pattern of ‘reacting’) and this is making things worse not better. Contrary to our unconscious assumption, maintaining and consolidating our pattern of doing things (which essentially equals our identity) is not the solution to our suffering, but the root cause of it. The only helpful process as far as neurosis is concerned therefore is the process of self-transcendence (or ‘reaching out to the unknown’) which – as we have already said – is not something that we can have a strategy or method for. There are no methods for self-transcendence, there is no strategy for ‘reaching out to the unknown’.


There is no strategy for reaching out to the unknown because this is something that has to ‘happen all by itself’. It can’t be forced – ‘reaching out’ can neither be ‘forced’ nor ‘prescribed’, obviously. It happens when it is ready to happen, just as forgiveness comes ‘when it is ready to come and not before’. There is a whole side to life that is like this and – as a culture – we are hugely dismissive of this aspect of life. We are only interested in that aspect of ourselves that can be managed, that can be controlled or forced. We dismissive of ourselves therefore because this act of ‘reaching out’ is who we really are, not the ‘holding on’. The fear isn’t us – the fear is the denial of us! In ‘holding on’ we go against our true nature, and that is why it causes us to suffer. When we react to fear we go against our true nature and start trying to secure things for ourselves, ensure things for ourselves, and generally ‘keep things the same’. We start trying to ‘take charge of the process ourselves’, in other words, and this is invariable bad news. This is how we try to ‘help ourselves out’, but it is no help at all. Our way of trying to help ourselves becomes our greatest affliction, and this is neurosis.


There is no strategy for ‘reaching out’, there is no method for ‘self-transcendence’, but there is such a thing as a supportive atmosphere within which this ‘movement’ can take place when it is ready to do so. Instead of being all businesslike and clinically efficient (and apparently ‘all-knowing’ as a result of our extensive education) what really does help in the field of mental health is simply to become more sensitive, more open-minded, and less controlling. Or as we could also say, what really helps is to become stronger and braver ourselves!


We don’t need a fancy, high-powered technical language to talk about the journey that takes us towards a deeper state of mental health; this isn’t a ‘technical’ business, it’s an opening-up business and there are no labels, or no instructions for ‘opening up’! Life doesn’t come with an operating manual, after all…



Image: Tick tock Traveler











All The King’s Horses

As long as ‘the machine inside us’ is allowed to do whatever it wants we won’t know that it is there. We won’t have a clue that it’s there. How could we know, how could we ever suspect? When the machine inside us is allowed to do exactly what it wants then all is peace and calm and we are allowed to get on with our lives. Only it isn’t ‘our life’ that we’re getting on with – it’s the machine’s life (or ‘the machine’s version of our life’).


This is our situation therefore – we’re letting ‘the machine inside of us’ live our life for us. We’ve handed over all responsibility to it, without even knowing that we have. We are living ‘the machine’s idea what life should be’ and it is keeping our constantly keeping us on track with a nudge here and a nudge there and something a lot worse than just ‘a nudge’ if we don’t get back on track quickly enough! We have complete unquestioning loyalty to the machine – its will is our will as far as we’re concerned!


The machine which is thought manifests itself as ‘the internal robot which lives our life for us’. Just so long as we are able, in an unimpeded way, to live the robot’s idea of what life should be then (as we have already said) we will continue on our way, content to believe that ‘all is as it should be’. There will still be problems of course, there will be many ways in which life fails to accord with ‘our’ (i.e. the machine’s) plan for it, but this won’t challenge the status quo in any way. Complaining about how things are going wrong only ever serves to affirm that they are wrong, after all.


We can continue in this way forever in the absence of any major upsets. We could in theory ‘question the status quo’ at any time of course, but in practice we don’t. Why would we? We are far too preoccupied with doing the machine’s bidding; we’re far too busy enacting the life of ‘the internal robot’, and thinking it our own. We are kept busy for this very reason – that’s part of the design. ‘The devil finds work for idle hands’ is one of the machine’s favourite sayings’! Even when we’re not busy in the sense of ‘physically engaging in tasks’ were busy we are busy – we are busy thinking robot’s thoughts and imagining that they are our own!


This is pretty much a perfect system, therefore – it can run and run and run. It can run along in this way – with us enacting the robot’s idea of what life should be, and us never noticing that this is what we’re doing – until our last breath. This isn’t just something that’s ‘fairly probable’ – it’s very nearly an absolute certainty, unless something happens to us to upset the apple cart in a big way. The machine has to be unable to ‘cope’ for a prolonged length of time, it has to find itself in a situation where it simply can’t control what is happening to it, and this situation has to persist for an extended period of time. Sometimes we have been in this situation right from the very beginning, right from the word ‘go’.


Alternatively, there could have been some type of trauma, not necessarily lasting very long, but sufficiently intense to disillusion us with the nice simple picture of reality that the machine has up to this point been providing us with. Up to this point we were (in most cases) living in a kind of safe and sanitised ‘bubble’ or ‘cocoon’ of ‘regulated reality’ – a ‘bubble or cocoon of regulated reality’ that was entirely illusionary, but which was nevertheless totally convincing for us. And just to help with the apparent stability or believability of this bubble, there are thousands (or millions) of people all around us who all believe in it in exactly the same bubble. Then something unexpectedly happens to burst this bubble, and once this bubble – the bubble of who we naïvely understood ourselves to be (i.e. the ‘assumed sense of self’) has been burst, it – just like Humpty Dumpty – can’t be put together again, even if we do have ‘all the kings horses and all the Kings men’ to help us.


‘All the King’s horses and all the King’s men’ may be taken as meaning ‘the mental health services’ within the context of this particular discussion! Once the ‘ego illusion’ has been compromised, so that on some deep level we can no longer believe in it in the way that we previously had done, then no sort of ‘therapy’ is going to restore this naïve belief. That just can’t be done, no matter how much we might collectively pretend that it can be. As patients we are of course under pressure – both from ourselves and the mental health services – for this ‘recovery’ to take place, but the truth is that it just can’t. ‘What has been seen can’t be unseen’! Once we gain some glimpse of ‘the fundamental falsity of our assumed basis’ – i.e. a sense that it ‘isn’t really what it implicitly claims to be’ – then we can’t ever go back to the naive (or ‘innocent’) belief that we used to have, in a much matter how much we want to. We have gone beyond that, however unwillingly…


Even if – as is most likely – we have no way of understanding what has happened, no language with which to articulate it – we still ‘know’ it in some deep way, and this deep-down knowledge shows itself in terms of a systematic failure of the type of ‘confidence’ in ourselves to be able to ‘cope’ with the world, or ‘deal’ with the world, or ‘do what is necessary to obtain the desired outcomes in the world’. No amount of talk about ‘coping strategies,’ or ‘skills’, or ‘distress-tolerance’ is ever going to change this – no matter how ‘scientific’ such talk might sound. Once cracks have appeared in the ego-structure itself, no matter of sellotape is going to fix it. Possibly we might still be able to ‘limp through life’ on the basis of an ego that we have unwittingly seen through, on the basis of an ego that we have inadvertently lost faith in, but we’re never going to get that old naïve ‘confidence’ back again. That confidence (or ‘ego-strength’) was based purely on ignorance and we are no longer ignorant in the way that we used to be. Or perhaps that ‘bubble of safety’ never existed for us – that is another possibility.


This (i.e. ‘therapy’!) is really putting us in an impossible situation therefore – we have to live in a world which everyone implicitly believes in but which we can’t believe in – no matter how much we may want to. If it happens that we find ourselves in therapy, or under the care of the mental health services, then we will have that same naïve illusionary view of reality projected upon us from everyone around us. How are the ‘trained mental health professionals’ that we meet going to know any different, after all; aren’t they are every bit as ‘unconscious’ (or ‘asleep’) as everybody else? Why would they not be? When we are in this position there are only two possibilities open to us – either we keep on ‘pretending’ and hope that no one notices that we are, or we stop pretending and get blamed instead by all and sundry for not trying hard enough to get better (or perhaps even for positively wanting to carry on being mentally unwell). If anyone tells you that this isn’t what happens every day in the mental health services clearly they are living on another planet entirely!


This isn’t quite the full story though – there aren’t just these two possibilities, there’s another one too. We don’t have to keep on trying to find ‘some way back’ (which is impossible in any event, as we keep on saying) – we could actually ‘go forward’ instead! ‘Going forward’ – in this context – means that instead of trying to ‘get back what we never really had in the first place’ (because it was never really ‘our’ life that we were living, or ‘trying to live’), we can try out a different type of life, a type of life that hasn’t been dictated to us by the machine of thought. When we carry on without spending all our time looking back to ‘how we used to be’ and trying in a futile way to ‘get back there’ what happens is that we very slowly learn a new way of being in the world, a way of being in the world that isn’t based on unreflective aggression and ‘false confidence’.


This is very hard because – to a large extent – we just don’t know anything else. We don’t know what else there is apart from obeying the dictates of the machine of thought. It is very hard to be free when we have been so long enslaved – it feels very strange and we don’t have anything to guide us. When the internal robot is broken and can no longer help us (or when it is so clearly a menace to our well-being that we have had to refuse its help) we find ourselves in a kind of ‘no-man’s-land’. What’s broken is broken and there’s no fixing it, and this means that ‘there is no turning back’. The way is barred. There may not be any ‘turning back’ it is true, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any ‘going forward’…






Aggressive Therapy

There is a sort of ‘basic principle’ in social psychology that no one seems to talk about, least of all social psychologists! This principle has to do with the inherent aggression of human communications; or more specifically, the inherent aggression associated with the consensus reality that none of us ever acknowledges as ‘a consensus reality’  This lack of recognition is unsurprising enough – as we have already pointed out, aggression becomes invisible when everyone tacitly agrees to go along with it! In this case, when we have all ‘gone along with it’, were anyone to put up their hands and say ‘Hey, there’s a whole lot of aggression going on here!” then we can look at them in genuine bewilderment and completely fail to see what they’re coming from. The consensus reality is something that we have all agreed to so automatically that we never see ourselves agreeing; if we did see ourselves agreeing to it it would no longer be ‘a reality’, it would simply be ‘something that we have agreed to’. It would simply be a convention, a convenient system for dealing with things. It’s not just an accident that we never see ourselves agreeing, therefore – that’s how the whole thing works.


There is however a way in which we can suddenly become extremely sensitive to this all-pervasive invisible aggression and this is when something happens to us to destabilise or call into question our sense of ourselves. When we don’t have to question our ‘assumed sense of ourselves’ then we can get along just fine and we won’t ever have to pay any attention to our ‘sense of ourselves’. This is like never having to notice an internal organ such as the appendix, until it becomes dangerously inflamed and painful. Then we become aware of it, but in a way that we really don’t want to! When our assumed sense of ourselves is destabilised or ‘called into question’ (which is a perfectly legitimate thing to happen!) then we are no longer on an equal footing with everyone whose assumed sense of themselves is still ‘100% intact’, or ‘fully functional’. A whole new world is opened up for us when we find ourselves operating in the consensus reality with an ego construct that is not ‘100% intact’, that is not ‘100% functional’ – we find that we straightaway become extraordinarily sensitized to power and the use of power in human relations. We may not know (we probably won’t know) that this is what’s going on because the distress involved stands in the way of any clear awareness but, unbeknownst to us, we have now transitioned out of the nice and comfortable consensus reality to the extent that the aggression involved in human communications has now become visible to us for the first time. We have actually become more conscious than most of our fellow human beings – we’re conscious that everyone else is ‘playing a game’, even if we can’t articulate this awareness.


Few people can understand this however, or even come close to understanding it, unless they themselves have had a prolonged experience of being ‘an outsider’ to the consensus reality in the way that we have just described. If you happen to be someone who has never had their ‘sense of self’ seriously undermined, then the idea that this can happen (and just how bad it feels when it does happen) is practically impossible to grasp. This is a world that only a minority of people know about, and it just so happens that this is a group or section of the population that no one ever listens to. Very obviously, the only way to have a voice in the consensus reality is to be a fully paid-up member of the club, so to speak. The world becomes very different place when we get unceremoniously ejected from the CR; it becomes a very different place specifically because we have become so intensely vulnerable to other peoples’ ‘aggressive interpretation of reality’, if we may call it that. We then come away from almost every human interaction feeling bad about ourselves in some way, feeling that we have failed or are a failure in some way, and this is simply because within the terms of the consensus reality we are indeed failing, and there’s no question about it! If the consensus reality is the only reality – which is necessarily how it is represented to us – then the only conclusion we can come to is that the fault (whatever that fault might be) lies in us and nowhere else.


For someone who is in this situation it is as if everyone we meet has a kind of power over us, probably without realising that they do, and this interpersonal ‘power differential’ invariably puts us at a disadvantage. Having one’s ‘assumed sense of self’ compromised, for whatever reason, is to be permanently at a disadvantage, socially speaking. Socially speaking, we are at a permanent disadvantage and it is also the case that others will exploit this disadvantage, either consciously or unconsciously. Most of us will of course deny that this sort of thing goes on on a widespread basis; equally, most of us would immediately deny that human beings are constantly playing games of one sort or another and find it extraordinarily hard to disengage from doing so. We don’t see ourselves playing games – we acknowledge that there is such a thing as ‘a psychological game’, but consider this to be somewhat of a rarity, and certainly not something that we would be doing. For anyone who suffers from social anxiety or low self esteem (for example) what we have just described would be very familiar territory indeed.


Every interaction between one human being and another has a context which we assume without realising that any assumption has been made. The ‘assumed context’ of the consensus reality has all the more power associated with it because of the vast number of people who automatically subscribe to it. To be up against this is to be up against a the biggest brick wall in the world, to put it mildly, particularly since we are now in a position where we find ourselves taking on everyone else’s criticism (either open or implied) of us. Everyone else is ‘right’ and we are ‘wrong’ on all counts, so it seems. As we have said, we are ‘wrong automatically’.


There is no getting away from this all-pervasive underlying dynamic – there’s no sidestepping it. If there is such a thing as a’ consensus reality’, then such a reality is inevitably going to be aggressive, such a reality is inevitably going to be ‘denying’ of all other possible contenders on the field. That’s how it works, that’s how the consensus reality gets to be the consensus reality – by steamrollering all the opposition out of existence without even acknowledging what it is doing. By the same token therefore, each one of us – inasmuch as we are subscribing to the consensus reality (and how could we not be, given that it is a precondition of being a member of society, which we can hardly afford not to be) – is going to be automatically (or ‘unconsciously’) denying of anyone else’s reality if it does not match the ‘assumed context’ that we ourselves are operating within. Anything that doesn’t match the assumed context is automatically wrong, after all. Anything that doesn’t match the assumed context can’t help showing up as an anomaly. This is the thing about games – if something disagrees with the rules of the game then – on the terms of that game – it is absolutely wrong, it is ‘wrong without question’. That’s how a game gets to be a game – precisely by doing this!


What we talking about here is of course the ‘state of being psychologically unconscious’. To be ‘psychologically unconscious’ means having our way of seeing the world (i.e. ‘our context of understanding’) supplied for us so that all sorts of things become either unquestionably true, or unquestionably untrue. When we see everything in terms of the context of understanding that has been supplied for us (without us knowing or suspecting that it has been supplied for us) then we get to live in a world of absolutes, world made up of things that are either unquestionably true or unquestionably not true, and that’s what secretly we want. That is the ‘benefit’ (so to speak) that being in the unconscious mode of existence provides us with. Essentially, we are 100% orientated towards ‘running away from uncertainty’ and this is precisely what the unconscious mode facilitates for us. It facilitates us in ‘not questioning’.


When we live in ‘unconscious mode’, therefore, we are not really interested in ‘seeing things as they might be in themselves’ – that’s the last thing we are interested in; that’s the last thing we are interested in because the way things actually are in themselves is always uncertain! What we are interested in is ‘sorting everything out so it gets to be slotted into its proper box’; we are interested in ‘organising or analysing all our various bits of experience in accordance with the system, in accordance with our established way of organising and analysing things’. If something is resistant to being organised or processed or sorted-out in the proper way, then this comes as an affront to us. We’re not interested in finding out why whatever it is isn’t fitting into the right box or ‘doing what it should be doing’, we’re just interested in the closed question of ‘how to get it to behave the way we think it ought to’!


In one way therefore, just as long as we are living safely within the consensus realm, then we don’t have to worry ourselves with any of this. As far as we’re concerned everything that we have just discussed is pretty obscure, pretty irrelevant. We can just get on with what we’re already doing, we can get on with ‘playing the game that we aren’t acknowledging to be a game’. We are after all perfectly happy living in the ‘unconscious mode’ (whilst at the same time not having our attention drawn to the fact that we are). The only time it does all become relevant is when we suddenly find ourselves excluded from the consensus reality and on the other side of the brick wall, so to speak. Then, it all becomes very relevant indeed! Another time at all becomes very relevant is when we are working or interacting with people who are in this situation, and when it is therefore incumbent on us to work or interact with them without inadvertently devalidating their reality, without inadvertently devalidating their experience. If we aren’t able to avoid devalidating (without meaning to) the people we working with, then we are clearly not doing a very good job of being a therapist, or a mental health worker!


The big problem is of course that our culture ‘trains people up’ to be therapists not by supporting them in their personal journey of growth to become more conscious (and therefore more sensitive) but by filling their heads with models and data and theory and skills and techniques, none of which are any good for anything other than furthering our ‘unconscious aggression’ (which is the aggression of ‘me trying to enforce my reality on you, without me even knowing that I’m doing this’). There’s no such thing as ‘an unconscious therapist’! There’s only an ‘unconscious enforcer of the consensus reality’, which is to say, ‘a person who have enforces the official story without ever realising or suspecting that it is only a story’!


Alan Watts (in his book Psychotherapy East and West) calls this unconscious enforcing of the CR ‘social adjustment therapy’ and says that this is always the result when the therapist stands with society against his client, rather than the other way around. Social adjustment therapy, Alan Watts points out, necessarily lacks all integrity as a therapy –

Whenever the therapist stands with society, he will interpret his work as adjusting the individual and coaxing his ‘unconscious drives’ into social respectability. But such ‘official psychotherapy’ lacks integrity and becomes the obedient tool of armies, bureaucracies, churches, corporations, and all agencies that require individual brainwashing. On the other hand, the therapist who is really interested in helping the individual is forced into social criticism. This does not mean that he has to engage directly in political revolution; it means that he has to help the individual in liberating himself from various forms of social conditioning, which includes liberation from hating this conditioning — hatred being a form of bondage to its object.

Obviously ‘social adjustment therapy’ (or ‘official psychotherapy’) lacks all integrity – it lacks all integrity because it doesn’t have the slightest bit of regard for the the clients’ true well-being! Social adjustment therapy is aggressive therapy, and aggression (towards anything at all) always works against the health of the individual. There’s no way to ‘aggress’ (or ‘force’) someone to be mentally healthy, in other words! We’re actually manifesting our own ‘lack of mental health’ (our own ‘unconsciousness’) by trying to do this.


This is a collective failing in our part – by failing the person we are working with we are failing ourselves. There are no winners here, there is no one being helped. And yet mainstream culture (which is always the most unconscious portion of society) remains firmly ‘in charge’ of saying what mental health is and what it is not; we have therefore put all of our psychological well-being in the hands of those most unsuited for the job! The answer to the ongoing global crisis in mental health is never going to come from the mainstream and yet it is only when we are fully paid-up representatives of the mainstream that we are allowed to voice an opinion. No one else has a voice, after all…






Therapy Or Brainwashing?

There is something particularly odious – in my view – about the way in which we in the West approach what (until very recently) used to be called ‘mental illness’. We may use a slightly different terminology now, preferring to talk in terms of ‘conditions’ rather than ‘illness’, but our approach is still the same. There is something very unpleasant – toxic even – in our attitude, and this unpleasantness, I think, stems from our fundamental lack of respect towards the experiences of the people we, as mental health professions, are dealing with.


In a nutshell, we’re arrogant; we’re arrogant because we are so convinced that our ‘neat and tidy’ rational way of looking at the world – which we did not arrive at ourselves but rather passively absorbed from the cultural milieu (in a ‘default’ way that requires no effort on our part) – is the right way that we can’t even come close to empathizing with other, often very different, perceptions of reality. This is precisely where our unconscious arrogance lies therefore – it lies in the fact that we (by some special virtue of our own) know what the right way to view reality is. The great philosophers of the past may not have known what the right way to look at reality is, but somehow we do…


Not everyone is guilty of this unconscious disrespect of course. The point we are making is that the ‘disrespect’ is systematic – it’s built into whole structure of things and so it’s always going to set the tone. It’s always going to be the dominant influence. Disrespect is always systematic where there is an inbuilt ‘power differential’, when one group of people have more power given to them by society than another, and this is exactly the state of affairs in psychiatry, or in the mental health industries in general.


A crude but nevertheless very effective way of determining whether a power differential exists between the professionals whose job it is to work with people suffering from mental health conditions and the people themselves is to ask the question ‘Who is the most successful in society’s terms, a consultant psychiatrist or clinical psychologist (for example) or a psychiatric patient? We’re not supposed to ask this question, of course. It is very politically incorrect suggest that patients might be granted lower social status in the basis of the fact that they are patients (i.e. on the basis that they are not, in most cases, highly qualified professionals but are, rather, sufferers of a mental health condition); it is politically incorrect to suggest it but that doesn’t mean that it is true. We all know that it is true…


We don’t want to admit that the actual patients themselves may not have the same social status as the healthcare professionals who are trained to treat them but at the same time we all know very well that this is the case. Society operates purely on the basis of status and prestige, whether we want to admit it or not. Society operates on the basis of the power gradient that exists between those of high status and those of low, and it would be foolish in the extreme to pretend otherwise. Society isn’t a ‘free’ kind of an affair; it’s coercive, in other words. It’s based on following rules….


When you as a patient look across the desk at the mental health professional who is dealing with you it is evidently the case that you are looking at someone who has more power than you; this isn’t just power in terms of how we usually understand ‘social status’, it is power in the sense of ‘Which one of us has the authority to say what the proper way to see the world is?’ Power is a basic part of all human interactions – every time we interact with someone we are involved in a struggle (whether we are conscious of it or not). We are involved in the struggle to see who has the power to define the ‘consensus reality’ that is to be negotiated in the interaction. This contest can be very subtle, or it can be very unsubtle indeed! When we are involved in an argument, for example, then this is an unsubtle example of ‘the struggle to see who can define reality’! Our current way of understanding mental health conditions is a perfect illustration of ‘something that has been defined by the powerful’ – when depression (just to give one example) is defined as ‘a mechanical malfunction of the brain’ then this is ‘disrespect’, this is ‘an abuse of power’.


There are times when human interactions are not based on power, it is true, but my point is that they are comparatively rare. Interactions that are not based on power are interactions that are based on love, and love – as we all know – is not usually part of the equation! All interactions that are based on the roles we are playing, or the social personas that we are acting out, or on the unquestionable rules that exist in the social game, are predicated upon power. All games full stop are predicated upon the use of power, and we’re all playing games of one sort or another almost all of the time, whether we realize it or not. To not play a game is to be ‘totally honest’, and how often can we afford to be totally honest in a human interaction? When we see our therapist or our psychiatrist or our psychologist the chances are very much that we’re playing a game here too. We’re playing ‘the patient / therapist game’, as Ram Dass says in the following passage-

Then I was a therapist and so many hours a week I had somebody sitting on the other side of the desk, and he was playing patient, I was playing doctor I would run thru my list of theories as he would run through his list of symptoms and we’d compare them and match them up and, you know, it wasn’t enough. It didn’t quite gel.  It was as if psychology had a reason to be as defensive as it was.

The patient / therapist game is a very comforting and familiar one to be sure, but that doesn’t mean that it’s therapeutic! Whilst a good old-fashioned power hierarchy has everything to do with the way we organize social groups (in baboons as much as humans) it has nothing to do with therapy. Therapy isn’t an exercise in power-play, it isn’t an exercise in ‘doing what you’re told’ (or ‘doing what you’re expected to do’). A power gradient between two people (or two groups of people) equals disrespect. The use of power IS disrespect! That’s the whole point – what the use of power comes down to is ‘My way of looking at the world is more valid than your way’. ‘Might is right’, would be another way of putting this. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, what we call truth is simply ‘an interpretation’ and the one who has the most power is – naturally enough – the one whose interpretation passes into law! This is why Nietzsche talks about ‘the impossibility of truth’ –

Against [empiricism], which halts at [observable] phenomena—‘There are only facts’—I would say, no, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact ‘in itself’: perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing.

‘Everything is subjective [for example, a figment of your reasoning mind],’ you say; but even this is interpretation. The ‘subject’ is not something given, it is something added and invented … [Is] it necessary to posit an interpreter behind the interpretation? …

In so far as the word ‘knowledge’ has any meaning, the world is … interpretable, otherwise it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings—‘Perspectivism’.

Those who have the power have the right to say what is true and what is not true. It is not just that the powerful ‘decide upon the agenda’, the powerful decide on what game we should be playing (or to put this another way, the powerful decide what reality should consist of, what it is and what it isn’t). Inasmuch as society is a power hierarchy therefore, it is the top of the hierarchy that tells us what reality is, and we don’t get to question it. We don’t even know that our perceptions of reality have been defined for us! So if we’re in this situation of not being aware that our perceptions of reality have been defined for us (because we’re ‘socially adapted’) then it is inevitably the case that we will impose the very same assumptions we have passively absorbed upon everyone else we meet, without realizing that we are doing this.


This is of course a very important thing to be aware of, but when we’re talking about therapy, it becomes even more critical, even more poignant. Being unconsciously socially conditioned means that we are incapable of engaging in ‘honest human interaction’ – the only type of honest human interaction is after all that interaction which takes place without an assumed context, and because we can’t SEE our assumed context, that just isn’t possible. We’re not aware that we’re seeing the world via the lens of our social conditioning and this (as we’ve just said) means that we’re imposing that conditioning on everyone we meet, without knowing that we’re doing it. We’ve been set up as virally-infected ‘zombie-units’ whose job it is to unconsciously propagate the ‘officially approved view or interpretation of reality’ whilst imagining the whole time that we are acting as independent agents!


This situation is good from the POV of ‘perpetuating the socialized view of reality’, but not good from the POV of anything that might properly be called ‘therapy’! ‘Therapy’ and ‘brainwashing’ aren’t supposed to be the same thing, after all, and yet we confuse the two all the time… If we’re working in the field of mental health therefore, then the only way we can AVOID imposing our unexamined assumptions on everyone we meet is by taking the trouble to ‘examine’ them (and thereby examine ourselves). This isn’t what happens though – instead of becoming less programmed when we get trained as therapists or doctors or psychologists we get more programmed; instead of becoming more broad-minded we become narrower, as is always the way with specialization…




Art: Taken from a-tour-of-melbourne-street-art