Our misunderstanding of depression is symptomatic of our misunderstanding of life. The orthodox medical view of depression is to say that it has no ‘meaning’ beyond the fact that it is indicative of some sort of malfunction somewhere, indicative of something that isn’t working as it should do in the biochemistry of the brain. We see it as being an ‘error’, in other words. This rational approach means – not to put too fine a point on it – that we are dismissing depression out of hand – we are ‘dismissing’ depression precisely because we consider it to be a meaningless biochemical malfunction to be corrected rather than an important and valuable message from the psyche!
We are going to suggest that this dismissive attitude has a lot to do with the fact that depression is steadily increasing in the economically and technologically developed world, and shows absolutely no sign of being ‘beaten’ by modern methods of treatment. In other words, it is precisely because we are dismissive in this way that there are an ever-growing number of cases being reported of what psychiatrists call ‘major depressive disorder’. According to Clinical-depression.co.uk (just to give one source):
Major depression is the No.1 psychological disorder in the western world. It is growing in all age groups, in virtually every community, and the growth is seen most in the young, especially teens. At the rate of increase, it will be the 2nd most disabling condition in the world by 2020, behind heart disease.
The way in which we’re going to approach depression in this discussion is to look at it as being a message rather than an error, which is to say, as if it carries an important meaning which we can open ourselves up to, and learn from. We are going to suggest that depression is the way in which we get to learn that there is a whole side to life which we do not understand, and which we need to acknowledge. It is, in other words, a reminder that there is an essential ingredient that we have ‘left out’ in our all-too-neat conceptual packaging of life, and as long as we keep leaving it out, and keep insisting that we do understand life, then depression will never be far off.
The ‘Island’ of Rational Consciousness
The key to understanding the approach which says ‘depression is meaningful’ is the idea of the limitedness (and arbitrariness) of the everyday mind. Physicist David Bohm explains this by saying that our thinking mind is essentially a copy of reality which mistakes itself for the reality it is trying to explain. Carl Jung made exactly the same point some thirty years previously in his popular work The Undiscovered Self. All descriptions (or theories) of reality are necessarily less that the reality itself, and so if we think that our description is all that there is, we have straightaway severed an all-important link between life as we routinely know it, and whatever it is that lies behind the veneer of our conceptually-medicated perceptions. Needless to say, it is not just the outside universe which I lose authentic contact with, it is my own true self as well! What this means is that our so-familiar and so-unsurprising understanding of ourselves and the world we live in is only a superficial layer which is not to be regarded as being representative of the reality which lies beneath it. This idea is here explained by psychologist Guy Claxton (1994, p. 45):
…Instead of a core apprehension of the mystery we truly are, we have unwittingly constructed a bogus sense of self, full of hubris, that is closely identified with consciousness: so closely that we are no longer sensitive to the underlying, inaccessible layers and motions of mind, brain and body that form the moment-to-moment swell from which the breakers of consciousness emerge. It is as if we imagined that the drama of our lives were being played out on a brightly lit stage, oblivious to the wings, the dressing-rooms, the technicians and all the invisible paraphernalia without which there could be no play.
We do not need to go back-stage, to know every detail of what goes on behind the scenes, in order to enjoy the production. But if we do not know, at some level, that there is a ‘behind-the-scenes’, then we confuse playing and reality. We become busy and anxious, forced to duck down in our seat when the villain pulls a gun, and to clamber on to the stage to rescue the heroine. When the mystery of the mind is unappreciated, people become compulsively drawn into the drama, as campaigners, insurers, money-makers and busy-bodies. When the dark surround is acknowledged, and the attempt to control everything is put in perspective, play is possible. God – or “enlightenment”, or the Tao – is essentially as sense of mystery; a mystery that is impenetrable, but entirely understandable. When Nietzsche wrote ‘God is dead, he was declaring that humankind had lost its sense of mystery.
By identifying ourselves with a mobile pin-prick of self-awareness, we overestimate that importance and the trustworthiness of the conscious mind, and we become out of touch with the invisible layers of brain and body on which it rests. This is unfortunate because while the modern conscious self is solitary, a candle in the night, the earlier evolutionary strata that continue to comprise the bulk of our being are ecological, connected, ‘at home’. The surface of our skin and the end of our driveway are not the limits of our personal terrain; they form our connection, our joints, the points at which each ‘member’ of the human race is connected to the wider body of nature and society. If we do not ‘re-member’ ourselves, we must continually strive to forge links of love (or, in desperation, domination) that are caricatures of what, in the mystery, is already, still, in place.
Jung expresses the same idea in Psychology and Religion (CW 11) by saying that our everyday ego-centered consciousness is like an island in the vast uncharted ocean of unconsciousness:
…Instead, the common man suffers from a hybris of consciousness that borders on the pathological. This psychic condition in the individual corresponds by and large to the hypertrophy and totalitarian pretensions of the idealized state. In the same way that the state has caught the individual, the individual imagines that he has caught the psyche and holds her in the hollow of his hand. He is even making a science of her in the absurd supposition that the intellect, which is but a part and function of the psyche, is sufficient to comprehend the much greater whole. In reality the psyche is the mother and the maker, the subject and even the possibility of consciousness itself. It reaches so far beyond the boundaries of consciousness that the latter could easily be compared to an island in the ocean. Whereas the island is small and narrow, the ocean is immensely wide and deep and contains a life infinitely surpassing, in kind and degree, anything known on the island – so that if it is a question of space, it does not matter whether the gods are “inside” or “outside”…
Neurotic Mental Illness as a Result of ‘Taking on Too Much Responsibility’
Claxton is saying that when we lose perspective with regard to our conceptual mind (so that we no longer see our concepts to be only concepts) then we are afflicted with anxiety and compulsiveness. Speaking about exactly this situation, Jung uses the work ‘pathological’. The philosopher Alan Watts would say that when we take on responsibility for absolutely everything that is going on around us, then life grinds to a juddering halt – the notion that there has to be a central controller managing everything, and that we have to be that controller, is a recipe for a nightmare of cosmic proportions. A word that Claxton uses, ‘hubris’, expresses exactly this point. This unhealthy process of ‘over-extending the zone of responsibility’ happens constantly, and more of less imperceptibly: I might find myself unable to stop worrying about how my daughter is coping living away from home on her first term at college, or I might lie awake at night terrified that if I don’t consciously make the effort to inhale and exhale then I will forget to breath. The first example is more common than the second, but it is all just a question of scale. In both cases I am taking on a responsibility that does not belong to me – I am holding on when I should be letting go.
Falling into Error
The above tends to make reasonably good sense, but where does depression come in? What bearing does ‘loss of perspective’ have here? Although Claxton does not make any direct mention of depression, there is a clue in the last paragraph where he talks about the deliberately contrived life of the rational mind as being a ‘caricature’. Our rational constructs are an utterly inferior copy of the real thing so that when they are over-valued (as they almost always are) they become an unholy mockery of the reality they are pretending to represent. There is a definite correspondence, but the essential quality that was in the original (which makes it what it is) is missing, leaving behind nothing but a sham. It is at this point that we start to see the link with depression: if I am suffering from acute depression then I am going to perceive myself as not having the basic worth to which it would seem I am laying claim, simply by being there, pretending- as it were – to be someone. I will experience myself as a sham, as a phoney. I feel strongly that I am unworthy – undeserving of any good. I am not worthy of the status to which I pretend – I may feel that am not worthy even to exist. Along with the feeling of falseness and meaninglessness that my external life takes on, there is a sense of inner wrongness, sometimes amounting to guilt. Johannes Fabricius (1976) talks of ‘the hollow, guilty men of depression’. When taken to an extreme, this guilt may cause me to believe that I have committed some awful (although usually nameless) crime – a crime for which for which I must be punished, or for which I am being punished. Johannes Fabricius speaks of the mythical ‘original crime’ which the depressed person believes himself to have committed, and explores what this might mean within a psychoanalytic framework.
The general idea of ‘an original crime’ can perhaps be found expressed more clearly within other frameworks of reference – in particular we might think of the ancient Gnostic idea of the ‘false god’ who takes the place of the truce Creator, and the Zen Buddhist analogy of the ego as a robber bandit who takes the gold that it rightfully belonging to the emperor, and arrogantly declares it to be his own. Both of these are classic instances of ‘hubris’, i.e. ‘cosmic pride’. Another well-known example of an ‘original crime’ is of course the story of the Fall of Man in Genesis, which can be interpreted to mean that we are exiled from the paradise of non-conceptually mediated experience (which is the direct experience of (of union with) reality in its undifferentiated state) because we have eaten of the forbidden fruit of reflexive self-knowledge. ‘Reflexive self-knowledge’ means that we have somehow ‘turned back on ourselves’ (or ‘turned in on ourselves’) to see ourselves from the outside, as it were. This means that I become my own object, and so my thinking about myself becomes the focus of my awareness, with the result that I get utterly trapped in the context of understanding which I have been using to split the world up into subject and object, observer and observed. This corresponds to the Buddhist notion of duality.
The relationship between the religious allegory of the Fall of Man and the Buddhist explanation of the process by which we become trapped in our narrow conceptual mind is here set out by Herbert Guenther and Chogyam Trungpa (1975, p15-17) in their discussion of tantric Buddhism:
…The process of transformation which we have described is one of growing narrowness and frozenness. We are somehow tied down to our senses, to the ordinary mode of perception. We dimly feel that something else might have been possible. If we try to express this situation in traditional religious terms, we might say that man is a fallen being. But here he has not fallen because he has sinned or transgressed some commandment coming from outside him, but by the very fact that he has moved in a certain direction. This is technically know in Buddhism as bhranti in Sanskrit and ‘Khrul-pa in Tibetan, and is usually translated as “error”. But error implies, in Western thinking, culpability; and there is absolutely no culpability involved. We might tend to feel that we could have done otherwise, but this attitude simply does not apply here. The process is a kind of going astray which just happens. The idea of sin is irrelevant.
Still we have the feeling of something gone wrong. If we accept our ordinary experience as error, then we ask the question, “Is true knowledge possible?” Now the very question implies that it is possible. That is to say, the sense of error implies the sense of truth. We could not know error without unerring knowledge. So there is this oscillation back and forth between error and knowledge; and this oscillation presents the possibility to what we have referred to as the original or primordial state.
Here original does not have the sense of “beginning”. We speak of it as the original state because we feel that our charge of creative power came from there. We experienced an energy which we felt to be of the highest value, quite distinct from the tone of our ordinary experience. The existential apprehension of this original state is technically known in the tantric tradition as the mahasukhaya…
…Thus the mahasukhaya is an existential factor, which is of the highest value. This is not an arbitrary assignation of value that is made here. It is just felt that this is the only absolute value. This absolute value can be retrieved by reversing the process of error, of going astray; by reversing the energy that flows in one direction and becomes frozen, less active. It is the process of freezing which causes us to feel imprisoned and tied down. We are no longer free agents, as it were, but are in samsara.
The psychological relevance of the Gnostic Creation Myth and the orthodox Christian story of the Fall is unmistakeable, as Guenther and Trungpa make clear. What we’re looking at here is the function of the conceptual mind as a ‘simulator of reality’, rather than an unbiased news-agency that reports to us accurate and trustworthy facts about an objective external world. This is not a new idea: in his book Thought as a System David Bohm (1997) makes this same point by saying that thought  has a ‘participatory’ role in creating the world it show us, and  conceals from us the role that it plays in this so that we perceive ourselves to be witnessing an independently existent reality. As Guenther and Trungpa stress, it is perfectly natural that the rational-conceptual mind behaves in this way – there is no other way for it to work. We can hardly blame our thinking mind for its ‘duplicity’ in playing a trick on us since it is a finite or bounded system which has the job of explaining and predicting an infinitely complex universe. Thus, all data that comes our way has to be slotted into one or other fixed category of interpretation, and there can only be a finite number of these fixed categories. In a nutshell, a fluid or dynamic reality is misleadingly represented in purely static terms.
Understanding the Unknown in Terms of the Known
Another way to get at this idea is to say that the rational mind is basically nothing other than a repertory of possible descriptions, with a set of rules with which to work out which ready-made description (or category) best fits the incoming data. Because we have to refer everything to the internal ‘set of standards’ which we use to make sense of the world, our experience of the world can never go beyond our inbuilt assumptions about what the world is, and how it works. In all evaluative processes the essential operation is that of comparing the unknown to the known, and thereby converting the one to the other, since if a datum has a recognized relationship to a rule then it must in some way be explained by that rule. Furthermore, any aspect of that piece of sensory information which does not relate to our evaluative grid (or net) simply does not get caught by that grid – it does not register and so it is thrown away, without us even knowing that we have thrown anything away. This means, as Alan Watts says, that all ‘knowing’ necessarily involves an irreversible loss of information, which is in itself a data-processing version of the fall. Although it sounds self-contradictory to say that every time we make sense of the world we lose information about the world, and thus get separated from the world, the argument is sound and cannot be faulted. It is in fact a variant of Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty relation’, which says that the more we learn about one aspect of a system, the less we know about the complementary aspect. The truth is a slippery customer – the slipperiest customer of all, in fact.
The rational-conceptual mind (and the virtual reality world it produces) is therefore a circle – eventually we keep coming back to the same place. To be more accurate, we could say that we never actually leave that same place since everything we think and perceive is conditioned by the same set of information processing rules. We think that we are experiencing a non-restricted range of thoughts, but actually we are only moving around in a very narrow subset of ‘all the thoughts that we’re allowed to have’. Of course, this isn’t to say that we cannot learn to see the world in a new way by making some sort of quantum leap every now and again, but it is important to realize that an information jump cannot take place without psychological work, which means questioning our assumptions and not simply going along with the flow of our normal thinking. Questioning basic assumptions involves a particular type of discomfort since we are, without necessarily knowing it, heavily invested in seeing the world in the narrow and predictable way that we do. There is a psychological benefit to ‘not questioning’ and that is the benefit of existential security. Existential security means that I have a solid framework of meaning within which I can orientate myself to; it essentially means that I can construct a solid (or unchanging) notion of myself. In this way I successfully avoid seeing novelty, which is stuff that is utterly and completely new to me. In short, novelty is anything that would cause me to change!
Abraham Maslow states that it is our automatic aversion to newness (or novelty) which is the root of all neurosis; neurosis can therefore be seen as the fear-driven refusal to grow. What we know and are familiar with is safe, what we don’t know and are unfamiliar with is threatening, worrying, frightening. Thus Maslow says The Psychology of Science (1966):
One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.
The term ‘novelty’ is also used (in a more precisely-defined fashion) by Ernst and Christine von Weizsacker (1972) in their Model of Pragmatic Information. In this model all information is divided into either confirmation or novelty, the former having the property of agreeing with our assumptions (i.e. it supports the basic structure of the system which is receiving it), whilst the latter has the property of not agreeing, not supporting, and therefore falsifying the system receiving the information. As pioneering systems theorist Erich Jantsch (1980) makes clear, novelty is by its very nature a deadly ‘enemy’ of self-organizing systems because it represents unpredictable change and unpredictable change is of course the exact opposite of self-maintenance, which necessarily involves strict adherence to an unchanging template. This however is where the paradox comes: although novelty (as chaos) is a deadly enemy of self-organizing systems, there are times when it is the ‘logic of self-maintenance‘ which becomes the enemy, so to speak, and then the random or chaotic input of novelty becomes the only chance of escape from a cul-de-sac. This paradox arises because we have two distinct types of activity to consider in self-organizing systems and not just the one. In his book The Web of Life Fritjof Capra (1996) names these two complementary types of activity (or ‘growth’) as self-maintenance and self-transcendence: the first type of growth involves copying the same basic pattern over and over again, building upon it (or embellishing it), and the second type of growth means taking a quantum jump beyond the limits of the old pattern. The mechanism in Type-2 growth is ‘macroscopic indeterminacy’, which occurs as a result of positive feedback processes operating upon random environmental fluctuations. This phenomenon is known in complexity theory as emergence – it is emergence which is responsible for the dramatic appearance of unexpected forms of order in complex self-organizing systems. It is emergence that – as a principle – is responsible for giving rise to the highly unexpected phenomenon known as life!
In psychological terms, we can say that radical change, self-transcendence or emergence happens when we allow in information that has no relevance to our evaluative criteria. The difficulty is of course that we cannot pay attention to novelty on purpose, since if we could look for it that would mean that we could specify it in advance, and if we could specify it in advance that would mean that we already knew it, and so what we would be seeing would not be novelty! To tie all this in to depression, we can say that depression is the result of ‘repressed change’ or ‘thwarted self-transcendence’. On the one hand there is the psychological need to stick to the known, and repress novelty, and on the other hand there is the need to grow, i.e. to break out of the old pattern of being. Psychological way of growth is not something that we can get away with ignoring since it represents our ongoing relationship with the authentic reality of our situation. Without this dynamic relationship, we find that we lose any sense of meaningfulness in relation to who we are, and what we are doing. Instead, we enter into a kind of ‘stagnant illusion’! When self-transcendence is thwarted, we start to experience the nasty side of psychological self-maintenance: because all we ever relate to in life is a thinly disguised echo of our own information-processing prejudices, the world starts to take on a mocking air. I am the butt of some kind of joke: life is going on elsewhere, not here, and so not only is it the case that I am the butt of the joke, I actually am the joke…
Confirmation as ‘Flattery’
We can look at confirmation in terms of humouring. To start off with, when we first go into the self-maintenance phase the confirmation-rich diet of information is basically experienced as a form of flattery. This means that we feel good about ourselves, we feel validated. Our goals are experienced as being highly meaningful, and the feeling of satisfaction when we attain them is intensely rewarding. When taken to its extreme, this is the manic phase of what’s called ‘bipolar disorder’, and we are surging forward on a rising tide of euphoria and elation. However, as Fabricius notes, manic elation only works because we are repressing awareness of the other side of the coin, which is despair. For me to see the world in an extreme positive light, I have to invest heavily in selective attention – I have to only see that aspect of the world which agrees with my biased view. In pragmatic information terms, I am subsisting on an information diet of pure confirmation. Since I am pushing YES with all my might, it can only be a matter of time before this YES becomes NO, since, as the Taoists observed, ‘defeat is born at the very moment of victory’. In the second phase of self-maintenance, the euphorically pleasant feeling of being flattered gives way to the profoundly unpleasant feeling of being humoured – humoured in a nasty way, a mocking way. This is ‘negative flattery’: there is a horrible echoey hollow resonance to everything – all the things that used to make me feel good now make me feel bad. They have been turned around on me; they are being used against me. The world no longer affirms my worth, it denies it – my unworthiness, my phoniness, my lack of anything even remotely honest or good is pitilessly highlighted for me. As Johannes Fabricius says, what used to be a source of delight for me is now a source of pure undiluted horror.
When I am in the second phase of self-maintenance (which the alchemists knew as the negredo) I am still not seeing an ‘unbiased’ view of myself and the world – all that has happened is that YES has switched over into NO. The polarity has been reversed. NO is confirmation just as much as YES is, since both terms equally support the validity of the question that was asked (the question which inevitably reflects the viewpoint of the biased or conditioned self). Therefore, in depression I switch over from focussing on the positive (which feels good), to focussing on the negative, (which obviously feels bad). The popular psychology of ‘positive thinking’ naively seeks to correct matters by repressing the negative and re-asserting the positive, but obviously this is no help at all since even if it were successful it would only push us back into the equally unrealistic elated phase. Pushing for YES instead of NO simply potentiates the game – it simply puts more and more energy into the spinning wheel, which has the unwanted effect of creating more suffering than ever. ‘Positive thinking’ (which is a pure ‘knee-jerk’ mechanical reaction!) feeds the very thing that is causing us pain. Trying desperately to escape from the game is the game…
In order to leave the cycle of denial it is necessary to stop playing the game, and in order to do this it is essential to clearly see that any goals that I might possibly construct are completely and utterly meaningless inasmuch as they are only ‘escapes’. As long as I continue to chase after what I like and run away from what I don’t like then I am still feeding the game, which is to say, I am ensuring in this way that I remain a slave of the restrictive and circular framework of meaning. Curiously enough, it is the depression itself which helps us, for when I am totally depressed, I see quite clearly that all my goals are meaningless, empty and ‘self-deceiving’ and I no longer want to carry on with the profoundly empty business that I call ‘my life’. Ironically, it is this falsifying aspect of depression that scares us when we come in contact with depression, whether we are family, friends or mental health professionals. This is because we ourselves are (more likely then not) heavily invested in ‘playing the game’, and so we unconsciously react – in a defensive way – when we see that the depressed person no longer believes in this business, and in fact sees the falseness of it for what it is. We can’t see depression for what it is because we don’t want to –we lack the courage to genuinely look into the meaning of depression and so we seek only to ‘cover it over’ and suppress the symptoms as best we can.
To observe, as Jung did, that society is secretly opposed to radical personality change (i.e. individuation) does not mean that we are saying that it is ‘all society’s fault’, which is rather a temptation. The possibility that we will obstruct our own psychological growth by ‘holding on to what we know because of our repressed fear of the unknown’ will be there whether we are integrated into the social system or not. The terror of the unknown is innate and it is the greatest and most fundamental fear there is – as long as we stay secluded with the conditioned mode of existence, which is our comfort zone, then we will always be under the shadow of ‘the fear that we dare not mention’, which is that our comfort zone will one day fail us. The terror of the unknown (or fear of novelty) is exacerbated by the stabilising effect of the social system however, because the social system is a type of ultra safe, ‘super-duper comfort zone’. Society is after all a massively powerful collusion which ‘makes a virtue’ of conservatism and neophobia. We can also understand this in terms of metastability, which is where the mode of organisation of a system persists past the point at which it should have become unstable and given way to a new dynamic regime. Metastability is roughly analogous to the phenomenon of ‘super-saturation’ where the amount of solute that has been dissolved surpasses the level at which it would normally crystallise out – this can happen when the temperature is reduced so that the carrying capacity of the solvent is decreased. When there are no tiny particles of solid material to act as ‘seeds’ super-saturation will occur, but as soon as seeds are introduced to the solution all the excess solute will crystallise out in a dramatic fashion. In much the same way as this then, the social system ‘keeps things the same’ when by rights we would expect some sort of change happening – it preserves an unnatural type of stasis! In more technical terms, society acts as a sort of buffer to iron out fluctuations from the norm. It’s function is to damp down all fluctuations and thereby preserve the all-important equilibrium values – if I start thinking odd thoughts or doing odd things, this will be picked up on by those around me and the deviance will be corrected via the operation of what might loosely be called ‘peer pressure’.
In its most brutally visible form, peer pressure manifests as overt bullying, where those of us who are different in any way are physically or emotionally abused for being so. Peer pressure isn’t quite the right term to use for what we’re talking about here however since it is really just a more noticeable (and therefore more widely acknowledged) example of the broader ‘negative feedback’ process of socialisation, which is for the most part entirely invisible to us. We correct, and are corrected, without knowing it! Basically, socialisation (or social normalisation) means that actions and responses that come within certain parameters are rewarded by group validation (either by giving positive approval, or simply attention), and actions and responses outside of this range are penalised and devalued (either by disapproval, or by lack of recognition). Extreme recognition/reward might involve reaching celebrity status, or being awarded a Nobel Prize, whilst extreme devaluation might involve being generally ignored as a ‘crank’ or ‘misfit’, or perhaps by being diagnosed as having a mental disorder.
Saying this isn’t to imply that those people who find themselves being taken care of by the psychiatric services don’t need help, merely that they don’t necessarily need to be normalised, which is to say, brought back to the state of social equilibrium where their values and beliefs match those expected by society. After all, as Alan Watts (1960) says in Psychotherapy East and West, most of what we call neurotic mental illness is the result of stresses and conflict that are created by our attempt to ‘fit into’ society in the first place – neurosis is the price we pay for social adaptation, in other words. The point has also been made by Ivan Illich, who says that if ‘health’ is defined as the degree of autonomy we have in the way we live our lives, then modern culture must be seen to foster a particular form of ‘ill health’, a lack of personal authenticity and creativity in our interactions which he calls heteronomy as opposed to autonomy. If this is accepted, then it necessarily follows that most of what we call ‘health-care’ within the psychiatric services is actually what Watts calls social adjustment therapy, i.e. patching the damaged individual up as quickly as we can, so that he or she can once resume their place in the social machine. As Galli (1987, p 24) says in The Foundations of Health Education, the implicit agenda of medicine is to “adjust the capacities of individuals to the complicated behaviour demanded of them by their society“. We do not serve the needs of the individual to become the true individual that he or she is, but the needs of society to have an ongoing supply of properly conditioned (and therefore blindly obedient) ‘cannon-fodder’ in order that it might continue its pointless campaign.
The Purpose of Society
It is at this point one tends to meet the objection that society only exists for the benefit of its members anyway, and so what is good for society, must be good for the individual. The same however might be said to slaves – we might point out that their owners feed them, house them, and give them employment! This being the case, we might tell them, how could they possibly be so ungrateful as to complain? In a certain (very limited!) way there is of course truth in the assertion that society exists for our benefit. Just to give one example – we all need to eat and given the post-industrial distribution of the masses of humanity in the cities, the majority of us cannot produce food for ourselves, and so, essentially, we have to barter our specialised services for food that we do not have the time or skills to obtain for ourselves. For our own good, we have to cooperate with everyone else, and this means that the ‘rules of cooperation’ have to be observed. However, just because we recognise that there is a pragmatic necessity to submit to a system of some sort this does not mean that we have to make ourselves completely blind to the dangers to autonomy that always come with participation in a collective system. It doesn’t mean that we have to blindly ‘hand over all responsibility’ to the collective, and never bother to ‘think for ourselves’. If we do this (which for the most part we do) then the system which we trust will inevitably ‘take over’, and use us for its own ends. What we’re looking at here is another ‘truth’ therefore – one which we ignore at our peril. This truth (which is practically never mentioned) has to do with the tendency for organisational structures that have initially been set up to benefit and serve the individual, to become self-serving so that the perpetuation of the system for the sake of the system becomes the over-riding directive.
This is a matter of common experience – the servant becomes the master. Thus, as has often been noted, a hospital ends up being an institution that exists for the benefit of the consultants and the administrators, rather than for the humble individual patient, who can all too easily become perceived as a nuisance that, if unregulated, gets in the way of the smooth running of the machine. Certainly, any attempt on the part of the patient to question established protocol will be interpreted a ‘trouble-making’. In a psychiatric hospital, criticism from the patient may be interpreted as a manifestation of their mental illness, to be controlled by the simple expedient of increasing the patient’s medication. Even outside of the institution of the psychiatric hospital, we are not immune to this type of interpretation – the most recent version on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders details a brand new mental health condition known as Oppositional Deviance Disorder (or ODD) which reinterprets non-conformity to society as an actual disorder, a disorder which – by implication – means that the unfortunate sufferer stands in need of the proper psychiatric treatment – whatever that might turn out to be!
To move away from psychiatry for moment – if that is still possible – we may make the observation that it is possible to succinctly define the all-pervasive consumer society which we live in by saying that it is a system that is based upon the maintenance and servicing of conditioned needs. The needs in question don’t have to be actually real, it is only necessary that we should perceive them to be so. Obviously, there are real needs that have to be met, but the briefest of surveys of the all types of goods and services that are now available to us lucky consumers will show just how bizarrely unnecessary the vast majority of them are. The mere fact of having many choices makes us feel ‘in control’, yet our so-called ‘choices’ are so superficial as to be utterly meaningless. It is all a trick that we are playing on ourselves, a way of keeping ourselves diverted – a way of keeping the wheel turning. We are told just about every day that our own well-being is contingent upon the well-being (or health) of the economy, which naturally makes it sound as if this thing called ‘the economy’ is there to serve us; this however is an outright deception – we are there to serve the economy and not vice versa!
As long as we think that we need to keep buying the products that the fill the shops and warehouses, then the health of the economy is guaranteed. Alternatively, we could say that as long as our socialized goals remain meaningful to us, then there can continue to be such a thing as society! For this reason it is imperative for the very survival of the system that we do not qualitatively change our way of looking at things, and this means that genuine psychological growth has to be blocked, one way or another. ‘Psychological growth’ and ‘society’ are opposed, in other words! Psychological growth means ‘moving on’ – it means that those goals which used to be meaningful to us, are meaningful to us no longer since those goals were only ever a projection or extension of our limited way of understanding the world in the first place. When the context of understanding stays the same, it follows that we always try to solve problems within this same framework – even if this is evidently not possible. This is the mode of existence termed by J.G. Bennett psychostatic. Without any doubt, our society is a psychostatic one, and this also means that it is a fundamentally depressogenic one – it produces depression because of its insistence upon a static framework of understanding. The unpalatable truth is that for the socially adapted individual (who, as Krishnamurti observed, is society embodied) it must always be the validation of this static framework that matters in the end, not our own well-being or health. Inevitably therefore, this supreme but unacknowledged necessity ultimately translates as violence against the spirit, as violence against who we really are.
The Guardian Becomes the Guard
In general terms, the principal of the servant becoming the master can be seen in terms of the map (and the mechanisms of control which operate on the basis of the map) becoming an end in themselves, rather than a provisionally useful tool in the cause of ongoing evolution – the evolution, as Jung puts it, of ‘consciousness on its way to an unknown goal’. In other words, I have a theory about the world so that I can interact within that world more effectively, and for a while that model will be useful, and usher in a whole new set of possibilities. What was good at one time, however, soon becomes an obstacle, unless it is dropped in favour of the next stage of evolution. It is not good in itself, in other words, but only good as a stepping-stone. In the same way, social rules become oppressive when their observance becomes an end in itself, because then it is not the individual that matters, but the system which is supposedly there to serve the individual. The static framework is the end everything serves, and the static framework isn’t anything really. It isn’t actually real at all! According to Carlos Castaneda (1974, p 120-121), this same sinister ‘switch-over’ also occurs within the psychology of the individual when the rational controlling side of us (the tonal) loses sight of its proper function and keeps the whole of us prisoner, to the benefit of no one:
…’The tonal is the organiser of the world,’ he proceeded. ‘Perhaps the best way of describing its monumental work is to say that on its shoulders rests the task of setting the chaos of the world in order. It is not farfetched to maintain, as sorcerers do, that everything we know and do as men is the work of the tonal.
‘At this moment, for instance, what is engaged in trying to make sense out of our conversation is your tonal; without it there would be only weird sounds and grimaces and your wouldn’t understand a thing of what I’m saying.
‘I would say that the tonal is a guardian that protects something priceless, our very being. Therefore, an inherent quality of the tonal is to be cagey and jealous of its doings. And since its doings are by far the most important part of our lives, it is no wonder that it eventually changes, in every one of us, from a guardian into a guard.’
He stopped and asked me if I had understood. I automatically nodded my head affirmatively and he smiled with an air of incredulity.
‘A guardian is broad-minded and understanding’, he explained. ‘A guard, on the other hand, is a vigilante, narrow-minded and most of the time deposit. I say, then that the tonal in all of us has been made into a petty and despotic guard when it should be a broad-minded guardian.’
This idea also found expression in the writings of the alchemists, who referred to the ‘old king’ who grows rigid and tyrannical in his rule, and thus has to be murdered and dismembered so that the alchemical work may continue. Jung interprets this to mean that the ‘dominant idea’ of an individual, once a positive force in their life, have become a malign influence because of the individual’s unwillingness to let them go. Joseph Campbell (1949, P 337-8) refers to the Old King as the Tyrant Holdfast (who is “the hoarder of the general benefit” and “the monster avid for the greedy rights of ‘my and mine’”) and he states that it is the primary task of the mythological Hero to challenge, overcome and then ‘shatter’ or ‘dismember’ this enemy to all creative life:
For the mythological hero is the champion not of things become but of things becoming; the dragon to be slain by him is precisely the monster of the status quo: Holdfast, the keeper of the past. From obscurity the hero emerges, but the enemy is great and conspicuous in the seat of power; he is enemy, dragon, tyrant, because he turns to his own advantage the authority of his position. He is holdfast not because he keeps the past but because he keeps.
The tyrant is proud, and therein lies his doom. He is proud because he thinks of his strength as his own; thus he is in the clown role, as a mistaker of shadow for substance; it is his destiny to be tricked. The mythological hero, reappearing from the darkness that is the source of the shapes of the day, brings a knowledge of the secret of the tyrant’s doom. With a gesture as simple as the pressing of a button, he annihilates the impressive configuration. The hero-deed is a continuous shattering of the crystallizations of the moment. The cycle rolls: mythology focuses on the growing-point. Transformation, fluidity, not stubborn ponderosity, is the characteristic of the living God. The great figure of the moment exists only to be broken, cut into chunks, and scattered abroad. Briefly: the ogre-tyrant is the champion of the prodigious fact, the hero the champion of creative life.
When Neurosis Takes Over From Actual Living
This essential principle of the system that out to be our benign guide and protector (i.e. the just Ruler) ‘taking over’ in an unequivocally malignant way can be used to explain all forms of neurotic mental illness. For example, in depression we can very straightforwardly say that the map (i.e. ‘the model of reality’) has become more important than reality itself, and that this has the effect of removing us from the domain of reality and enmeshing us in illusion, which naturally causes a tremendous impoverishment of any genuine sense of meaning in life. The map was there to help us, to guide us, but we end up getting trapped in it, and so our journey (which is the meaning of our life) comes to an end. There are no journeys within the abstract realm of the map! When the map takes over then all growth, all meaningful change is indefinitely suppressed. The fixed ideal is worshipped at the expense of the moving reality. The living spirit is denied for the sake of the dead letter.
In social anxiety it is apparent that it is our need to ‘appear normal’, along with our heightened awareness of the very great value that society (i.e. ‘other people’) place in this virtue that has caused the problem. In blunt terms, society requires ‘that we be what it says we are’ and if we are able to fulfil this requirement then there is no anxiety. For those of us who are unable to obey this rule (and are as yet still unable to see that there is actually no real need to do so) anxiety is the only possible outcome. Anxiety is therefore – in terms of the viewpoint we are discussing here – the result of ‘failure to conform successfully to the map’ – the tyrant has a hold on us, we wish with all our heart to obey him (since we are as yet incapable of questioning his rule) but for whatever reason we are unable to do what is required of us. We find ourselves in some way ‘jinxed’ with regard to the conditioned necessity to meet certain standards with regard to how we appear, how we present ourselves. We just can’t manage to ‘fit in’, in other words.
Almost invariably, we will be told by friends, family and health-care workers that no one is watching us to see if we are ‘fitting in’ or not, if we are ‘normal’ or not – we will be told that other people are busy with their own affairs and do not have any interest in observing and evaluating us, as we feel convinced that they are. This however is simply not true and it is evidence of our complete lack of awareness that we think it is. Society runs on the basis of ‘everyone policing everyone else’, and policing themselves (their own thoughts and actions) into the bargain. If it wasn’t for this mutual policing then the whole set-up would fall to pieces because it is just not stable on its own. It’s just not stable on its own because it’s an artificial construct and as such it needs to be propped up and maintained, such as a lie (or a system based on lies) needs to be constantly propped up and maintained. Only the truth stand on its own two feet and society – most emphatically – is not based on truth! It can of course often happen that we may imagine that others are observing us and judging us when they are not, but in this case what we are experiencing is the ‘social introject’ at work – the social introject being the opinions and beliefs of society that we have internalized and as a result now perceive as being our own. These internalized opinions will naturally be projected onto the world at large, so that even when no one is judging us we are of course more than likely to still feel that we are being judged.
The ‘malign takeover’ principle can also be seen in ‘perfectionism’. In perfectionism we are chasing standards that we ourselves have put in place – only it isn’t really us who have created the standards but the rational introject, otherwise known as ‘the thinking mind’. Originally (in theory at least) the standards were there to make life better for us and those around us, for example the goal of ‘keeping the house tidy’ or ‘having dinner at the right time’. When perfectionism sets in however the quality of life of everyone involved goes down the drain, just for the sake of meeting the all-important standards. Nothing else matters, just so long as I get things to be the way I ‘think’ they have to be – supposedly, this is a ‘good thing’, even though it creates stress as I try to get things right, and immense frustration and annoyance if I can’t! In perfectionism we’re ‘chasing standards for the sake of standards’ and this doesn’t actually turn out that well because what we’re chasing isn’t part of the real world at all, which when it comes right down to it means that it can’t ever be attained. We can approximate it alright but if I’m in the grip of perfectionism approximations just aren’t good enough! As long as my standards are there to help me then this is fine because I don’t have to slavishly conform to the rules – the rules are there for me and not vice versa. When the standards become the thing that counts, the thing that has to be adhered to at all costs, then it isn’t the person that matters but the rule…
In general terms, we can say that with regard to goal-orientated behaviour whatever we’re doing is only ‘life-enhancing’ to the extent that it is play because if it is play then what this means is that our goals aren’t ultimately important in themselves – it’s us who are important! When what we’re doing becomes more important than who it is that’s doing it then a sinister reversal has taken place – the person has been sacrificed to the ideal, the individual has been sacrifice for the sake of the collectively validated idea. The beneficiary is no longer the individual; the beneficiary is the abstract system of thoughts and ideas which uses us as slaves. The principle that we’ve been discussing at here can therefore be summarized, as Bennett (1962, p184) does, by saying that it is the ‘reversal of values’ in which –
The servant becomes the master, the instrument comes to behave as if it were the owner of the instrument.
Money is an excellent example of this type of thing: when money exists as a tool to benefit an end that is greater than itself it is useful, but when it is ‘an end in itself’ it then becomes perfectly and utterly useless. And yet whenever very large amounts of money accumulate in the hands of an individual, or an organisation, it inevitably starts to act to protect itself, to maintain and extend itself. The pursuit of profit and the consolidation of capital becomes the bottom line – it becomes the all-important motivating force, it becomes the only reason anyone does anything! In this game (which is the sinister game that the whole world plays) ‘possession of money’ is automatically taken to be the greatest good. The successful player of this game then becomes “the hoarder of the general benefit”, or “the monster avid for the greedy rights of ‘my and mine’”. In a world where this game is never questioned, and in which the game is never even seen as a game but ‘the correct way to do things’ (as laid down by the deeply perverse politico-economic dogma that we have enshrined in our culture) our lives get to be ruled by none other than the Tyrant Holdfast himself, which is a fact that spells nothing but misery for everyone. Even the supposed beneficiaries don’t benefit because ‘the Tyrant Holdfast’ isn’t an actual person but a purely abstract (and therefore completely inhuman) principle. Serving this boss (Discordianism’s ‘Old Greyface’) doesn’t do anyone any good!
The Value of Pain
Neurosis occurs therefore when we take the social game (or any other game) too seriously – when we lose sight of the fact that it is only a game, i.e. a set of constraints that are freely entered into. When we get caught up in the game, so that the game becomes more important than anything else, more important than life itself in fact, then the only possible consequence of this is that our quality of life decreases, and our misery increases. The fact that we are unhappy and having no quality of life doesn’t prompt us to abandon the game however because we are no longer free to see that it is a game; instead, we throw ourselves into the game even more in the believe that ‘if we try harder everything will somehow come out alright’. This is like a gambler who has lost everything and yet who continues to gamble because he believes that he will be able to win it all back. In the same way, when we are afflicted with neurotic suffering we persevere with the behaviours that brought us all the suffering because we still believe that by enacting them correctly we can find happiness.
Because – culturally speaking – we have no understanding of neurosis, we treat those suffering from it by reinforcing social games rules regarding ‘normality’ even more, and by treating them with ‘serious’ or ‘goal-orientated’ therapies like CBT to supposedly help restore them to mental health. We can’t become mentally well as a result of being ‘serious’ however, and we can’t reach the state of good mental health as a result of chasing goals. Good mental health isn’t a goal – it’s when we’re free from the curse of having goals! The core ‘error’ in neuroticism is thinking that we can become happy on purpose and rational therapy partakes in this core error every but as much because it assumes that it is possible to become free from unhappiness on purpose!
So when we take social rules and ‘self-regulation’ too seriously we become neurotic and the orthodox treatment for this is to ask us to regulate ourselves even more. Because we as a culture can’t question our own conditioning (which is to say, the mechanical compulsions that govern us) we try to cure neurotic suffering with yet more rules, more conditioning. If we could find within us the compassion to see the lesson that lies in their suffering, rather than automatically denying it, then we would at last learn to appreciate the value of neurosis, which is that it draws attention to the evil of unconsciousness.
Unconsciousness, we may say, is when we are completely caught up in the bleak and unprofitable business of blindly following rules. It is when we ‘do what we have always done’, because we are too afraid to do otherwise – because we are afraid of facing the new. When we deal with problems through rules and control, then we have the security of ‘remaining ourselves at all times’, even if this entails living in a state of misery and frustration. If on the other hand we embrace the new – without trying to control it and make it into the old – then we ourselves change, and this – when we are unconsciousness – is something we resist to the utmost. In the unconscious state we cling to the known at all costs, and so we also cling to the old and familiar idea of ourselves, no matter how much pain this entails…
We can also define neuroticism (or unconsciousness) by saying that it is when we avoid (or ignore) pain at all costs, even though is being neurotic (or being unconscious) that creates the pain in the first place! Being unconscious, being ‘addicted to following rules’, we automatically (which is to say, unreflectively) reject pain, on the implicit assumption that it has no value or meaning in it whatsoever. This is a pronounced cultural attitude of ours; as Ivan Illich (1976) has noted in Limits to Medicine, we live in a society that values aesthesia. This attitude, says Illich (P 133), finds expression in the technology of pain-manipulation:
Medical civilisation, however, tends to turn pain into a technical matter and thereby deprives suffering of its inherent personal meaning. People unlearn the acceptance of pain as an inevitable part of their conscious coping with reality and learn to interpret every ache as an indicator of their need for padding or pampering. Traditional cultures confront pain, impairment, and death by interpreting them as challenges soliciting a response from the individual under stress; medical civilisation turns them into demands made by individuals on the economy, into problems that can be managed or produced out of existence. Cultures are systems of meaning, cosmopolitan civilisation a system of techniques…..
As Illich suggests, there is a major problem with this ‘all-too-convenient’ attitude that says “We don’t have to feel pain”; the problem is that when we do find ourselves depressed or in pain, we – with the help of everyone around us – write off the experience as valueless, as something we couldn’t possibly learn from. We are ‘in it’, but at the same time we are not in it, because we are rationalising the experience away, discounting it, dismissing it, and this is the very reason that we keep having to come back to it. Perhaps it is possible, as M. Scott-Peck (1978) suggests, that sometimes a person might have a form of depression that is legitimately due to ‘purely biological’ reasons, but even if this is so, our cultural devaluation of pain is still making the problem worse. If you’re in pain and I tell you that this pain of yours is merely ‘an error to be eradicated’ and if it so happens (as it often enough does) that the pain in question can’t be handily eradicated then how is this going to make you feel? I have very thoroughly disempowered you – not only do you have the original pain to contend with, you also have the suffering of knowing that the pain you’re in is meaningless, valueless, pointless.
If on the other hand, I blandly assure you that it all has some higher meaning, that there’s some kind of reason for what you’re going through, then this is be equally disempowering. It’s only my opinion after all and so all I’m trying to do is get you to buy into my reality. What I can do, however, is allow you the space to find out the truth for yourself without arrogantly assuming that I already know that truth – which is what we as health care ‘professionals’ usually tend to do. What’s more, I’m probably only coming out with such platitudes so as to have something to say, so that I can feel that I’m being helpful. Pain is difficult, pain is a challenge and like all challenges it has the power to transform us. Pain is always transformative – if we don’t turn our backs on it or deny it or anaesthetize ourselves or off-load it on someone else. This is the message behind the Hero myth – if we had ears for myths anymore, which we don’t. Difficulty (where there is no prescribed method of getting through it) is the very same thing the ‘Hero’s Journey’ spoken of by Joseph Campbell and nothing (certainly not the nonsense we normally preoccupy ourselves with!) is more meaningful than the Hero’s Journey. Depression is the Hero’s Journey – the way through it is different for everyone, no one else can tell us how to get through it. As the alchemists knew very well, depression (i.e. the negredo) is the transformative door – it is the means by which we become whole again.
As Alan Watts (1960) says in Psychotherapy East and West we have to decide as therapists whether we are on the side of the individual, or the society which wants him or her returned promptly to normality; either we support the individual to change, or we ‘help’ them to carry on as before. Ivan Illich (1976, p 135) points out that pain has the positive role of limiting the degree of exploitation which it is possible for people to be subjected to:
The pain inflicted on individuals had a limiting effect on the abuses of man by man. Exploited minorities sold liquor or preached religion to dull their victims, and slaves took to the blues or to coca-chewing. But beyond a critical point of exploitation, traditional economies which were built on the resources of the human body had to break down. Any society in which the intensity of discomforts and pains inflicted rendered them culturally “insufferable” could not but come to an end.
Now an increasing portion of all pain is man-made, a side-effect of strategies for industrial expansion. Pain has ceased to be conceived as a “natural” or “metaphysical” evil. It is a social curse, and to stop the “masses” from cursing society when they are pain-stricken, the industrial system delivers them medical pain-killers. Pain thus turns into a demand for more drugs, hospitals, medical services, and other outputs of corporate, impersonal care and into political support for further corporate growth no matter what its human, social, or economic cost. Pain has become a political issue which gives rise to a snowballing demand on the part of aesthesia consumers for artificially induced insensibility, unawareness, and even unconsciousness.
Illich’s argument can of course be extended to cover antidepressants, which are designed not to ‘get to the root’ of the depression, but merely to correct its symptoms. Depression is the single most common mental illness in the ‘developed’ world, and rather than asking painful questions regarding our assumptions about what life ought to be about (or what the hell we’re doing in the name of life) we pour all our resources into suppressing the rising the tell-tale signs of unhappiness and despair. We are too absorbed in our game to notice the loss of ‘quality of living’ that is occurring as a result of our all-out attempt to maximise ‘standard of living’, as defined in purely economic terms. We persist in the belief that we can obtain happiness through ‘industrial expansion’, through the insatiable pursuit of material goods, designer lifestyles, rational knowledge and improved technical skills, but as Illich says if we didn’t have the socially promoted ‘anaesthetics’ of alcohol and antidepressants so readily at hand, we would undoubtedly start to see the error in this assumption.
The Principle of the ‘Reversal of Values’
In this discussion we have attempted to look at depression in a broader perspective than medical science would have us use. The conclusion of our argument must be to say that our attempts, as a culture, to ‘cure’ depression are essentially a sham. They aren’t even meant to work! The point is that we want to cure depression, but only if we can do it within the framework of understanding that we use to construct ourselves and our place in the world. This is a ‘secret’ allegiance on our part because if we knew that we had a bias, then we would also know that our way of looking at things in only ‘relatively’ true – i.e. ‘true within this particular perspective’. This takes away the ground from under our feet, and leaves us totally unable to go on feeling that we are ‘in control’, and this need to feel in control is the hidden psychological motivation behind our attempt to medically ‘solve’ depression. Or we could also say that it is our unacknowledged allegiance to ‘staying the same’ or ‘maintaining our basic assumptions’ – i.e. staying ‘who we think we are’ – that is behind our ingrained insincerity with regard to understanding depression – it is the same thing.
Because we are unaware of our allegiance to the system of thought within which we create our notion of reality, if it turns out that the only way we can cure depression is be falsifying the system (i.e. by dropping out of the game) then one thing which we can be totally sure about is that we will not make this sacrifice. We cannot make this sacrifice because we have not even admitted that there is such a sacrifice to be made! In the end, it is more important for us to remain in control than it is for us to be free from depression. It is more important for us to preserve the illusory mind-produced ‘self-image’ than learn from our depression. We would rather stay in control, stay in our heavily-defended static mind-set, and kid ourselves that we are about to conquer the problem, than give up control and as a result ‘outgrow’ the problem, as Jung puts it.
This is actually a version of the classic self-defeating glitch which besets those who desire spiritual ‘improvement’; my wish to be liberated never finds fulfilment since it is at root insincere, being underwritten by my unacknowledged wish for my liberation to be obtained by my own efforts! In other words, I want my thinking to be somehow relevant to the process, despite the fact that the process of liberation entails me finding out that my thinking is, was, and always shall be utterly irrelevant. I want liberation to be a ‘serious’ sort of a thing – i.e. I want it to be a drama that belongs to (or serves) the false or illusory self, and which on this accounts validates the existence of that false or illusory self. Those who fail to appreciate this cosmic irony invariably get caught up what Alan Watts (1940, p132) refers to as ‘the vicious circle of accepting on purpose’:
The motivating power of the vicious circle is pride. In Christian terms we should say that man is not willing to be saved as he is; he feels that it is necessary for him to do something about it, to earn salvation by his own self-made spirituality and righteousness. The Grace of God is offered freely to all, but through pride man will not accept it. He cannot bear the thought that he is absolutely powerless to lift himself up and that the only chance of salvation is simply to accept something which is offered as freely to the saint as to the sinner. If nothing can be done to earn this Grace it seems to set all man’s self-imposed ideals at naught: he has to confess himself impotent, and this is more than he can bear. So the gift of Grace is tacitly ignored, and man goes on trying to manufacture it for himself.
The Via Erratum
To move beyond depression we have to learn the lesson of depression, which is that everything we ever thought we knew, we didn’t. In mystical language, this is equivalent to saying that we must relinquish ourselves (i.e. ‘die to ourselves’). As psychiatrist and psychotherapist M. Scott Peck says (1978, P 77):
The pain of giving up is the pain of death, but death of the old is birth of the new. The pain of death is the pain of birth, and the pain of birth is the pain of death. For us to develop a new and better idea, concept, theory or understanding means that an old idea, concept, theory or understanding must die.
Because I only know myself through my thinking, to let go of this thinking is equivalent to letting go of myself, which is dying. I have identified with my concepts, and so I am frightened to drop my concepts, because I do not think there is anything outside of them. An act of total surrender to ‘risk’ is needed, and there is no way that the rational mind can ever give its consent to this. For this reason, the way of change can never have anything to do with the rational mind – it cannot be taken over by the mind (or organized by the mind) without the whole endeavour turning into an elaborate exercise in self-deception. What the system of mind does, when it does take control of the situation, is to try to calculate its way out of the mess it has thought its way into, spinning endlessly subtle layers of delusion as it does so. The rational mind has no courage in it at all; after all, its very existence stems from denial – the denial of the primary existential terror of groundlessness. It is because of this essential ‘cowardliness’ that we opt for the delusional method of dealing with depression, which is what the alchemists called ‘the way or error’, i.e. trying to save ourselves through our own cleverness. Rather than surrendering our precious cleverness and learning as a result of this sacrifice something profoundly and marvellously new, we stubbornly stick to what we already know – or rather, to what we fondly imagine that we know. Alan Watts (1957, p 37) quotes the great Taoist sage, Chuang-Tzu:
Things are produced around us, but no one knows the whence. They issue forth, but no one sees the portal. Men one and all value that part of knowledge which is known. They do not know how to avail themselves of the unknown in order to reach knowledge. Is not this misguided?
The ‘way of truth’, therefore, means abandoning the illusion that I can extricate myself by my own efforts. Instead of relying on myself, and what I think know (and in the end ‘myself’ and ‘what I think I know’ both come down to the same thing) I take the ultimate risk, and let whatever is going to happen, happen. I let what is unfolding, unfold. Despite how it might seem, this isn’t (as Watts says) a doctrine of determinism, but one of freedom – when I enforce my own will on the proceedings all I am doing is obeying the deterministic dictates of my rational mind, and enacting out its inflexible – and ultimately pointless – pattern. I am faithfully ‘copying the template’ that has been laid down in stone in the form of my unexamined (and unexamineable) assumptions and there is absolutely zero freedom in this. In obeying the rules laid down by my rational mind this I am playing the part of a dull mechanism, not a conscious being. This is, as Krishnamurti says, just ‘the repetition of the known’ and it is unworthy of us. To move out of the strictly mechanical, and allow oneself to be taken into the unknown, is – in contrast to this deadly dull repetition business – the greatest adventure of all. To surrender to the unknown is to surrender to freedom!
‘Letting go’ is contrary to all common sense but not really unwise, since – when it comes down to it – it is not so rash after all to let matters pass out of my hands, because the truth that I am so unwilling to see is that it was out of my hands all along…
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.