The one thing we need to see if we are to have a genuine understanding of psychology (rather than the phoney type of understanding that gets imparted in university psychology courses) is that the self – along with the world that it lives in – is a construct. This is really all that we need to understand, nothing else is necessary. Everything else follows on from this, everything else is a consequence of this. If we think that there is a load of other stuff that we need to have in our heads (whatever that stuff might be) then this isn’t helping us at all! ‘Anything else’ simply means that we are starting to lose sight of the fact that the self is a construct, which is the least insightful thing we could do. Losing sight of the fact that the everyday self is a construct is an out-and-out disaster as far as genuine insight is concerned, which means that ‘less is more’ when it comes down to a genuine understanding on this point. ‘More’ certainly isn’t more! Psychology isn’t about intellectualization, it’s about insight. It’s not about knowledge, it’s about wisdom. When we get caught up in other stuff (whatever that stuff might be) then all we’re doing is obscuring the one thing that we ought to be remembering if we are not to get totally confused, totally banjaxed, totally side-tracked into utterly inconsequential – if forbiddingly dense – nonsense…
The thing about the self being a construct is that if it is a construct then it has to be supported. That’s the only way things can be. If the self is a construct then it has to be constantly maintained, constantly propped up. Otherwise it will disintegrate; otherwise it will simply blow away in the wind. Constant purposeful input is needed in order to ensure that the construct’s integrity in terms of it ‘being what it appears to be’ is not compromised. For the self to be the self (with all that this implies) the set-up has to be maintained, and this represents a ‘cost’…
There are two ways and two ways only in which this cost can be paid: the conscious way and the unconscious way, and if we understand this then we understand all that we really need to understand about psychology. The conscious way is the easiest to explain – in this case we are ‘maintaining a self’ but we are very much aware that we are doing so. Our efforts are therefore ‘playful’ rather than ‘serious’; we are playing at being the self, and at the same time we know that we are playing at it. Everything is in this case ‘ironic’ – I am acting as if I am this self, but I know very well that I am not. I am being ‘light’ rather than ‘heavy’ in my approach to life, therefore. I haven’t lost my sense of humour about things – it’s all an exercise in ‘let’s suppose’ so how can this get heavy? How can I get worked up about something that isn’t real? So when the cost is being paid consciously then we’re playing at being this self and we know that we’re only playing at it; we don’t ‘maintain the construct’ because we have to, because we are being pressurized or compelled to do so, but completely freely and joyfully.
Maintaining the self freely is one thing but maintaining it unfreely (because we have to) is quite another. It is hard to appreciate just how different a kettle of fish this is. It’s a whole other world. When we maintain the self unfreely we do so under compulsion, without really knowing what we are doing or why – all we know is that we have to do it. And not only do we act under a compulsion (without really knowing what we are doing) we’re convinced that we’re doing whatever it is we are doing out of our own free will. We are confusing extrinsic motivation (motivation that comes from outside ourselves) with intrinsic motivation, which motivation that comes from the inside. In essence, we’re being operated, but we perceive ourselves to be the operators! Maintaining a self unfreely is to be a puppet in a show that is being directed by someone else.
As we have said, the fact that the self is a construct means that it needs to be maintained and in the unconscious mode of being we pay this cost without knowing that we are paying it. What this means is that we are ‘doing something without letting on to ourselves that we are doing it’ and so we’re divided against ourselves – the one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing. We’re maintaining the illusion of who we think we are without letting on that we are doing any such thing and this means that our integrity (as being who we think we are) is completely fictitious. Obviously we can’t let on to ourselves that we’re ‘maintaining the illusion of who we think we are’ or else we’d know that it’s an illusion, and if we knew that who we think we are was an illusion then we can’t be it! How can I be something that isn’t there? What’s happening here therefore is that we’re conspiring against ourselves. We’re scamming ourselves and the fact that we’re scamming ourselves necessarily puts all of our so-called ‘conscious life’ on a false or deceptive basis. It makes a joke of everything but we just don’t know it!
When we don’t know about this essential mechanism (the mechanism by which the illusion of who we think we are is generated and maintained) then this automatically makes a mockery of everything we think we do know. When we’re unaware of the nature of our own basic motivation then as we have said everything is on a false basis and nothing is what it seems. The basis of our understanding of the world (which is the self) is a conditioned illusion, and the world (as we perceive it) is another conditioned illusion, an illusion which is really only there in order to validate the self that perceives it. The conditioned self and the world it believes in is a ‘self-validating loop of logic’, in other words, with no real basis anywhere other than itself. It’s a self-referential pseudo-reality. Once we’re stuck in this loop, this pseudo-reality (as we almost always are stuck) then we only know the self-maintaining ‘logic of the loop’ and this logic says that whatever validates it is ‘good’ (or ‘right’), and whatever challenges it is ‘bad’ (or ‘wrong’). This logic – needless to say – is what keeps us going around and around in the loop, as if going around and around in a tautologically self-validating loop were somehow ‘a good thing in itself’.
When everything is lived on a false basis and we don’t see this (as we generally don’t) then we are almost always feeling under threat from some quarter or other. We’re feeling under threat from the truth! When everything is lived on a false basis and we don’t understand this to be the case then what this means is that everything is shut down apart from the ‘official story’ of how things are and this condemns us to spending our days in a suffocatingly narrow and sheltered version of life. Just so long as we are maintaining the self unconsciously this is the only type of life that we are going to get! And yet at the same time when life is lived on a false basis and nothing is what it seems then this is – potentially – a very interesting situation. It is – potentially – a very fruitful situation. When nothing is what it seems and we start to see this (when we don’t immediately close down out of fear) then the previously sterile world that we were living in opens up and all of a sudden becomes a much more interesting place. Anything that is not the deadly-dull ‘official story’ has got to be interesting, after all! The world expands and keeps on expanding and we realize that there is an awful lot more to reality than we thought there was. Everything gets very intriguing indeed – in fact it couldn’t get more intriguing! On the ‘down-side’ however (if we can call it a down-side!) the self-construct that we had been so busily maintaining up to now is revealed as being ‘not so intriguing at all’, and so not actually worth the effort we put into it. It is revealed as being a red herring, a waste of time, a dead-end. This is the ‘journey of expanding consciousness’, which pays huge dividends in terms of providing us with a vastly more interesting world to live in just so long as we don’t mind losing our unreflective belief in the deadly-dull I-concept which we used to cherish so much…
When nothing is what it seems and we don’t know this to be the case however (because we are satisfied with surface-level appearances) then what has happened is that we have been safely diverted. We have been bottled up, we have been contained, and what we have been ‘bottled up in’, ‘contained’ in, is completely unreal, completely fictitious. The self-construct is unreal (because it is a construct) and so is the mind-created virtual world that it lives in. We don’t see the mind-created world that we live in as being unreal any more than we see the mind-created self as being so, and this ‘lack of insight’ is therefore the way that we have of completely and utterly nullifying ourselves. We are negating ourselves because who we really are is being replaced by something else!
The unquestioned and unquestionable belief that we have in the game (and in ourselves as the player of the game) is the negation of ourselves! In terms of us being who we are not (i.e. in terms of us being the mind-created self) we are not being nullified or negated, but rather – we could say – we (or rather who we think we are) is being alternatively affirmed and denied. That’s the way the virtual world works – it works in terms of alternating YES and NO, UP and DOWN, RIGHT and WRONG. It works exclusively in terms of duality, in other works. So as the mind-created self we are forever either being ‘built up’ or ‘broken-down’ (enhanced or diminished) and the game is to try to get the former to happen rather than the latter. Or we could simply say that the aim of the game is ‘to win more often than we lose’, with a view to ultimately managing to win so conclusively that there is never any question of us losing again. In the meantime – we are obsessed with our own ‘health’ – only it’s the health of the construct, which is not actually ‘health’ at all!
The mind-created self exists within a system made up of polar states and it’s perception of its situation is such that it always experiences itself as existing either in a good state or a bad one. There is the superior state, and the inferior state; there is UP, and there is DOWN; there is winning, and there is losing. This is was Alan Watts calls ‘the game of black and white’. There is no way that the mind-created self cannot see itself as having to be either one way or the other – either it sees itself to in an advantageous or disadvantageous position in relation to the question as to whether its agenda is being met or not. And the mind-created self always has an agenda! It cannot not have an agenda – its very existence is an agenda and if it ceases to have an agenda then it ceases to exist. The mind-created self is its own agenda; it itself is the purpose that it is promoting. Very clearly, just so long as everything is determined in relation to the self’s rules for ‘how things should be’ there can only be two possibilities – either agreement or disagreement, either it matches or it doesn’t match, either the outcome is positive or it is negative. For this reason, therefore, the mind-created self is always going to be feeling one of two ways: either it is going to be gratified or it is going to be aggrieved, either it is going to be pleased or it is going to be displeased, either it is going to be euphoric or it is going to be dysphoric…
This is the point that conventional rational psychology (along with conventional rational therapies) utterly fail to appreciate – in our conventional way of looking at psychological matters we still see everything in terms of these two basic polarities and so we want to be the advantageous position, and not be in the disadvantageous one. This is the only thing we know: we want to ‘build ourselves up’, we want to invest in defences and protection. We want to ‘gain ground rather than lose it’; the basic rule is that gaining ground is good, and losing it is bad. This makes so much sense to us that we simply don’t have the possibility of questioning it – the logic of ‘self-maintenance’ which we are adhering to is quite unchallengeable. Of course everything should be about protecting ourselves against all situations that we see as inimical. Hence all the talk over the years about ego-strength, self-esteem, self-affirmation, perceived self-efficacy, positive self-talk, cognitive restructuring, and such-like concepts. This is the ‘psychology of the construct’, which is the only psychology we know. Naturally enough, we have a very hard time indeed seeing through such language – we have a hard time seeing through it all because it reflects the core concerns of the self-construct, which is who we think we are.
What’s peculiar (or fishy) about this way of looking at things is easy to see once we do step out of the habitual set-up, however. What’s ‘fishy’ about this whole business is that since the mind-created image of who we are isn’t who we are there is absolutely no difference at all between affirming the I-Concept and denying it, between it ‘doing well for itself’ and it not doing well’! If the concept of who we are isn’t who we are in the first place then what difference can there possibly be? What possible difference can there be between winning and losing, good luck and bad luck, since the reference point that lies behind them doesn’t actually exist? These two possibilities which seem to be so diametrically opposed to each other, which seem to be so completely different, are really just the very same thing. They are a dream, a fantasy; they are fantasies of the illusory self and one fantasy of the illusory self is the same as any other fantasy. They’re all much of a muchness: winning/losing, advantage/disadvantage, good fortune/bad fortune, what’s the difference? Who wins, who loses? Who possesses the advantage and who is saddled with the disadvantage? Who has the good fortune and who has the bad fortune? All of these -/+ terms would be meaningful if there was a solid point of reference to makes sense of them from, but when the all-important reference point is entirely arbitrary (as it is) they are quite meaningless. To who we really are (which is the “I” that exists outside of the domain of cause and effect, outside of the polar realm of YES and NO) it’s all the same….
The “I” that exists outside of the domain of cause and effect can see that advantage and disadvantage are the same thing without any difficulty but to our regular way of understanding ourselves the point that we have just made makes no sense at all. Nothing could make less sense than this! To the construct the two possibilities of ‘advantage’ and ‘disadvantage’ are very meaningful indeed – to the construct the difference between the two is the only thing that matters in life. To the construct – as we have said at the beginning of this discussion – euphoria (which is when we obtain the advantage rather than the disadvantage) is the only hard currency. It is the only thing worth taking seriously. The seriousness of having to win rather than lose is absolute. The need to win (in whatever way we happen to see it) is everything – it’s the beginning and the end. Outside of this we just don’t care, and yet what lies ‘outside of this’ is life itself – the real thing, not ‘the game’, not the absurdly short-sighted, construct-orientated ‘unreal version’ of life that we are so attached to.
The idea that the self is a construct is hardly revolutionary within academic circles but what we don’t seem to grasp properly is that the corollary of the self being a construct is that it doesn’t exist. In the Buddhist teachings this – the truth of anatta or selflessness – is a central tenet but the suggestion that the self doesn’t exist – not anywhere – is not one that we pay much attention to. We just can’t grasp that any particularized self has got to be a construct, has got to be a conditioned illusion. We don’t want to grasp it – the particularized self is what we hang everything on, it’s what we hold onto the whole time, even when we sleep. We hang onto the construct of the particularized self because this ‘holding on’ is what gives us the sense of security that we value so much, the sense of security which means everything to us.
What the particularized self, the I-concept, has going for it is exactly that it can be grabbed hold of. Being particularized (or defined) means that we can hold on tight to it, and it is the fact that we can hold on tight to it that provides us with the sense of (apparent) security that we are wanting. This then is the ‘benefit’ that we get out of the conditioned self – the benefit that outweighs all other considerations. What the conditioned or particularized self has ‘going against it’, so to speak, can be summarized (we may say) in terms of two key drawbacks:
 is that it isn’t who we really are
 is that it doesn’t actually exist anyway!
We can ignore the downside of the particularized self if we like (actually we are compelled to ignore the downside since to identify with the particularized self is to automatically lose sight of the fact that it isn’t who we are, and that it doesn’t exist!) but it is going to rebound on us all the same. That’s what it means when something is ‘true’ – it means that we can’t get away with ignoring it without there being some sort of consequence to our ignoring. ‘True’ means that if we do manage to successfully ignore it in the first instance then it is definitely going to come back on us later!
This therefore is the difference between consciously paying the price on the one hand and unconsciously doing so on the other really comes in. When we consciously maintain the self then we do so with a light touch – we do so playfully, in full awareness of what we are doing. When we unconsciously maintain the self however then there’s no such thing a ‘a light touch’ – we cling with a veritable death-grip to the self-construct and in our clinging there is no awareness, only fear. We cling out of our need for security but because there isn’t really any security there we have to cling without ever looking at what we’re clinging to! We have to cling blindly – we neither see what we’re clinging to nor why. If we saw what we were holding onto so tightly we would see that it is a mere ‘husk’ – the appearances of substance where there is none. We would see that we are clinging to an idea, to a concept, to an image with nothing behind it.
Instead of seeing anything like this (seeing what we are clinging to or why) we divert all of our energy into clinging harder, clinging more effectively, clinging more efficiently. “Clinging harder” – i.e. controlling – is our answer to everything, our cure-all. It’s all we know how to do. And yet the more we cling to our idea of who we are, the more we control, the blinder we get, and the blinder we get the more our actions rebound on us later on, causing us extra pain heaped upon the pain that we have already got and necessitating further levels of control…
All of our thinking is clinging – there is no such thing as thinking that is not clinging and so what this means is that all our psychologising about ourselves (not matter how rigorous it is) is never going to be anything other than ‘holding on tight to an illusion without seeing what we are doing or why. All of our fancy theories, all of our models and approaches – it’s all just ‘glorified clinging’! It’s all exactly the same as what we do anyway only it’s dressed up to look like it actually means something, it’s dressed up to look like we really ought to be taking it seriously!
There’s nothing we can intellectually come out with that isn’t just a form of institutionalized blindness, blindness that we can’t see as such. When we intellectualize we’re just creating fresh entropy for ourselves to get muddled up with – if we can talk about such a thing as ‘fresh entropy’! Thinking is not the way to gain insight, but rather it is the way to cloud it over. As Bodhidharma says:
But people of the deepest understanding look within, distracted by nothing. Since a clear mind is the Buddha, they attain the understanding of a Buddha without using the mind.
Really, what we call ‘psychological understanding’ is nothing of the sort, therefore. It’s the ‘psychology of the construct’. It’s ‘the psychology of the construct when the construct doesn’t see itself as a construct’. And since the construct isn’t actually real, isn’t actually who we are in the first place, why would we be in the least bit interested in its psychology?
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.