Our overly-rational, technologically-minded approach to mental illness is to see it as ‘a problem in the hardware’ – we either see it as being due to a malfunction in the hardware of the brain, or as occurring due to errors in our DNA which have lead to a malfunction in the brain. This basic way of understanding what we call ‘mental illness’ (which is itself of course a highly conceptually-loaded bit of terminology) is the ‘official story’ – it is the dominant metaphor (even if it doesn’t portray itself as being a metaphor). Now that we as a culture have accepted this theory as correct, as being authoritative, it is very hard for us to turn around and look at any alternative perspectives. A whole way of looking at things has been established, a whole multi-billion dollar industry has come into being as a result of this mechanistic paradigm. We’ve put all our money on this particular horse, and so all we can do is hang onto our seats and pray that it comes in for us….
Other than the force of inertia there is absolutely nothing at all to stop us exploring alternative viewpoints on what is called mental illness. As it happens however, it turns out that ‘the force of inertia’ is more than enough to stop us dead in our tracks – it is more than enough to put a halt to any divergent thinking on the subject. There’s no support or encouragement for anyone who wants to do such a thing, seeing as how we have already made up our collective mind on the matter, and what’s more there’s certainly going to be a hell of a lot of discouragement if you happen to be working within the industry and you then decide to start questioning things! Your career won’t be off to a good start. You won’t get funding for research, your PhD proposal is unlikely to be accepted, you won’t be able to obtain any recognized qualification that will entitle you to work in the field. No one will want to talk to you, no one will want to hang out with you. In short – you’ll be out on a limb, you’ll be on your own, and if you try to publish any papers you will be marginalized, ignored. No one will be honest enough to admit that this is what’s going on – but it is! Because you aren’t towing the ‘party line’ like a good girl or good boy you won’t be granted a voice in the academic or professional discourse…
THE ‘DOWNSIDE’ OF THE RATIONAL SIMULATION
These obstacles notwithstanding, there are of course alternative ways of looking at the acute and persistent form of unhappiness known as mental illness and there is no earthly reason why we shouldn’t give a bit of time to discussing them! The particular approach that we are going to be looking at here relates more to neurotic mental distress than the psychotic type (for reasons that will become clear) and it is based on the very simple and straightforward premise that what we call ‘neurotic mental illness’ is the inevitable result of us living entirely in the virtual world that is made up of our own ideas, our own beliefs, our conceptions. Who said that we could get away with living in our heads the whole time without incurring some form of consequence, after all? Do we imagine living in a rational simulation of reality isn’t going to involve some sort of unwanted ‘downside’?
The thing is of course that we don’t know that we’re living our lives within a rational simulation. We think we’re living in reality. We’re convinced that we living in reality! The suggestion that we live out our lives in a world that is made up exclusively of our own mental constructs is a deeply unfamiliar one for anyone who is familiar only with the mainstream perspective. This never occurs to us, and the idea that we might be inflicting neurotic suffering on ourselves as a result of living purely within the conceptual realm is even further removed from our mental horizons. Outside of the mainstream however, this idea is very well known in a number of fields. The philosopher Jean Baudrillard has produced a whole body of work elucidating what he calls ‘the realm of hyperreality’. Hyperreality is the situation that comes about when the map virulently takes over from the territory, thereby making the territory unnecessary. It’s a hostile take-over, we might say. The process starts off, as Baudrillard (1983, P 146) says in Simulations, with us only valuing and having an interest in what can be reproduced (or explained), and ends up with us only valuing, only being interested in our own reproductions, our own explanations:
The very definition of the real becomes: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction. This is contemporaneous with a science that postulates that a process can be perfectly reproduced in a set of given conditions, and also with the industrial rationality that postulates a universal system of equivalence (classical representation is not equivalence, it is transcription, interpretation, commentary). At the limit of this process of reproductibility, the real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always reproduced. The hyperreal.
Carl Gustav Jung, in The Undiscovered Self (1958 P 81) has approached the same matter from a psychological rather than a philosophical/sociological perspective:
Nothing estranges a man from the ground plan of his instincts more than his learning capacity, which turns out to be a creative drive towards progressive transformation of human modes of behaviour. It, more than anything else, is responsible for the altered conditions of our existence and the need for new adaptations which civilization brings. It is also the source of numerous psychic disturbances and difficulties occasioned by man’s progressive alienation from his instinctual foundation, i.e. by his uprootedness and identification with his conscious knowledge of himself, by his concern with consciousness at the expense of the unconscious. The result is that modern man can know himself only in so far as he can become conscious of himself – a capacity largely dependent on environmental conditions, the drive for knowledge and control of which necessitated or suggested certain modifications of his original instinctual tendencies. His consciousness therefore orientates itself chiefly by observing and investigating the world around him, and it is to its peculiarities that he must adapt his psychic and technical resources. This task is so exacting, and its fulfilment so advantageous, that he forgets himself in the process, losing sight of his instinctual nature and putting his own conception of himself in place of his real being. In this way he slips imperceptibly into a purely conceptual world where the products of his conscious activity progressively replace reality.
LOSS OF WHOLENESS
Even before we go into this in any depth it is more than clear that living exclusively in a simulated version of reality is bound to have consequences as far as our mental health goes. How can it not? That we have moved wholesale and en masse into what Jung calls ‘a purely conceptual world’ itself constitutes a neurotic withdrawal from reality on a truly massive scale. This fact alone – by anyone’s standard – has got to constitute a pretty serious ‘mental health issue’! The word ‘health’ itself derives (according to the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary) from the Old English word hāl – or the Old Norse Heill – meaning ‘whole’. In a purely semantic sense therefore we can see that to be living within a mental ‘reproduction’ of the world rather than the actual real thing is not by any stretch of the imagination whole and so cannot – linguistically at least – be considered in any way healthy! Living in the fragmentary world of thought is very far indeed from living in the wholeness of non-conceptual reality – so far in fact that when we are looking at things from our normal perspective we simply can’t be aware of ‘wholeness’ at all. We’re constitutionally unable to be aware of wholeness, as Krishnamurti indicates here (Conversation with Dr. David Shainberg and Prof. David Bohm. Brockwood Park 17th May, 1976):
Can we talk about the wholeness of life? Can one be aware of that wholeness if the mind is fragmented? You can’t be aware of the whole if you are only looking through a small hole.
Because we can’t perceive ‘the wholeness of life’ we naturally assume that we are already whole – we don’t see ourselves as missing anything. When we’re looking at the world through our narrow rational aperture this doesn’t give us any sense at all that what we’re see is only very partial or fragmented, and yet it must of course be – rationality can’t work any other way. In a very straightforward kind of a way, we could say that if the rational concept-forming faculty is one room in a house then this immediately indicates that we are not ‘Whole’, so even in this simple way we can see that our normal modality is not healthy. If we only live in one room of the house then we know – on an intuitive level – that this can’t be good. It’s unbalanced – it’s ‘unnaturally restricted’. Like a sleepwalker, we may look like we know what we’re doing but we don’t because we’re operating only on the basis of some very rudimentary part of ourselves…
Coming back now to our discussion of neurotic mental distress, we might ask at this point exactly what kind of problems might we expect from this awkward sort of rational lop-sidedness (or ‘one-sidedness’, as Jung puts it)? One thing that we can straightaway say is that there must be a basic problem in relating both to the world around us and to other people. The rational mind is a formal system – it belongs to the realm of abstractions, the realm of black-and-white structures – and so this inescapably means that there is going to be a mismatch between our way of seeing things and the informal realm which we are so clumsily attempting to relate to. The world is not after all a ‘merely technical’ affair (i.e. a ‘cut-and-dried’ affair), and so the incapacity to appreciate this constitutes a very tangible disability – we can ‘get by’, but only in a very awkward, mechanical, and graceless way.
Our ability to relate to other people is something that is very obviously going to suffer – I will be able to communicate with you very effectively about technical matters, but I will not be able to relate to you as an actual human being! If we consider the undeniable truth that the rational faculty functions by allowing us to distance ourselves from the world, so as to look at it from a safe and entirely ‘hygienic’ vantage point (by seeing everything in terms of separate ‘compartments of thought’) then clearly the situation where I am one separate or isolated compartment and the world (including the people in it) are other separate and isolated compartments is one within which I am never going to be able to find any sort of happiness!
How can I be happy in a state of intellectual withdrawal from the world? How can I be happy when I am not only alienated from the world and all my fellows by being in my sterile compartment, but also alienated from myself, since there is no possibility for any genuine sense of well-being or happiness in that particular (supposedly ‘special’) sterile mental compartments labelled myself! I’m not in that sterile compartment – there is no space in it for a whole person, there is only enough space for some kind of ‘token identity’ which is supposed to stand for a whole person. This being the case – which it absolutely is – how could there ever be any happiness in this situation? I can’t be happy because I’m not there, and the token identity can’t be happy because a token identity simply doesn’t have the capacity to be happy…
Happiness, like health, comes from being whole. The lack of happiness that comes about as a result of not being whole (as a result of being unknowingly fragmented) is – we might say – the very root of all neurotic suffering. Everything that proceeds from this basis is bound to come down to the unconscious displacement of the pain of being unwittingly identified with ‘the isolated and alienated thought-produced ego’. No other form of behaviour is possible from this basis! My entire life will thus come down to the blind attempt to somehow compensate for this invisible inner deficit, this ‘lack of Wholeness’ that I am not actually capable of seeing. My entire life (or at least the ‘selfish’ or ‘ego-centric’ part of my life) will be devoted, in other words, to achieving a dream that can never be realized: the dream of the alienated thought-produced ego to become ‘fulfilled’, to become ‘happy’, to become ‘not lacking’.
For the conditioned self, this struggle is understood exclusively in terms of succeeding within a fixed or unchanging framework of meaning; it is not seen that ‘who we think we are’ (with reference to the framework) must change radically – on the contrary, everything else is required to change, but not this, not our fixed, fundamental idea or concept of ourselves. And since it is this fixed idea of ourselves (which is the same thing as ‘the fixed framework of understanding’ which gives rise to it) which is causing all the problems, causing all the suffering, no matter how things work out we’re never going to be happy…
SOLVING THE PROBLEM WHERE IT ISN’T
When I am operating from the basis of being this very narrow mind-created identity, then my entire life (or at least the part of it that is orchestrated by the mind) will come down to the doomed attempt to compensate for this inner lack of wholeness that I am totally unable to perceive. I can suffer from this deficiency, but I cannot know what it is that I am suffering from. Unacknowledged emotional pain (or fear) coupled with ‘compensatory-type’ purposeful behaviour which we are continuously validating for ourselves so that it seems normal is of course the very essence of neurotic suffering. This is what neurosis is all about – ignoring the real problem, trying to solve the problem where it isn’t, conspiring against ourselves so that we don’t see what we’re doing, and causing ourselves a never-ending amount of unnecessary suffering in the process!
Generally when we talk about neurosis the emotional pain in question is envisioned as being due to particular experience that I have been through, or my upbringing, or perhaps just a long-standing habit of not dealing with stuff (which is probably the most common scenario). What we’re talking about here is obviously not emotional pain in the usual sense of the term but something more like existential pain (or existential fear) – it is pain or fear that derives from my very modality of existence in this world. What hurts me is my narrowness, the fact that I have identified myself with a razor-sharp black-and-white mental image, a cut-and-dried logical construct. This is the only type of image of construct that the thinking mind is capable of producing since it operates on the basis of EITHER/OR logic: either something exists on one side of the boundary or it exists on the other, either something belongs or it doesn’t belong, either the box is ticked or it isn’t. This being the case, my ‘mind-moderated perception’ of myself is going to be equally black-and-white, equally cut-and-dried, equally exclusive, and it is precisely this ‘black-and-white’ (or ‘rule-based’) exclusivity that is at the root of the existential pain that we are talking about.
Its not just that existential pain makes us do neurotic stuff as we try our best displace it without letting on to ourselves that we’re displacing anything – that’s it in brief but there’s more to it than that. The mechanism by which we deny our existential pain works by facilitating us in creating a whole new world for ourselves – a ‘neurotic world’ that’s only there as a means of avoiding something we don’t want to know about. We make up this world for ourselves, and then we live in it, and then we experience mental suffering because this made-up world is quintessentially sterile, quintessentially futile. This is not to say, just to make the point again, that thinking is itself pathological, or that making models or theories is necessarily a recipe for insanity, but rather that when we let the products of our mental activity proliferate so much that they replace reality, then this is pathological.
Is there any way, after all, that we can make up a vastly inferior simulation of reality, and then proceed to live in it (and ‘make do with it’) as if it were the only reality, and then say that this is not insane? And it’s not just that the world we have made up for ourselves in order to escape ‘ontological risk’ is vastly inferior – there isn’t actually any comparison at all. It’s infinitely inferior. There is absolutely no way in which a closed system can be said to analogize the open system (since ‘closed’ is the antithesis of ‘open’ and not a way of analogizing it!) and it is this ‘inversion of principles’ that makes the closed system which is the over-valued rational mind (i.e. the mechanical reflex-mind that has been allowed to ‘take over’ and ‘rule the roost’) productive of unbearable mental suffering.
WHEN OUR COMFORT ZONES START TO CRUMBLE…
So here we have a situation where we create a sterile pseudo-world (a hyperreality) in order to escape ontological risk (which is where we find ourselves unable to be rationally or logically sure of ourselves, or of anything else, for that matter). This is the primary manifestation of neurotic displacement, we might say. What happens then however is that we suffer the pain of meaningless and futility (which is as we have been saying the inevitable consequence of our strategy) we act out or repress this unacknowledged pain in what we could call a secondary manifestation of neurotic pain displacement. The particular way in which we do this might be called our ‘style’ of neuroticism; this general notion could also be related to what Chogyam Trungpa calls our ‘style of self-distraction’ – i.e. the particular game that we are habituated to playing…
When we are locked into the mindset of avoidance all we can do is keep on creating new layers of avoidance, new layers of neurosis, like a man in a wooden house who solves the problem of rampant wood-worm by keeping on building a new story on top of the old every time the one he’s living in succumbs to the rot. Or we could say that this is like someone who keeps on having to creatively embellish and elaborate a lie in order that the lie will not become plainly visible as such! The end-point of this process is where our pain-avoidance strategies visibly fail us (i.e. where the new story of the house collapses as soon as it is built, or where the lie is clearly seen to be a lie as soon as it comes out of my mouth) and this is what we call ‘neurotic mental illness’. In other words, what we see as an actual mental disorder is the visible portion of the iceberg – an iceberg that was there for a long before anything was seen to be ‘going amiss’. The visible symptoms that we object to so much might in fact might be called the healthy portion of the iceberg since when a neurotic strategy visibly fails we are forced to experience the pain that we so obviously do not want to experience! This is similar to what Margaret Newman says when she argues that health and sickness is a unitary process (i.e. that ‘sickness is health’).
Its only when we see that something is not right that change can begin to occur, and for this reason we need to push the illusion to the point that it starts to ‘crack up’ on us before we have a chance of breaking free from its hypnotic spell. Or as William Blake says, “A fool who persists in his folly will become wise.”
THE INCAPACITY TO BE AND THE INABILITY TO DO
There are ‘unsupportable drawbacks’ associated with the unreal mental world which we have created for ourselves – it’s only when we’re completely unconscious that we don’t spot them! According to G.I. Gurdjieff man – as he commonly is – cannot be and has no capacity to do. This incapacity to be or do constitutes a serious drawback, to say the least. Naturally we are perfectly convinced that we have the capacity to ‘be’, and to ‘do’. For the most part, we couldn’t be more convinced of the fact. We take it as read, we assume it completely. The self-deluding mode of existence in which we have the total unproblematic belief that we ‘are’, and that we have the capacity to ‘do’, can be thought of as ‘the perfect neurotic state’ – the state in which we falsely imagine that we really are present in our lives, and that we have the power of genuinely volitional action, and experience absolutely no evidence, intimations or suggestions to the contrary. This modality of existence – we shall say – is quite vacuous, quite unreal, but the vacancy and unreality of our beliefs about ourselves has yet to dawn on us.
The neurotic state as we have said provides us with the perfect illusion that we are and that we have the capacity to do. We have no intimations of any serious problems and so as far as we’re concerned our mental health couldn’t be better. We pretty much feel that we’re setting the standard for what ought to be considered ‘mentally healthy’! This state of affairs only represents the first phase – the ‘honeymoon phase’ of the neurotic delusion. Inasmuch as the belief that I have the capacity to be and to do is completely and utterly unwarranted it has to be paid back when the time comes in terms of a ‘negative’ (or dysphoric) perception of our capacity to be and our ability to do. There is after all ‘no such thing as a free lunch’! This reverse illusion is more commonly known to us in terms of depression and anxiety. Before we look closer at the reverse or dysphoric phase of neuroticism we will spend a bit more time looking at the ‘positive’ or ‘enjoyable’ phase.
When we’re in the honey-moon phase the ‘flip-side’ of the state of hyperreality has yet to manifest for us and so we are still blissfully ignorant, blissfully unaware of the next stage of the act which is shortly to unfold. Intoxicated with the abundance of euphoric benefits, we couldn’t be further from suspecting what is going to happen next, when the wave of euphoria crashes and dumps us unceremoniously into the horrors of the dysphoric phase, which is when the loan we have taken out in the form of euphoria has been spent, and we are left with the grindingly hard task of paying it back, penny by penny…
In the euphoric phase we are ‘full of ourselves’ – we are full to the brim with groundless confidence and unquestionable self-belief. We have an unassailable sense of our own entitlement to have whatever it is that we have set our hearts on, along with an utter intolerance for anything that stands in our way. The ‘euphoric gift’ which we are in receipt of is in the cold light of day a flimsy, brittle and insubstantial thing, and yet it seems when it is marketed to us to have certain compelling advantages: it is as if we have gained some kind of ‘instant self-esteem’ – we feel strongly justified under all circumstances, we feel that we are ‘always in the right’, we feel that any mistake made was of course made by someone else and not us. Responsibility for any screw-ups automatically washes off us (as we are covered in Teflon) and – contrary-wise – if anything works out well we automatically assume that it was because of us, we automatically that we deserve to take the credit for it. We automatically feel – in short – that we are ‘whiter than white’ and no taint – no matter how deserving of it we might be – ever attaches to us. Whatever the washing powder we’re using, it is definitely good stuff! With a deal like this why would we ever look back?
These are the attributes of the ‘freshly minted’ self-image – the mind-produced self that we identify when we put into to operation the strategy of avoiding ontological risk by creating and buying into a rational simulation of reality. It might sound good enough on the face of it (in a strictly superficial way, naturally), but we ought to know that any deal where we straightaway seem to get ‘something for nothing’ needs to be looked at twice. And sure enough, if we do check out the deal, we can see there are a number of rather serious ‘snags’ – things that we really ought to look into before we start signing any contracts. The first snag has to do with lack of uniqueness: ‘the self that I get to think I am’ is after all a product, something that is ‘mass-manufactured’ by a mechanical process, and as such it is laughably two-dimensional, like a cartoon character, or like an avatar of who you are going to be in some console game that you are playing. The point about this is that the cartoon identity doesn’t have even the remotest trace of individuality in it – a hundred thousand players could (and do) use exactly the same avatar when playing some game or other, which means that absolutely all individuality is lost in the process of identifying with the ‘token-self’ that the system conveniently provides for us. In exactly the same way, when the system of thought provides us with a convenient ‘handle’, a convenient stereotypical picture or image of ‘who we are’, this manufactured ‘sense of self’ is utterly ubiquitous – which is to say, there is absolutely nothing of who we really are in it at all! If I can fit into a game, then I must be ‘regular and not unique’ and the rational mind is quintessentially a game…
Every mind-produced ego experiences itself as being totally and unquestionably unique, as being ‘one of a kind’ but this is merely an engineered perception – it is part of the package we buy into. As is very obvious if we study the ego and its ways, every ego that we come across is exactly the same as every other ego that ever was, so that ‘if you know one then you know them all’. The lack of individuality that this entails has definitely got to count as a ‘drawback’ since all I am is my individuality, and so if I lose this basic ingredient then I’ve actually lost everything! If I’m not actually ‘in it’ in the first place then what the hell is the whole thing about? Who benefits?
I play the game of ‘being who my thinking mind says I am’, but if ‘who the thinking mind says I am’ is its own vilely ubiquitous, crassly stereotypical product, what exactly am I supposed to have gained out of the manoeuvre? If I play the game and become the generic avatar and the avatar wins at the game, this might superficially seem (and feel) like a good thing, but as we have just said since whatever it is that is going on here in the game has actually nothing at all to do with who I really am, how does this get to mean anything to me? Why is it that I get so excited, so worked up about it? Who is it that’s going to win the crappy old game anyway? The system awards the prize to itself at the end of the day, and I’m not the system…
This ‘snag’ clearly is clearly fairly serious, it’s clearly one with rather serious ramifications, but there is another significant glitch that we could mention here while we’re at it. When I use the tried-and-trusted strategy of retreating wholesale into the mind-created world as a way of escaping ontological terror ‘who I truly am’ is replaced by ‘who the system of thought says I am’ in such a way that I have no clue whatsoever that a substitution has taken place. I am ‘none the wiser’ – I carry on for all the world as if nothing had happened! Something gets lost when we run panic-stricken away from ‘open-ended reality’ but we don’t notice because we’re all so busy following the steps of the mechanical dance that we’re locked into – we can be busy in a euphoric way (which seems great) but as we have already mentioned, we can just as well be busy in a dysphoric way! The snag here therefore is that being ‘mechanically happy’ is only half the story…
The mind-created self (which Wei Wu Wei calls the I-concept) comes with its own ‘inbuilt self-esteem’ – it automatically thinks that it is great, as we have said – and whilst this might superficially appear like an advantage it’s really only one side of the picture. The conditioned ego is duplex in nature – it is what we might call ‘bistable’, which means that it has two modalities which it can equally well be in. This can be readily illustrated by looking at a property of the self-image that we have already talked about, which is its automatic ‘sense of entitlement’. The plus side of the package might be said to be that we feel justified in terms of deserving whatever it is that we set our hearts on, but the minus side is that if I don’t get what I want then straightway I am plunged into a painful state of being – I am straightaway aggrieved, I am upset, I am hurt, I am ‘out of sorts’. ‘Feeling entitled’ translates into being extremely prone to getting plunged willy-nilly into all sorts of negative mind-states, in other words. We could also explain this idea by saying that ‘the more I am identified with the mechanical self, the more I am going to be a slave to a whole raft of afflictive emotions.’
It can be seen therefore that my apparent sense of well-being and contentment is only skin-deep; not only is it skin-deep it is also utterly dependent upon me getting my own way with regard to whatever random whim comes into my head and so what all this adds up to is the fact that this conditioned self, this mind-produced ‘generic identity’, is extremely high maintenance! My apparent contentment is separated from my evident displeasure if anything ‘goes wrong’ by only the thinnest of membranes – so thin is the dividing line that we might as well say that there isn’t really anything between the one state and the other. Scratch the surface (with any sort of a challenge at all) and my true colours are immediately revealed. After all, if it is true that things only show their true nature upon being tested, then this surely means that my true nature – as a conditioned self – is a thoroughly unhappy or miserable one!
I can deny this latent pain only when all my ‘conditions’ are met, in which case I can fool myself and others that everything is rosy, but because this apparent happiness is completely dependent upon things being a certain way what we’re talking about isn’t any sort of happiness really but plain and simple servitude to the need to control. Not to beat around the bush, the conditioned self is essentially a slave of the need to do whatever it has to do in order not to feel bad – if I manage to successfully obey the rules that are governing me then I can believe that all is going well for me, I can believe that I’m ‘free to be me’ but this belief is in reality very flimsy window-dressing indeed. Happiness that is dependent upon me successfully obeying the rules that govern my life is clearly not ‘happiness’ at all but the very opposite – it is in fact an absolutely gruelling and absolutely unforgiving form of suffering…
There is as we have suggested a hidden ‘economy’ that is going on with regard to how the conditioned self feels about itself and this economy has to do with a necessary balance between any delusion-driven good feeling that I might have about my status, and any delusion-driven bad feeling I might have later on. Just as I am facilitated by the mechanism of unconsciousness to feel unwarranted conviction about my innate worth or value so too I am facilitated (with equal ease) to experience an unwarranted conviction about my worthlessness and valuelessless. This is simply the other side of the coin and seeing as I am – as a rule – more than happy enough to go along with the first type of gratuitous illusion, I am bound to go along with the latter type too since it is an inevitable consequence of the very same choice on my part – which is to say, it is an inevitable consequence of the ‘choice’ to identify with the mind-created self.
The duplex nature of the conditioned ego that we were talking about earlier therefore is simply that of the negative versus the positive self-image – one side of the coin is that I feel great about being who I think I am and the other side is that I feel terrible about the very same thing! There really is no contradiction here at all since PLUS and MINUS agree with each other just like YES and NO agree with each other, just as inside and outside do, just as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ do. After all, unless we first agree where the boundary lies, there can be no talk of what lies on the inside and what lies on the outside. Unless we first agree what the all-important criterion (or rule) is that is to govern our data-evaluating process, there can be no sorting out of what is correct or what is incorrect, what is right and what is wrong. So just as a boundary equals INSIDE just as much OUTSIDE, and a rule equals RIGHT as much as WRONG, so too any kind of definite assertion equals POSITIVE as much as NEGATIVE. This whole business of ‘being certain about stuff’ (which is so important to us) therefore entails being negatively certain about stuff to the very same extent that it entails being positively certain!
THE VIBRATING UNIVERSE
Alan Watts explains this point very simply by saying that everything plays the game of ‘black and white’ –
When we were taught 1, 2, 3 and A, B, C, few of us were ever told about the Game of Black-and-White. It is quite as simple, but belongs to the hushed-up side of things. Consider, first, that all your five senses are differing forms of one basic sense-something like touch. Seeing is highly sensitive touching. The eyes touch, or feel, light waves and so enable us to touch things out of reach of our hands. Similarly, the ears touch sound waves in the air, and the nose tiny particles of dust and gas. But the complex patterns and chains of neurons which constitute these senses are composed of neuron units which are capable of changing between just two states: on or off. To the central brain the individual neuron signals either yes or no-that’s all. But, as we know from computers which employ binary arithmetic in which the only figures are 0 and 1, these simple elements can be formed into the most complex and marvelous patterns.
In this respect our nervous system and 0/1 computers are much like everything else, for the physical world is basically vibration. Whether we think of this vibration in terms of waves or of particles, or perhaps wavicles, we never find the crest of a wave without a trough or a particle without an interval, or space, between itself and others. In other words, there is no such thing as a half wave, or a particle all by itself without any space around it. There is no on without off, no up without down.
So the way the physical or material world gets to be physical or material is by vibrating! This is the only possible way to be tangibly material – by oscillating between PLUS and MINUS the whole time. Waves by their very nature continuously oscillation between positive and negative and so too do particles vibrate – we might imagine that it is possible for a particle to be cooled down so much (i.e. to absolute zero) that it ceases to vibrate but this can never happen because at such a point the particle gets turned into a mere abstraction, a ‘static fixture’. Everything is a vibration, and it’s not just that there is ‘something there’ which is doing the vibrating because if that were so then that thing itself would not be a vibration – it would be a static entity! When we think like this we’re just insisting – as we always do – that some sort of unchanging ‘thing’ can be found at the root of the physical universe. We’re hanging on to the idea that vibration is a secondary phenomenon, not a primary one. If this were the case then it would imply that we could have something that could be defined positively without having to be defined in a negative way shortly afterwards, which we would like very much! We don’t like to see that everything tangible is a vibration because that means we can’t have the PLUS without the MINUS…
The point of this discussion isn’t so much the physical universe of course but the definite self – the everyday self that we’re all so sure about. The principle remains the same however – anything that is defined in no uncertain terms so that it is ‘this but not that’, ‘here but not there’, etc, has to exist as an oscillation. So inasmuch as the self is a definite statement of ‘who we are’ it has to oscillate between positive and negative like all other definite statements! That this should be an immutable principle invariably strikes us as a very odd thing – and if we got to thinking a bit more about this idea it would also no doubt strike us as a very unfair thing too. But whichever way it initially strikes us, we really would be a lot better off getting to grips with it…
This really ought to be a basic principle of psychology – that the defined or everyday self is bound to spend half its time in euphoric tendency and half of its time in dysphoric tendency, since it is in reality no more than a spinning coin. As it happens this principle has never been written down anywhere in any textbook of psychology, but it if were to have been then this would be a very healthy sign since it would mean that we would have to stop spending all our time trying to promote the well-being of the definite or defined self – which is only ever going to feel good about itself to the extent that it will feel correspondingly bad about itself later on. Instead take more of an interest on our true undefined nature (which, being undefined, does not constantly oscillate between good and bad, win and lose, pleasure and pain). We would take more of an interest in the spiritual aspect of our lives, rather than being endlessly obsessed and fascinated with what J.G. Bennett calls ‘the Material Self’.
FORMULAIC ENJOYMENT FOLLOWED BY FORMULAIC MISERY
Just to recapitulate what we have been saying so far, the euphoric phase of conditioned identity has certain apparent advantages, but it has some very drastic hidden disadvantages as well. The first disadvantage we spoke of was the transformation of our true unique nature into a mass-produced, socially-acceptable ‘unit’, so to speak. We become frighteningly ubiquitous, we become appallingly bland and wretchedly generic, even though we can’t for the life of us see this! As far as we’re concerned we’re the bee’s knees, but this is really nothing more than a joke. This disadvantage is by itself more than enough to put us off, but just in case it doesn’t there is another factor to consider. It might be argued that even though the mind-created self is generic (and thus utterly predictable in everything it thinks and does) it itself does not have any insight into this fact and so from my point of view as a conditioned being I will think that I’m having a good time! If I think I’m happy isn’t this good enough?
This is only true for the euphoric phase of my existence however – to the extent that this vibrational self will be subject to pleasant or agreeable illusions in the euphoric phase it will also be subject to unpleasant or disagreeable illusions in the second phase. The mechanism produces bad dreams just as easily and just as fluently as it produces good dreams and the problem is that I’m going to take the bad ones every bit as seriously as I will the good ones! As soon as we consider this aspect of the deal we can see very clearly that there is absolutely nothing at all that can be said in favour of the arrangement! Even the admittedly pretty crappy argument about the ‘subjectively enjoyable nature of the self’s illusory existence’ falls flat once we see that this period of formulaic enjoyment is inevitably cancelled out later on by an equally formulaic period of misery…
SOCIETY DECEIVES US
Needless to say, we are very far indeed from having any sort of insight about the true nature of the life of the conditioned or mind-produced self. We don’t even see that the self we routinely identify with is a mere ‘product of the mind’ in the first place, so we are a long way off from gaining any insight into its duplex (or cyclical) character. We waffle on tirelessly about the importance of positive thinking and the importance of creating good self-esteem and so on, and we couldn’t be further from seeing that ‘positive implies negative’ just as ‘good implies bad’. In this world in which we live the positively-defined self is set up as the gold-standard that we should be aiming for, which is to say, the euphoric phase of the mind-produced self is seen as the ‘healthy’ or ‘ideal’ way to be.
This is obvious when we consider the way in which we are bombarded on a daily basis with images of people who embody this particular type of unreflectively self-satisfied and smugly self-assured attitude. The not-so-hidden hidden message is that this is how we ought to be. We ought to be like the people in the images! We are given to understand that the life of the conditioned ego in its euphoric phase is real and desirable and that this really is what we ought to be aiming for! And of course if we find that we can’t live up to this idea (which will be most if not all of the time) then the message that we’re receiving from our culture inevitably leads us to believe that there is something uniquely and particular wrong with us. We’re led to believe that we have somehow failed.
This of course turns the apparently positive images that the media keeps on subjecting us to into a particularly cruel form of punishment for us. These endlessly reiterated images of all those ‘happy, shiny, confident people’ become a stick for ourselves to beat ourselves up with. Ostensibly, the implicit message in our culture is that we should emulate the ego in its euphoric (or ‘self-satisfied’) phase, and that if we buy all the products that we are being told to buy, and work hard to advance ourselves in the way that we are told to, this will enable us to do so. But since what we are being urged to try to attain is an impossible goal (i.e. since the struggle is jinxed) what the system is really doing is very effectively getting us to feel bad about ourselves.
This distortion represents a very basic kind of lie that is being propagated in our society, therefore. The euphoric phase of the conditioned self is held up as a standard, whilst the other side of the coin, the dysphoric phase is either hidden, or it is treated as a kind of unnecessary aberration or sickness. For the most part it will of course be true that we will be able to conceal that fact that all is not rosy in the garden – we will be able to conceal it from others and we will also be able, to varying extents, to conceal it from ourselves. When the time comes that we are not able to oblige everybody by concealing our unhappiness any longer then our society regard this unhappiness as an illness, as a sickness, and this automatic labelling process is itself of course another form of concealment – it is a concealment of the truth. It is in fact part of the thorough-going misrepresentation of the ‘deal’ that we are being offered as being wholesome and beneficial when the truth of the matter is that the message we’re being given is anything but wholesome, anything but beneficial. It’s actually a recipe for endless frustration and misery. There are no winners in this set-up.
PRESERVING THE ILLUSION
It can be seen from what we’re saying that the root of neurotic suffering lies in the conditioned self – we could also say that the root of neurotic suffering lies in our denial of the duplex nature of this self. We are attached to the euphoric phase, and do not want to give it up, and so we fight tooth and nail to hang on the euphoria even though euphoria and dysphoria are the two aspects of the very same thing. The essential neurotic conflict involved here arises therefore out of our disinclination to see the duplex nature of conditioned experience. We want to pretend that the self only has the euphoric phase to it, that there isn’t another side to the coin, and so the neurotic struggle is to maintain this precious illusion, come what may.
To the extent that I am able to keep this illusion going I may be said to be ‘successfully neurotic’ – the neurotic nature of my existence is hidden, invisible, and this is the way I like it. This state of affairs can only last so long, however, before my frantic neurotic ‘trying’ becomes evident – I am simply trying too hard in things, I am straining too hard, I am being too driven, I am taking life too seriously, I am too up tight, etc. I am being profoundly humourless about it all. These are all ‘sure-fire’ signs of the mechanical self – they are examples of what the mechanical self looks like when it is no longer able to keep up the pretence that it is not mechanical!
As the tightly-stretched fabric of my life starts to fray at the corners and then unravel completely my neurotic striving and straining goes up by yet a few more notches, and the whole business starts to show itself up as being obviously counterproductive, obviously self-sabotaging. I now find myself in the world of overt neurotic suffering. I am trying to stay in the euphoric zone, the comfortable zone, but the more I try to attain this goal the more acute the suffering I produce for myself! So the motivation behind all my neurotic activity is to get back to the ‘feel-good place’, to get back to the euphoric phase, but this very activity is what is propelling me ever deeper into the dreaded ‘feel-bad place’ which is the dysphoria zone. The truth is that I am caught up in a cycle that I can never exit, no matter how hard I try…
The root of neurotic conflict (which is where we fight against the truth) is already there in us, but where society comes in is that it validates the neurotic struggle, it ‘makes it respectable’, as it were. It actually makes it compulsory! It would be one thing if the wider social context within which we live acknowledged the difficulty we all have with regard to facing up to the truth of conditioned existence and supported us in our exploration of finding a different basis for life (a true basis rather than a false one) but exactly the contrary is true. We are encouraged and supported in the neurotic struggle as if it were not a neurotic struggle at all, but rather the ‘right and proper way to live life’.
Given the massive social reinforcement of the neurotic urge to escape from seeing the truth, and the relentless propagation of ‘desire-based illusions’, the chances of breaking free from the cycle of euphoria and despair (false happiness and false sadness) becomes exponentially smaller. The odds really do become stacked against us – as if the rocky road that leads towards becoming conscious beings were not arduous enough already. And to cap it all when we actually start to have a chance of seeing through the pointless struggle that we are engaged in – which is when as we have said neurosis becomes overt rather than hidden – then our skewed view of mental health as ‘adaptation to an impossible ideal’ comes into play and we are made (one way or another) to feel bad for not being able to succeed in the impossible struggle. This either happens in the traditional crude way where society stigmatizes us for being ‘mad’ or it happens in the more modern, up-to-date pseudo-scientific fashion where the painful experiences we are going through are ascribed to some kind of entirely fallacious illness process.
Even if the word ‘illness’ is not used and the suffering we are going through is cloaked beneath a lot of psychiatric jargon and more carefully said to be ‘a disorder’ instead of an actual illness (as used to be the case) this still doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference – we are still being thrown off the scent, we are still being bamboozled, we are still being led to believe that what we are experiencing is some kind of ‘aberration’ that can be corrected by the right type of therapeutic intervention. These ‘interventions’ don’t actually work – although they can often appear to be effective in the short term – and so we are left with a new type of guilt to add to all the rest – the guilt of ‘not getting better when we ought to’!
There is no way what Alan Watts calls an ‘adjustment therapy’ can work. The whole point of it after all is to ‘return us to how we used to be’; the whole point is to return us to what society sees as healthy functioning and since what society sees as ‘healthy functioning’ is the very opposite of healthy there is no way that this can do anything at all to lessen our suffering in the long run. We feel better in the first instance perhaps, as we are ‘patched up’ to better approximate the illusion we are supposed to be taking seriously, but where is this going to lead us except into new and enhanced levels of suffering, since that illusory boat we have just temporary patched up (if indeed we have managed to patch it up!) is only ever going to sink in the end, no matter what we do.
THE NEUROTIC DELUSION
We could say that the neurotic delusion is the belief that the mind-created image of who we are is actually real, and ought on this account to be taken very seriously. Even on this level alone we can see how the entire range of neurotic symptomology (from anxiety to depression, and everything in-between) is going to generated though this one, colossal mistake.
The mind-created self has no depth to it and it has zero capacity to cope with anything difficult – all it can do is freak out and sulk and throw tantrums and generally distract itself with its own undignified thrashing around, its own ludicrous dramas. It can never genuinely connect with anything or anyone, but only with its own projections which it unknowingly superimposes on the world around it – this being in the very nature of hyperreality! There can be no doubt that this utterly isolated, utterly disconnected form existence is going to translate into suffering; there isn’t ever going to be the possibility of anything coming out of it – there is no way anything real can come out of hyperreality. The only ‘possibility’ here is the possibility of coming up with ever-more-convoluted strategies of self-deception via the simulation of reality, and this self-deception rotates continuously through two complementary phases, as we have said.
This rotation determines the scope of conditioned existence. In the first (the honeymoon) phase we are provided with the illusion that we have the capacity to be, and the illusion that we have the ability to do, and in this part of the proceedings there are of course no complaints, no concerns. In the second (the ‘pay-back’) phase everything switches around on us and we no longer feel authentic in our being – we suffer through feeling fraudulent, through feeling unworthy and ‘hollow’. We feel as if we are guilty of some crime. Similarly, we suffer through feel that we can no longer effectively do – on the contrary, we are convinced of our inability to be effective agents, our sense of ‘self-efficacy’ drops down to ‘zero’. We keep on struggling to get back in control (or at least to feel that we are), but the whole time we are fighting against a the deep-seated perception of our own ineffectiveness, our own inability to either obtain the result we want, or ward off the result that we don’t want.
Thus in the dysphoric phase we lose on the one hand all confidence in our capacity to be, and on the other we lose all confidence in our ability to do. More than just ‘losing confidence’, we become utterly convinced of the opposite (although we still go through the motions of trying to reassure ourselves, since we really don’t know what else to do). These two situations (which are generally referred to as depression and anxiety) might be thought of as the two poles of the dysphoric phase, and between these two poles can be found the whole spectrum of neurotic suffering.
FIXING THE PROBLEM IS THE PROBLEM
The irony is that our current conception of neurosis –along with our methodology (such as it is) for supposedly alleviating it – is itself a manifestation of the very same ‘sickness’ that we are trying to cure. Our attempt to rationally understand and then fix the problem is part of the problem – in fact our attempt to rationally understand and then fix the problem is the problem!
The rational attempt to ‘correct’ neurosis can only ever result in the creation of a new layer of neurotic suffering – this is inevitably going to be the case since rationality only ever proceeds by trying to separate one opposite from another! But the more I stretch towards one pole the more energy I put into the force that’s going to rebound against me a bit later on; the more I push the swing out the more it energetically its going to return. Fixing the problem is the problem, in other words…
Runaway rationality is the sickness not the cure. When the ‘problem’ is caused by the fact that we have got lost in a world made up entirely of our thinking, then more thinking isn’t going to help us! When our suffering arises out of the dislocation and alienation that takes place when we replace reality with the ever-proliferating products of the rational mind, then no amount of cleverness, no amount of ‘know how’, no amount of technological smarts is going to save us.
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.