To be ‘unconscious’ is to be unable to question oneself in any meaningful way. I can’t question my thinking, I can’t question what my thinking tells me about myself and the world. Another way of putting this is simply to say that when I am the unconscious modality of existence (which is the default way to be) then I automatically agree with myself. In order to see the world in the definite way that I do, it is necessary for me to choose a particular way of looking at that world, and then steadfastly take the position that there was no choice about it. I ‘have to take the position that I have not taken a position’. This is absolutely essential – without this ‘double manoeuvre’ there will be no limits, no boundaries, and without limits or boundaries there is no form, only formlessness. We cannot imagine what this ‘formlessness’ is like, but the semi-repressed glimpses that we might occasionally have of it generally lead us to envisage it as being something repellent, something we really don’t want anything to do with. The repressed intimations of just what ‘formlessness’ means tends to drive us in the opposite direction as fast as ever we can go. We want to ‘firm things up’ as much as possible and that is why we live our lives in ‘the world of form’. There is a price to pay for availing of the existential security afforded us by the realm of form however and that is the price of hidden redundancy.
If I am only to believe in the statements that I see as being true because of the hidden choices I have made in order to see them as being true, then this is a loop. If I see something to be true, and I assert this truth as being true then this sounds like I am relating meaningfully to a reality outside of myself and this supposedly honest relationship between me and an external reality constitutes a basic type of sanity for me. The ‘sanity’ arises out of the fact that I have not manufactured that supposed truth for my own purposes. But if we consider the principle of the psychological double-manoeuvre, which says that I cannot see the world in a definite way unless I see it via the mechanism of my ‘unconscious information processing bias’, then this means that everything I perceive with my conditioned perception is what it appears to be only as a result of me ‘agreeing with myself’ (which is to say, everything I see I see as a result of me agreeing with the unexamined sets of biases that I am using to see things). This self-referential operation is at all times wholly and utterly redundant, and the only reason that I do not perceive the statements that I make on the basis of this self-referentiality as being ‘devoid of information’ is because the self that perceives the statement that it itself has made is just as null as the statement.
THE CONCRETE SELF CANNOT ENGAGE IN GENUINE COMMUNICATION
The way out of this sterile loop of unreality is, as we have said, by not taking things literally. This is a question of communication. True communication obviously involves a reaching out beyond the limits of one’s self, which is an insurmountable obstacle for the self since the one thing the self cannot do – without ceasing to be a self, that is – is to reach out beyond its own boundaries! We don’t see this to be the case but it is. For this reason true communication is a thing that the self abstemiously does without, substituting in its place the frustrating phantom of false communication, which is the same thing that we have called ‘virtual information’ (or ‘confirmation’). Confirmation is entirely ‘non-ironic’ – nothing else is intended or alluded to by the statement that I have made other than the sense that it explicitly has. We all deal to a large extent in confirmation, but at the same time there is usually a healthy tinge of novelty in the mix as well; we can see this to be the case simply by considering the jarring impact it makes on our sensibilities to meet someone who for whatever reason has become totally concrete in their thinking. When this happens we all know straightaway, by some intuitive sense, that something is not right here – we know that communication has been fatally compromised in some way that it is hard for us to put the finger on. Examples of the type of concreteness we are talking about here is provided by alcohol intoxication, neurosis, so-called ‘negative-symptom schizophrenia’, and religious fundamentalism.
Communication is a very good way to understand the difference between the Formless World and the World of Form. The visible and tangible world which we are familiar with (the World of Form) is based on exclusive, i.e. ‘either-or’ logic. Exclusive logic works by excluding, as the name implies, and what exclusive logic excludes is anything that has not already been specified. All those possibilities that have NOT been specified are excluded in a particularly thorough way because there is never at any time any mention of the fact that anything has been excluded. If a secret intelligence agency spirits you away in the middle of the night and you are never heard of again, that is one form of elimination. People will still know that you disappeared however, and so the elimination is not total. On the other hand, if the secret agency that abducts you also wipes out all records of your existence, from your birth certificate onwards, and by some clever means eradicates any memory of you from the minds of all those people who know you, then your elimination will be complete. No one can mount a protest, saying that such-and-such a person has been abducted and disposed of because there isn’t such a person. How can I murder a person who never existed?
Exclusive logic, therefore, ‘murders’ everything that it doesn’t specify and then wipes out all evidence of the crime – the wider reality which it does not allow us to see is just like a person who is first made into a ‘non-person’ and then terminated by a sinister totalitarian government. Since there is no mention of the wider reality we can see that there obviously isn’t any genuine communication with ‘the big picture’ going on in the realm of form and the loss of this genuine communication is made complete by substituting false communication in its place. The reason that communication within the system created by logic is ‘false’ is because it is communication that has a false basis; in other words –
Confirmation-type information only appears like information to us when we remain unaware of the huge blind-spot that was needed to produce it in the first place, i.e. confirmation relies on ‘invisible entropy’.
THE LOGIC OF THE DREAM
We can also explain the World of Form by saying that it is analogous to ‘literal’ (i.e. ‘non-ironic’) communication. All forms of interaction (or communication) must be either ironic or non-ironic in nature, open or closed. Interaction that is open may be said to be genuine interaction inasmuch as it is vulnerable to being radically influenced by what it is interacting with. Obviously enough, if I am interacting with my environment in such a way as no matter what I do, I can never learn any new way of doing (or not doing) what I am doing, then there is no real interaction going on. It’s not ‘two-way’, it’s only ‘my way’! All I know are the instructions, or purposes, that guide my activity and the world, for me, is as a result divided into two camps – stuff that helps me with my plan and stuff that hinders me. Anything that can help me I am interested in and anything that can’t I am profoundly disinterested in. This is like meeting a person in a foreign land who speaks your language, or who belongs to the same secret society – in such a case I am going to shake you by the hand and do business with you because I know that my aims are the same as your aims. As far as the stuff that hinders me is concerned I have no interest in it at all, or, rather I am interested only insomuch as knowledge of it will help me to control it if for whatever reason I need to control it. This type of interaction with the world is a ‘blind’ or ‘dead’ type of interaction; it isn’t really interaction at all since I never see the world for what it is in itself, I only see it in terms of my designs for it (which is to say, in terms of my goals). Closed interaction is more like the activity of a sleep walker who bumbles along heedlessly, utterly oblivious to anything that doesn’t coincide with the logic of his or her dream.
Of course, we ought to add at this point that it is possible to have an external world or environment which is also informed by this same dream logic, in which case the activity of the ‘adapted’ sleepwalker will not look at all bumbling and heedless, but quite the opposite. Adapted sleepwalkers are validated by their environment; their behaviour looks slick because it has successfully adjusted itself to the games that are validated by that environment and so we are naturally impressed by the efficiency of it. Despite the appearance of slickness, or ‘efficiency’ however it is still nothing but sleepwalking since it only makes sense because of the arbitrary logic that is assumed by (or programmed into) their environment. It is still a ‘closed’ interaction because rather than interacting with the world the sleepwalker is interacting with the logic of the dream that is being projected outwards onto the world, and the logic of the dream is the same thing as the logic of the sleepwalker.
This is a fully tautological situation. An interaction between me and myself (or between me and my projected world) is therefore not communication because it is 100% ‘safe’, and therefore 100% ‘dead’. It is perfectly sterile. What meaningful dialogue can there be after all between cult members, who are by definition wholly incapable of ever questioning the flat, humourless, and oppressively dogmatic description of reality that the cult is based upon? Without something ‘new’ in it, something unexpected, some dissent, some breath of fresh air, there is nothing to save communication from becoming mere confirmation (i.e. the redundant ‘self-humouring’ of a thing that agrees with itself).
A CIRCLE THAT CANNOT SEE ITSELF TO BE A CIRCLE
Closed or non-ironic interaction comes down to no more than an arbitrary set of prejudices that bloody-mindedly insists on repeating itself over and over again, ad nauseam, for no good reason at all. In a sense there is a reason because an unconscious pattern of biases (which is to say, a prejudice that has no perspective on itself, no other point of view), always perceives itself as being right, and thus it always believes in the meaningfulness of striving to assert itself over and over again for ever and ever. But the pattern’s reason for promoting itself exists only in its only narrow, closed-off way of looking at things, and so as we have said the whole thing is tautological. Looking at this in terms of the sense of the me (which is always inextricably linked with some or other arbitrary pattern of biases that cannot see its own arbitrary nature) we can say that the meaningfulness that the ‘me’ has for itself, which is to say, the sense that it has of its own unquestionable validity, is tautologically created by the fact that it only looks at things in such a way that validates its own viewpoint, and that particular ‘self-validating (i.e. ‘redundant’) viewpoint’ is in fact what the ‘me’ actually is. Alan Watts makes this point in a slightly different way in the following passage taken from Become What You Are (P24-5):
If, then, we act, or refrain from action, with a result in mind – that result is not the Tao. We can say, then, that mui is not seeking for any result. Of course, this doesn’t means that a Taoist comes to the table without expecting dinner, or gets on a bus to go nowhere special. I am talking of results in the moral and spiritual sphere – such things as goodness, peace of mind, sanity, happiness, personality, courage, and so forth.
Well then, is it possible for me to stop seeking for these results? Surely, the very question implies that I still have a result in mind, even if this is the state of not seeking results. It seems, therefore, that I am helpless, that I am simply unable to think or act without some result in mind. It makes no difference whether I do or don’t do: I am still, compulsively, helplessly, seeking a result. So I find myself in a teleological trap. I must purpose. I might almost say, I am purpose.
Now this is an immensely important discovery. For it means that I have found out what I, what my ego, actually is – a result-seeking mechanism. Such a mechanism is a rather useful gadget when the results in question are things like food or shelter for the organism. But when the results which the mechanism seeks are not external objects but states of itself, such as happiness, the mechanism is all clutched-up. It is trying to life itself by its own bootstraps. It is working purposefully, as it must, but to no purpose. It is looking for results in terms of itself. It wants to get results from the process of looking for results. This is a hopelessly and wildly fouled-up feedback mechanism. There is, however, just this one possibility. It can realize the whole round circuit of the trap in which it lies. It can see the entire futility and self-contradiction of its position. And it can see that it can do nothing whatsoever to get itself out of it. And this realization of “I can do nothing” is precisely mui. One has mysteriously succeeded in doing nothing.
At this moment, there is a sudden shift in the centre of gravity of one’s whole personality. You simply find yourself outside the trap, outside the result-seeking mechanism, which now appears as a sort of object which has purposes all to no purpose. You see yourself as a purpose-seeking creature, but realize that there is no purpose to the existence of such a creature. In relationship to everything except your own preservation, you are marvellously futile. Your aim is to preserve and perpetuate yourself, but in the larger context of the universe there is no reason, no purpose for this aim.
Thus, we can say that when I do not see the futility of my goals (within the greater context) then these goals and the information relating to them comes under the heading of ‘confirmation’. Confirmation is futility in disguise, therefore – its ‘dead information’. The self, as Watts says, is inextricably bound up in its own need to seek results – it is a ‘result seeking mechanism’! My primary act of self-deception is therefore the act by which I validate my goals, and prevent myself from thereby glimpsing their fundamental redundancy.
Goal-orientated behaviour is by definition literal because the results that we are trying to attain are a literal expression of the ideas that we have about the world, which we accept implicitly and quite automatically just as soon as we start to do anything at all. The literalism of the interaction which proceeds on the basis of this ‘uncritical acceptance of our starting off point’ means that nothing new can ever happen and so our attempt to reach out into the world via our purposeful activity is aborted right from its inception, and becomes nothing more than the closed circle of a statement that agrees with itself – the ‘closed circle that cannot see itself to be closed’. As Alan Watts says in the passage reproduced above, if the circle of the self were to see its own circularity – if it were to see the inherent redundancy of its perennial attempts to reach out beyond itself (or ‘do something that is not a repeat of what has already been done’) – then at that very moment one would be free from the deadly trap of purposefulness. Escape from the non-ironic perception of oneself and the resultant desire to ‘obtain success on our own terms’ is thus the result of the perception of the pure and unequivocal self-contradiction (i.e. redundancy) inherent in all literal statements!
Another way to arrive at the principle of transcendence is to say that when we don’t immediately ‘rush forward’ – as we almost always do – in the automatic sequence of  evaluating or categorizing and  accepting our evaluation or categorization as being literally true’ and then  acting on the basis of what we have taken to be ‘literally true,’ then we stand a chance of escaping from the sterile merry-go-round of unconsciousness. The problem when we do rush heedlessly forward (in the sequence given above) is that we make what we might call a ‘fatal error’ – we mistake the arbitrary system of conventions (or ‘signs’) as being a true description of the world which these conventions supposedly represent. The error is that we short-sightedly imagine reality to be something that can be ‘literally described’.
LIES THAT CANNOT SEE THEMSELVES TO BE LIES
Being concrete (or literal) means that I fail to see that the system of signs which I use to communicate with are in fact a system of signs and take them to be the actual reality about which they are supposed to be communicating. This is an ‘unforgivable’ error in the sense that once it has been made it cannot be corrected for, because the error instantly wipes out any possibility that we might have of being aware of it. We have closed the door to uncertainty. A system of communication is only any good when we can see it that it is a system of communication – which is to say, when we use it is an ironic rather than a literal way. Ironic communication is therefore communication that is ‘self-aware’ – it is self-aware because we are ‘consciously’ or ‘openly’ lying, and so we are not lying at all. Literal communication, on the other hand, takes itself very seriously indeed – it takes it totally for granted that it is composed of truths rather than lies, and so it really is ‘a lie’! When I lie in a playful way, making open reference in my communication to the fact that I am lying then this is genuine communication, but when I lie in a serious fashion, excluding any possibility of anyone (including myself) knowing that I am lying then this ‘communication’ is not really communication at all, but the very antithesis of it.
THE PRINCIPLE OF CORRESPONDENCE
When I am trapped in virtual space without realizing it this is exactly the same situation as that of a hamster running on a hamster wheel – on the surface there is movement but beneath the surface there is none. There is movement but because I am travelling in a closed loop I never actually get anywhere. When in such a situation I am faced with the choice of either limiting my perceptions to the superficial level (which is a way of avoiding the pain of seeing that my activity is futile) or seeing what’s happening (or rather not happening) on the deeper level, which inevitably involves the profoundly painful perception of the fact that I have been fooling myself. Here again therefore we find a classic example of the principle of self-deception, an example which parallels exactly Kierkegaard’s dictum that we avoid the central psychological fact of ‘angst’ by throwing ourselves into apparently meaningful external endeavours. Kierkegaard’s philosophy is far from being pessimistic or nihilistic however because he always maintains that it is possible to rise above the conflicted situation of being in denial of the meaninglessness of one’s life by confronting that meaninglessness head on. The implication here would appear to be that personal or subjective meaninglessness can only hold the horror that it does to us because of the contrast that exists between false meaning and genuine meaning – without that contrast then the situation would not be the predicament that it so-painfully is. One way of getting at this is to ask, “If there were nothing to lose, then how could the tragedy of loss ever exist?” Or better still, “If there were no genuine article, how could there ever be such a thing as a counterfeit copy?”
WISDOM THROUGH FOLLY
In the context that we have been using the term ‘self-deception’ means that we distract ourselves from what is genuinely true by focussing superficially on what is theatrically true. Deception may be defined by saying that it is a movement designed to draw us away from the truth, in such as way that we never notice that we have been drawn away. On one level this is exactly what deception does, it causes us to forget the truth, to become disconnected from it. On a more subtle level however – if we pay attention to the mechanism – we can also see that deception actually draws our attention to the truth, albeit in an indirect and ‘unintended’ way. A lie indirectly draws our attention to the truth because of the principle mentioned above, i.e. “If there were no such thing as the truth, then were would the need to lie come form?” In The Mystics of Islam Reynold Nicholson (1914, P 100) notes the existence of some sort of higher principle by which the apparently fundamental duality of good and evil itself is transcended; arguing that ‘evil itself is turned to good for the righteous’, he quotes Jalal-ud-din:
Fools buy false coins because they are like the true.
If in the world no genuine minted coin
Were current, how would forgers pass the false?
Falsehood were nothing unless truth were there,
To make it specious. ‘Tis the love of right
Lures men to wrong. Let poison but be mixed
With sugar, they will cram it into their mouths.
Oh, cry not that all creeds are vain! Some scent
Of truth they have, else they would not beguile.
Say not, ‘How utterly fantastical!’
No fancy in the world is all untrue.
Amongst the crowd of dervishes hides one,
One true fakir. Search well and thou wilt find!
When we talk about ‘the healthiness of being sick’ in general (and the healthiness of neurosis in particular) what we are saying is that in ‘the truth of the avoidance’ that is made obvious by the neurosis there lies the key redemptive factor. If we ‘go the whole hog’, and see what lies at the very end of our neurotic attempt to avoid the pain of the truth that we do not wish to see, then it is absolutely impossible that we will not be redeemed by what we will discover. As sixth century Chinese master Miao-lo says in On the Proof of the Lotus Sutra, “When a person falls to the ground, he raises himself from the same ground.” Similarly, one of Blake’s ‘Proverbs from Hell’ states that ‘if the fool were to persist in his folly he would become wise’. What this means is that when we make a mistake whole-heartedly, and press forward to the ultimate conclusion of that mistake, then the process is self-curing since when we really see what it is that we have bought for ourselves as a result of the deal that we have done with the mechanism of unconsciousness, then it becomes utterly and completely impossible to harbour any further illusions regarding the wholesomeness of this product. In other words, when I paint myself into a psychological corner with my futile, self-defeating attempts to hide from the truth, then I have in effect set myself up to see with the utmost clarity the horrifically sterile and impossible nature of my predicament. My attempts to escape from pain are revealed to me as the cause of even greater pain, and so the inescapable law that we are looking at here can be expressed like this –
Whatever degree of suffering it is that I require to finally drive this lesson home to myself is the degree of suffering which I will inevitably end up subjecting myself to!
MODERATED FOLLY IS NOT SELF-CORRECTING
However, there is some scope for ‘playing about’ with this law so that we don’t have to learn the lesson for a long, long time – there is a kind of a ‘loop-hole’ which means that we can indefinitely extend the self-healing process and this loop-hole is exploited very thoroughly indeed by contemporary technological (or ‘control-based’) culture. We have advanced techniques of self-distraction, advanced pain-killing pharmaceutical technology which means that we don’t have to feel the curative pain that is attendant upon our collective ‘mistake’. We are all neurotic, in other words, but we just aren’t neurotic enough. Our neurosis is effectively concealed beneath our outer success. The situation that we find ourselves in therefore is one of ‘moderated folly’ (or ‘managed folly’), which is ‘folly that I do not learn from’. The way in which I can know if I am not learning from my folly is if I still harbour within me the secret or not-so-secret belief that whatever form of avoidance it is that I am prone to practising is actually viable if only I could get it right. Addiction is a good example – addiction we might say is positive avoidance rather than negative because I avoid the situation where I don’t get what I want. So if I am a drinker for example, I go on a binge because I believe that I really do stand a chance of obtaining the type of high that I want from it. I think that the good I will get out of drinking has some sort of real value. Of course, the buzz that I am chasing is fundamentally illusory and so I end up with nothing except an empty pocket and a metaphorical bad taste in my mouth.
If I had learned my lesson right, which is that I am chasing after a phantom that can never be caught because it doesn’t exist, then I would be cured of the root-cause of my addiction (which is the stubborn belief that the illusion of the euphoric state which we aim for is somehow real, rather than being a ‘transient tease’). But if I moderate or manage the folly of my addiction, and pull back in time to regain the stability of my everyday life, and act as if I hadn’t nearly screwed everything up, then I will still be hankering after doing it all over again, and I will do it all over again. I will continue to believe in the legitimacy of the ‘release’ that drinking affords me. As long as I keep making forays into my vice, whatever it is, and managing to ‘save the situation’ again afterwards, then even when I don’t allow myself to indulge in the forbidden pleasure, it will look very sweet indeed to me. In fact, as we all know, the more I hold myself back and deny the pleasure, the more tempting it looks! But if I were to get to the root of things, then the only discovery I could possibly make is that the pleasure is hollow – I would find out that what I call ‘pleasure’ is actually pain in disguise, and this would constitute a radically new and immeasurably valuable insight –
Once I see that ‘euphoria equals disguised dysphoria’ (i.e. once I see that all pleasure is fundamentally hollow) then this changes my life around by 180 degrees because from this point on I stop blindly worshipping pleasure and when I stop orientating myself almost entirely around the short-term, reversible gain which is pleasure then this means that I have ‘become wise’!
REPAIRING THE FALSE SELF
The conditioned world that we have been born into seems to provide us (a few of us, anyway) with all sorts of good things – lovely houses to live in, great food to eat, fine places to visit, wonderful methods of transportation so that we may travel all over the world in comfort, but the one ‘tiny’ thing that it does not provide us with (in fact this thing is actively disallowed) is a genuine or authentic ‘self’ on the basis of which we can enjoy all these marvelous external things with which we are provided. Thus, the neglect (and effective denial) of any genuine inner world (or inner life) and the over-valuation of a glittery external world go hand in hand, and the result is the particularly grotesque type of charade that we see being enacted around us every day – i.e. the modern rational image-based (theatrical) reality where everything is deemed important except the one thing that really is!
Everything about us is real ‘only on the outside’, but we make sure that we never look too deep, or stay still longer enough to notice the unpleasant feelings that start to arise in us in the absence of external stimulation. We worship appearances with an anxious fervour, and whenever we start to feel bad – as we are bound to as a result of our hollowness – we redouble our efforts to ‘take care of the externals’. With a naivety that never seems to be questioned, I imagine that if I possess a fancy car, own an expensive houses, wear stylish clothes and – of course – have great-looking hair and physical features, then all this will naturally permeate inwards and create a happy healthy ‘inner person’ who can then get on with the important business of enjoying the trappings of material success. Basically, we assume that success in the superficial game that we are playing will translate into real terms, and create a ‘true self’ within us that will stand us in good stead for the rest of our lives.
Of course, once we express this assumption in those terms, it immediately starts to look rather shaky, and the opposite proposition begins to look more likely – which is that if we put all our effort into success in a superficial and therefore ultimately meaningless game, then the ‘self’ which we create for ourselves as a result (our ‘prize’, so to speak) will be the superficial and ultimately meaningless ‘pseudo-self’ – the identity which is a generic product of the system to which we have so unwisely adapted. At the very best, all we can end up with is a pretence or mask, a mere surface-level contrivance that fools no one but those who want to be fooled. Furthermore, it is perfectly obvious that my underlying condition or state, whatever that condition or state might be, will unfailingly re-assert itself in time no matter how ‘successful’ I might be on the outside. This is idea can be expressed in a very straightforward way –
No matter what changes I make on the outside, this is not going to effect any real change on the inside – the most it can do is distract me from the fact that there is no change on the inside.
So I can get buy a new car, change my job, move to the south of France, get married to a wonderful woman or man, but before very long the excitement and bliss caused by these changes will ebb away and I will be face to face with my actual ‘internal’ situation (or inner state) again – as the saying has it, “you can run and you can run, but you can’t run away from yourself…” In this case, my ‘self’ simply means the habitual mental state or states which I have created for myself over a long period of time, and this state does not change (at least, not for the better!) until I start to make my game conscious, and take responsibility for whatever it is that I am avoiding. Unfortunately – as we have already said – the social world which we are part of does not support this type of ‘inner work’, and instead of the opportunity to practise genuine psychological work it encourages us to work exclusively in an externally directed or goal-orientated fashion, and because this externally-directed work is exclusive (because it ends up taking all our time and energy) it ends up being ‘work against ourselves’. We’re not working for ourselves at all (even though it feels that we are), we’re working for the system…
If genuine psychological work results in the creation (or discovery) of the true Self, then ‘work-within-the-system-of-society’ results in the construction of the false or socially conditioned self. This is the prize that we end up with, but because its nature is false nothing but misery comes from it. It isn’t so much a prize as a booby-prize, and once we find ourselves in possession of it what we tend to do is make every effort to avoid seeing that we have been sold a rotten or fraudulent product, and do our best to feel good about what we are, and make full use of the ‘validation-type processes’ that go on in society to help us to go on feeling good about ourselves. However, this is still only ever a case of ‘patching up a leaky vessel’ and for this reason we are still chronically prone to feeling bad.
THE TECHNICAL APPROACH TO MENTAL HEALTH
When we start to feel bad as a direct result of being sold the inauthentic socially-constructed self in place of the genuine honest-to-goodness article, the official (socially conditioned) response is to attempt to alleviate all the bad feelings, and at the same time totally disregard any possible significance that they might have. Although we know that persistent physical pain is there because it is telling us that something is going wrong, we adhere to a bizarre theory that says persistent mental pain is due to a malfunctioning of the synapses in the brain, and that the problem exists only here and nowhere else. It is ‘meaningless pain’, in other words – it is quite without any deeper significance. For this reason, our approach is purely technical, just as if we were fixing a broken machine. We don’t teach our ‘mental healers’ psychology or philosophy (and we definitely never touch upon anything like poetry, literature, mysticism or spirituality) but rather we teach them something akin to ‘applied brain chemistry’. This isn’t even a true science, because if you were to study chemistry as the science that it is, then the deep understanding of nature that you would obtain as a result would give you the chance of going beyond mere knowledge into something more profound and more philosophical. But instead we teach those doctors who choose to work in psychiatry a sort of narrow technology, which naturally fosters a dogmatic belief by everyone concerned in the ‘rightness’ of whatever knowledge domain has been taken for granted by that technology.
A technology is always a dangerous thing in this regard, for it only looks in one direction, which is to improve the efficiency of its doing – it never looks at why it is trying to do what it is doing, or what that ‘doing’ means within a wider context. A ‘technologist of the mind’ does feel that he or she needs to study mysticism or existentialism or sociology or literature for example (even keeping up with all the developments in their own narrow field threatens to take more time than they have). And yet, it could be said that there is nothing more pertinent to the study of mental illness than the insights of, for example, classic sociology – after all, without insight into the social system of meaning within which we find ourselves, we become no more than the blind tools of that mechanical system. At the root of all our difficulties lies the conditioned inability to question our assumptions and so when the professionals we go to for help are even more rigid and constrained in their outlook than we are then the healing process that is going on (and which manifests itself through the symptoms that we are suffering from) is almost certain to be thwarted.
In a nutshell, we can say that the problem with the medical approach to ‘what goes on in our minds when we start to feel bad’ has to do with the way in which it completely fails to question the assumption that our normal mode of existence is healthy. As we all know, the medical approach to somatic disorders seeks to return the body to the normatively defined parameters of physiological functioning, and so too, in exactly the same way, psychiatry seeks to return our mental functioning back to normatively defined parameters. This ‘linear interventionism’ (as Professor of Nursing Margaret Newman calls it) is of course appropriate in terms of physiology but few people in psychiatry ever stop to consider the question of whether mental functioning (i.e. the way we perceive and think about the world) can be or ought to be normatively defined. If we were to reflect on the matter we would see that physiological health and mental health are completely and irrevocably different in this regard, as we can see from the following two contrasting definitions:
Whilst physical health is very much a matter of optimization with regard to certain key ‘equilibria’, mental health has to be a journey out of equilibrium (i.e. extrinsically determined and stabilized) values, into non-equilibrium (or genuine individuality) which is of course by its very nature a state that can neither be defined or arrived at by any regulatory process.
MAINTAINING THE LIE
The idea that the way we all understand ourselves and the world is a kind of pathological delusion – a lie that has swallowed us all up – is one which is unlikely to trouble the highly trained and highly socialized ‘technicians of mental health’ we find in typical psychiatric hospital. Indeed, it is such a radically challenging notion that it is pretty much guaranteed to remain incomprehensible for the majority of us, since understanding the argument necessarily involves moving out of the equilibrium zone which is the mass mind of unconsciousness into a position that is not supported by the collective framework of understanding. To put this another way, there is absolutely no way to appreciate what it means to be ‘psychologically unconsciousness’ unless you have become conscious of the unconscious modality and all that it entails, in which case you are by definition no longer ‘unconscious’.
When I am in the unconscious modality, then ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’ since mental health for me consists – as Evelyn Underhill says – of ‘sharing the hallucinations of my neighbours’, which are at all times taken to be the very bedrock of sanity and commonsense. Question this and you question everything, and since the modality of unconsciousness has as its most essential purpose the function of limiting our awareness to a very narrow domain, ‘questioning everything’ is something that we are constitutionally unable to do. We can in fact use this notion of an invisible limitation (or unacknowledged impossibility) as an exhaustive way of defining the unconscious modality:
The function of unconscious mode is to restrict all our questions to those that can be safely asked, whilst at the same time giving the impression to all the ‘users of the modality’ that we have in fact free range of speculation in absolutely all matters. In other words, it delivers constraint and limitation, whilst claiming to provide spaciousness and freedom.
The basic point that we have been making in this discussion is that we can usually avoid legitimate mental pain very easily indeed, at no immediate cost to ourselves, and without having to know that this is what we are doing. The mechanism of pain-avoidance basically comes down to unconsciously manipulating the meaning of what is going on (alternatively, we can say that the mechanism of pain-avoidance is based upon the ‘leeway’ that we have to describe or define reality to ourselves in any way that we want to).
Usually, we have suggested, this sort of thing goes on very smoothly – it is effectively imperceptible to us and this in turn means that the notion that there is such a thing as ‘the unconscious manipulation of meaning’ is completely foreign to us. There are times when the mental pain that has come our way cannot be dealt with so smoothly however, and at such times we resort to more flagrant means of ‘bending the truth’. These instances – we have said – correspond to what we call bad moods, tantrums, negative emotions, and the like. Sometimes, the degree and seriousness of the mental pain (or fear) which we are trying to avoid is so great that we have to resort to resort to even more flagrant and ‘over-the-top’ means of reality manipulation, and this sort of thing corresponds to what we call neurosis. The hidden motivation behind neurosis –of whatever kind – is always to facilitate some kind of pain-avoidance and this is what generates all the active manifestations of ‘perceiving, thinking and behaving’ that constitute the condition. Negative emotions and neurotic conditions may be seen therefore as ‘the unconscious mechanism of pain-avoidance made obvious’.
We can of course look at the mechanism of the unconscious mind the other way around and instead of talking about pain avoidance we could say that there are times when we are driven to distort reality in order to obtain some kind of illicit pleasure or satisfaction. The most general instance of ‘distortion for the sake of pleasure’ would be where we slant things to create for ourselves a more favourable view of ourselves –in other words, the maintenance of a ‘positive self image’. Biblically, this is referred to as ‘pride’ and it was counted quite properly as one of the seven deadly sins! Needless to say, this artificially-nurtured feeling of ‘worth’ (our self-importance) is pretty much normal for everyone, and even when we deliberately set out and try to be ‘not prideful’ (or ‘not self-important’) we still end up deliberately slanting our carefully manufactured self-image in such a way to accord with the ‘politically correct’ idea of what constitutes humility, or ‘ethical correctness’ or whatever. When it comes down to it there is no way to suitably control ourselves so that we manifest a ‘correct self image’ because all self-images are equally phoney and equally fatuous. ‘Correct’ is just a euphemism for ‘what suits me’ and even when I try to do what doesn’t suit me I only do this because it suits me not to suit myself, and so I am still suiting myself. Getting out of this particular double-bind is a cast-iron impossibility – I cannot manipulate myself to stop manipulating, I cannot control myself so that I cease controlling. In short, the system of invisibly biased or slanted representations (which is our thinking) can never escape from its own hidden biases.
The more ‘flagrant’ (i.e. extreme) examples of ‘distorting one’s perception of reality for the sake of obtaining an illegitimate pleasure’ include clinical mania (or elation), and what might be called positive instances of addictive behaviour – which is to say, conditions characterized by the existence of compulsions to repetitively carry out acts of self-gratification that are in fact self-destructive in nature, and which require a distorted view of reality in order to facilitate a life-style within which such acts or such behaviour can be comfortably accommodated and validated. In other words –
We have to manipulate the meaning of what we are doing to an extreme degree in order that we can carry on doing it without feeling bad about what we are doing.
Ultimately, however, it has to be said that this division between the motivation of avoiding illegitimate pain and the motivation of obtaining illegitimate (i.e. undeserved) pleasure is no more than a convention, since in the addictions it is true to say that I am driven by my fear of the pain which comes when I cannot obtain the satisfaction that I crave so badly, whilst in the ‘negatively motivated’ neuroses it is true to say that I am the whole time greedily craving the satisfaction that comes when I successfully avoid mental pain (or fear).
THE ‘HIDDEN BIAS’ WHICH IS ME
When we talk about the ease with which we can manipulate the meaning of our lives this is another way of saying that the subjective world that we live in is surprisingly pliable and obedient – it is a world that we are able to exercise considerable control over, a world that can be edited or otherwise bent to suit our unacknowledged need to see things our own way. In short, I live my life (for the most part) entirely within the sort of world that it suits me to live in. This suggestion might seem preposterous in some respects, since if I live in the sort of world which it suits me to live in, then surely things ought to ‘work out for me the way that I want them to’, and this is manifestly not the case. The idea that we are looking at here is somewhat more subtle than this however:
It is not that we live in a world in which it is always possible to coerce things to be the way we want them to be, but rather that we live in the sort of world where we can always feel totally justified in whatever position we have taken with regard to the question of ‘how things should be’.
What we are talking about therefore is a world where the supreme position of the self never gets challenged – a world which is orientated completely around ‘me’. I can have my will disregarded in all important matters, suffer all manner of awful humiliations and set-backs, take beating upon beating and yet still remain as convinced as ever that the world ought to be running for my benefit. This is such an awesomely stubborn conceit that even a whole life time of reversals may not be enough to make me rethink my position – I will endure my ‘misfortunes’ (as they seem to the narrow and inverted viewpoint of the ‘me’), but it will still not dawn on me that I am looking at everything backwards. Thus, we are not saying that every person creates his or her own world in the usual sense in which this might be understood, but what we are saying is that each and every one of us places his or her hidden slant on the world, a slant which puts us slap-bang in the most important position. Each one of us ‘assumes the throne’, in other words, and the result of taking this central position is that we implicitly assume that everything is there for our benefit, for our gratification, for our entertainment. This particular way of looking at the world changes everything – it creates a sort of distortion that has nothing to with anything except our own deluded system of belief, and this distortion means that we don’t see the world straight at all. Instead of seeing it as it is in itself, we see reality ‘through a glass darkly’ and as a result we create all sorts of painful situations for ourselves.
THE ‘FUTILE’ FREEDOM OF THE SELF
If the idea that we each possess a sort of ‘unimpeded freedom to create our own mental universe’ (i.e. a universe tailor-made to suit our own prejudices) does not scare you, then it ought to! After all, what we are looking at here is the apparently endless capacity which we all have to get totally lost in our own made-up, weirdly but invisibly distorted ‘personalized versions of reality’ which exist for no other reason than to facilitate our escape from legitimate pain. Ironically, the legitimate pain that I am attempting to escape from stems from my ‘self-importance’, it stems directly from the fact that I have made myself the most important thing in the world’. Therefore my distorted personalized version of reality is the means which I use to try to escape the pain that I have unwittingly created by creating a personalized version of reality in which the fulfilment of my ‘needs’ outweighs all other considerations. By virtue of our supremely efficient facility to ‘escape reality’ we are free to wonder in pointless illusory worlds forever – worlds that aren’t really about what we say they are about – without ever having the remotest clue what is actually going on.
Being able to look at the world in my own way is one thing – in fact this tends to sound more like ‘individualism’ to us than self-deception – but having the capacity to make the truth into whatever I want it to be, as if it were some sort of slavishly conforming lackey, without me even suspecting that I am the victim of a cheap hoax perpetrated unconsciously by myself, is another kettle of fish entirely. That isn’t individualism – it is ‘absurdism’ (or ‘futilism’). We can therefore say that in my unexamined enthusiasm to avoid feeling bad by whatever means I can, I quite happily deliver myself over into a life of profound (if not immediately apparent) meaninglessness. Psychologically speaking, escaping from pain is synonymous with escaping from reality. In other words, when I put my own slant on things (as a pain or fear-avoiding dodge that I am not admitting to), I create a tailor-made ‘unreal world’ for myself.