This website is intended as a resource for mental health and general psychological well-being and it contains extensive written material which advocates an alternative approach to working with unhappy and distressed states of mind. Such states of mind range from the so-called ‘negative emotions’ – anger, jealousy, sulking, bitterness, self-blame and so on, to what are called ‘neurotic disturbances’, i.e., entrenched mental positions characterized by symptoms such as addictions, anorexia, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, social anxiety, low self-esteem, negative self-image, and self-harming.
These manifestations of mental pain are almost invariably labelled (either implicitly or explicitly) as being ‘problems’. We have available to us (just by clicking a mouse) an absolutely immense body of classifications, theories, and methodologies for the identifying and fixing of the various neurotic manifestations. The trouble is that, having made the naïve assumption that we can legitimately treat anger, anxiety, depression, compulsions etc as problems that need to be fixed we are locked into a vicious circle that it is impossible to get out of. The problem-solving approach to mental pain is psychologically naïve because it refuses to see that the painful feelings or thoughts are not external to us, that they are not in any way ‘separable’ from us.
Our normal mode of mental functioning operates by vastly oversimplifying the world. It presents us with a crassly superficial but supposedly analogous version of the world, just as a tabloid newspaper presents us with a scurrilously black-and-white version of an infinitely more subtle and multi-faceted reality. The oversimplified way of apprehending the world is attractive to us because we can ‘solve’ it easily – we aren’t really solving anything of course, we are just tricking ourselves into thinking that we are solving something. Self-deception is our ‘strategy of choice’. The pseudo-solution of life’s difficulties is perfectly satisfactory to us however even when it creates more difficulty in the long run, and this is the reason we are in no hurry at all to gain insight about it. What I do when I am afflicted by mental pain is to project the pain outside of myself by objectifying it and then kid myself that I can free myself from it by aggressively striking out at it, or by ‘fixing’ it in some way. Or alternatively, I fix the problem by running away from it – I ‘objectify’ it as ‘something I can run away from’! This tactic produces (at best) short-term relief from the pain at the cost of a delayed-action ‘payback’ when it pops up again somewhere else and has to be dealt with all over again. The resultant interminable merry-go-round of ‘temporarily successful pain-avoidance’ suits me far more than discovering that the pain I am trying to rid myself of is intrinsic to me, and cannot be conveniently treated as something external.
David Bohm approaches this matter by saying that the system of thought (i.e. the self-consistent pattern of perceptions, cognitions, memories, purposeful actions and externalized structures that the rational mind produces) can, in theory, deal with non-systematic errors – errors which lie outside the system – but cannot solve errors that are systematic in nature. An awareness of this essential limitation would save us a lot of unnecessary trouble, but it is another feature of the system of thought that it cannot see itself for what it is, and thus cannot see its own limitations. The reason the system cannot fix systematic errors is because these errors are in it, or rather it itself is the error, and so by attempting to fix the error it utilizes itself further, thereby propagating the error by trying to correct it. Bohm’s formal model of the system of thought is very useful because it allows us to see with great clarity just why the neurotic mind cannot ever fix itself, and just how ridiculous is its perennial attempt to do so.
But if we can’t fix neurotic pain – if the pain, as Krishnamurti says, is inseparable from the self which tries to be free from it – then how can seeing this improve our situation? What sort of cure is that? One way to look at this is in terms of tautology. Just as issues are tautological because anything I do when I am caught up in an issue makes the issue more of an issue (when I didn’t actually need to do anything in the first place), so too is the self tautological since it creates itself through its attempts to free itself from the pain (or frustration) that is itself. It invents itself through its efforts to escape the pain that it itself produces.
This is obviously something of a head-twister, but it is a head-twister that makes more sense after we reflect on it a while. If the unconscious state is defined by saying that it is when we look at the world in a grossly over-simplified way without realizing that this is what we are doing (so that instead of relating to the world as it is in itself we relate to a crude analogue thereof) then the corollary of this is that the self which relates to the analogue-world must also be ‘a crude analogue’. It is this state of not being who I really am but mistakenly thinking that I am the crude analogue that is at the heart of the unconscious life. If I wear a shoe that is several sizes too small for me it pinches and hurts me as I walk and if I unconsciously identify with a ‘me’ that is infinitely less than I really am then it too pinches. Trying to fix the shoe is a non-starter – its going to hurt no matter what I do. Taking off a shoe that doesn’t fit is easier than freeing oneself from the neurotic mind however because just as soon as I try to ‘do something about the problem’ I am utilizing the over-simplified way of looking at the world, and as soon as I do that the oversimplified ‘analogue-self’ (i.e. the neurotic me) is created, which is what was hurting me in the first place. The question might arise at this point as to who I really am, and the only possible answer – from the standpoint of the crude cartoon which is ‘who I think I am’ – is that ‘who I really am’ is radically uncertain.
So if who I am is radically uncertain, then what is this world that I have constructed all around me? What is it and what is it’s function? The world that I believe in is made up entirely of certainties (obviously it is or else I wouldn’t be able to believe in it), but if the certainty I see all around me, and am addicted to believing in, is false (and has nothing to do with the reality of my true nature) then what possible advantage can there be in continuing with this addiction, as if it were ‘a good thing’? This is a curious point because the everyday self exists entirely for the purpose of chasing and securing its own advantage, and yet there’s no ‘benefit’ (or ‘advantage’) to be had in the world that is made up of certainties. Quite the contrary is true since the pursuit of certainties where there are none is a recipe for pain and nothing else. So we have this remarkable situation where all that matters to us (as the identified or conditioned self) is to obtain advantage and escape disadvantage, and yet the actual mechanics of what we are doing (what we are in fact investing our lives in doing) is having exactly the opposite result to the one we so badly want! This is an irony that no one is in any great hurry to see….
Art – 35-Ellisandro