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The Origin of ‘Mental Illness’ [Part 2]

Our starting point in this discussion was to repeat what Jung says about the cause of ‘mental illness’ being the avoidance of our legitimate suffering. ‘Legitimate suffering’ can be looked at on a number of different levels – one level would be to talk about the repression or deflection of pain that has been caused by what has happened to us in our life (pain that comes out of our history, in other words). This will be different for everyone, obviously – depending upon the nature of the events that have befallen us and the way that we have of dealing (or not dealing) with difficulties. If something happens to us that is too overwhelming for us to be able to deal with – particularly as children – then the pain that we have repressed is going to create trouble for us later on (or it is going to have to be dealt with later on). If we are starved of love or emotional support then we will have to adapt to that unsupportive environment in some way and this ‘adaptive modality’ will go on to create suffering for us in the future, no matter how successful it might have been at the time. The more successful the strategy was in the past, the more it will rebound on us in the future. This is, of course, familiar territory for all psychotherapists. Along with this type of ‘pain-avoidance’ there is also the deeper, more universal human predicament, as we said in Part [I], which has to do with the strategies we adopt to deal with our ‘core existential dilemma’, the dilemma of existing (or rather, the dilemma posed by the question of how we respond to the risk of existence).

Why is existence a risk, we might ask? Aren’t the existential philosophers making too big a song and dance about this supposed ‘risk’, given that the vast majority of us simply ‘get on with it’ rather than luxuriating in our angst overmuch? We do of course have to point out (before going on to say anything else) that it is psychological risk that we are talking about here rather than physiological risk since physiological risk-avoidance is clearly a distinctly healthy thing! It is also necessary to define what is meant by this term ‘psychological risk’ – psychological risk, we might say, is where we risk finding out that what we thought was true (or believed to be true) actually isn’t true at all. We make a statement about reality and the ‘risk’ is that this statement will prove to be false. [It is a risk of course only because we are invested in the statement being true; if we weren’t so invested then there wouldn’t be a risk.] When our minds are closed therefore, then this is our way of managing this risk. We refuse to see the bigger picture (or look outside of the box that we have constructed for ourselves) because we don’t want to take any risk. One point we need to making in this connection – and this is without any doubt a very significant thing to take on board – is that there is no such thing as ‘a true thought’ or ‘a true belief’. There is no such thing as a ‘true statement about reality’ and so our wariness is well founded!

Another way of expressing this is to say that the ultimate nature of reality is irreducible uncertainty and this is not an easy thing to get to grips with – irreducible uncertainty not an easy thing to get to grips with because we want very much for there to be something that is for sure, something that is certain about reality. Not only can we not say anything definite or certain about ‘reality,’ we can’t even know that there is such a thing. We want very much for there to be a baseline, some sort of baseline which will enable us to say true things about the world. We want very much there to be the possibility of us making true statements about the world because that is the only way in which we can avoid confronting the possibility of ‘ontological terror’! The fundamental nature of reality is something that can so easily evoke pure terror in us and any attempt to escape this terror (which equals ‘avoiding psychological risk’) is setting ourselves up for neurotic torment later on. We’re caught between the clashing rocks of neurosis on the one side and the deep blue sea of radical uncertainty on the other, and whilst there might seem to be some kind of safe ground between the two, there isn’t really – the ‘safe-ground’ is a hallucination.

So one way of talking about existential risk-avoidance is to say that it comes down to ‘denying radical uncertainty’ and denying radical uncertainty is the same thing as denying reality. To live in denial of something as crucial as reality is obviously a pretty major thing, even though none of us are going to admit to ourselves that this is what we’re doing. We generally pride ourselves on our solid rootedness in the real world and so to suggest that we don’t actually have the faintest clue as to the nature of what’s really going on isn’t going to go down very well with anyone. Yet the degree to which we are relating to a world that is made up of ‘certainties’, of ‘unremarkable facts’ (which we take perfectly seriously) is also the degree to which we are in denial of the truth of the world in which we live. The certainty exists in our minds alone; the ‘unremarkable facts’ which we automatically accept conceals depths of mystery that we cannot even guess a. This constitutes a tremendous risk from a psychological point of view – it constitutes an unknowable risk, a risk that we can’t articulate, and this makes it all the more inimitable to us. There is no doubt at all that we are in denial of radical uncertainty and the only reason we don’t see this is because we are in denial. We have shut the door firmly on the single most salient fact of our existence, which is the fact that it is endlessly mysterious, as the mystics have been telling us since the beginning of recorded history.

The otherway to approach this – which we have already looked at in Part [I] – is to say that reality gives us no ground for purchase, no hooks upon which we can hang our understanding, because it is a ‘unique’ or ‘unparalleled’ event. We perceive it through the device of the thinking mind which presents everything in a linear time-frame such that the present is always a development of past and the future always a development of the present. This is how we see the world – most things don’t change (the background doesn’t change, in other words) but rather stuff is simply ‘carried over’ from the day before, and from the day before that, and so on. Changes do occur, but they are predictable on the basis of what has happened before. There’s an underlying consistency to what’s going on, and this underlying consistency is what we rely on, this consistency is the linearity of which we speak – the future is enfolded in the past and so there can never be any radical’ surprises. What are we talking about here is regularity rather than a series of unique unconnected events and physical universe itself is susceptible to this kind of analysis. This is why the mechanical (or Cartesian) paradigm has been so extraordinarily successful – because of its ‘power to predict’. This isn’t to say that this paradigm is the whole story however – linearity isn’t synonymous with reality by any means, even though it occurs within reality. Discontinuities exist in the physical universe, it’s just that they are very easy to disregard, as well as being highly inconvenient with regard whatever theory or model it is that we are trying to impose on the world, and as a result it is only within the last fifty years so that science has taken account of the significance of chaos (or complexity) both of which demonstrate the existence of a deeper principle than ‘linearity’ or ‘causality’. Linearity can be looked at as a collapsed analogue of complexity, an oversimplified version of it. The collapsed analogue comes about as a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics, which refers – in essence – to the process whereby complex systems become less complex. What starts off with ‘more aspects than we are capable of reckoning with’ is reduced down and reduced down until it becomes wholly knowable and wholly predictable. Complex systems become simplified down to the point of being mere abstractions therefore, and what this tells us is that the ‘simplification process’ in question is fundamentally a deceptive kind of thing inasmuch as abstractions aren’t real! The process is ‘deceptive’ (rather than genuine) because it occurs as a result of information being lost from the system (which is to say, because it occurs as a result of us no longer being able to see things from all angles).

We could say – therefore – that the material universe is a ‘symbol’ for the Complex Whole which it arose from; the material world is however an opaque symbol in that it operates (so to speak) by presenting itself not as a symbol but as the very thing that is being symbolised. When we look at the causal realm within the terms of reference which it itself provides us with, then we ‘can’t see beyond it’, in other words, and so what is actually only an ‘analogue’ gives every indication of being a final reality in its own right. If this were not the case then there will be no way in which the physical could be ‘physical’, or the material ‘material’. In terms of thought (which is the abstract picture of things that corresponds to (or mirrors) this collapsed version of reality) we can say that this is how definite statements come to be ‘definite’ – by taking a limited viewpoint on the world without acknowledging the limits that have been assumed. If I came out with the definite statement and then immediately qualified that statement by pointing out that ‘it only seems to be definite in the way that it does because the wider viewpoint has been totally ignored for the purposes of the exercise’, then this would of course render the term ‘definite’ entirely meaningless! It is ‘definite within the terms of our assumed framework’ but because this framework is only a groundless assumption isn’t actually definite at all. What causes the reification that is going on here is again entropy, therefore. Reification (or concretization) can only ever come about as a result of a limiting of our viewpoint that we can’t know about, can only come about as a result of irreversible information loss. It’s a trick, in other words – it’s the trick of Maya.

This isn’t how we see things however – we don’t see form as being due to ‘information loss’, any more than we see the possibility of making definite statements about the world as coming about as a result of ‘lack of perspective’. We adopt the reverse convention whereby we see former as constituting an addition of information to the picture rather than being a subtraction and we understand the possibility of being able to make definite statements about things as evidence of us having more perspective on the subject rather than less. This particular convention – the bog standard ‘bottom-up convention’ – is hugely persuasive when we are in its grasp but that is only because it represents a type of ‘cognitive trap’, as we have indicated earlier. Traps are always convincing when we have blundered into them – they wouldn’t be very good tracks otherwise.

The natural world itself demonstrates this tendency to simplify itself down and present itself, over the course of time, in ever-cruder (or less complex) ways and the so-called ‘creation’ of matter where before there was none is the quintessential example of this decay process. To say that something has been created ‘out of nothing’ is the bottom-up view, as set forth in the Chapter of Genesis with regard to the creation of the universe ex nihilo, by the Creator God (the ‘Maker God’ whom the Gnostics identified as Yaldaboath / Samael / Saklas). Gnosticism express this process the other way round however and says that the physical world isn’t a ‘stand-alone creation’ but rather that it is an emanation of the Transcended Whole, a ‘pale copy of Heaven’s original’, as one poet puts it. This is of course very similar to Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas. The material universe is a ‘lower analogue’ in other words; it is an analogue that usurps the position of what is being analogized, a poor copy that pretends to be the original. It is in other words Baudrillard’s ‘world of the hyperreal’. The immense pressure that we feel to adapt ourselves to this ‘analogue world’ (or ‘take it seriously’) – which from a strictly biological point of view can hardly be ignored – causes us to resolutely turn our backs on any higher (or transcendent) reality, therefore. From a biological point of view this is of course a necessity (if we are to survive, that is) but from a psychological point of view the benefits are strictly ‘short-term’ when it comes to making ourselves ‘blind to the bigger picture’. From a psychological point of view, we do far better being more wholly ourselves (i.e. we do better not just being focused on mere biological survival) since a life that is purely based on ‘material’ or ‘pragmatic’ concerns is a breeding ground for neurotic suffering. This isn’t to say that the practical or material concerns aren’t of any importance, merely that we can’t make them into ‘the be all and end all’ without cruelly limiting ourselves and creating pain as a result. When we do immerse ourselves entirely in pragmatic concerns (whatever these pragmatic concerns might be) then we are evading the existential challenge that life is making on us. Again, we aren’t saying that the pragmatic concerns of life aren’t important or difficult in their own right, or that they shouldn’t be honoured, but rather that they are ‘difficult in an easier way’ than the existential challenge that we are so neatly avoiding. These practical concerns are ‘cut and dried’, they don’t trouble our heads in any philosophical way – they don’t require of us that we ‘go beyond ourselves’. Just as I might suddenly develop an appetite for cleaning the house from top to bottom or sorting out all the cupboards and drawers in the kitchen if I have an essay or dissertation hanging over my head, so too will I be filled with the urge to throw myself into the purely utilitarian mode of life, and claiming loudly (to anyone that will listen) that anything else is soft-headed nonsense! It doesn’t matter whether we are throwing ourselves into being a model citizen or diligent worker on the one hand, or immersing ourselves in distractions (e.g. eating pizzas whilst watching Netflix, etc. etc.) – we are avoiding doing the essay either way. And the thing about ‘doing the essay’ is of course that once we actually got down to it we would enjoy it and find more fulfilment there than we ever would have done otherwise. We are only being fools to ourselves by avoiding life’s existential challenge, in other words.

The bottom line is that the purely utilitarian or purely material life is devoid of all real meaning, as most of us probably know on some level. There is a type of meaning here, but it is a ‘circular’ type – it is the type of meaning that we find in game where ‘stuff is only meaningful because we have agreed with ourselves that it should be’. This is hollow meaning therefore and although we can ignore this hollowness we can’t actually get rid of it – it has to be quickly ‘passed on’ to somewhere or someone else (like a hot potato that’s burning our hands). We can call this type of meaning ‘extrinsic meaning’ because it comes from outside of us, and thus has nothing to do with us unless we agree for it to (which is something we do the whole time without realising it). Extrinsic meaning is the meaning that our goals have for us – to achieve a goal is (by definition) ‘a good thing’ and because it’s ‘a good thing’ this gives us a good feeling! The meaning that the goal has for us derives from the identity-validation that it provides us with, therefore. Because we have ‘arranged this good feeling for ourselves’ by agreeing that ‘achieving the goal should be a good thing’ the validation that we obtain this way comes at a price and the price is the tangible manifestation (or ‘knock-on effect’) of the ‘hollowness’ which we aren’t acknowledging. We may not be acknowledging the redundancy associated what we have claimed to have achieved, but what we are compelled to acknowledge (and indeed suffer from) is the concrete price has to be paid at some future point in time and that price is the ‘devalidation of dysphoria’. There is nothing more devalidating for the ego than dysphoria – for the concrete identity to feel bad is an unqualified evil! The concrete identity is – from its own point of view – the ultimate or supreme value, the ‘only important thing’ – and so of course for it to feel bad is ‘an unqualified evil’! From this we can see that there is much more to extrinsic meaning than we might have thought there was – it doesn’t just motivate us, it creates our sense of who we think we are.

This is why ‘the game of the self’ is not at all ‘playful’ in the usual sense of the word. It’s a game, for sure, but there’s nothing playful about it; we might define ‘playful’ as meaning that we are ‘joyfully taking risks’ (or as ‘giving ourselves away’, as Rumi puts it) –but  in the game of the self the whole point is never to take any risks, if we can possibly help it. The self is the supreme value, the ultimate ‘important thing that must never be compromised’, so naturally taking risks with it is something we don’t ever want to do. If we do have to take a risk, then it certainly won’t be joyously! This comes down to James Carse’s dichotomy of ‘the infinite game versus finite games’ – the finite game player wants to close down all possibilities of it ever being surprised whilst the player of the Infinite Game plays in order to be surprised, which is to say, in order to ‘open things up’. The ‘concrete identity’ is always seeking security in other words – this is its only real goal. ‘Security’ means that there is ‘no more risk’ and this is the situation that the concrete sense of identity always wants to bring about. Its need to bring this ‘zero risk’ state of affairs about is inherent in its very nature; more than just ‘inherent in its nature’ across the need to control things so as to eliminate risk is the only possibly expression of its nature. The self doesn’t have a ‘risk-taking’ side to it. The self’s nature to play finite games, or – as we could also say – the self’s nature is to be the self’. This brings us back to the point of what we have been talking about in the last few paragraphs, which has to do with the nature of ‘extrinsic meaning’ – extrinsic meaning is the meaning that is found in games since all games have to be played freely (as Carse says) if they are to be played at all; whatever is ‘true in a game’ is only true because we have ‘freely agreed for it to be so’, therefore. If a thing is ‘only true because I have agreed to be true’ then along with the apparent benefit of the attractive ‘positive meaning’ that I have created there is also going to be the manifestation – at some point in time – of the ‘hollowness’ (or ‘redundancy’) that I have also (inadvertently) created – as part of the package, so to speak- and this manifestation equals ‘negative’ or aversive meaning.

This is all just a long-winded way of saying that the meaning which comes from ‘outside of us’ is not really ‘meaning’ at all. But when we accept meaning that comes from outside of ourselves as not being trick, we also accept the sense of identity that comes with it as not being the false or hollow imposition of ‘who the system says we are’, but ‘who really are’. The system of extrinsic meaning (which David Bohm calls ‘the system of thought’) not only provides us with the motivation to do all the things we do and think all the things we think, it also provides us with our identity. It’s the complete package, as we have already said, and this ‘complete package’ is entirely hollow! So getting back to our main argument – because the system of extrinsic meaning which we have adapted to is actually devoid of meaning this creates neurotic suffering for us; suffering–that-we-cannot-ever-escape’ is the price we have to pay being able to play the game of the self. We could therefore say that this situation constitutes a basic form of ‘mental unwellness’; adapting ourselves to a world that has no genuine meaning in it (which is to say, no ‘meaning from within’) in such a way that this hollow, artificial world becomes the only world we can ever know or believe in, is the same thing as denying this hollowness, denying this lack of meaning, and to live in denial of the hollowness of the false or mind-created world that we have accepted as being ‘the one and only true reality’ is always going to produce a state of mental ill-health. It actually is a state of mental ill health – on the one hand we can say that this situation equals mental ill-health because there is zero autonomy in it (since not only is my motivation imposed on me from the outside but so too my sense of who I am) and on the other hand we can say that because I’m never ‘at peace’ but rather I am always cycling back and forth between euphoria and dysphoria, elation and despair. This situation constitutes a basic form of ‘mental unwellness’ therefore – we have to go into things a lot more than this of course but here we have a very basic picture of what mental unwellness looks like…

Art: The Veils of Maya, by Nameda

Author: Nick Williams

Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.
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  • Jeffrey Shampnois

    Uncanny. You elaborated on so many things my wife and I were discussing this afternoon. Just had to note that, for what it’s worth. I shouldn’t be surprised at parallels anymore, but I’m always surprised.

    August 4, 2020 at 4:09 am