In the ‘neurotic’ conditions what has happened – across the board, for every single condition – is that our attempts to ‘fix the problem’ have become a far bigger problem than the so-called problem itself. The original problem itself doesn’t matter, is irrelevant. If we were to talk at all about the original problem then it would only be to say that what we are reacting against is nothing more than ‘difficulty’ or ‘discomfort’ or ‘mental pain’. We reacting against the challenge that has come our way, in other words – and this is, of course, a perfectly natural thing for us to do! Because ‘challenge-avoidance’ is such a natural thing for us to do it also naturally happens that the ‘muscle’ that we need in order to tolerate mental pain/discomfort has atrophied to the point that we don’t even know that we have it any more and so our only option when faced with a challenge is to go straight into ‘fixing mode’. This is nothing if not straightforward; there is nothing mysterious or hard to understand about what is going on here – it’s just that we are being driven by our inability to have any genuine interest in painful or challenging mental states when they arise into the domain of what are generally called in the mental health-care business ‘dysfunctional coping strategies’. This is not a very good term however because it implies (more than implies, in fact) that there is such a thing as a ‘functional coping strategy’! This assumption is entirely wrong however and it is not very hard to see why it is wrong – we are still implying or assuming that the correct or healthy thing to do with challenges is to find a way of ‘coping’ with them. This is of course quite nonsensical – we do not ‘cope’ with difficulty (i.e. find a way of making it less difficult, less challenging) we rise to it, we embrace it. In the simplest possible terms, we turn to face the difficulty, instead of turning away from it, instead of trying to evading it as we always are when all the talk is of ‘coping’ or ‘managing’…
As a culture we love talking about ‘managing’ and ‘coping’ – we go on about anxiety management, anger management, pain management and so on and the reason we talk like this is because all we know is fixing. Outside of fixing (or regulating, or controlling) we know nothing. We are completely invested in the rational faculty and the rational faculty is purely about fixing, purely about ‘problem solving’. In a very limited domain this is useful and appropriate – there are very many instances (countless instances) in everyday life when fixing or controlling is the required and helpful response. When it comes to the existential difficulties posed by actually being a person, of actually being alive in this world, the rational faculty is not just ‘no help at all’, it is the slippery slope to utter disaster. When we try to ‘cope’ with the inherent existential challenge that is posed by life itself by getting clever about it, by treating this challenge as a problem that needs to be ‘solved’, then we have entered lock, stock and barrel into the domain of neuroticism. And there is no doubt that, as a culture, this is precisely what we have done. Without any doubt at all, ours is the most neurotic (i.e. the most difficulty-avoiding) culture that has ever existed on earth. We have this distinction – not that we are ever going to admit it to ourselves of course, since admitting the possibility of such a thing would constitute a ‘non-neurotic act’ on our part!
With regard to what generally gets called the ‘psychotic’ conditions or disorders things are – in a sense – the other way around. The situation here is the other way around from neurosis in the sense that the behaviours and cognitions that come about are not parts of our familiar repertoire of coping mechanisms that have been over-amped and over-exaggerated so that they have become bizarre in this particular way, but rather what we are coming up against are behaviours and cognitions that are bizarre (or ‘exotic’) right from the onset, right from their inception. Their very essence is profoundly ‘exotic’; they are, as Jung says somewhere, the furthest thing away from the stereotypical or generic behaviours and patterns of thinking that we encounter within the domain of neurosis. Having said this however, psychotic disorders follow the very same pattern in another way inasmuch as they stem from our attempts to solve a problem that – ultimately – we just cannot ever solve. Looking at problem-solving the other way around, with regard to what it is that we are trying to ‘solve’, we could say that, just as in neurosis, the behaviours and cognitions that are standing out as being ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘distress-causing’ are due to the attempt to avoid a type of mental discomfort that can’t actually be avoided.
On the physical-biological level, pain-avoidance is usually a healthy and adaptive kind of a thing, as we all know. As Freud points out, neurotic avoidance is analogous to the reflex to avoid physical pain, which occurs all by itself without us having to consciously or deliberately engage in it. In the neurotic ‘reflex-arc’, what we are avoiding are painful thoughts, feeling and memories. But whilst getting up quickly when you sit on a thumb tack is a useful reflex, automatically avoiding mental pain is the gateway to immense neurotic suffering, as any psychotherapist will gladly tell you. Further to this, we could also say that flinching from mental pain does not merely mean removing ourselves from its sphere, it also means ‘writing off’ the message (so to speak) that the pain is bringing us. We say that it’s not ‘a message’, but merely a malfunction or error in the system, and having labelled it in this way, we then proceed to do our best to eliminate it. We don’t have to do this in the case of physical pain since the message of physical pain is usually less challenging to us – the ‘message’ might be, for example, that I have to let go of the hot poker, or take my hand away from the live electrical element, whereas the message in mental pain tends to be far more complex and far-reaching, and – crucially – it doesn’t require some sort of immediate ‘fixing’-type action! Emotions (or feelings) aren’t ‘a problem’…
It’s hard to talk about the type of problem that we are trying to fix when we’re in the domain of psychosis, however. In neurosis we all understand very well what’s going on. We’re all deeply familiar with this sort of thing – we do it all the time ourselves and not only this but we have an awareness, to some extent or other, that we are doing it. If we were to be honest with ourselves we would know that – for the most part – we’re generally just trying to have an easier life of it and avoid all the difficulties that we can avoid. In relation to psychosis however the thing that we’re avoiding is a lot tougher to understand. One way to talk about it is to say that what we’re trying to avoid is too much ‘aliveness’ – we are attempting as best we can in a psychosis to avoid the intense, no-holds-barred ‘vividness’ or ‘intensity’ of life. We all do this all the time as it happens but it’s just that we have no way of knowing that we do because that awareness isn’t within the remit of our everyday mind-moderated consciousness. The vividness and intensity of life is always stepped down for us – this happens as a matter of course as a function of what Aldous Huxley calls ‘the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system’. We could argue that this is more a function of the thinking mind rather than the hardware of the brain itself since it is through representing the world through drab generic concepts and bureaucratic schemas that we lose the disturbingly ‘alive’ quality of all our perceptions. The older we get the more concepts and schemas we tend to accumulate and so the ‘greyer’ and more uniform (or predictable) life is going to get as a consequence!
The only difference between us and someone who is experiencing what is called ‘psychosis’ is then – we might argue – that their ‘mechanism’ for stepping down or reducing the incredible indescribable intensity of life is failing them for some reason, leaving them face to face with this unaccountable and utterly irrational phenomenon – the phenomenon which is actually nothing other than the raw, no-holds-barred unfiltered ‘reality feed’! There’s a crack in the wall which is defending us from the ‘Great Unknown’ and the raw undiluted energy of life – which is like a super-valent dream that is more real than we are – is leaking through into the safe and tidy ‘regulated reality’ which is the world of the rational mind. This notion isn’t new as far as psychiatry is concerned – Ronald Laing spoke (in The Divided Self) of his patients as perceiving themselves to be under the threat of what he termed ‘implosion’ – implosion being where our own world, our own familiar reality cannot withstand contact with the super-intense, super-vivid and super-potent reality that surrounds it and simply collapses under the impact. We cannot sustain ourselves in face of such ‘aliveness’ because – by comparison – we ourselves are not ‘alive’. Our lie of being alive is exposed, so to speak, and this exposure is invariably fatal; it is variably fatal since a lie simply cannot survive exposure to the truth! The convenient, dull, safe and very taken-for-granted fiction of ourselves is revealed for what it is by ‘the genuine article’, and it cannot then persist in the relatively robust way that it did before (or – more to the point – it cannot persist in any way at all).
Our nemesis is therefore always waiting to break in and ‘implode’ the feeble little bubble which is our private little world and whilst we can argue (as we just have done) that this is true for all of us, whether know it or not, some of the people who Ronald Laing was referring to in his discussion of schizophrenia did indeed a have sense of this, and felt themselves to live under this constant threat. The world around us (along with the people in it) becomes the enemy because it is of an order of intensity and aliveness that is simply too much for us. It will annihilate us without even knowing that it is doing so because – compared to it – we are not genuinely real. We can try explain why this should be so by thinking in terms of information content – the world has an infinitely higher information content than our self-system, we might say, and this is basically because the self-system – no matter how central or how crucial it might be to us – is only a mental construct whereas the world, as it is in itself, is not a ‘construct’ at all but an actual reality. We’re trying – without knowing it – to hold back the flood-tide of unfettered information by using the mind and it’s constructs as a bulwark, and whilst normally this mechanism works so very well that we have no sense of it working (just as when we are well we have no sense of our kidneys or adrenal glands working) but when we find ourselves in the territory of psychosis then this is no longer the case. Or as we would be better off saying, when our defences against the infinite information content of the word around us starts to fail, then this is called by us ‘psychosis’.
Information is simply ‘newness’ – it is what we did not know before. It’s what we didn’t expect, in other words! Information is what we didn’t expect – and furthermore had no way of being able to expect – and the world around us is made up of pure, undiluted information. Instead of saying that our ‘nemesis’ is always waiting to break in therefore we could just say that newness is always waiting to break in. Newness is always waiting to break in. Naturally newness is always waiting to break in – this being its essential, non-negotiable nature! We might as well say that ‘the present moment’ is always waiting to break in. There is never any moment when newness isn’t there, threatening to break into our cosy little construct-world and ransack it thoroughly, and it is in fact rather ridiculous for us to have to actually say this since each moment that unfolds is in its essence nothing more that the very purest dose of newness, which is something that we have absolutely no capacity to anticipate. The present moment would always come as a tremendous shock in other words – if we let it come, that is. Newness – we might say – represents a threat of the very highest order to the thinking mind because the thinking mind can only exist within the context of a world whose behaviour or nature it can anticipate in all its essential details. This is obvious enough – the thinking mind operates on the basis of its categories, there being no other basis that it could operate on. Or as we could also and equivalently say, there is no way that thought can work without a basis and the only way it can have a basis is if it itself provides it!
Thought has no relationship with newness (this being the nature of ‘newness’!) and if it has no relationship with it what’s ‘going on’ then it can’t sustain itself. It has become redundant, pointless. It’s as if I ask a question of someone and they continue to look at me with absolutely no change of expression on their face, no indication that what I have just said makes any sense. The person is giving me nothing to go on – I would very much like them to ‘throw me a bone’ but they don’t! I’m all at sea therefore – I have no point of reference and this works against me in a very insidious kind of a way. I’m going to start ‘second-guessing’ myself, and once I do this then I’m going to start losing ground in a big way – not that I ever really had any in the first place! I don’t have any validation for the relevance of y question and this completely absence of validation (or ‘feedback’) is extremely discouraging, to say the least! When the apparatus of thought fails to establish any relevance to the world with respect to its categories then this isn’t merely discouraging, it’s annihilating – there’s no foothold, so thought can’t persist. Thought can only exist if it’s got a foothold, just a person free-climbing a sheer cliff-face can only climb if there is some kind of a toe-hold somewhere. Otherwise it’s ‘no go’. All of this is just to make the point, as emphatically as we can, that unless thought can establish some relevance of its categories (or ‘criteria’), then it can no longer sustain itself.
When the thinking mind finds itself in a world of Newness, a world which fundamentally (and necessarily!) has no relevance to its categories at all, then this constitutes the most lethally terrible threat that it could ever face. Newness (or ‘novelty’) is actually a deadly poison for the rational mind – it stops the rational mind dead in its tracks just as cyanide instantly stops the Krebs Cycle. For the thinking mind to come face to face with unmitigated novelty is like Superman being handed a big fat kryptonite sandwich – this is the fated encounter with one’s nemesis… As we go through our everyday life, dealing with all the things that we have to deal with, it never occurs to us that something as simple as ‘newness’ could be such a deadly enemy. We would never guess it. In all probability we will think that we actually like newness! ‘Something new – how nice!’ we say. It isn’t ‘unfettered novelty’ of which we speak here however but the infinitely tamer analogue of ‘programmed novelty’ or ‘trivial uncertainty’. We like the game to throw up a few surprises here and there to keep us interested but nothing that is going to suddenly and unexpectedly cause us to question the very basis of our entire existence! We’re looking for titillation, not termination; we want to flirt with ‘pretend danger’, ‘theatrical danger’, not the real thing…
The idea that newness or novelty could be such a challenge sounds laughable to us – we can think of lots of deadly dangers but we certainly wouldn’t count ‘the newness of the present moment’ as one of them! But this is because we have never actually come across it. The thinking mind never lets us come across it – it’s as if it were running ahead of us wherever we go sweeping all traces of novelty away. We have no concept of this thing that we are calling ‘novelty’, or ‘newness’ – of course we don’t because our concepts themselves are always old! There’s no such thing as ‘a new concept’ anymore than there is such a thing as ‘a new idea’; if we wanted to see what newness is like then we would have to do it without the ‘help’ of the conceptual mind since ‘newness’ is by definition (if we can call it a definition, which we can’t really!) whatever we come across when the rational-conceptual mind isn’t there! All this mind ever does is to tell us stuff based on the self-referential mechanism of comparing everything to itself – no matter how supposedly ‘new’ the concept or category is it’s still this same old mind, therefore. It might be trying its best to modify itself in ingenious ways but no matter what it does it still can’t get away from itself…
If we think that we do know what newness is we’re mistaken therefore – we can’t ‘know what it is’, for the reason that we have just given. This is not to say however that we won’t have the occasional sense of newness however. Any time familiar things seem unfamiliar, uncanny or strange to us this is a taste of novelty – novelty or newness is stuff that ‘doesn’t compute’, stuff that doesn’t fit into our categories, stuff that doesn’t accord with our expectations for it. You look at a familiar object and suddenly realize that it isn’t what you thought it was; it isn’t what you thought it should be, it isn’t what it always has been, up to this point. In small doses this sort of thing makes life more interesting – if you were a poet or an artist or a story-teller then this type of odd moment (something like a ‘glitch in the matrix’, or an ‘inconsistency in the reality supply’, perhaps) is pure gold dust, pure inspiration. It is a door opening, however briefly, into a hitherto unglimpsed magical land. If on the other hand we happen to be ‘ontologically insecure’ (and most of us are) then instead of being something marvellously interesting novelty will present as the very antithesis of this – this is a moment of fear, a moment of deep anxiety, perhaps of paranoia. It won’t usually develop into much because we’ll shut it down without any further consideration – that is the best way to get rid of novelty, after all. We will shut it down without even paying heed to what we are doing – it will be a reflex action, something that happens without us knowing about it. As Sogyal Rinpoche says, when a bardo (or ‘gap’) arises in everyday life we just skip over it to the next solid structure and even if we do notice something we will label it as being a species of meaningless aberration, a type of error in our neurological processing. The sense of déjà vu (for example) – which is deeply unaccountable when it happens, is very quickly forgotten about afterwards when we return to ‘normal reality’. And what is more, we have neurologists and neuropsychologists falling over themselves in their hurry to explain it all away by telling us that it is all to do with some glitch in the neurological circuits in our brain, or something like that. Nothing strange or mysterious about it at all! How could we have been so silly as to think that there was?
Suppose however that we have two factors running together – one factor being that we are ontologically insecure (and thus ‘uncertainty-averse’) and the other being that the anomaly (the moment of deep uncertainty) persists and can’t be shut down or skipped over? In this case we are looking at a whole different ball-game. The rational mind is in here under very great threat – it has in fact met with its ultimate enemy, its nemesis, and so it is going to be trying out some very extreme manoeuvres. This is in other words where we enter into the territory of psychosis. Psychosis – we might say – is where ‘the problem to be solved’ is the problem of how to get rid of irreducible novelty (or ‘deep uncertainty’) and this comes down to ‘how to explain it away’. Explaining things (or explaining them away, as the case may be) is rationality’s strength – this is what it does. Just as a toaster toasts slices of bread, the rational mind explains things. Or in this case, it tries to. But, just to repeat the point again, explaining novelty is the one thing that the thinking mind cannot do. This is the one thing it can’t do because ‘explaining’ means ‘rendering the new in terms of the old’ and no matter what we do we just can’t explain irreducible novelty in terms of the old. It’s always going to defy us; it’s always going to confound our categories. If we could explain ‘the new’ then it wouldn’t be new, very clearly.
Novelty overpowers our categories – it does strange things to them. It’s as if our rational mind is telling us too many competing stories at the same time, in a last-ditch desperate attempt to ‘wrap things up’ or ‘cover all the angles’. It’s exactly as if the rational mind is telling us too many stories at the same time and this makes things worse rather than making them better – it completely confuses us and brings everything to a standstill. None of our hypotheses can hold water and so we keep on throwing out new ones and this process never stops. As soon as a particular theory starts to look as if it is accounting successfully for what is going on new connections or correlations appear that necessitate the invention of more and more far-fetched theories; the regular type of theories just aren’t cutting it so we have to come up with something better, like a ‘new improved washing powder’. No matter how improved it is however it’ll still never wash! The washing machine goes into overdrive and before we know it the whole house is full to the ceiling with gaily-multiplying multicoloured bubbles…
The ‘problem’ is that the mystery of life always goes deeper than we thought it did and so our theories just keep getting more and more exotic. And no matter how ‘exotic’ or ‘far-reaching’ our theory gets, there’s still evidence of another level of meaning, another ‘secret schema’ beyond the one we’ve just found out about. As the blurb on the back of the old Philip K Dick paperbacks used to say – ‘There’s always another level of conspiracy beyond the one we know about’! There are actually two ways in which this conspiracy can be taken. The first way is the paranoid way, which is the way in which we start to suspect that our reality is being systematically undermined and that this is (of course) to our ultimate detriment. This is where the road leads, the only place it can lead, and as time goes on this conclusion becomes more and more obvious. The other (much more unfamiliar) way is the metanoid way, which is where we start to see that our reality is being systematically undermined and that this is to our ultimate benefit!
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.