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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Naïve Approach To Psychological Therapy

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Challenge of Becoming Real (Part 2)

The social world which we inhabit makes only one requirement of us and that is that we adapt ourselves to it. The only real rule of the system is that we should fit in, in other words. It is the perception that we aren’t fitting in, or that we don’t know how to fit in, that lies behind social anxiety. Social anxiety is a peculiar thing inasmuch as we don’t really ‘get it’ unless we ourselves suffer from it, which is to say, we don’t really understand how important it is that we should fit into society until we can’t! If we were to think about it a bit more deeply, we knew we would see that nothing else would matter the social world other than itself ever – the social world is a equilibrium-system and an equilibrium system – by definition – doesn’t care about anything other than its own standards. ‘Its own standards’ constitute the equilibrium that it is always trying to accord with – the social system is always ‘agreeing with itself’, so to speak. It doesn’t know how to do anything else.

 

If we adapt ourselves to the social world then ‘that’s all that matters’ therefore; that’s all we need to do. We can rest content with this achievement (according to the social system at least). This is where the problem lies however – we believe the social system when it says that ‘everything is okay’, when it says that ‘we are okay’, but the social system, like any equilibrium system, is only right because it sets it is. It’s not right for any other reason, it’s not right because of any reasons that might exist outside of itself, it’s only right because it has agreed with itself that it is! The social world is in equilibrium-based system, as we keep saying, and equilibrium systems orientate themselves around their assumed equilibria values (i.e. they are normative in nature) and so they are as a consequence completely insensitive to anything else. Anything else is branded as error – it is branded as error because he doesn’t agree with the assumed values and if we can understand this basic principle then we can understand all that we need to know about the social world.

 

To understand that society is an E-system and to understand ‘what E-systems are’ is important because then we can understand why adapting to the social world can never be any kind of ‘final end’. Never mind a ‘final end’, it’s not even taking us in the right direction! We are all very naïve this way – we’re stupendously naïve, in fact. We think that when society tells us that we doing well (i.e. when our peers or people in positions of authority tell us that we doing well) then this actually means something. We think that we can pat ourselves on our back then; absurdly, we allow ourselves to feel that we have in some way tackled life’s great existential challenge, and have, moreover, come out of the test covered in glory. We can see this happening all around us – everywhere we look we can see that those of us who have in some way successfully adapted themselves to society up are allowing themselves to believe that jumping through whatever hoops we have to jump through is the same thing as ‘rising to life’s challenge’. This is absurd of course because if life were to challenge us then we would fall to pieces immediately. We’re not prepared for a real challenge. This is because society is no more than a game, no more than ‘an exercise in make-believe’, and those of us who’ve done well in it have simply demonstrated ‘our prowess in pretending’.

 

We can’t of course just turn our backs on the social world – in practical terms, there just isn’t really else to go! We can’t head off to live in the desert or in the wilderness or the mountains because the deserts or the wilderness or the mountain can’t support us all – humanity has become far too numerous for that to be an option any more. What we can do however is take part in society without at the same time complacently allowing ourselves to believe that achieving social adaptation is the same thing as ‘rising to life’s existential challenge’! It’s not that we shouldn’t have to perform our socialised roles and tasks, therefore (although perhaps sometimes we shouldn’t) but rather that we shouldn’t take them seriously as society wants us to. It is a crucial part of the game that we should be ‘taking it seriously’ of course – a game isn’t a game unless we take it seriously – and so what we are actually saying here is if it were the case that we had any genuine interest in own well-being, our own mental health, then we would give up the social game as a bad deal. It would no longer be the main thing in life (if not the only thing). No good whenever come out of putting all our money on the social game, after all. It can’t – after all – supply us with the one thing that we need, which is ‘who we truly are’. It can supply us with all sorts of things but not this; that, we have to work out for ourselves!

 

It sounds (perhaps) sarcastic to express things in this way; it sounds sarcastic to say ‘if it were the case that we had any genuine interest in our own well-being’ but it’s not meant in that way. It’s important to acknowledge that it is extraordinarily hard to see through the hoax that has been perpetrated on us by society (which is to say, ‘by ourselves’). The hoax is that our well-being is the same thing as the well-being of the social fiction which is the mind-created sense of self (or ‘I-concept’, as Wei Wu Wei puts it). So it’s not that we don’t have any interest in our mental health, but rather that we have been tricked into lavishing all of our caring or all our attention in the wrong direction, onto the image of ourselves rather than what lies behind this image (which is something we can never ‘lay our hands on’). It’s intangible. The image of ourselves, the idea of ourselves, is – on the other hand – nothing if not obvious and we are stuck to this ‘obviousness’ as if with glue. The more obvious it is the more we are stuck to it!

 

‘Obvious’ doesn’t mean true, though! ‘Obvious’ is never true, ‘obvious’ comes about because of the way in which we have cut corners and tied up all the loose ends – there are no loose ends in an obvious statement of fact, but – at the same time – reality itself is nothing else but loose ends! Reality is never neat and tidy, and it never comes in nicely-tied parcels. Reality never comes in parcels and yet the thinking mind is the Master Wrapper of parcels – it never produces anything that isn’t all wrapped up and tied with a bow, so what this means is that the thinking mind never produces anything true. Its statements are conclusive and definitive and that immediately abstracts them out of the real world and into another realm entirely – the realm of formal descriptions. The products of thought have a very peculiar quality therefore – the quality of unreality. This unreal quality however is invisible to us; it’s actually reality that seems things peculiar to us, on the odd occasions when we catch might catch a glimpse of it. We don’t know what it is, we don’t recognise it – all we know is that it doesn’t fit into our plan of things, all we know is that we don’t want to let it ‘rock the boat’.

 

When we orientate ourselves around the productions of thought therefore (when we try to make everything, including ourselves, fit into thought’s neat and tidy scheme of things) then we put ourselves into an inimical position. Thought’s scheme of things is not hospitable to us. This doesn’t mean that we won’t – from time to time – experience pleasurable excitement; we will experience pleasure or euphoria when we believe ourselves to have ‘got things right’ by thought’s standards and we will experience excitement (of the positive variety) when we believe that we are going to get things right, and it seems to us that nothing can stop us obtaining the goal. We will also of course – by the same token – experience anxiety when we feel that we aren’t going to be able to live up to ‘thought’s standards’, just as we will experience despair or dysphoria when we perceive ourselves to have failed by the thinking mind’s rigid guidelines. But none of this is any real substitute for life – the world that is created by thought is not a genuinely hospitable one, as we keep saying. The thought-created world does not accommodate us – it’s like wearing a shoe that doesn’t fit us, a shoe that pinches.

 

The world that has been created by thought does not accommodate us – on the contrary, we are obliged to accommodate ourselves to it. This is what we started off by saying (albeit in slightly different way) – the social world has only one real requirement that it makes of us and that is that we adapt ourselves to it. Having gone into this question a little bit more we can now see that this is not such a small thing to ask after all. Society presents us with the necessity to ‘fit in’ as if this were the most natural thing in the world but there is nothing natural about it; as we have said, we are being required to accommodate ourselves to a system where the ‘accommodation’ is only happening one way. It’s all happening ‘at our expense’, in other words. And yet it’s not just that the social system is trying to make an argument as why we should try to fit into it – there’s no ‘reasoned argument’ about it; this is just brute force – we are simply told that ‘this is what we should do’. We aren’t given the means of questioning this arbitrary imperative; we aren’t allowed the possibility of seeing that there could be any other possibility (other than doing what we have been let to believe is the only possible thing for us to do). Our consciousness is controlled, in other words.

 

We have actually been given an impossible task; we have been presented with an impossible job and we have also been put in a position where we aren’t able to see that we don’t really need to engage ourselves in this task at all. The element of freedom (which always did exist and will always continue to exist) has been very effectively concealed – we never even suspect that this freedom is an actual thing. As far as we’re concerned intrinsic freedom as an alien concept; something that is simply beyond our ability to understand or imagine; it’s something there is no point in trying to talk about, in other words. The impossible task that we have been saddled with this is the task of adapting ourselves to an abstract realm, a realm within which there simply isn’t any space for things to be any other way than the way we are told that they should be. The rules are everything. And the rub is that ‘the way we are told things should be’ isn’t actually a ‘way’ at all. It isn’t a ‘way’ because the world that is made up of our formal, rule-based description isn’t actually a world – it’s a fantasy, not a world. We are being compelled to adapt to ‘a world that is made up of compartments’ when in reality there are no such thing as ‘compartments’.

 

We are actually being shoehorned into categories or compartments the whole time, on a continuous basis. This process is inevitable given that the social system can only recognise its own categories – it can’t recognise anything else, it can’t acknowledge anything else. Anything that is not recognisable as a known category is seen as being odd – by definition it is odd! The problem with this is that who we are in our essence can’t be fit into any established category; we can only be socially accepted when we aren’t ourselves therefore! There is no ‘winning’ if we can’t be who we really are, so what are we struggling and competing for? As we have said, it’s not even that we have any awareness of this being a choice either – we perceive ‘the need to fit into the prescribed categories’ as simply being ‘the way of things’. We don’t therefore understand the deterministic process in which we that we are involved in this way – we don’t see ourselves as trying to fit in to the prescribed categories, we just experience ourselves as ‘trying to be the right way rather than the wrong way’. We’re just trying to do the best that we can.

 

It is quite beyond any doubt that society operates by putting pressure on us to become congruent with the socially-prescribed images of what are we are supposed to be. Only a fool would try to deny this! This is how it always works in an equilibrium-seeking system – everything is determined from the outside. There are certain ideas regarding ‘how things are supposed to be’ and there is also some kind of ‘mechanical force’ that acts on us so as to cause us to try conform to these ideas. This mechanical force is so unquestioned that it actually becomes – in practical terms – the very same thing as our own motivation; it becomes our mind. The mind (which is synonymous with ‘the mind-created sense-of self’) and the social environment within which it operates are ‘nested equilibrium-seeking systems’, therefore. They are the same system, each mirroring the other. In psychological terms, what this means is that the mechanical force which we have adapted to has become our own will, and our own will (naturally enough) never gets questioned.

 

When we understand the social world (and ourselves as we are when we are 100% adapted to it) in thermodynamic terms, as we have just done, then our situation can be seen very clearly. The type of motivation that we are running on (i.e. extrinsic motivation) is the mechanical drive to accord with the equilibrium values (or ‘what is normal’) no matter what. Our ‘sense-of self’ is an equilibrium value that we are forever trying to accord with, just as society is. Trying to accord with our ideas of ourselves (and fighting back fiercely when these ideas are challenged) is our Number One Preoccupation. But this is getting it all backwards – when we faithfully accord with the E-values of society (or with the E-value that is the mind-created sense of self) then we become unreal. The movement towards the equilibrium is the movement towards fantasy, and this is why we can say that our attempts to deliberately move towards mental health or ‘peace of mind’ are always going to be secretly ‘self-sabotaging’. That’s why ‘positive therapy’ doesn’t work. If we were genuinely interested in becoming real, on the other hand, then we’d be moving away from the equilibrium, not towards it…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Selling Narcissism

The social life is one in which we are perpetrating a kind of hoax, with ever without ever focusing on the fact that this is what we are doing. We are perpetrating a hoax on ourselves, in other words. We very much tend to think that society (or the social life) is about something else, something eminently practical, but – primarily – this is the function that is being served. We are maintaining a fiction, we are validating a ‘purely arbitrary narrative’. No one who has ever studied society would ever claim otherwise.

 

One simple way to talk about this hoax is to say that we have been 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 a rather 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 we simply CAN’T live, no matter how hard we may try to do so.

 

As we have said, this is very far from being an obvious point; it’s so far from being obvious that most people wouldn’t get it no matter how much effort you were to put into trying to explain it. Of all the difficult things to explain this is right there at the top, and – not only is it challenging to explain and challenging to understand – the plain fact of the matter is that we absolutely don’t want to understand it anyway. We are very much invested in not understanding it; our whole lives – obviously enough – have been invested in this hoax and so can we really aren’t going to be open to this type of discussion.

 

One way that we could look at the hoax in question however is to say that it revolves around the idea that it is ‘good to be a narcissist’! This not ever stated 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 (the narcissistic type of life) and along with the image come all sorts of subtle (and not so subtle) incentivizations for us to conform to it. 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. Our great expertise as a culture lies precisely in promoting this particular illusion.

 

We are skilfully manoeuvred not only into believing that the narcissistic life is a very rewarding and satisfying one, but also into believing that it is the only type of life that there ever could be! Add into the equation the fact that everyone around us is also falling for this story hook, line and sinker, then the chances are that we will never smell a rat. The chances that we won’t fall for this hoax are microscopically tiny. There is a rat however and as it happens it is rather a big one. It’s a very big rat indeed! This is King Rat that we talking about here – the Great Granddaddy of all rats and there should be no doubt about that! 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 by. This is a lot like living in a dysfunctional family or being in an abusive relationship – we think what we going through is normal, we don’t realise that we are being taken for a ride. We mistake our prison for reality.

 

The nature of our prison (which is ‘the prison of narcissism’) is that it is entirely hollow, without any genuine substance (or ‘goodness’) to it at all. It is – we might say – ‘fundamentally unwholesome’. Our primary activity involves striving perpetually to bring in some kind of actual substance into our lives, or perhaps fooling ourselves into believing that there is some kind of substance there when there just plain 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 trouble to create an impression or image of ourselves that makes it look as though we’re having a good time even though we’re not really, so that we can make other people envious of us. This is what Berger calls glamour.

It is true that in publicity one brand of manufacture, one firm, competes with another; but it is also true that every publicity image confirms and enhances every other. Publicity is not merely an assembly of competing images: it is a language in itself which is always being used to make the same general proposal. Within publicity, choices are offered between this cream and that cream, that car and this car, but publicity as a system only makes a single proposal.

It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more.

This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer – even though we will be poorer by having spent our money.

Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.

 

When we see that other people are envious of what they think we’ve got, then we can logically infer that there must have something there to be envious of! This then is John Berger’s explanation of what the hoax is. We might naïvely think that – in this consumer society – we invest all our energy on buying products so ‘the products will make us happy’, but this isn’t it – we are acquiring all the stuff and the status that goes with it in order that others might think we are happy, which then allows 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 construct a believable illusion of us having a good time, having a meaningful life, so that we and others can believe in this illusion – the illusion that it is possible to live the type of conditioned life society promotes and actually benefit from this. The purest example of this is of course social media – why else would we spend so much of 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, which is what we started out by saying. When the ‘difficulty’ comes in however is with the actual reason for the narcissistic life being so hollow, so devoid in substance or meaning. Why is the narcissistic life a life that is ‘impossible to live’? One way of looking at this is to think in terms of the Buddhist idea of ‘the good mind versus the bad mind’ – the good mind is the mind of compassion, and ‘the bad mind’ is the mind of self-interest or self-cherishing. If we live on the basis of the mind of compassion then there is meaning in our lives and we can actually grow; if on the other hand we live on the basis of self-interest or self-cherishing then our lives inevitably become sterile and joyless and there can be no growth. Who could possibly disagree with this?

 

All religions who have the function of teaching the compassion is better than selfishness (or at least they started out that way), but the point is that this is not merely a matter of ‘utility’; if we actually sat down and thought about it we would see this psychological truth very clearly – there can be no meaning in the life of the narcissist. We don’t of course ever see ourselves in this way; we have identified NPD as a designated psychiatric condition, it’s an ‘official diagnosis’, 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 effectively distracts us from seeing that our consumer society actually relies on us falling into the trance of narcissism. We pathologize narcissism and promote it both at the same time therefore, which is rather conflicted of us, to say the least!

 

The ‘hoax’ that is being perpetrated in society (and very effectively too) is that it is possible to live in the Narcissistic Mode (even though we won’t call it that) and also at the same time lead a meaningful and fulfilling life, and because of the way that societal pressure works we feel obliged – without reflecting on the fact very much – to maintain the fiction that we are having that we are happy, that we are having the life we want to be living, et cetera. In this is what ‘living the life of the image’ is all about. This is where all the emphasis goes – into fooling ourselves (and others) that we are all having a great time having a great life. That however is quite impossible – obviously it’s quite impossible! What we are trying to do here is create the impression that everything is good is if the impression itself were the thing that mattered and not what the impression is about.

 

In very plain and simple terms what we’re doing here is to pretend to ourselves that the idea which we have (about ourselves or about life) is the real thing, and that therefore that this idea that we have (without realizing that it is only an idea) is the only thing worth concerning ourselves with. The idea we have about who we are and what life is all about is not just ‘important’ to us therefore, it is so overwhelmingly important that it obliterates all awareness of anything else. And even though it is very easy and very straightforward to make such a statement it doesn’t actually help us any to do so because we are all so totally convinced that ‘the idea is the thing’. This is our blindness. We are so convinced that we simply can’t be told otherwise, and this isn’t any sort of hyperbole – if you try to suggest to anybody that their idea of ‘who they are’ is nothing to do with ‘who they really are’ and you will be met with a blank look. Either that or the person you are talking to will automatically think that they know what you mean without really knowing…

 

There is a difference between the two things however and that difference is the biggest and most profound difference there ever could be. What we’re talking about here is the greatest gulf there is, no words exist that can express the enormity of this gulf and yet if you try to get this point across to someone you will almost certainly discover that you just can’t do it. If our mental health rests upon anything then it rests upon an awareness or appreciation of this gulf, an awareness or appreciation of this discontinuity, and – we keep saying – our awareness in this on this score is zero. We don’t appreciate that there is any fundamental  / irreconcilable mismatch between the conceptual world which we are so very familiar with, and the world as it is in itself.

 

This is easy to show – if our ‘awareness of the discontinuity’ wasn’t zero, wasn’t nonexistent, then every time we talked about ideas or thought about the world then we would do so in an ironic way. Our entire language will change accordingly in other words – we would no longer be talking in such a dull, flat, ‘concrete’ way. This becomes particularly pertinent in the case of our approach to mental health. If you were (for some reason) to open up any psychology textbook or journal you will immediately see the dullest, flattest, most concrete pseudo-technical language you could ever possibly imagine. There is very little in the world less interesting, less vibrant, less ‘coma-inducing’ than this type of stuff. The same will be true if you were to eavesdrop on a bunch of mental healthcare professionals talking shop (CBT or DBT therapists for example) – the language being used in this type of setting is invariably concrete, technical and dull – you’d feel like yawning and going to sleep on the spot if you didn’t have your professional image to maintain!

 

What life comes down to when we have no awareness of the discontinuity between thought and the reality is ‘the worshipping of the image’. Everything is about the image; nothing exists apart from the image – so what else could we possibly do other than ‘worshipping the image’. This is what narcissism is – it’s the worshipping the image which we call ‘the self’. In terms of mental health care, and our whole societal approach to mental health, what happens is that we – very absurdly – get diverted into promoting and maintaining the idea of ourselves, the image we have of ourselves. We are trying to protect and perpetuate a construct in other words, and the health or well-being of the construct – needless to say – has nothing to do with actual well-being! The construct doesn’t have any well-being anyway – there is no way for a construct to be well or not well, healthy or not healthy because it is only ‘a construct’! Within the narrow terms of the game that is being played the health of the concept does mean something (just as it does in any regular role-playing game on a computer or game console) but this doesn’t translate into actual reality. It doesn’t translate into actual reality at all. The reverse is true in fact because the more we cherish the concept or idea of ourselves the more we deny our true nature, and ‘denying our true nature’ is a recipe for all sorts of mental suffering!

 

So in a way (a very narrow way) it could be said that our fixing-type therapies are ‘genuinely technical’ – the only proviso being that they are all about ‘maintaining the health of the construct’, which is an unreal and therefore irrelevant thing. The poor inadequate self-construct is under siege from reality and it urgently needs some sort of support if it is not to give way under the strain; when this happens then in colloquial terms we call it a ‘mental breakdown’. Our general understanding of a mental breakdown is that it is just about the worst thing that could ever happen to us – it’s the ultimate personal catastrophe. In real terms however to see that the mental construct or idea that we have of ourselves is not all that it is cracked up to be (i.e. that it is not as important as we think it is) the most helpful thing that could ever possibly happen to us. When this happens we have the possibility of establishing a relationship with our true nature and establishing a relationship with who we truly are (outside of the narcissistic game that we are playing) is what mental health really all about. The one thing that it isn’t about is repairing our narcissistic bubble, which is all our culture cares about…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Throwing Out The Baby

The trouble with generic therapy is that it is all about copying. We can hardly deny this – we have after all made a virtue of copying, just as we have made a sin of deviance. To copy to be trustworthy and reliable, to deviate on the other hand is to be a loose cannon, an untrustworthy individualist. The idea is that when we all sing from the same hymn sheet then the effectiveness of the therapy will not be compromised. Moreover – and perhaps even more importantly – the organisation that you are working for can ‘stand over’ what you doing because it is guaranteed ‘best practice’. Best practice is what we are always hearing about. This then is what we are calling ‘generic therapy’ – it is a therapy that is fundamentally based on approved protocols and procedures.

 

This tends to sounds good to us – it certainly sounds good to organisations and to healthcare providers, but it isn’t by any means as good as it might sound. There is a very serious problem with it and that problem has to do with the way in which we are always ‘copying from a template’, which are of course what protocols and procedures are. Protocols and procedures are templates. If we base what we’re doing on a ‘model’ then this too, needless to say, is ‘copying from a template’. This again may not sound like a problem – templates are after all to a large extent essential in modern life (they are essential in all manufacturing and industrial processes, for example) but one place where templates for understanding and behaving are not useful is in the realm of mental health! Templates are not just ‘not useful’ here, they are a positive liability…

 

Templates are a liability when it comes to mental health because they represent the antithetical principle to consciousness. We may not consider that consciousness does have ‘an antithetical principle’ but it does and that antithetical principle is routine, or habit, or ‘acting on precedents’. Routine is something that we don’t think about but which we just ‘do’, just as a template is something that we don’t look at afresh each time, but which we just take guidance or direction from. A template is there to direct us, not to be questioned, not to be examined. What we are actually talking about here are rules therefore and rules are the quintessential antithetical principle to consciousness. Rules are the antithesis of consciousness because consciousness comes down to ‘freedom of attention’ whilst rules are – of course – the very absence of freedom.

 

When we follow a routine or act on the basis of a template then we are not looking at what we are doing and when we’re not looking at what we doing then we’re unconscious – our attention is following the channels that have been cut for it and this means that we are basically ‘seeing what we have been told to see’ (or ‘seeing what we have been influenced to see’) and seeing what we have been told to see (or seeing what we have been programmed to see)  is not seeing! We could therefore talk in terms of ‘operating on the basis of the templates that we have been given’, or we could talk in terms of ‘copying’ – ‘copying’ clearly indicates that the authority is outside of us, it clearly indicates that the authority is not us. We could also express this idea by simply saying that we are ‘obeying rules’, and this brings us back to the point that we have just made about ‘rules being the antithesis of consciousness’. If it is consciousness that are studying therefore (or trying to ‘work with’ if we are counsellors or therapists) then using models and protocols and procedures and strategies is ‘using unconsciousness to work with consciousness’. We are required to be unconscious (i.e. operate merely as an unreflective tool of ‘the system of thought’) in order to work helpfully as a therapist!

 

When we follow rules (i.e. when we operate on the basis of models, theories, protocols and procedures) then everything is coming from outside of us and nothing is coming from the inside. Everything is come from the logical system/framework that we are working within. This of course is the modern way! What is essentially happening here is that ‘the inside’ is not being trusted, either by the system or organisation that we are working for, or by ourselves. We need our officially approved maps to follow, we need our state-sanctioned rules to obey. This actually annihilates the individual of course and so we are again confronted with the same self-contradiction that we have just highlighted. The self-contradiction that we’re talking about is nothing if not clear – mental health is where we are operating in the world on the basis of our own true individuality, and ‘compromised mental health’ – we might say – is where there are factors that are denying our true individuality and therefore causing us to be what we aren’t. Our true nature has been distorted, in other words. Somehow, therefore, we are expected to work effectively as therapists by abdicating our true individuality, by repressing it, by submerging it under a suffocating blanket of ‘generic responses’.

 

Another way of looking at this in terms of wisdom. Wisdom is a traditional term and as such it doesn’t really have very much currency in the modern world. It has become a rather ‘quaint’ or old-fashioned term – it’s almost as if the word only belongs within the context of fairy tales, legends and myths. Carl Jung might have talked about ‘the archetype of the wise old man’ but what has that archetype to do with this modern ‘scientific’ world of ours? We have put ‘experts’ on a pedestal it is true, but experts are a very different thing to wise men and wise women; experts are a different kettle of fish entirely! Experts work on the basis of ‘evidence’ and evidence always comes from the outside.  We could say that ours is an ‘expert culture’ and although in common speech we will from time to time acknowledge a person we know or have heard of as ‘being wise’, this designation has no credibility within society itself. Wisdom is not something that is every officially recognised. There are no certificates for wisdom, after all; there is no professional body to regulate the ‘holders of wisdom’ and say whether they have a right to this title or not.

 

A huge (but nevertheless invisible) distortion has crept into our present-day culture therefore – a distortion that is particularly ironic in the field of mental health, as we have been saying. In one way of course it makes good sense to regulate the field of mental health and whatever therapies or approaches or professions there might be that claim to have relevance here – illness of any kind, when it’s chronic and not easily dealt with, has always drawn quacks and charlatans in their droves, a lot of them even managing convince themselves that they know what they are doing! When we take this too far however – as we have done – then it is undoubtedly a case of ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’. When there is no possibility of truly independent thought (or truly independent perception, which is to say, perception that is not guided by models and templates) then to use the word ‘therapy’ is both misleading and irresponsible. Whatever else is going on here, it isn’t therapy! In the absence of unfettered (or unconditioned) consciousness, there is nothing one human being can genuinely do for another, as far as mental health goes, at least. The blind cannot lead the blind – or if they do, then it is only in the direction of the nearest cliff-edge!

 

The world of therapy is just one example of what we have been talking about here however, albeit a rather pertinent one. In contemporary society everything ‘comes from the outside’ – our ways of looking at the world, our ways of understanding ourselves, our very way of ‘being in the world’ – all of these come from the outside, all of these are supplied by ‘the omnipresent external authority’. This is convenient in one way of cause but it is deadly in another – it is deadly as far as our actual individuality is concerned and our ‘actual individuality’ is who we are! When everything comes from the outside there is no wisdom. Rules are a substitute for consciousness, as Jung says. Instead of wisdom we rely on skills and strategies, tricks and manoeuvres, protocols and procedures, that we take out of our famous ‘toolbox’ as and when needed. This – we hope – will get us through life. Most of the time it does indeed seem that our ‘bag of tricks’ (our ‘collection of coping strategies’) will get us through life safely – it seems as if it will until one day something happens that isn’t just some ‘minor upset along the way’. That’s when things start (very quickly) to fall apart.

 

When something of a more major or long-lasting nature happens we discover (even though we might not know at the time that we are discovering it) that the answer doesn’t come ‘from the outside’. The responsibility is ours and it always was. We might go looking for experts or trained professionals to help us when this happens but – unfortunately – it is almost always the case that our experts are just as empty of individuality and wisdom as we are! That’s the way our society is set up. That’s the predicament we’re in – although none of our experts or trained professionals will ever admit it…

 

 

Art: Thomas Chamberlain, on goodfon.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Problem With ‘Coping Strategies’

It is impossible to put across the idea that it is helpful and useful to use a particular skill or coping strategy without at the same time giving the jinxed message that we ought to be (or need to be) ‘coping’ with whatever difficult situation it is that we are in. Pressure of this sort however is always counterproductive in therapy; pressure of this sort is guaranteed – in other words – to have quite the ‘reverse effect’!

 

This is a ‘therapy dilemma’ that no one ever seems to spot! It’s a ‘dilemma’ because therapy is supposed to be about helping people but selling someone the idea that they need to be ‘coping’ with (or dealing correctly with) whatever it is that’s going on for them is most definitely not helping anyone. This is a jinxed message; it’s like saying that we have to ‘manage life’ correctly and this is the least therapeutic message it is ever possible to give anyone!

 

It takes a little bit of insight to see this of course and insight into psychological matters tends to be rather thin on the ground in our culture. We are all about techniques, not insight! The insight here is that what we really suffer from isn’t the emotional pain that we’re in so much as the attempt to ‘cope’ with it. As soon as we get the idea that we have to cope we’re finished!

 

What on earth do we imagine ‘coping with emotional pain’ means, anyway? Anybody who happens to be suffering from mental or emotional distress is of course going to be trying to cope with it – this is a very strong instinct – and what this actually comes down to is ‘hanging onto some semblance of normal’. We try to pretend (either to ourselves or to others) that everything is still okay; we keep trying to ‘keep up the act’, so to speak. Another way of talking about ‘coping’ would be to say that it essentially involves us trying to impose our will on the situation; we’re trying to get things to be a little bit more ‘the way we think they should be’, in other words. We’re trying to exert control on the way we feel. In psychological terms, we are resisting. We are resisting things being the way that they actually are.

 

This is all very normal and natural and ‘only to be expected’, but at the same time it is completely unhelpful, completely non-therapeutic. What we resist persists’, says Carl Jung and if we can’t see this then we are on the road to nowhere! Resisting is what we do ‘by reflex’ – it’s our automatic response to pain both mental and physical, and ‘going along with the automatic response’ is never going to be the helpful thing to do. Never in a million years is this going to be the helpful thing to do!  On the contrary, it is precisely our automatic defensive reactions to emotional pain that cause us to get stuck in it, as Jung says.

 

We tend to think that ‘coping mechanisms’ aren’t the same as ‘automatic pain-avoidance’ reflexes but they are. They’re just a little bit more methodical, just a little bit more ‘well thought-out’. ‘Coping’ is resisting the way we are; very obviously, if we weren’t resisting the way that we are, then there would be no need for us to be coping! Coping wouldn’t be ‘a thing’ then, it wouldn’t be an issue as to whether we ‘cope’ or ‘don’t cope’.

 

‘Coping’, or ‘the need to cope’, seems to be very important to us when we’re in the thick of things and we feel very much that we can’t cope or mightn’t be able to cope, and this is very natural. Of course we’re desperate to cling on to whatever little bit of control we have, or think we might possibly be able to have, but this doesn’t mean that we should be validating this tenancy in therapy, so to say that you should be trying to cope on the one hand, and that there is a right ‘way to cope’ on the other. As we have said this is a disastrous message to be giving people – it isn’t just ‘not helpful’, is the very opposite of helpful.

 

Really, this is a punishing message. It wouldn’t be a punishing message if it actually worked but it doesn’t work and not only does it not work, it is indicative of a complete lack of understanding that we think that it should! ‘Coping’ is the thing we can’t do and yet at the same time absolutely feel that we need to, and it is this ‘untenable’ position that causes us that very particular form of suffering with which we are all so familiar. If we weren’t caught in the jaws of this conflict then this would be a very different matter – the suffering wouldn’t be the same at all. We’d be ‘free to suffer’ in this case, rather than ‘suffering at the same time as believing that it is very wrong (or very unacceptable) that we should be suffering’…

 

We always think that not coping with our emotional distress is the ‘bad thing’ – we think that ‘not coping’ means freaking out or causing a scene or embarrassing ourselves, or something highly undesirable like that. But ‘not coping’ doesn’t mean ‘reacting in a harmful or inappropriate way’ – ‘not coping’ isn’t just ‘acting out’ (i.e. displacing our pain by some kind of behaviour). Actually, ‘acting out’ or ‘displacing’ is a form of coping with mental pain or distress. It’s a strategy. Reacting (or ‘freaking out’) is how we do try to cope, by refusing to be present with the pain and ‘acting it out’ instead. This is a very basic coping strategy – the most basic of them all. It’s either this or we batten down the hatch and repress everything for all we’re worth…

 

‘Coping’ – as we have said -essentially means gaining control of our situation such that it stays within certain tolerances, certain predetermined parameters. This is such a normal idea to us that we never question it; we apply it across the board, even when it’s not the helpful thing to do. There are all sorts of processes that we do need to control in this way – cooking food, for example, so that it isn’t undercooked on the one hand or overcooked on the other. Physiologically speaking, we need to make sure we stay within certain parameters – we need to stay between being too hot and being too cold, we have to eat enough but not too much, et cetera. If we are bleeding, then we have to make sure that we staunch the wound and don’t bleed too much.

 

When it comes to feelings however then the same doesn’t apply – to try to keep ourselves within specific parameters with regard to emotions, with regard to how we feel, isn’t a helpful approach at all. We can very easily imagine that we ought to keep ‘the way that we feel’ within a certain normative range, so that the feeling in question is a ‘normal’ one, but when we try to do this we create this whole perception that ‘we need to cope’, that it is a very bad thing (unspecified as to exactly why) if we fail to stay ‘in control’, where ‘coping’ (or ‘staying in control’) means preventing ourselves from feeling the way that we actually are feeling. We have, without consciously realising it, set limits for ourselves in terms of how we supposed to feel and because these self-imposed limits don’t tally with reality, we’ve put ourselves in a very tight spot indeed. We actually feel that we are ‘cracking up’ when this happens – this is exactly what the phrase ‘cracking up’ means, it means going beyond our self-imposed arbitrary limits.

 

The experience of being on the edge of ‘cracking up’ (or ‘being on the edge of not coping’ when not coping is a very bad thing)  is something that we have created for ourselves by trying not to crack up – we ourselves have imposed these limits on ourselves and they are limits that don’t naturally exist. It feels very bad indeed when we feel that we are on the edge of not being able to cope, but ‘coping’ (or ‘managing’) is not a helpful idea to bring into our situation. ‘Coping’, as we have said, means ‘controlling what’s going on’ and ‘controlling what is going on’ very quickly turns into ‘trying to make what is happening not be happening’! When it comes to mental health, trying to make what is happening not be happening is definitely Number One on the list of unhelpful things to do! This doesn’t mean that we don’t all do it of course but – at the same time – it’s the most punishing situation we could ever put ourselves in. We’ve have given ourselves a task that can never be carried out (it can never be carried out since no one can make ‘what is happening not be happening’) and at the same time we have said that it is imperative that we succeed at it. What a thing this is to do to ourselves!

 

What confuses things even more is this talk of ‘managing emotions’ that we hear so often about in recent times. When we hear this phrase then of course we are very likely to think that we should be controlling how we feel, and keeping our emotions within ‘safe’ or ‘appropriate’ boundaries. There is definitely a lot of scope for confusion here because no one should be led to believe that anything we experience – emotion-wise – is ‘wrong’ and needs to be controlled. There is no dial within us that can, like a thermostat, be adjusted to keep the emotional temperature from getting either too hot or too cold. There’s no way for us to change the way we feel, and yet here we are being told that this is our responsibility, that this is exactly what we should be doing

 

The confusion comes about because we are talking about two very different things – when we talk about ‘managing emotions’ what we actually mean is that we should refrain from ‘acting-out’ our emotions in ways that are harmful either to ourselves or to others. Strategies are sought to prevent these unhelpful reactions, therefore. The problem is however that we automatically jump to the conclusion that the way to do this is to quieten down the feeling/emotion so that it is no longer so intense. We assume that we have to ‘turn the dial down’ with regard to the strength of the emotion or feeling, and that is what ‘coping’ or ‘self-soothing’ strategies are all about. But we really have jumped to an unwarranted conclusion here because it’s quite possible to feel the emotion without either acting it out either towards oneself or to others. Very oddly, it seems that we just have no interest at all in exploring this possibility!

 

Feeling an emotion is an art not a science or technology, and this is the reason why we are not interested in it. If it were a technology we could ‘roll it out’; we could standardise and regulate it and teach therapists how to facilitate it. We can’t do this with an art however – we can’t standardise an art and ‘roll it out’ as a generic, ‘one-size-fits-all’ therapy. The thing about an art is that it is individual; the thing about an art is that is going to be learnt in a different way for each person and this is hugely inconvenient to us as a rational (or control-based) culture. The therapists themselves would have to ‘master the art’ and even then it’s not something that we can teach as such. There are no rules, no principles that we can point out; it isn’t a system, and as Bruce Lee says, how can you teach something that isn’t a system?

 

We can teach ways of not feeling emotions or ways of repressing them of course. For this, strategies exist. For feeling the emotion, just as it is, there are no strategies. There are no strategies for this any more than there are strategies for ‘living life’ or ‘telling the truth’ or ‘relating authentically to other human beings’! For all the most important things, there are no strategies. It’s not that easy! All the things that we can teach people to do are very trivial indeed and it is a mark of our remarkably un-psychologically minded culture that we think we can ‘teach mental health’. To teach mental health is to teach someone how to live life and this is one thing that just can’t be done. We can programme people for sure, we can condition them or train them or brainwash them, but we can’t teach them how to live life. We don’t know how to do that ourselves, anyway! We would have to teach ourselves first and we can’t do that because we don’t know how. Who can teach us to be authentically ourselves? Who can teach us how to be present, in this utterly unique situation? All we can do is teach people is how not to be here, how to ‘be here in a conditioned (or inauthentic) way’, and this is therefore exactly what we do teach people! We brainwash people, we condition them, we ‘train their minds’. To call this a ‘therapy’ is however a bit rich…

 

 

 

 

 

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 bbc.com/ a-tour-of-melbourne-street-art