We are all very familiar with the ‘self-empowerment’ model in popular psychology which basically puts across the idea that ‘you can do anything you want once you put your mind to it’. Success and positive living are the key words here and we are encouraged to believe that we have every right to want to be successful in life, and that there is actually nothing to stop us if we drop all of the negative stuff inside us that is holding us back. Interestingly enough, advertising slogans often use the same sort message, urging us to ‘be whatever we want to be’. The reason advertising likes this self-empowerment model is of course because doing whatever we want to do (or being whatever we want to be) is giving us – in theory anyway – both the freedom to fulfil our needs, and the unquestionable right to want to fulfil our needs. This makes us exactly what the advertising men and women want us to be – slaves to whatever whim or desire comes drifting into our head.
Our so-called ‘needs’ are actually conditioned needs, which is to say, we are given needs which before we didn’t have, and then all our attention goes on satisfying these needs, rather than on questioning if we really need the needs. A person with very few needs is no good to the advertising industry, and so naturally they are going to do their best to sell the idea that personal fulfilment comes out of having a rake of needs, and then being able to satisfy them all. If I am ruled by my desires for this, that and the other, then this makes me an ideal member of the consumer society. A desire for some product or service comes into my head, and because of my belief in the self-empowerment model, I take it as my divine right to have that product or service. Wishes exist to be translated into reality, or so it seems to me…
FALLING INTO THE TRAP OF ‘WANTING TO WIN’
This is all a sneaky trick of course, because although I think that I am the winner (since I have successfully obtained whatever useless piece of inconsequential rubbish the advertising industry has convinced me that I wanted to obtain) actually they are the winner, because they have got me to do what they wanted me to do. I feel great because I got whatever it was I needed, but actually since the need in question was programmed into me, as part of a clever strategy of manipulation, any good feeling that I might have as a result of being ‘successful’ is only evidence of my own utter foolishness. The problem is that ‘success’ is such a powerful kind of a word – as soon as I hear it I find myself thinking “Yes – I want to be successful…” and so I am hooked. Because the right button has been pushed (the button of self-interest), I rush right in without reflecting on what I am doing.
What we are talking about is of course pretty obvious with regard to marketing but what is the relevance to self-empowerment models in popular psychology, models which encourage us to say “I can do…” and “I can be…” ? Our natural inclination is to think that self-empowerment is a legitimate product, to think that it is something that we quite rightly ought to be interested in. However, just as there is a sneaky trick going on when advertising campaigns urge us to stop short-changing ourselves and “be exactly what we want to be” so too is there a trick being perpetrated in ‘can do’ self-empowerment models.
We can try to explain the trick in the following way. Advertising campaigns work by validating certain needs which I have within me and which are clamouring to be satisfied. Rather than question these needs, I am encouraged to go all-out in satisfying them. Similarly, popular self-help type psychology inevitably works by validating certain basic needs that I have. The reason that I am turning to self-help popular psychology in the first place is probably because I find myself dissatisfied, confused and frustrated in what I have set out to ‘do’ in life, or undermined and discouraged in what I am trying to ‘be’. Life seems to consist of an endless series of knock-backs, an endless repetition of blows to my confidence and self-esteem – I find myself thwarted somehow in terms of how I thought life ought to turn out. And then I hear someone telling me that if I do things their way it will all come right for me, and I will be able to actualize all those ideas and goals that I have never been able to actualize up to now. The message is “No longer need you be frustrated…” Instead of being one of life’s losers, destined for mediocrity or worse, you can aim high and actually achieve what you have aimed for.
This is of course just what we have wanted to hear all along and so naturally we go for the bait, but in our hurry to benefit ourselves we don’t do ourselves any favours at all. My most deeply ingrained instinct is the instinct that I have to struggle to benefit myself – this ‘self-saving instinct’ is a reaction that is so basic to me that it happens all by itself, it actually happens whether I want it to or not, but because I immediately get sucked into the urge, and identify with the logic of it, in practice I never find out that I have no choice in the matter. Sometimes the reaction to try to save ourselves is very strong and this is what we call a ‘panic reaction’, and at other times it is more reasoned and methodical and we call this self-development or self-help or something of that nature. Panic is well known for being a totally dysfunctional response (which is to say, we know very well that it is a reaction that does nothing but harm), but with regard to the more methodical type of panicking that we call self-help we somehow imagine that this is not dysfunctional but that it is actually exactly what we should be doing under the circumstances. This is not to say that we shouldn’t ever help ourselves – if my car needs petrol I have to fill the tank and if I am hungry I need to eat. What we are talking about here is something quite different, i.e. the systematic attempt to orchestrate or organize my life so that I benefit as a result. Taking charge of my own ‘self-development’ in this way sounds like a good idea, but in reality it is a disaster. If I go all out in a systematic and methodical attempt to ‘sort myself out’ according to my ideas about what my problems are and how I would like them to be resolved I might naively assume that this response is going to help me, but actually all that is going to happen is that I am going to get hopelessly bogged down and go around in circles. Basically, by fixating narrowly on my ideas of what is best, I am going to thwart my own growth.
HANGING ON TO ‘THE CORE ASSUMPTION’
Methodically and logically trying to free ourselves from whatever problems and difficulties we feel are holding us back comes down to the ‘actualization of goals’ and this, as we have said, is the hallmark of popular self-help psychology. It’s all about forging triumphantly onwards! It doesn’t matter whether we call this sort of thing ‘problem solving’ or ‘self-empowerment’ – it all comes down to exactly the same thing and that is ‘the unreflective re-iteration of our core assumptions’. ‘Forging triumphantly onwards’ means not questioning ourselves in any deep way… Unreflectively iterating and reiterating our core assumptions suits us down to the ground because, as a rule, we would rather do anything than question the basis of what we’re doing in life. In fact far from questioning our assumptions, we don’t even want to know that they are capable of being questioned!
Actually even this isn’t putting it strongly enough because our core assumptions are so very much taken for granted that we don’t even know that they are there, let alone that they could be questioned. Once this is understood, then it can easily be seen that ‘wanting to win’ – which sounds so innocent – isn’t so innocent after all because what it really means is ‘wanting to win within the particular framework which I have decided is important to me’. In other words, when I say “I want to succeed” this statement masks the fact that I want to succeed on my own terms and so what I am really saying (without admitting it to myself) is that I want the world to be the way I want it to be, i.e. I am covertly insisting on reality matching my assumptions about it. I don’t want to be disturbed in my safe and secure view of things – I want to ‘stay asleep’ in other words. I’ve got the ‘Do not disturb’ sign hung around my neck…
This is actually our Number One problem when it comes down to it – everyone wants to be happy but as it turns out a lot of the time we are not that happy at all, and even when we think that we are happy we probably aren’t, we are probably just kidding ourselves. It is inevitably the case that being a person means feeling frustrated and thwarted in all sorts of ways and we generally cope either by distracting ourselves from the fact that we aren’t happy and kidding ourselves that we are or by hoping that things will get better, or, if all else fails, by complaining about the fact that they aren’t getting better. But the reason happiness is so hard to come by is because we insist on having happiness on our own terms and ‘our own terms’ always precludes the possibility of genuine happiness. It is of course very hard for us to see this, mainly because on a very deep level we simply do not want to see it. Basically, the bottom line is that our allegiance is to ‘not questioning our key assumptions’ and if not questioning our key assumptions means that we are going to go through hell then we will go through hell. We won’t like it, and we will complain about it and despair about it, but that still won’t be enough to cause us to drop whatever it is that we are refusing to drop. To put this another way, my refusal to questions my key assumptions means that I will look anywhere and everywhere else for the answer to my problems, other than in this one place. I will tackle any other job that I can possibly think of, rather than the one job that really matters. This is sometimes called ‘pseudo-solution’.
ATTACHMENT TO A VIEWPOINT
So what the hell are these key assumptions that supposedly lie at the root of all my problems? One way of approaching the matter is to talk in terms of ‘the system of thought’, as Professor David Bohm does. The system of thought is basically our way of looking at and understanding the world and the idea is that this way of understanding the world provides us with a particular type of security that we have a tremendous unconscious need for. This is type of security is sometimes called ‘ontological security’, which means ‘security of being’. On a very deep level, we believe that we cannot ever afford to sacrifice this security-providing way of understanding the world, and in fact we are so attached to the viewpoint that we don’t actually see it as a viewpoint at all. Instead of seeing the system of thought as a particular way of seeing the world (which is to say, a set of assumptions that we have chosen to adopt) we take it totally for granted as ‘the only possible way’ and as a result of this the assumptions that we have made become totally invisible to us. It is therefore the fact that we don’t see our taken-for-granted viewpoint as ‘a viewpoint that provides us with the ontological security which we are so addicted to’.
WINNING FOR THE SAKE OF WINNING
This still doesn’t answer the question as to what the key assumptions are that we are talking about. But the point is that wanting to know what these assumptions are is a red-herring because whatever I am told I will inevitably understand on the basis of the system of thought, and so really I will be learning nothing at all. It is the system of thought which wants to know and the system of thought can never ever see its own assumptions, not matter how it tries. If the truth be known, it doesn’t really want to know at all, all it wants to do is to keep on distracting itself with ceaseless bogus mental activity, endless red-herrings, in other words. It is committed to looking in the wrong place.
‘Wanting to know the answer to some question that seems to be of crucial importance’ is exactly the same as ‘wanting to win’ – in the first case I fixate my attention entirely on the search for the answer to this question whilst totally assuming the context within which the answer is to come, and in the second case I fixate all my attention on the attempt to succeed or win, whilst totally assuming the terms which I think constitute ‘success’. Basically, everything we do comes down to ‘trying to win’, and for this reason everything we do acts against us. Everything we do acts against us because the more we try to win, the more unconscious we become, i.e. –
The more we throw ourselves into trying to win the less insight we have into what it is that we are really trying to do…
On one level this sounds like an utterly crazy assertion, but on another level it makes perfect sense; after all, that is exactly why we all like to throw ourselves into routine tasks sometimes – because when we focus narrowly on whatever it is that we are trying to do we there is a type of comfort in it that comes from ‘not having to think too deeply’. Focussing on goals is a comfort because it is essentially ‘non-challenging’ and for this reason when we feel bad our goals (and the activity that is geared to achieving them) become intensely, magnetically attractive to us. In a nutshell –
We are so in love with the superficial idea of ‘winning’ that we don’t really care what it actually is that we are winning at – we don’t want to ask questions like that because that would spoil the whole game!
THE ‘PSEUDO-SOLUTION’ OF LIFE
Our coping strategy when we feel bad is to retreat into an oversimplified, black-and-white sort of a world, a superficial world that serves as a surrogate for the reality we do not want to face. To put this another way, our unacknowledged insecurity (i.e. our hidden fear) causes us to completely preoccupy ourselves with routines and goals that actually have nothing to do with life at all. This black and white world is attractive to us because it seems to offer us the possibility of a neat solution to our problems, but in reality the oversimplified so-called ‘problem solving responses’ that we preoccupy ourselves with don’t solve anything – they merely provide us with the temporary comfort of thinking that we have solved something, which is to say, they provide us with a ‘pseudo-solution’ to the inherent difficulty of life.
Not only is pseudosolution useless (useless because it doesn’t solve anything) it actually creates no end of fresh problems or difficulties that need to be solved. In fact it is not the apparent problems that seem to be afflicting us that are the real problem – the real problem is the way in which we substitute a crudely oversimplified black and white version of reality for the real thing and then start reacting mechanically on that false basis. Curiously, although the oversimplified approach to life has the psychological function of helping us to avoid pain, the remedy actually causes us misery. This is like a person who drinks or gambles to help forget the misery caused by his drinking or gambling habit; in fact when we think about it a bit more it becomes clear that this sort of vicious circle isn’t such an uncommon thing after all – it is a cycle we are all locked into one way or another.
Since the underlying cause of the trouble is the invisible ‘system of thought’ that lies behind how we see the world, how we think about it, and how we react, our conditioned perceptions, thoughts and actions cannot help us to be free from that cause. For example, if there is a vicious psychopathic bully terrorizing the neighbourhood, and I find an even more viciously psychopathic individual to get rid of the first one, I am no better off at all because I have only replaced one bully with another! The key to weakening and undermining the system of thought so that it no longer controls and bullies us is losing. When I feel the urge to win, that is the invisible framework of thinking within me that wants to win, it wants to be indispensable for ever and ever, that’s all it cares about, after all. Therefore, if I let myself be beaten by whatever adverse situation is threatening me, if I surrender to it, then it is the system of thought which has been controlling my life which has been beaten, not my true self.
This is not really such a strange idea either, although it might seem so at first. Suppose I am a heroin addict and after hours and hours of waiting I fail to score the drug that I am craving. The feeling that I experience when I go home empty handed is one of bitter disappointment but actually this ‘failure’ is a good thing because the habit that has been controlling my life has been weakened as a direct result of it. I haven’t been adversely affected by my failure to score some heroin, my habit has! This is in fact a very good way of demonstrating that the apparently positive word ‘success’ can translate into bad news in a big way – a successful heroin addict isn’t really such a great thing to be, any more than it is a great thing to be a successful anorexic, or a successful self-harmer, or a successful self-deluder. ‘Success’ is actually a very dumb word indeed because the surface-level glamour of it totally distracts from what it actually means…. When it comes right down to it, what the hell are we actually being ‘successful’ about? Do we even care?
THE SOCIAL GAME
Just to recapitulate what we have been saying – when we focus on being successful at whatever goals we want to be successful at, the irresistible motivation that spurs us onwards (and which makes us feel so bad when we are thwarted or denied) is actually not about the goals themselves, even though we think it is, but more about the idea of winning, or rather the feeling of winning (or being a winner). I am so keen to feel like a winner that what I actually do is to look at life in a very over-simplified (or superficial) way, so as to over-value the importance of certain virtually meaningless accomplishments. Society as a whole is a perfect example of this – the social system is created – we might say – when we all agree to be ‘small-minded’ in the same sort of way, so that we all value the same sort of petty, inconsequential things.
We all strive mightily to do well (succeed) within the terms of the social game, so that we can as a result get to feel good about this and we don’t ever question this small-minded game because if we did we would not be able to get a good feeling from winning at it! This ‘inability to question the game’ backfires on me however because if don’t do well then I get to feel bad instead – if somebody looks down on me for being ‘a loser’ this feels absolutely terrible (it feels like the worst thing in the world) despite the fact that the concept of being a loser is quite meaningless outside of the absurdly trivial social game that we all take for granted.
We take the social system (i.e. the social game) as seriously as we do because it is our way of obtaining a ‘pseudo-solution’ for life, in which there are no nice and easy clear categories of winning or losing. After all, if I am wealthy and powerful but at the same time repellently selfish and callously exploitative in my attitude to the world then how can I possibly be said to be ‘a winner’? What is so great about this so-called ‘attainment’? But on the other hand if I am good-hearted and well-loved by all around me I still can’t be said to be ‘a winner’ because this strongly implies that I have managed to obtain some coveted prize or status as a result of being unselfish or good-hearted, which is missing the point completely. The point is that life isn’t about ‘winning’, any more than it is about ‘losing’. It is very bizarre indeed that we think it is.
CONTROL FOR THE SAKE OF CONTROL
The social game which we spend most of our lives playing is only one manifestation of the closed (i.e. fundamentally limited) system of thinking that we use to understand things, and to direct or organize our interactions with the universe at large. Just as in the social game we strive to ‘win just for the sake of winning’ (which is just like overtaking every car you meet on the road just for the sake of the superficial good-feeling that you get when you overtake another driver) in the game that we play with life as a whole we very often strive to ‘be in control just for the sake of being in control’. When this tendency – which we all have – becomes exaggerated and easy to spot, it is called ‘neuroticism’ and recognized as the source of much unnecessary mental distress. Being in control (or trying to be in control) is our comfort zone, which means that I am not controlling for the reason I say I am, but rather I am controlling simply to provide myself with the shallow, false sense of security that I get from feeling that I am in control (or feeling that I at least stand a chance of being in control).
In general, having goals and trying to actualize those goals is healthy (or ‘genuinely useful’) just so long as we do not chase goals ‘just for the sake of chasing goals’. We might thing that ‘wanting to win just for the sake of winning’ and ‘wanting to have goals just for the sake of having them’ is an unusual state of affairs, but because we all tend to be unconsciously identified with the pattern of perceiving and understanding the world which is what Professor David Bohm calls ‘the system of thought’ the real reason for almost all of our activity -even though we do not know it – is to keep on validating (and therefore keep on repeating) that pattern.
The basic pattern behind everything we see, think, and do (which is also sometimes called ‘the rational mind’) has this incredibly strong tendency to it and that tendency is to take over completely. Any other ways of seeing the world are sneakily excluded and the established pattern just keeps repeating itself over and over again, for no reason other than the security of doing so. It repeats itself just for the sake of repeating itself, which is of course what ‘habits’ always do. Anything we do to improve or otherwise help ourselves – just so long as we do it on the basis of the way which we already have of understanding the world – only serves to keep keeps perpetuating and propping up that pattern, even though endlessly (and senselessly) repeating the same old pattern is the very antithesis of mental health. Our goals, which we are so very keen to attain, are nothing else at root than this endlessly repeating pattern and it is for this reason mental health can never be obtained by striving for what we see as ‘success’. Success simply means success for the pattern, for the old way of understanding things, and it is the fact that we are terminally addicted to this old way of understanding things that is causing us all our problems in the first place.
To be free from that pattern, and move beyond it, we do not need to win but to lose, and this is of course unpalatable to us in the extreme. All the same, the rational mind is very clever as well as being very stubborn, and so it is quite capable of trying to twist the idea of losing to its own advantage. If I start to believe that that losing is actually a good idea (whereas as before I would have had the more conventional idea that winning is the thing to aim for) then clearly I am going to try to lose rather than to win. But this of course doesn’t change anything at all because any goal that I attain – even if it is the goal of losing – still equals winning when it comes right down to it. If my intention is to lose, then if I do lose then I have obviously been successful at doing what I wanted to do. I have cleverly be managed to successful at losing, and so in this case my losing is really just sneaky way of winning!
There is no way around this – if my new goal is to lose, and I then set out to achieve this goal, then my interest is purely on winning, just the same as it always is. Nothing has changed at all. The same is true for escaping: sometimes the pattern of my mind will create situations for me that are so hellish that I just want to escape, by drink or drugs or some other self-destructive addiction. I might want to end it all with the act of suicide. But the goal of ‘escape’ (in whatever form this might take) is a goal of the very same mind that I am trying to escape from. In other words, by trying to escape from the underlying pattern of cognition and behaviour I make that pattern stronger since trying to escape from the pattern is an essential part of the pattern. There is nothing that I can deliberately do, or try to do, that will not exacerbate the original problem, which is my complete inability to look for an answer outside of my narrow and limited way of understanding the world.
Another way of looking at this is to say that the old way of understanding things which we keep trying to assert over and over again, even when it is the cause of so much trouble, is the conditioned self (i.e. the everyday old ‘me’). This sense of ‘me’ is the root of all my problems yet rather than let go of it I keep on trying to change everything else to suit it. The ‘me’ – which is basically the pattern of perception, cognition and behaviour that I have unwittingly identified with – is the most important thing in the world, despite the fact that it isn’t really who I am at all. It is the one thing I just WON’T let go of.
I’ll keep on promoting this illusory idea for all I’m worth. I won’t let go of it no matter what, despite the fact that I don’t actually need to hang onto it, I won’t let go of it despite the fact that it doesn’t really exist, despite the fact that this false idea of who I am is actually an inexhaustible source of unending confusion, misery and pain. Trying to ‘win’ all the time is an inexhaustible source of endless confusion, misery and pain – even though we aren’t at all inclined to see it this way, this is actually the most sterile and life-denying pursuit there is or ever could be!