Life cannot be persuaded to perform to order, by waving a stick at it or by having some imposing authority figure standing over it, letting it know in no uncertain terms where its duty lies, what it is supposed to be doing, and so on. Life does not flow in accordance with municipal regulations, it does not hurry to obey state legislation and it does not listen to court injunctions. It cannot be made to happen because I have told it – with very serious expression indeed on my face – that it ought to happen. We all know this perfectly well and yet – at one and the same time – we have all quite forgotten it. The point is nothing if not obvious, as the following story will make clear.
I am very important government inspector and my job requires me to regularly patrol my neighbourhood making sure that everything happens the way it is supposed to happen. This is a demanding sort of a job you can be sure but I am conscientious in my work and determined to do the very best that I can. During my regular patrols of the streets I pass by the national concert hall and realize that a great pianist is performing within. Concerned to make sure he is making a proper job of it I let myself in and run up to the pianist as he sits at his piano, disregarding the shocked look on the faces in the audience. I show him my credentials. “Hey you, pianist fellow,” I shout, pointing at the keys, “Put a bit more effort into it will you, I don’t want to read any reviews tomorrow saying that your performance wasn’t the very best. If I hear that it wasn’t I’ll be back and I’ll have you thrown straight in jail, you see if I don’t.”
Next I run down to the park, put a peaked cap on my head, and make my way down to the duck pond. “Ok you ducks,” I bark, “no slacking with the quacking! I’m a government park inspector and my word is law…” Impressed by my own crisply authoritative, no-nonsense attitude I continue walking around the park, wearing my smart blue cap, checking left and right to make sure there is no funny business going on, until I see some little children playing in the designated playground area. “Keep on playing you children,” I say sternly (but at the same time with a bit of a twinkle in my eye because I have a soft spot for children the same as anyone else does, even if I do have to take my duties seriously). “Its extremely important for children to have at least an hour’s play every day.” Shortly after this, I come across a pair of lovers sitting on a park bench, kissing and canoodling in the sunshine the way lovers do. “That’s the idea,” I tell them approvingly, “keep at it now, but see if you can’t put a bit more passion in it. That looks just a little bit half-hearted to me.” On my way out of the park I notice a small clump of daisies by the gate, looking slightly the worse for wear. “Buck up you daisies,” I snap, “You’ll have to do better than that. If you aren’t looking a bit livelier than that by the time I see you next I’ll instruct the municipal authorities to concrete you over, you see if I don’t!”
This story is of course more than just a bit ridiculous – it is in fact so ludicrously far-fetched that no one would ever take it seriously for a second. We all know that ducks don’t need to be reminded that they should quack and that small children don’t need to be told by pompous government officials or earnest-faced health-board employees that play is good for them. But the very curious thing is that we don’t see how ridiculous it is for us to try to bribe or coerce ourselves to function in a good and healthy way. We don’t see that being seriously or earnestly or anxiously concerned to improve our own mental health is ludicrous because it simply isn’t our responsibility. Even saying this tends to sound shocking – it sounds highly irresponsible to say that our own mental health isn’t our responsibility. But it isn’t. The point is that we are all essentially spontaneous beings and spontaneity isn’t something that happens to order. I can’t take on the responsibility to be more spontaneous any more than I can make a plan to stop planning. Trying to take charge of my own spontaneity is like writing a note telling myself to myself to stop writing notes to myself – it is purely and utterly nonsensical. If I can’t take charge of my own spontaneity how can it possibly be my responsibility?
THE INVISIBLE SNAG OF NEUROTICISM
It does of course seem perfectly normal (as well as seeming perfectly reasonable) to most of us to assume that the way the human mind works is via directions or instructions. I tell myself what to do, and then I go ahead and do it – what could be more straightforward than this? I want a cup of tea, so I direct myself to get up and put the kettle on. It seems very reasonable that everything else should be this way too. I perceive myself to be the ‘executive agent’, the conceiver of goals and intentions, the controller, and all of my behaviours appear to proceed from this very definite and straightforward standpoint. This is the basic, standard assumption, but all we need to do is to reflect carefully on the matter to see that this basic assumption couldn’t possibly be true!
The snag to this very reasonable-sounding concept of the ‘fully purposeful mind’ is that there is no way it could ever work. Suppose that we go along with the idea of the totally purposeful mind, the 100% directed or controlled self, and see where it gets us. In this case, as Alan Watts points out, if nothing can happen unless I first intend for it to happen, or instruct to happen, then I run head-first into the voracious jaws of a starting paradox. If nothing can happen unless I first intend for it to happen – which is what the realm of purposefulness is all about – then clearly I can’t just intend whatever it is to happen because if I do this then that act of intending would have had to have come out of nowhere, it would have been unintended, which is to say, it would have had to have been ‘something that is not allowed by the rules of the game we are playing’.
The rules say that I have to intend everything that happens. Nothing can happen unless I intend it and so I have to ‘intend my intending’ the same as I have to intend everything else. But then as soon as I get caught up in this (as I must do) I get caught up forever since I can never perform the act of intending unless I first jump ahead of myself and intend that act. This means of course that I can never actually get started since in order to get started I would somehow have to intend without first having to intend that intention, which is precisely what I can’t do. I can’t just ‘start’- I first have to intend to start, which means that I can never start. I always have to be there, ahead of myself, supervising or intending myself, which turns out to be a thoroughly nightmarish scenario which I have no way of entangling myself from.
NEUROSIS AS ‘IGNORED IMPOSSIBILITY’
This is a particular type of paradox known to philosophers as an ‘infinite regress’ and what paradoxes and infinite regressions show us – in a very blatant way – is that whatever we are trying to do is completely and utterly impossible. That is what a paradox is – it is a manifestation of flat impossibility. That is the message, and when I get it I stop banging my head against the wall and move on to something else. And if I don’t get the message then I keep on banging my head against the wall, as if I can get through the brick wall of impossibility by sheer dumb persistence. This is a good definition of the basic neurotic situation – neurosis is where I keep on trying to do something that is impossible, in wilful or stubborn denial of the fact that it is impossible, and cause myself an endless amount of pointless suffering as a result.
We can therefore say that the root cause of neurosis is the insistent belief – insistent because I never stop to examine it – that I can have total control over myself, the belief that I am totally responsible for myself, and that I have to make everything happen. In short, neurosis arises as a consequent of the belief in the 100% directed or purposeful self, which is a belief that is promoted by our goal-orientated culture. We could also say therefore that the reason we are so very prone to getting mired in neurotic suffering is because of the culturally conditioned lack of insight into our own true nature, i.e. because of our lack of appreciation, both collectively and individually, that the psyche is a directed rather than a spontaneous sort of a thing.
Saying that we have zero insight into the spontaneous nature of the psyche corresponds to what Jung calls ‘the over-valuing of rationality’ – we make the assumption that the controlling rational mind is the supremely important factor in conscious life. This assumption is so ingrained in us that anyone who says anything different is liable to be either ignored or ridiculed. It doesn’t seem like an assumption to us at all – it sounds perfectly self-evident, it sounds obvious, unquestionable, and this is of course the way for all assumptions, no matter how absurd they are. Rationality is all about rules, or ‘cause and effect,’ and in the hypothetical realm of 100% rationality, 100% logic, nothing can happen unless there is a rule (or a cause) saying that it must happen. So everything needs a rule telling it to happen before it can happen, but since that rule is ‘something’ the same as everything else is, there needs to be a rule to tell the rule to happen, which is the same old starting paradox all over again. The reason that the whole universe doesn’t get snarled up in this paradox is simply because there doesn’t need to be a rule telling everything to happen before it can happen – stuff can just happen, without a rule saying that it has to happen, and this is of course what we call ‘spontaneity’.
The reason that the universe doesn’t get all caught up in an infinite regress is because it is – essentially – a spontaneous process. Stuff happens all the time in it without being told to happen, without there having to be a rule for it to happen. In fact we could say that the universe as a whole is ‘one vast unbroken spontaneous movement’, which is exactly how quantum physicist David Bohm describes it. It isn’t a directed process at all, as much as our assumptions would lead us to believe that it must be. Inasmuch as we are part and parcel of this undivided movement – and there is no way we can’t be since we are as much the universe as anything else in it is – we are also essentially spontaneous beings. We are ‘events that happen freely’, we are ‘events that occur without having to be instructed to do so’. We are manifestations of a process that happens without having to be controlled or coerced to do so, without there having to be any ‘have to’ involved, without there having to be any ‘rules’ or ‘duty’ or ‘forcing’ in it at all. The spontaneous self happens all by itself and as such it isn’t our responsibility to make sure that it happens correctly, even if we can’t rationally understand how this could be so.
The 100% purposeful or directed self – on the other hand – is a wholly nonsensical notion, even if it does make sense to our rational minds. In fact this is the only way in which it can make sense. The 100% purposeful self is an absurdity, a flat impossibility. It is a fantastical fiction that exists in our thinking, in our rational minds, but not in reality. This, as we have been arguing in the past few pages, is something that becomes perfectly and abundantly clear after only a moment’s reflection. After all, if I have to direct myself to do everything (as I think I do) then who is directing me to direct myself? If I am totally purposeful (i.e. if so-called ‘spontaneity’ doesn’t come into it at all) then who is directing the directing? Who directs the director? Who tells me what to direct myself to do, when I am busy directing myself to do this, that or the other, if there is no spontaneous self?
THE CONTROL HIERARCHY
The problem is that – in effect – I want everything to be me. I want for there to be a ‘me’ standing behind the ‘me’ who is telling ‘me’ what to so, telling him to tell me what to do. And I want for there to be yet another me behind that me, and so on and so forth, on and on forever, making up an endless chain of control or direction from here to infinity. I don’t want there to be any spontaneous impulse coming into the picture from outside of the known domain of ‘me’. I want for there to be a whole universe of control, a universe without the possibility of free or unprogrammed movement in it. I want everything to have its place within a strict hierarchy of control, where there is nothing that is not subject to this hierarchy. But this idea of a me standing behind the me who is standing behind the me is obviously absurd and unworkable. Somewhere at the end of this hierarchy there has to be a spontaneous me (i.e. ‘an uncaused action’) or else the chain would never be able to come into existence in the first place. It would never have been free to come into existence because there is no freedom in rules, no freedom in control.
This is the problem behind the concept of the directed self – we get so carried away with the idea of being in control of ourselves that we forget that ‘being controlled’ is the opposite of freedom, and we work away, methodically and insistently, at eliminating our own freedom. And then, when we have practically no freedom left, we start to feel bad, we start to suffer in earnest, we start to recognize – however dimly – that life without freedom is not worth living. Saying that life without freedom is not worth living isn’t really making the point correctly – life without freedom is flatly impossible, it simply can’t be done. Life without freedom is paradoxical, self-contradictory. When we over-value rationality and purposefulness we are devaluing freedom and spontaneity, we are perversely trying to eliminate freedom as if freedom were the enemy.
When we try to live without freedom or spontaneity we are trying to do an impossible thing – freedom is an essential ingredient of everything. There can be no structure, no rules without freedom because we have to be free to choose the structure, the rule, in the first place. Trying to live in a totally controlled way would not be a problem if we could see the paradoxicality in what we are trying to do, but because we don’t we continue with the business of creating and recreating neurotic suffering for ourselves, over and over again. We simply don’t know how to stop, because all we know is controlling.
Once we see the utter fantastical ludicrous absurdity of the idea of a totally purposeful, all-controlling self then we give it up, we let go of it, and make room in our claustrophobic, insecurity-driven ‘space-less’ thinking for the return of spontaneity. With the rediscovery of spontaneity – which is the same thing as ‘space’ – everything runs smoothly again, peace is reinstated and we no longer have to try to force everything to happen, and stand over it while it does to make sure that it happens correctly. We no longer have to suffer the fate of being chewed up over and over again like a piece of chewing gum in the viciously unforgiving jaws of unacknowledged paradoxicality. We know longer have to experience the torment of endless ‘self-frustration’; we no longer have to bang our heads against a very hard and very unyielding wall.
FEAR OF SPACE
The only fly in the ointment is the undeniable fact that the autocratic, all-controlling rational self or ego doesn’t want to step aside and take second place to the spontaneous self. It doesn’t want to step down from the ‘throne of glory’ to which it has promoted itself, and recognize its role in the life of the spontaneous psyche as being a less than all-important one. If it could do this then – as we have said – all would be well, but in practice what happens is that the ‘rational controller’ shows that it would prefer to cling to the seat of its power and allow everything to go to rack and ruin, rather than relinquish its throne. The disconnected rational controller is remarkably, intractably stubborn in its own way and would prefer to endure all sorts of suffering rather than just ‘let go’. It would rather – or so it seems – plunge itself into a never-ending torment of darkness, despair and destruction and take the whole world with it.
On the one hand we could say that this terrible stubbornness is due to arrogance or pride, the attachment to being the one who is in control, and so on, but on the other hand it could equally well be said that this stubbornness is due to fear – fear of whatever nameless catastrophe will ensue if I stop controlling. I don’t know what is going to happen if I let go, but I sure as hell don’t want to find out. Spontaneity is like an open door – anything at all could come through it, at any time. Depending upon our outlook, this could be wonderful thing or a terrible thing. If I enjoy surprises and the unpredictable, and I am excited by the prospect of encountering the unknown, then an open door is a wonderful and amazing thing. If on the other hand I am in the grip of fear then obviously an open door is the last thing I want to know about. In this case, an open door isn’t just an ‘open door’ (which is to say, a realm of unrestricted or unlimited possibility), it is the single ominous possibility of the thing I am most afraid of bursting forth, and gaining entrance to my safe little world. I don’t really know what this ‘bad thing’ is – I just know that I don’t want it to happen. The open door is therefore synonymous with the nameless terror that I am doing my best to keep out. Unchecked possibility becomes synonymous with my fear and so – to the fearful mind – spontaneity is itself the greatest fear. Spontaneity represents the complete lack of security in a world where ‘security’ is of paramount importance.
THE ‘ILLUSORY ADVANTAGE’ OF THE PURPOSEFUL MIND
Although it is true that, deep-down, we are all spontaneous beings, one of the main distinguishing features between children and adults is that adults are so remarkably serious and non-spontaneous. We tend to think that this is natural and that being serious and self-controlled is the correct (and responsible) way for adults to be. Wriggly little tadpoles turn into big serious bullfrogs and playful little children turn into serious big adults and this – we assume – is the way of nature. Undifferentiated consciousness gets moulded into a particular shape, it gets formatted to do a particular job, it gets drafted into whatever game is going on. We cherish the innocence and playfulness of small children, but in a somewhat condescending way – we can’t help taking the superiority of our adult position for granted. But – when we think about it – is our relatively inflexible and humourless attitude really ‘the superior position’? We are worldly-wise or sophisticated with regard to the particular narrow game we have adapted to, but this knowledge or sophistication is entirely irrelevant (or ‘useless’) outside of the specific artificial environment that we have adapted to – which is a long-winded way of saying that we aren’t as smart as we like to think we are! We have become very skilled indeed at controlling what happens within the narrow domain of purposefulness that we have restricted ourselves to, but at the price of reducing our own spontaneity to the point of virtual extinction.
THE WAR AGAINST SPONTANEITY
Our lack of appreciation of the essentially spontaneous nature of the psyche translates into a lack of understanding of neurotic distress. The suggestion that neurosis is the inevitable result of over-valuing directed processes does not make any sense to us because we really don’t see how directed processes (i.e. control) can be over-valued. We really don’t see any alternative, other than giving up the struggle to keep a handle on things and letting it all go to hell in a handcart. The very thought of trusting spontaneous processes is profoundly alien to us and so the only option open to us is to keep on piling on the control – control upon control upon control. We don’t see that control – which arises out of mistrust of the natural ability of the spontaneous psyche to organize itself, to sort itself out, to heal itself, is the actual problem here and that neurosis is all about controlling for the sake of controlling, controlling because we are afraid to trust. Controlling because we are afraid not to control.
What happens in neurosis is that I make an enemy of spontaneity. Spontaneity becomes something to be removed, something to be eliminated, something that needs to be taken completely out of the picture. What I can’t see is that in doing this I make an enemy of myself because who I am is not the mass of fear-driven controlling that I have ended up identifying with, who I am – in my essence – is the actual spontaneity that I am trying my utmost to get rid of. When I do get rid of it I end up with nothing else apart from controlling for the sake of controlling. I end up with senseless, pointless controlling, and the constant senseless analysing rationalizing and planning that goes with the controlling. The reason that all of this neurotic thinking and controlling is pointless is of course because it’s all there for nothing. Nothing worthwhile comes out of it – its all a sham, in fact, a smokescreen, a façade…
Controlling and planning only work effectively when they are of secondary importance – which is to say, when I am involved in controlling and planning in order to benefit the spontaneous self, which is not a fixed, defined or ‘logically thought-out’ position, as is the directed self. There has to be a ‘higher self’ present in my daily life, the self of free or spontaneous consciousness, rather than the mechanical, directed or ‘conditioned’ self which is what I usually understand myself to be.
GOING ON A PICNIC
So, just to give a simple example, suppose that I want to go on a picnic and so I work out where to go and when would be a good time to go, and I make arrangements with everyone that I hope to go on the picnic with. And then, when I have done all the planning, and thought out all the details with regard to what nice stuff to bring (the picnic won’t be any good if I forget this!) then I do the controlling bit, i.e. I pile everyone in the car and I drive to the spot that I have chosen. And then, when we get to the picnic spot, I can drop all the planning and the controlling, I can just let go and enjoy the picnic.
This is an excellent example of the how thinking and planning can be useful – in fact more than useful, of how they are pretty much vital. Without organization the picnic will be a disaster – no one will know when we are going or where we are going and when we do get there we will find that no food has been packed. But although vital the directed aspect of this endeavour is still of secondary importance – if I can’t let go when I get there and enjoy the picnic then there is absolutely no point whatsoever to all that careful organization. It was ‘wasted effort’. If I get there, and I can’t stop with the thinking and the planning and the controlling then the spontaneous self – so to speak – never gets a look in. I can’t relax, I can’t switch off, I can’t stop worrying about this, that and the other. I can’t stop telling people what to do.
This is of course exactly what happens in neurosis – there never is any such thing as ‘letting go’ to enjoy the fruits of our planning, and so the whole endeavour becomes pointless, the actual meaning of it all has been lost. I am planning for the sake of planning, controlling for the sake of controlling, and the supposed ‘picnic’ was only ever another pretext to justify the continued existence of the disconnected rational controller, which never had the slightest intention of ‘letting go’.
Purposefulness that won’t switch off when the job is done is like a sort of rust that just eats everything up. It spreads and spreads and spreads until there is nothing else left – beforehand there was an expanse of bright, shining metal, and now there is nothing but red, crumbly rust. Anyone looking at that dull and crumbly mass of rust would have no way of knowing that beneath it – hidden away, so to speak – there was this marvellous bright, shiny surface. In the same way when we are eaten up by the rust of neurotic controlling and neurotic thinking no one can tell that the brightness of the spontaneous self (which looks nothing like the rust at all) lies hidden underneath. If you start talking about the spontaneous self people won’t know what you are going on about.
Instead of talking about rust, we could use the metaphor of weeds in a garden: suppose I have a fine big garden with lots of fertile soil and plenty of space for growing flowers or shrubs or fruit trees or vegetables or whatever I want. Using this metaphor, we could say that over-valued purposefulness (or over-valued rationality) is the weed and the fertile soil is the under-valued spontaneous mind. Over-valued purposefulness is a particularly voracious weed, very much like Giant Hogweed or Japanese Knotweed, in the way that it runs amok and takes over all the available space, not allowing anything apart from itself to grow. On the face of things it may seem pretty peculiar to talk about the purposeful mind as a virulent, runaway weed but a moment’s reflection is all that is needed to show how apt this metaphor actually is. All we need to do is consider the example of over-valued thinking, which is where I am constantly being run ragged by random thoughts about this, that, and the other, and everything else in-between. For anyone who has had this experience – which is probably all of us – we can see that the over-valued and consequently over-active thinking is very much like a weed in the way that it greedily takes over all the available space, like some kind of insatiable monster. From the moment I wake up in the morning, to the moment I finally manage to fall asleep at night, my thinking dominates everything else, continually chewing things over and over, like a dog with a particularly delicious bone.
And it doesn’t even matter whether the topics my over-active mind picks up on and chews over are important or not – any sort of trivial nonsense will do, just as long as it gives my thinking something to be working away at. Fertile earth without any weeds growing all over it is a fantastically rare occurrence – it can happen, once in a blue moon perhaps, but it hardly ever does. For example, I might occasionally wake up without a thought in my head, in a state of perfect peace, but before I even get a chance to appreciate the beauty of this moment a thought will appear, like a nefarious pop-up on a virus-infested PC, straightaway trying to sell me some sort of useless crap. The over-valued thinking moves in straight away, it takes root and proliferates, it takes hold for the day and I cannot shake it off. I can’t shift it – no matter how hard I try.
SPACE IS PROFOUND AND CREATIVE
This moment of no-thinking is not only rare, it is incomparably profound. It is far more valuable and rich and creative than we imagine it to be. Somehow we are culturally predisposed to de-value the space between our thoughts, we brush such gaps (rare and precious as they are) aside dismissively and move on to the next banal thought, the next tedious rumination – which in all probability is a thought or rumination we have already had a million times without it ever doing us the slightest bit of good. But it doesn’t make any difference at all how crappy or useless the thought is – as soon as it comes along I ‘run with it’, I buy into it, I jump on board and I follow it through to see where it leads, even though I really ought to know by now that it will get me nowhere. Perversely, I still prefer the crappy old thought, which I’ve had a million times already, to the incomparably profound and wonderfully peaceful space (or ‘gap’) that lies between the thoughts.
What I am actually doing is trading that moment of peace, that moment of unique profundity, for the first thought to come along, no matter how trivial and pointless that thought might be. The reason I do this is because I can’t help believing that the thought is going to take me somewhere interesting, that it is going to deliver some valuable insight, that it is in some way going to benefit or enrich me. Even if this never ever actually happens, I still persist in hoping that this time it will be different, that this time it will deliver the goods, like a fruit-machine pumping out a bucket-load of pound coins when I finally hit the jack-pot. I don’t of course hope this consciously every time a thought comes along – it is more of an unconscious or unreflective thing, but ‘hopeful anticipation’ is still the basic, underlying motivation. This is true even for anxious or fearful thoughts – the thought scares me, and so in this case what I hopefully anticipate is that the thought will show me some way out, some way of either fixing or avoiding the problem. Whether the thought in question is attractive or aversive in nature makes no difference – I can’t wait to buy into it either way. Either way, I still can’t wait to rush in eagerly with my money in my hand (so to speak) and make the ‘trade-off’ – the trade-off of the immense richness and spaciousness of intrinsic space for the poverty of repetitive empty thinking.
THOUGHTS ARE ‘ATTENTION MAGNETS’
What sucks me in is the feeling that I might miss out on something if I don’t go with the thought. Or that I might be at risk. It dangles something enticing in front of my nose and I automatically buy into it. I automatically give it my attention just like a naïve customer handing over his hard-earned cash to a crooked but wily second-hand car-dealer. The thought is the baby-kissing politician and I am the gullible voter. These proliferating over-valued thoughts are however not fertile and they do not yield good fruit. Instead, they yield nothing but thorns and inedible (if not downright poisonous) foliage. They are quintessentially sterile because they are not a new way of looking at things, but the same old way, recycled a billion times. They are like repeats of a TV show, being broadcast for the umpteenth time by some crappy cheapskate TV company.
And yet despite the fact that they produce nothing wholesome, nothing nutritious, but are only good at ‘taking up space’ – I keep on handing over all my precious attention to these mechanically repetitious thoughts, day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year. They still keep pulling me in. The genuinely valuable ‘fertile soil’ of the spontaneous mind is sacrificed to them, because to my hasty and extraordinarily unreflective rational mind this is not where the ‘good stuff’ is to be found. In fact the rational or purposeful mind doesn’t even have any conception of the purpose-less spontaneous mind. It doesn’t know anything about intrinsic space, and it doesn’t want to know anything about it. Whatever is of no use to the rational mind for the fulfilment of its plans, no use to it in realizing its goals, is completely and utterly invisible to it. The irrelevant is of no interest whatsoever to the purposeful mind, and yet it is in the irrelevant that the true beauty and meaning of life lies.
This situation gives rise to a curious sort of an irony (a ‘tragic irony’, one might say) in that our addiction to the ‘apparently useful’ engine of our rational thinking provides us with nothing but recycled banality and triviality, and at the very same time it cheats us out of the beauty and profundity which lie in abundance all around us. I am being pulled by my automatic non-stop thinking in the ‘wrong direction’ practically the entire time I am awake, and the only time I do get a break is when I am asleep. This is not to say that all thinking is useless and counterproductive, but only that thinking which is over-valued and which has ‘taken over the garden’ is useless and counterproductive. The problem is however that this is almost always the case. As we have said, the only time there can be thinking that is not over-valued is when the spontaneous self is in its rightful place, when free consciousness is not entirely ‘sucked up’ in a constant stream of nonsensical rational thinking, and this is hardly ever the case.
If anyone were to doubt this pessimistic-sounding assertion he or she would only have to sit still somewhere for an hour and observe what their rational mind gets up to (i.e. to notice the kind of ridiculous, trivial and random thoughts that it gives our energy and attention to) to realize that this state of affairs is almost entirely ubiquitous. It’s true for all of us, to a greater or lesser extent. Our attention – which though we may not really appreciate it is the most valuable gift that we have – is given over willy-nilly to whatever the fully-automated machine of the rational-conceptual mind randomly wants to chew over next. Our precious attention is squandered every day on useless baubles, and when it is depleted (as it inevitably will be) we feel exhausted and empty without knowing why.
This ‘rusting process’ – the process by which the rich, fertile earth is taken over by an impenetrably thick layer of proliferating weeds, is what chemists and physicists call irreversible, i.e. rust doesn’t of its own accord turn back into shiny metal, and weeds don’t go away again of their own accord once they have taken hold. Irreversibility is a harsh word easily said in anger – its out before we know it but once it is out we cannot ‘unsay’ it. The well-known verse by Omar Khayyam illustrates the principle of irreversibility as only poetry can –
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
From a psychological point of view, the rusting process is typified by the heedless acquisition of a bad habit. A bad habit can be acquired so easily that we don’t even notice it happening, but once it has been acquired it is not going to be easily ‘lost’ in the same easy way. We can lose it, but an awful lot of work is needed to do so, and not just ordinary work either (i.e. the work of striving methodically for some sort of a goal) but the work of ‘dis-identification’, which is ‘work without a goal, and without a method’. And what we call ‘bad habits’ are only one example of a much larger, much more universal class of behaviours – a class which comes under the general heading of ‘conditioning’ or ‘rule-based behaviours’. Given that conditioning is a modality of perception, thinking and behaving that is strictly governed by rules, it is very easy to see why goals and methods and procedures and the like cannot be used in order to become free from conditioning, since all that would be happening in that case would be the substitution of one type of conditioning for another.
We can clearly see why over-valued purposefulness (which is where the directed modality of consciousness ‘takes over’ and becomes all that we know) should be an irreversible process by considering what happens when we do try to reverse it. Naturally enough, we only want to reverse the process when it constricts our freedom so much that it actually starts to hurt us. We don’t notice it until this point. My thinking, for example, will not be a cause for concern for me just because it is more-or-less compulsive and more-or-less random since I don’t know any different way to be. My thinking may hop from like the fabled grass-hopper from one subject to another all day long but because I am happy enough to go along with it this doesn’t generally bother me. When it turns into what we call ‘negative thinking’ however (i.e. worrying, obsessing, catastrophizing, self-blaming, and so on) then it does of course cause me concern and because it causes me concern I do my best to stop it, only to discover that I can’t, that I’m simply not able to. I’m not able to stop it because I run slap-bang into a glitch, a very big snag. The tide I am attempt to turn back is as we have been saying the tide of purposefulness, the tide of controlling, and the means by which I am trying to reverse that tide is also by purposefulness, by control. This – for very obvious reasons – is never going to work. I am never going to be able to return to my original spontaneous self by purposeful means, any more than the rusting process can be used to reverse itself, and somehow return the rusted-up metal to its original shiny-silvery condition. I might as well try to cure myself of alcoholism by taking a drink, or cure myself of anxiety by worrying at length about it.
THE ESSENTIAL GLITCH
Let us say that my problem is that I am always instructing myself to do this, that or the other, and that this is the only way I will ever do something – if I first order myself or coerce myself to do it. So this wretchedly unhappy situation (for that is what it is) at last comes to my attention and – in a convulsive, automatic attempt to fix the problem – I instruct myself to stop instructing myself the whole time. And as I do this, the chances are that I still don’t see the insanity of what I am doing. Instructing myself (which is to say, purposefulness) is the only thing I know and I just don’t have any alternative open to me. I am Maslow’s carpenter whose only tool is a hammer.
There is a whole broad spectrum of counterproductive fixing in which this – the essential glitch behind all neurotic suffering – may manifest itself: I recriminate against myself for my habit of self-recrimination, I complain about my own complaining, I get anxious about the possibility that I might get anxious, I analyze why I am analyzing all the time, I think about how I can stop thinking all the time, and so on. This is purposefulness feeding on purposefulness, purposeful attacking purposefulness, purposefulness trying to undo the harm caused by runaway purposeful. This is me trying to control my own out-of-control controlling. My attempt to stem the tide of rust creates even more rust – my attempt to do something about the problem is the very problem itself and so the problem escalates and escalates, it turns into a neurotic nightmare that I just can’t seem to wake up out of.
When this happens and I am clearly not able to help myself out of the situation I am in, the mental health services come to my assistance, and – more often than not – they try to teach me new improved ways of controlling myself not to be anxious, new improved ways of controlling myself not to think depressing thoughts, new improved ways of controlling myself not to be angry or self-recriminating, or self-hating or whatever it is that constitutes my particular variant of neurosis. Almost always – at least in the traditional approaches – the problem is still being seen as a failure in control, lack of control, or the wrong type of control, which means that the solution must be sought in the form of a more efficient or better-targeted type of control. We just don’t seem to be capable of seeing that neurotic suffering is not to be cured by me personally taking on the responsibility to ‘do something’ about it, as if I wasn’t – in my fear and insecurity – taking on too much responsibility already. But because we value the directed modality, the directed mind, the directed self over all else (in fact, as we have said, we are incapable of acknowledging that there is anything else) we are railroaded, by our own assumptions, into thinking that mental health is synonymous with the continued supremacy of the controlling rational mind. We have no way of thinking about mental health other than to say that it must be synonymous with the ability of the ‘rational controller,’ what Jung calls the ‘ego-consciousness’, to continue to rule the roost unimpeded or unhampered by any unconscious (i.e. spontaneous) factors that are not under its control, not under its jurisdiction.
TWO DEFINITIONS OF MENTAL HEALTH
Somehow, we are culturally indisposed to seeing that the healthy response to neurosis is for us to learn to trust ourselves more, and to get better, as a result of trusting ourselves more, at ‘handing over’ responsibility to the self-organizing processes of the spontaneous psyche. Mental health is not in any way a ‘technical’ matter, in other words, and cannot be arrived at via manipulation. Mental health is defined, in our technological culture, in terms of how much control we have over our own mental processes, rather than in terms of how able we are – in day-to-day – events, to let go of our rational agendas, our goals, when they are no longer appropriate to the situation. The art of ‘letting go’ is profoundly under-valued whilst the technology of enforcing our personal will – no matter whimsical or ill-advised our intentions might be – is extravagantly and unwisely over-valued, with the result that our idea of ‘good mental health’ is a spectacularly dangerous form of insanity.
CONTROLLING THE SPONTANEOUS MIND
It is the enforcing of personal will, irregardless of other, more important factors, that is valued in our modern consumerism-based culture, rather than the more traditional virtue of putting this infantile wilfulness in second place – deposing it unceremoniously from its ‘throne of glory’, as it were. As Malcolm Timbers says, however, the structure and dynamics of a consumer-based culture rely fundamentally upon the glorification of infantile wilfulness (i.e. the feeling that we have every right to immediately gratify every whim that comes into – or is placed into – our heads) and so it is natural that the system in question would take the opportunity to reinforce our wilfulness, our valuing of personal control, at every turn. Rather than supporting us in trusting to the innate wisdom of the self-organizing dynamics of the age-old spontaneous psyche, therefore, our culture conditions us to mistrust nature, as it were, and turn instead to the technological/pharmacological tools that we have at our disposal, which can themselves be sold to us in the form of consumer goods and services. The point of all this is to enable us to manipulate the unruly spontaneous mind into behaving itself again, and allowing us thereby to return to our narrow rational games – the very games that the spontaneous mind is rebelling against. The irony is that neurotic distress is the inevitable consequence of too much control, too much rationality, and we respond with even more control, even more rationality.
THE ‘BLANK TIDAL WAVE’
It is regularly said that we are an ‘image-obsessed’ culture – that we are overly concerned with surface-level appearances, with descriptions, definitions, labels, titles, and so on. This tends to be said either in a moralistic, critical sort of a way, or in the manner of a person admitting to a little foible. Criticism or moralization is no help at all however – all judgement (all ideas of how things should or shouldn’t be) derives from a framework, and ‘a framework’ is at root the very same thing as an image since images, concepts and evaluations have to be constructed on the basis of frameworks. So it is not helpful to say that we shouldn’t be image-obsessed anymore than it is helpful is to say we shouldn’t be so rational or controlling about everything because this is simply falling into the same old trap, the same old glitch as ever – trying to use rust to get rid of rust, rationality to get rid of rationality.
But it’s no good thinking that being image-obsessed is a fault or weakness that we can afford to ignore either. Being eaten up by our own shallow images and concepts the whole time is no mere foible – it is a form of living death, it is a grotesque parody of authentic life, like a ballet performed by corpses. It is the ‘blank tidal wave’ to which James Moore refers, it is the mind-virus which imperceptibly erodes our individuality and leaves us mere ‘generic human beings’ – the passive products of an image-based mass culture, looking the way people look in adverts, talking the way people talk in films, looking at the world in the way that the media looks at the world, and so on.
The only approach that doesn’t embroil us straightaway into the essential neurotic glitch is bringing free or unconditioned consciousness to bear on whatever is going on – noticing it without judging it, without saying to ourselves what it ‘means’ in relation to whatever framework of thinking happens to be lodged in our heads at the time. This sounds like a complete impossibility – after all, if I was able to look at the world in an unconditioned way, without immediately and compulsively categorizing everything according to the way I have been brought up to think about things, then I would be free already, and so I wouldn’t need to free myself. But the point that we always forget is that deep down we are free already, underneath all the rust and all the rational purposefulness we are spontaneous beings. It’s not about changing who I am, which is what I am always trying to do one way or another – its simply about having insight into who I am, and insight is something that occurs spontaneously, of its own accord, just as soon as I stop fighting against it the whole time.
WE ARE FREE DESPITE OURSELVES
What ‘insight’ means is not learning some new technique, some new skill, some new way of life, but noticing how we actually are already, before any attempt is made to somehow change (or ‘improve’) ourselves. Everything we do we do freely because freedom – which is the same thing as intrinsic space – is our essential nature. When we tie ourselves up in knots we do this freely, when we constrict ourselves into a tight little box of thinking and reacting we do this freely, when we limit ourselves with rules we do this freely, and so all we need to do is to notice this essential freedom – to notice the intrinsic space which is our true nature, and which we are forever trying to eliminate with all of our frantic purposefulness. We are free despite ourselves – despite our very best efforts to the contrary. We are also aware despite ourselves – despite all our ongoing attempts to distract ourselves with pointless nonsense, to distract ourselves with the proliferating products of rationality. This means that we are free at any time to ‘tune into’ this freedom, this awareness, which is there the whole time despite our best efforts to cover it up.
THE PURPOSEFUL SELF V THE SPONTANEOUS SELF
The purposeful or directed self is made up of the thoughts which we have about the world. The directed self is our thoughts, our thinking, and so no amount of thinking (or strategizing) can free ourselves from it. This is why the directed self can never be free from anxiety and insecurity – because it is so lacking in basis. In order for this self to continue seeming real and solid to me I have to be careful to be always looking at the world in the same very narrow and superficial way, and what is more I can’t let myself know that I am under pressure to keep looking at the world in this extraordinarily narrow and superficial way. This creates a very claustrophobic (or ‘space-less’) situation for the conditioned or purposeful self – it is incredibly pressurized and at the same time it cannot admit to that pressure or else it would start to see how untenable its basis really is. Instead of admitting to this pressure (the pressure or compulsivity caused by its own inherent ‘lack of space’) the conditioned self is forced into living in an unreflective way, it is compelled to concern itself exclusively with goals and concepts and images – which are of course nothing more than its own unacknowledged projections.
The spontaneous self, on the other hand, is not anything specific. It isn’t a concept or an image, it isn’t a thought or belief, or a defined and regulated structure, but rather it is the intrinsic space out of which all these concepts and images and thoughts and beliefs freely arise from. We dismiss it on a daily basis because it doesn’t fit into any of our categories, any of our ideas about how things should be. We don’t take it seriously because we can’t name it, because we can’t point to it with the rational mind and say what it is, what it is about. In fact, it’s not so much that we don’t seriously, but that we get by in a state of total ignorance about it – like a man who lives in a tremendously spacious palace full of precious artefacts and beautiful works of art, and yet doesn’t see any of them.
WHICH SELF AM I?
The question we are always faced with (even though we don’t as a rule realize it, since we don’t know that there is any alternative to the well-worn, well sign-posted and well-lit highway which we are already so very familiar with) is “Which road will I go down?” Or, to put it another way – “Which self am I – am I the purposeful self or the spontaneous self?”
Am I the tightly-wound knot of controlling and reacting that I daily experience myself to be, the motley conglomeration of habits and ideas and beliefs that I have somehow picked up along the way, as an ocean-going vessel picks up barnacles on its hull, or am I the free space around that tight knot of controlling? Am in the conditioning that I have been imprinted with, or am I the free or spontaneous consciousness which has been subjected to the imprinting? Am I the definition, or what is being defined? Am I the name, or what is being named? Am I what is being pointed at, or am I the one who is doing the pointing? Am I the tame and reliable pattern that obeys the rule, or ‘the life that occurs unbidden’? Am I the regulated and repetitive movement of stagnant water which always stays within the channel that has been dug for it, on its routine way from a known point of origin to a known destination, or am I the lively stream that flows where it will, the serene and unhurried river that empties into the limitless ocean?
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.