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Negative Therapy

There are two types (two radically different types) of therapy and yet we only ever hear of the one type and this in itself ought to be enough to arouse our suspicions. The only type of therapy we ever hear about is the positive type and positive therapy is very easy to explain – positive therapy, we might say, is where we implicit believe ourselves to know what mental health is; the inevitable consequence of this being that ‘therapy’ – as we see it – has to be about control. Control is of course where we try to reach an identified goal-state on purpose. From a thermodynamic point of view (which is the point of view which is concerned with the underlying energetics of all equilibrium-processes might ever occur, either naturally or artificially (which is a wide enough remit, obviously enough) this is an equilibrium-seeking process. In an E-seeking process it is only the destination that matters – everything else can be forgotten about, everything else has to be forgotten about. The dictum here is that ‘it’s not where you come from that matters but when you’re going.’ (Ilya Prigogine). Where we are going to (or where we want to go, or where we think we ought to be) is the vital thing; everything else is merely ‘error’. It’s only ‘winning’ that counts’’ it’s only winning that we are interested in – all other possibilities are to be avoided, shunned without a second thought.



The application of what we have just said to therapy is obvious enough – anything that stands in the way of us moving in the direction of what we have designated as ‘mental health’ exists simply to be gotten rid of. Once we allow ourselves to believe that we know what mental health is (i.e. ‘how we are supposed to be’) then we are bound to buy into ‘the paradigm of control’; if we adhere to a positive worldview therefore (i.e. if we believe that we have or can potentially have a ‘final description of things’) then the state of good mental health is always going to be ‘a goal to aim at’. If classical (equilibrium-seeking) thermodynamics explains what we are calling positive therapy very well, then the same is true for the application of non-linear thermodynamics to negative therapy. Non-linear thermodynamics applies to systems that exist far from equilibrium, and which move – of their own accord – in this uncharted direction. Classical thermodynamics describes systems that exist in a stable or balanced states whilst non-linear thermodynamics concerns itself with those systems that exist somehow out there in ‘non-equilibrium space’ with no stable ‘defined niche’ to rest comfortably in. To be ‘out of equilibrium’ is to be falling, falling through space, so to speak; but this is however not the type of ‘falling’ that heads predictably to the ground or to the lowest possible energy level and then stays there (this would obviously be goal-seeking behaviour) but rather it is the type of ‘falling’ that takes us up into the sky, never to come back down again. We falling ‘upwards’ not ‘downwards’ – our ‘entropy rating (essentially, our ‘unpredictability’) is decreasing not increasing and we are moving into ever more ‘improbable’ and ever more inconceivable states of being.



This type of thing (upwards falling, that is) might sound very fanciful, not to mention entirely contradictory to the laws of science, but it isn’t – it is contrary to the laws of classical thermodynamics it is true (as we have just indicated) but it is very much in accordance with the principles of non-linear thermodynamics (which is a scientific field that has been with us for at least fifty years now). Things do move out of equilibrium all by themselves – what else is life but ‘an anti-entropic movement’, after all? There is such a thing as stability and adaptation in life but – there is also a movement in the direction of becoming ever more unpredictable, ever more free from mechanical laws. It might sound odd to talk about throwing a ball and watching it fall off the surface of the planet and escape the earth’s gravitational well altogether, but this is exactly what life is doing. It may not make sense to us but it happens all the same, in defiance of our incomprehension. As Eric Jantsch says, ‘evolution is never total adaptation.’



Just as life is a continual ‘reaching out’ beyond the fixed and reliable ecological niches that we are adapted, so too – we might say – mental well-being is to be found in this ‘continual reaching out beyond the known and the familiar’, in venturing beyond the reassuring comfort zone of the artificial world that we have created for ourselves. Instead of being found – as we have lazily assumed – in the state of adaptation to some set of norms, mental health is synonymous with disobeying these rules. Mental health can’t come from staying safely in the Domain of the Known in other words, but rather it is a function of the movement that takes us beyond the known, beyond the tired old equilibrium values that we cling to. This isn’t such a strange idea really of course – we need only think of Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ motif and what this signifies. What else does the Hero’s Journey involve apart from venturing out beyond the comforting certainties of normal everyday life into a world that won’t behave as we expect it to, and where both unimaginable blessings and unfathomable perils lie in wait for us?



And what else is society (we might go on to ask) other than a system designed specifically to prevent us from seeing that there is (or ever could be) anything beyond it? Society is ‘the be all and the end all’, ‘the alpha and omega’, the limit to what we can know about; whatever is to be attained can only be attained within its remit, whatever accomplishments there might be to make can only made on its terms. As far as the social system is concerned, there is only ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’ and both of these always occur in its terms. If we’re doing well we’re doing well according to it and if we’re doing badly then exactly the same holds true. Anything that doesn’t occur on its narrow terms is entirely illegitimate (as far as the system is concerned) and will not be given any credibility at all. Anything that doesn’t ‘mirror the framework’ is disallowed.



Coming back to the question of what is called therapy therefore, we can see why it is that we generally only ever hear of the one approach, which is the ‘positive’ or ‘control-based’ approach. Control is how we bring all ‘error-type disturbances’ back to the equilibrium value; control is how we ‘iron out’ the fluctuations that threaten to destabilise the all-important Domain of the Known. The obvious way to understand any ‘fluctuations from normal mental functioning’ that might happen is to label them as malfunctions and once we go down this road then controlling (i.e. ‘bringing everything back to normal’) is obviously our only option. Essentially, we have a certain way of understanding how things ‘should be’ and when reality doesn’t tally with this way then we do our best to impose our models, theories, and beliefs on it. This is not just our approach to therapy, it’s our approach to everything; we are always a imposing our models and theories and beliefs onto the world and our idea of ‘doing well’ is when we are able to successfully do this. Given that this is our preferred mode of existing in this world it is hardly surprising that it is also the approach we take on mental health (or what we call mental health).



These two ways of looking at things are tremendously different – from the positive viewpoint seeing painful fluctuations from the norm as being the harbingers of ‘a new and hitherto unsuspected order of things’ just doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit because we see the way of seeing things with which we are familiar with (and to which we are adapted to) as being axiomatically the right way for things to be. This isn’t merely some kind of an intellectual understanding either – it’s a deep-down conviction, a ‘primal prejudice’. When we are pulled away from what we know by force – and it generally is by force – we feel pangs of sorrow and grief that are very much like homesickness – we remember where we used to be as possessing every virtue under the sun and we see where we are right now as having nothing going for it at all. We feel nothing but fear and dread in relation to the way things are now, and ‘how things used to be’ is seen through the rose-tinted spectacles of easy nostalgia. This being the case, it’s not at all hard to see it see how easy it is for us to conflate ‘the way things used to be’ with ‘good mental health’ and want nothing else but to be returned safely to the domain of the known and the familiar. The ‘equilibrium value’ equals ‘good mental health’ and any disturbance from this is never any more than ‘error’.



But the ‘equilibrium value’ isn’t good mental health – it is nothing of the sort, it’s simply a trance that creates a collective pseudo-world or collective pseudo-reality which we are stultifyingly familiar with and cannot question. It’s ‘a state of sleep’, as it is often said – a state of somnolence, state of a sloth, and as Gurdjieff says ‘Sleep is very comfortable, but waking is very bitter…’ Our entire culture – therefore – is predicated upon the idea that this state of ‘sleep’ is not sleep at all but the state of optimal mental health. ‘Ignorance is strength’, says George Orwell in 1984, and in the very same vein that we could say that ‘Sleep is mental health’. The universal attitude taken by society is always that sleeping is good and wholesome and that waking up is wrong and harmful. This is of course very hard for us to accept – it would after all necessitate a radical re-evaluation of our most basic assumptions and a radical revision of our most basic assumptions is a very thing we don’t want – to radically change our outlook is to ‘wake up’ and waking up is the very thing we are fighting against. A simpler way to put this is to say that what we are fighting against is change and this is of course what ‘equilibrium thinking’ always comes down to – the way things are now is good, and any change to this state of affairs is bad. Waking up is bitter, as Gurdjieff says, and so all of our technology, all of our resources, all of our intelligence goes into relieving this bitterness as best we can and facilitating the return of the sleeping (or equilibrium) state.



The suggestion that society – or any group of people – is necessarily in a state of sleep (and not just in a state of sleep but dedicated to that state) is one that is very challenging for most of us, but if we need only to rephrase that and state that society (or any group of people) is necessarily going to be an equilibrium system in order for this to make sense. It is so evidently the case that society is an E-system there is no need to expend any effort arguing the point. Society can be best described as a ‘common viewpoint’, the significance of which is quite lost on us. For everyone to have a common way of seeing the world seems like a perfectly natural state of affairs but actually it is going against our true nature; it is going against our true nature because we wouldn’t be seeing things the same way that everyone else unless we made a prior decision to do so. What we’re talking about is a deliberate sort of thing in other words, even though we have absolutely no awareness of it being so. If we didn’t make the ‘decision to agree’ then we wouldn’t be seeing the world in the same way that everyone else does but rather we would be seeing the world in a totally unique way. To perceive reality in a unconditioned or non-programmed way is to perceive a unique reality; just as to perceive the world in the socially conditioned way is always to perceive a generic world. The ‘unique world’ is the only world there is and so when we are adapted to the consensus view of things then the world we perceive isn’t actually real – nothing generic is real, obviously. The ‘generic world’ is Baudrillard’s ‘realm of the hyperreal’, therefore.



An ‘equilibrium world’ is a world in which the unique is subsumed within the generic. ‘Subsumed’ means that there is no trace left of the unique – the equilibrium state (naturally enough) has not retained any record of it. In one way what we’re talking about here is an ‘irreversible loss of information’; in another way what we are referring to a ‘loss of consciousness’, a loss of consciousness which is ‘pragmatically irreversible’. When we fall asleep there is a very great tendency to stay asleep, in other words. When we are talking about that particular equilibrium system which is ‘the consensus view’ (or ‘the generic mind’) then saying that we are ‘losing information in an irreversible way’ doesn’t make the point strongly enough – what we losing, in an irreversible fashion, is the possibility of having any different viewpoints. Furthermore, the generic viewpoint which is subsuming all other possible viewpoints isn’t real, as we have just said; it isn’t real because it shows ‘an unreal world’ (i.e. a false or duplicate world) rather than the original, the one which isn’t a duplicate. ‘Losing a viewpoint’ means of course that we are losing the possibility to see that aspect of the world which it shows us – that possibility is now gone for us; we no longer have the capability of appreciating that this possibility could exist. We have ‘closed our mind’ to it, so to speak, and having closed our mind to it we can’t just ‘open it up again’. We can’t just ‘open up our mind to the possibility again’ because we don’t know that it’s there to open up to. The possibility is lost. More than this, the generic mind makes us feel stupid to entertain notions that they could be something else in the world other than ‘the world we know’; the equilibrium mind is like God in the Old Testament in that it will not tolerate any ‘false idols’ – it will not tolerate ‘any other gods,’ that is. This equilibrium-property of subsuming all other viewpoints, all other perspectives, is a sinister one, therefore. What we have just referred to as ‘other perspectives’ are in fact the only type of perspective it is possible to get – perspective always involves plurality or disagreement. ‘Other perspectives’ are perspective, and so when we have ‘only the one perspective’ we haven’t actually got any perspective at all.



An equilibrium system resists all fluctuations, or disturbances to its (false) calm – that’s how it gets to be an equilibrium system, after all. All fluctuations are treated equally; all fluctuations are ‘ironed out’ or ‘flattened’ so that the only thing remaining is the one designated value. All fluctuations are simply ‘error’ and are going to be treated as such and so when we are discussing the topic of ‘therapy’ we can translate this to mean that all disruptions to the realm of the everyday or generic mind going to be ironed out (to whatever extent this is possible, at least). From the non-equilibrium point of view (from the point of view of negative rather than positive psychology, that is) every fluctuation, every disturbance of the status quo, comes as a herald of ‘the consciousness that is yet to come’. This is just another way of saying that every fluctuation that comes along has the potential of ‘overthrowing the status quo (obviously it does) and when the status quo is overthrown (when any status quo is overthrown) this equals consciousness. If the old equilibrium system were to be immediately succeeded by another one then that would be the end of any consciousness again of course but it remains true that when something new happens that hasn’t been prescribed by the system then this is consciousness, however short-lived it might be, and anything that overthrows system is of course always going to be new. Each little fluctuation that comes along is also ‘new’ – it’s new because, by definition, a fluctuation is something that hasn’t been produced by the system!



More strictly speaking (we might say), any fluctuation or disturbance that comes along is only potentially new; it’s ‘only potentially new’ because the general way of things is for the random fluctuation to be immediately and unceremoniously ironed out again! Each disturbance that comes our way is a herald of consciousness, but not consciousness itself. The generic mind operates in exactly the same fashion whenever we encounter it – either on the level of the group of people or on the level of society itself or on the level of what seems to be our own personal mind (which is still the generic mind, despite our feelings of ownership with regard to it) we react against all fluctuations because they represent viewpoints that we have lost the capacity to entertain. We ‘shut down’ the new whenever we come across it because we don’t have any concept of new (so to speak); we don’t have any capacity to appreciate the new on its own terms but only on the terms of the generic mind that we are adapted to, and from the point of view of ‘the equilibrium mind that we are adapted to’ the new is a ‘foreign body’ that our organism will either try to nullify or reject. Our ‘white blood cells’ will rush at it en masse and try to smother it; the amoeba-like generic mind will try to absorb and subsume it, as it absorbs and subsumes everything within its own scheme of things. The system ‘eats’ everything and what it can’t eat (because of the risk of indigestion) it denies.



No one is saying that the process of having the ‘established order’ of how we see the world overturned is an easy or pleasant one, or that it doesn’t bring great pain and confusion. It involves the unasked intrusion something into our world that we neither understand nor like – this intrusion is a potentially lethal threat to the only way of being we know. The new order of things is perceived as a very serious threat, in other words; as threats go it is ‘as serious as they come in fact’ – even though in reality – what we are reacting against is simply consciousness. Consciousness is ‘the foreign body’; consciousness is ‘the uninvited intruder’. There is no doubt that consciousness (if unchecked) will produce severe indigestion (and worse) in the generic self and the reason for this is that consciousness represents the truth and the one thing that the generic self cannot ever handle is ‘the truth’. Anything but that…









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.
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