Aside from the orthodoxy of ‘established wisdom’; there has always been an alternative way of thinking about things – a heretical current of thought going back over the centuries. This counter-current of thought has manifested itself most noticeably in the esoteric branches of philosophy and of religion, but it can also be seen beneath the surface in the theoretical leanings of some schools of psychology and psychotherapy. It may not necessarily be the case that there is a distinct tradition that is passed on from age to age, but what we can say is that there exists a recognizable flavour to all of these various schools, a sympathy of aims that runs through them.
What might these aims be? What exactly is the thread that runs through this alleged counter-current of thinking? The best way to approach the matter is to say that the alternative way involves the falsification of all positive knowledge that we have about ourselves and the world. The vast majority of all knowledge systems that we are likely to come across promote a ‘positive’ view of things; they often disagree about what the ‘right view’ is, but they do not disagree on the fundamental (if unstated) premise that a right way of looking at the world exists. That goes without saying. If we define the orthodox ways of looking at the world as positivist (or ‘absolutist’), then this means that we must be able to define the alternative philosophical approach as negativistic (or ‘relativistic’). This is in fact one way in which the alternative traditions sometimes describe themselves, as the ‘negative way’ (or via negativa).
Contrary to popular prejudice, negativism doesn’t mean saying that the world doesn’t exist, but simply that there exists no ‘right way’ to see it. To put it another way, the world cannot be squeezed into a rational model without leaving something vital out, or, as Robert Anton Wilson (1990) says in his book Quantum Psychology,
The only thing equal to the universe is the universe.
For positive knowledge systems it is vitally important that there is an exclusively correct way to logical explain and describe the universe. The ‘positive way’ relies on having an absolutely valid (i.e. a fundamentally unquestionable) framework of reference within which it can make observations and predictions – in this way it generates a consistent world-view that is made up of billions of ‘facts’ and untold ‘recipes’ (or algorithms) for obtaining states or conditions that are known about in advance. The facts represent the solid knowledge base, and the recipes for obtaining specified states represent the ‘know-how’. For this reason what we are talking about is ‘procedural knowledge’ because it is all about technically defined (and therefore reproducible) goal-orientated actions.
In the positive approach, we are bound to see the ‘direction to go’ in terms of an ever increasing accumulation of facts and formulae. From the point of view of the negative way, however, progress is not an accumulation at all, but a ‘stripping away’ of false or erroneous thinking. Instead of ending up festooned with certificates and titles showing courses taken, subjects studied, and skills mastered, we are progressively relieved of all credentials whatsoever. Instead of ending up as intellectual heavyweights – tedious adults who think they know everything – we end up like small children – knowing nothing. Life isn’t a closed book, but a giant, open-ended question mark. When we travel the via negativa the ‘end of the journey’ is thus a beginning, and not an end at all; whereas for the via positiva the end of the journey really is an end because there will be nothing left to learn.
Professor James Carse (1986) is making this same point in Finite and Infinite Games where he defines a successful player of a finite game as ‘a person who ensures that they are never surprised’. A player of the Infinite Game, on the other hand, ‘plays in order to be surprised’. The ultimate surprise is when you discovering that the validity of everything you ever believed is completely relative to the context of understanding that you unconsciously assumed in order for those beliefs to make sense. This basically comes down to understanding that you ‘know nothing’.
Our natural reaction is to ask why losing what we have gained should be so desirable. What is so great about ‘knowing nothing’? After all, this sounds to us like the state of a fool, as easy to achieve as it is worthless. In order to answer these objections we need to bring in the idea of uncertainty denial. We can best explain this by drawing a parallel with the good old-fashioned notion of repression. Classic psychodynamic theory states that neurotic disturbances are due to the repression of unacceptable sexual feelings, and this premise has certainly given a lot of mileage since Freud first put it forward. The idea that we are going to look at is the idea that neurotic disturbances are due to the repression of the awareness of radical uncertainty. We can also explain this in terms of the denial of the relativity of our knowledge.
We can use two illustrations to help make the point clearer. The first is the example of ‘cultural relativity’. If I have been brought up within a certain culture it is natural that I will take the values and mores of that culture for granted. In fact, the feeling I have that the way we do things is naturally the proper way gives me a distinct psychological pay-off – it makes me feel good about myself. I feel proud to be American, or English, or Irish, or French…. This feeling of attachment to a definite identity also makes me defensive, since wherever there is a psychological pay-off there is the need to safeguard that pay-off. Because of this, if you come along and try to make me see that the ‘rightness’ of my country’s particular way of doing things is only ‘accidental’ (i.e. it only seems right to me because I have been brought up that way) then the chances are that I am going to resist this awareness. My good feeling about being an American or an Englishman (or whatever) relies on me repressing any awareness of relativity; if I could see that I would feel the same way about being a national of anywhere, if blind chance had resulted in my being born there, then that would take the special kick out of national pride.
Perspective is in fact my enemy – the more perspective I have on the matter the less security I have about ‘who I am’. Furthermore, in order to safeguard the integrity of my psychological security blanket I have to remain unaware of the true reason for my getting so defensive – I can’t allow myself to see that I am repressing legitimate awareness of relativity, I have to see myself as defending the rock of truth against a ruthless enemy. In terms of certainty, we can say that by unreflectively believing in the game of culture and nationality I get to have a definite or certain identity. If I see through the game I lose this certainty; without the cosy security of the game I can have no rock-solid identity and so my hidden psychological motivation must be at all times to preserve the integrity of the game that I am playing. It isn’t real, but I mustn’t let myself see this. There are however long-term disadvantages of this engineered certainty, which can be seen in terms of conflict. Cultural absolutism produces intolerance, insensitivity, cruelty and aggression – its ultimate example is the person who hates and fears anyone who is different to him/herself.
The second example we will use is the example of getting into a bad mood. When I fly into a temper or slide into a sulk I lose perspective. That is axiomatic. However, this is far from being an unwanted side effect; the truth is that I secretly want to lose perspective since this is how I obtain the psychological pay-off. All ‘afflictive emotions’ come with a short-term psychological benefit, which is of course why they are so attractive to us in that initial moment before we commit to them. Generally speaking, what happens is that by fixating upon one narrow way of viewing my situation, I end up with an over-simplified black and white picture of reality which allows me to feel secure. I might feel bad, but I feel good at the same time because of the certainty involved. In anger, I obtain the security of knowing that you are the bad guy and I am the good guy. In a sulk, I obtain the security of knowing that I am the innocent victim of an uncaring world. The role of certainty is crucial here – in order to find the security that comes from handing myself over to an afflictive emotion I have to identify a definite reality, and in order to do this I have to see the world only in one way. All other perspectives on the matter must therefore be repressed – I can’t allow myself to see that the guy I am angry with is no worse or no less justified than myself, otherwise my anger will evaporate. The long-term disadvantages of the afflictive emotions are familiar to us all and hardly need spelling out.
DEFENDING THE EMPIRICAL SELF
We are not, however, talking only about extreme cases here. Even the most balanced and well-adjusted person is still a secret addict to the engineered security of false security. The general pay-off is the empirical (or pragmatic) self which is our positive knowledge of ourselves and our place in the world. As we said earlier, our ‘security blanket’ is our knowledge system, or as physicist David Bohm (1994) calls it, the system of thought. The ultimate product of the system of thought is a false (or ‘manufactured’) self which we unreflectively and compulsively identify with; awareness of the relativity (i.e. the accidental nature) of this identity is therefore, the worst threat imaginable – it is a threat to the core of who we (mistakenly) think we are, and we will fight to the bitter end to protect this. The irony is, of course, that the more we fight on the behalf of the false empirical self the more opposed to (and distanced from) we become to who we really are. Once we start moving in this direction, we become ever more enmeshed in the irreversible mechanism of denial – we fall into a trance produced by the hypnotic power of the false knowledge system.
It needs to be stressed at this point that ‘false knowledge’ is only false inasmuch as we are using it for covert reasons; it becomes false only when we hide behind it. Seen in its proper place the knowledge is perfectly legitimate, but when it starts to matter to us that the knowledge we have should be unquestionably true, then we have crossed over a fine line into uncertainty denial. For example, if I look at a rectangular block ‘end on’ it might look like a square, but if I start insisting that it really is a square, then relative knowledge has been hijacked for some hidden reason. It is true to say that if I choose to look at the object in a particular way then it looks like a square, but when I say that there is only one correct way to view it, then it is apparent that I am committed to repressing any other viewpoints that might exist on the matter.
It is a basic principle in psychotherapy that neurosis is due to fear of change (or fear of the pain that is associated with change). This is in essence the same thing as saying that neurotic conflict is due to a reluctance to see a plurality of perspectives, which is to say, an insistence that the way I am looking at things is the only way there is. The long-term cost of identifying with the false self and the false knowledge system is, therefore, neurotic suffering. We become anxious because we are committed to seeing the world in a particular way, and so we are constantly living under the threat of finding out that what we want to be absolutely true, is only ever relatively true. We become obsessive or compulsive because we no longer have any true freedom: we have to react in a certain way to maintain the integrity of our game. We become depressed because we are cut off from the true meaning of life, which is ongoing change. Lost in sterile and life-denying routines, we know longer know why we do the things that we do. The heart has gone out of it; we have managed to have everything our own way, but at the same time we find that we have paid the ultimate price – sooner or later we discover that there is no longer any meaning to our lives. In short, by succeeding brilliantly as a social collective at managing life and making sure that it runs along well-established tracks, we have without knowing it crossed over into a virtual-reality delusion world, a realm of attractive/repellent appearances that we greedily or fearfully take to be real. Our place of security has become our prison.
As we have said, this formulation of the basic human predicament is by no means new. Jean Hardy, in her study on the roots of the Psychosynthesis school of psychotherapy, traces back the alternative strand of ‘negative’ knowledge as far back as the ancient Greek and Egyptian civilizations, and beyond. Plato was one mouthpiece for this type of knowledge. As Jean Hardy (1987) says in Psychology With a Soul –
Plato regarded the world of the mind, that of Forms, as the highest reality. Many mystics, both Eastern and Western, have named this highest reality as the Higher Self or simply the Self, in touch, however, in both concepts with the universal reality. Plato, along with many later mystics, believed that through socialization and culture, through the routine and offered banality of much everyday living, people learn to live in a false reality, an alienation, a fundamental unawareness of the truth of things.
We are now in a position to understand the ‘negative way’ in a more positive light. If it were true that everything I know is part of my (and society’s) full-scale denial of relativity, then ridding myself of this so-called ‘knowledge’ (although seemingly a negative and regressive act) is actually the ‘psychologically healthy’ thing to do. It is necessary to undo the false start in order to make a real start. And although accumulating knowledge whilst ignoring the whole time the arbitrariness of the assumptions upon which that proud edifice is built can sometimes be tough enough going – it is nothing like the work of questioning those assumptions. This sort of psychological work is so threatening to us that we don’t even acknowledge it as a possibility. It isn’t on our list of options. But suppose we do become interested in the work of undoing our knowledge system, of unlearning everything we know. How do I set about this task?
What we are talking about here is the ‘psychology of the negative way’; which is to say, increasing uncertainty in order to increase personal freedom. The first thing we need to understand is the difference between positive and negative approaches in psychotherapy. If I am prepared to explore the idea that the hidden cause of my neurosis is the ‘false’ or misrepresentative nature of my thinking, this naturally leads me to consider some means of correcting the fault. The principle of ‘correcting faulty thinking’ lies at the heart of the various types of ‘cognitive therapy’, and it is this approach that is most fashionable at the present moment. Distorted thinking processes are ‘restructured’; negative or irrational thinking is ‘challenged’. Here we see the unmistakeable signs that point to positivism. In order to challenge my thinking it is necessary for me to have a solid platform from which to do the challenging; in order for me to evaluate my thinking it is necessary for me to be in possession of a set of criteria which themselves are immune to evaluation.
On the face of it, therefore, I am changing (or ‘correcting’) my thinking; but behind the scenes (where it really matters) I am actually changing nothing. Everything that I do on the basis of my platform of evaluative criteria is a logical extension of these criteria; I start off with a defined set of rules and I no matter what I do I cannot (purposefully) go beyond these rules. The whole idea that I can deliberately change myself is perfectly absurd because all purposeful action depends on the positive knowledge that I have about myself and the world, but when it is this knowledge itself that is suspect, then there is nothing I can do. When the error is systematic, the system is powerless even to see the error, never mind correct for it.
The type of change that occurs as a result of positive therapy is managed change, and therefore it is trivial. This type of therapy is all about improving efficiency within the context of a set of ‘game-rules’ that are themselves taken totally for granted. There is the illusion of change, which is to say there is change on a superficial level, but on deeper level nothing changes at all. What this means is that the apparent change acts as a sort of decoy or blind to prevent me from seeing how stuck I really am; chasing the phantom of ‘apparent improvement’ is a highly efficient way of distracting myself. For profound change, then, purposefulness is actually my enemy. In David Bohm’s terms, we can say that purposefulness (and all the invisible assumptions that purposefulness secretly brings along with it) is the ‘System of Thought’, so how on earth can I ‘escape on purpose’? How can I make a goal of having no goals?
THE DOUBLE BIND OF ‘FREEING ONESELF ON PURPOSE’
The difference between the positive and negative approaches in psychotherapy is very simple: positivism asserts (either implicitly or explicitly) that I can choose to alter my own thinking in way that will bring me more in touch with reality. The idea is that I can become a happier person as the direct result of ‘taking control of the way in which I think about things’. The basic assumption is that I can deliberately free myself from my problems, if only I go about it the right way. On the other hand, negativism starts off my making it very plain that there is absolutely no way in which I can free myself on purpose. There is no way at all that I can become freer or happier as a result of manipulating my own thinking: even if I was to practice cognitive therapy for a million years, with the help of an army of trained cognitive therapists, all that would happen is that I would tie myself up in a series of very complicated knots. Once I get this basic insight, then I naturally cease obstructing myself with my futile and self-deluding efforts to change and so I become freer straight away. The point that is so easy to lose sight of is that psychological growth occurs by itself, under the direction of no one. This is uncontrolled, un-managed or ‘spontaneous’ change.
Even the most fundamental step of trying to deliberately unlearn knowledge that I believe to be false is paradoxical and therefore utterly impossible. If I say to myself “what I know is not true”, then this is a self-referential statement. A self-referential statement is a statement that tries to reach out and say something meaningful about the world, but never gets beyond itself. It tries to connect with (or relate to) reality, but it never ever does. Another way to explain self-referentiality is to say that the self-referential statement claims to have objective meaning, but it is only meaningful within its own narrow terms of reference. Actually, when seen in the broader picture, such a statement is perfectly meaningless (or ‘senseless’) – it doesn’t make sense no matter how we look at it.
Obviously, the statement “What I know is not true” is utterly meaningless because if the statement is true, then this means that my knowledge about my knowledge being false must also be false because that too is ‘my knowledge’. But if that knowledge is also false, then what am I doing relying on it? I am well and truly scuppered before I even start. This paradox (the so-called ‘liar paradox’) is an old one, as familiar to philosophers of bygone ages as it is unfamiliar to the army of modern day mental-health technologists. Without a thorough understanding of this paradox, we are doomed to revolve in circles forever, constantly on the lookout for new and improved positive therapies to free us from our frustration and misery. With an understanding of paradox, the false (i.e. misleading) ‘doorway’ of manipulated change is forever closed to us and so the obstruction is removed.
But to come back to the question we asked just a minute ago, how do we set about the task of unlearning what we thought we knew? What do I do to penetrate the wall of positive knowledge and positive (goal-orientated) activity that surrounds me? The difficulty here is the question ‘how?’ or ‘what?’ The problem is that both of these questions unfailingly return me to the map, when it is the map that I want to be free from. ‘How?’ returns us to some kindly but stern paternal authority, a source of guidance which is especially seductive when we are feeling bad and unable to trust our own navigational skills anymore. What we want to hear is “Just do what I say and you will get better”. But when the task is to depart from the map, then no one can give us (positive) advice or guidance. Neither can we guide or direct ourselves. So what is the way out of this habitual reliance on the pernicious ‘how do I do it?’ question? What is the negative way?
SEEING THE ILLUSION
In a nutshell, it could be said that in order to travel the negative way all we have to do is perceive the way in which we ourselves secretly create and maintain the structure of the false knowledge system – which is to say, the world that we see and believe in. All that we need to do is to ‘catch ourselves out’ and see ourselves colluding in the certainty-generating process. Once we see our hand in what is going on then this alone is enough because the whole edifice of the system of thought relies on our believing that it is not a construct but a ‘given’ reality, an independent and self-existent fact. If I see myself making the choice I then I can’t help knowing that ‘it didn’t have to be that way’. The principle here is very simple: When I see that I am deceiving myself, then I am no longer deceiving myself. As it is said in the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment:
…to know illusion is to depart from it, there is [no need] to contrive expedient means!
We can draw a connection here with the ‘liar paradox’ which we mentioned earlier. The simplest version of the liar paradox is the statement “Everything I say is a lie”. This can obviously be related to the notion of the false knowledge system by putting it in the form of “Everything I think is untrue”. We said that it is impossible for us to use this statement to escape our predicament because as soon as we try to do so we get involved in logical conundrum from which there is no escape. The false knowledge system cannot deliberately escape itself; the thinker cannot think himself out of his virtual reality thought-world. On the other hand, we have already expressed the principle behind the via negativa as: When I see that I am deceiving myself, then I am no longer deceiving myself. Both statements start from the same place, but whilst the first statement gets stuck, the second one transcends itself.
What this means is that even though there is no logical (or purposeful) way out of the liar paradox, this is a way out. When we see the paradox, then straightaway we have gone beyond the paradox – seeing takes us out of self-referentiality. Why this should be is straightforward enough: paradoxicality is in a sense the ‘limit’ of rational thought because when we push rationality far enough we always come up against paradox. The ‘system of thought’ cannot see its own limitations because it doesn’t have any perspective on itself. This in turn means that it can’t understand the essential paradox; when we do see the paradox then that means that we have transcended rationality – we have ‘departed from illusion’.
‘DOING’ VERSUS ‘INSIGHT’
Another way to explain this is to say that there are two different ways of dealing with difficulties. Either we do (i.e. react) or we see (i.e. obtain insight). Seeing is not purposeful, it does not arise from models or theories – it does not come out of the system of thought, in other words. Therefore, we travel the negative way by learning ‘not to jump the gun’, i.e. by learning to refrain from acting on the basis of what we think we know, and thereby testing our assumptions. When the via negativa is explained like this it looks so straightforward, and yet in practice it is anything but. Force of habit keeps driving us into reacting, time and time again, and if I use ‘reverse-force’ (i.e. if I force myself not to react) then this too is ‘reacting’. In practice, therefore, I get drawn into ‘doing’ even though I intend not to do – infuriatingly, I find myself trying to do ‘not doing’. When I realize that ‘trying’ is the problem , I try not to try!
The power which thought has to deceive and confuse us cannot be over-estimated; this particular adversary lays low the strong along with the weak. Its main trick is to hijack. For example, suppose we are introduced to a way of working that has as its aim the undoing of the system of thought. The system of thought is the first to applaud and celebrate this venture, and by supporting the practice in this way it secretly subverts and strangles it. This sort of thing happens all the time – I try something new that results in me having a wonderful experience of freedom. The more wonderful the experience the more powerfully the system of thought is galvanized to come along and ‘take charge’. The better it is, the more invested I become in it. What this means is that the truth of what happened is insidiously transformed into false knowledge; it becomes false because it starts to matter to me that it should be so, and because it matters to me that it should be so, the whole thing becomes spoiled.
Once this is understood, then we can begin to have some idea about how difficult this path really is. On the one hand, we are working towards the most marvellously enriching and astonishing experience, and on the other hand the slightest trace of ‘investment’ in this experience will strengthen the very tendency that has always kept us from it; the system of thought hijacks the very process that was supposed to result in the over-throwing of the system of thought. This would be a very good irony, if we had the luxury of observing it, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t get the chance to see what is happening. All the same, for those that are truly interested, to note that the negative way is no easy matter is by no means discouraging. How could it be otherwise? If the price of freedom were cheap, would that not be in itself suspicious? The one guarantee we have that we have not slid over into the self-deception of quick results and ‘easy victories’ is that the road is hard, and progress imperceptible.
Chogyam Trungpa (1976), in The Myth of Freedom, speaks of the spiritual path as being a ‘path of disappointment’ because instead of receiving a series of confirmations from the universe around us which ‘builds us up’, so to speak, what we actually receive is a series of ‘knock-backs’. These ‘knock-backs’ (or disappointments) take us down, notch by notch, until all of our false knowledge and false confidence has been eroded away, leaving behind only what is true. And of course, this doesn’t sound that strange really when we think about it a bit more deeply – what else would you expect, after all, from the ‘via negativa’?
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.