Albert Einstein famously said that you can’t fix a problem with the same thinking that created that problem, and we can expand upon this statement of Einstein’s to say that we can’t fix a ‘psychological problem’ with any sort of thinking at all!
This is really a matter of perspective (or in the case of ‘thinking about a problem’, the lack of it). We never gain perspective by trying to solve a problem. We might solve it perhaps, if it happens to be a soluble problem, but we will never gain perspective in this way. ‘Solving a problem’ doesn’t mean gaining perspective, after all – we’re taking the problem seriously when we try to fix it and we are still taking it seriously if or when we do fix it! And if it happens that we don’t or can’t fix it, then we are in this case also taking the fact that we can’t fix the problem seriously. We never stop ‘taking the problem seriously;’ or in other words, we never cease to relate to the problem on its own terms.
We are talking about ‘psychological problems’ here (if we may use that phrase) and so the point we were originally making is that no psychological problem is ever ‘fixed’. This goes counter to all of our assumptions of course but we can explain the point that we are making here very easily. What we are calling ‘psychological problems’ aren’t problems at all really, they just seem to be and the problem isn’t so much ‘the problem itself’ as the fact that we have been tricked into taking seriously what we never should have taken seriously. Once we have been tricked into taking the ‘apparent problem’ seriously then this is when our problems really begin. There is no end to our problems then…
The other way of putting this is to say that our problem – which is the only problem we can have when it’s mental health that we’re talking about – is a deficiency in perspective. It is this deficiency in perspective that causes us to see a problem where there is none, and it is also what causes us to get stuck in painful, self-sabotaging patterns of thinking and behaving. The ‘problem’ is the way in which we keep on trying to fix a problem that isn’t really a problem, but which we keep seeing as a problem because we are lacking in perspective. It is because we keep on trying to fix our situation that we stay stuck in the hole that we have unwittingly excavated for ourselves. This then is the essential mechanism behind all neurotic suffering – it’s always the same story every time, no matter what type of neurosis it is we might be dealing with.
This is what creates the trap of neurosis – the way in which we use the same thinking that caused the problem to try to fix the problem. This empties out every last bit of perspective that we’ve got in our fuel tank, so that our chance of escaping becomes effectively zero. ‘Fixing’ doesn’t just mean ‘trying to correct or rectify matters in a logical way’, it means any kind of ‘reacting’ at all. ‘Reacting’ essentially means that we are either trying to flee or fight, we’re either trying to run away from the problem or we’re trying to squash it, trying to get rid of it. This is the most ‘basic’ interaction there is, in other words, and it is ‘fully automated’, requiring no sensitivity towards the situation on our part, requiring no actual ‘input’ or intelligence from us. The reacting happens all by itself in a mechanical way. All neurotic patterns of thinking and behaving are fuelled by ‘reacting’ therefore, and the reason we keep on reacting in the way that we do is because we have absolutely no perspective on what is going on!
We never gain perspective by trying to fix the problem as we’ve said, and we never gain perspective by reacting to it either! We can go further than this and say that in the psychological sphere problems are created by our attempts to correct them. Obviously this isn’t the case in the physical world: if my car is broken and I take it to the garage to get fixed, clearly I am not creating the problem in my car by taking it to the mechanic! If I cut my finger and have to put a bandage on it then the act of putting a plaster on the cut is clearly not what causes the cut to be there. But in the psychological realm things are different; as we have said, there are no such things as ‘problems’ in the psychological sphere – if we think that there are then we are creating them with our thinking’, it is as simple as that.
We could equivalently say that the only real problem in mental health is the old, old problem of ‘deficiency in perspective’ but even to say this is misleading since there is no way that we can ‘fix’ a deficiency in perspective. There’s nothing we can deliberately do to bring perspective back into our lives – all purposeful or goal-orientated action can ever do is reduce perspective still further, as we keep saying. Lack of perspective can’t be seen as ‘a problem’ therefore because to use this term necessarily implies the existence of some sort of ‘solution’! Perspective is a very peculiar kind of thing therefore; at least it’s peculiar from our normal way of seeing things. Perspective is already there – it’s our starting-off point and so anything we deliberately do in order to achieve some end always has the effect of reducing perspective. This is because purposeful action requires us to narrow down our focus so that instead of having lots of ‘parallel’ ways of seeing the world we have ‘just the one’ and only having the one way of looking at the world is what having no perspective is all about.
If we are to understand what mental health really means we need to see this clearly therefore; we need to see this since ‘mental health’ and ‘perspective’ cannot ever be separated. If we can’t see that the ‘problem’ of not having enough perspective on life is not something we can tackle with rationality then we aren’t ever going to get anywhere – we’re just going to keep spinning around in circles, we’re just going to keep digging the hole deeper for ourselves. When we do (as we do) try to work with neurotic distress in terms of our normal, everyday thinking we are only exacerbating matters in other words, and so often in therapy this is exactly what we end up doing. In this case – when we try to resolve or ameliorate neurotic distress on the basis of ‘the rational approach’ – our therapeutic approach to intervention becomes no more than a logical extension of the original neurotic glitch!
The ‘glitch’ in question, as we have said, is where we ‘create a problem by trying to solve it’. Our automatic reacting (or fixing) is ‘the problem’, therefore. If we then introduce some kind of therapeutic rationale into the picture which has the aim of stopping us automatically reacting (or stopping us trying to fix the problem that is created by the fixing) then this too becomes a type of fixing. Trying to stop fixing is itself fixing, just as trying to stop thinking is itself thinking. This being so – which it clearly is – then any type of approach that we take which is orientated towards the purposeful/rational tackling of our neurosis is – by definition – an extension of that very same neurosis. All that we’re saying here therefore is that ‘we can’t cure aggression with yet more aggression’, which is something that we all know on some level or another. That is – we might say – ‘the basic lesson in life’. Most of mankind’s suffering is caused by us trying to cure aggression (and the fallout from aggression) with the addition of yet more aggression. This is true on the individual / personal scale just as it is true on the global scale, and so it should come as no surprise that we also try to treat neurosis with ‘rational-purposeful therapy’, which is a fine example of irony for those that can see it.
Jung states that psychological problems cannot ever be solved on their own terms, but can only ever be ‘outgrown’. When we outgrow a problem, Jung says, it’s still there but it doesn’t bother us in the way that it used to. It’s as if we’re viewing a storm in the valley from the mountain-top. We can still see the storm from our vantage point, but because of the extra perspective we now have the storm can actually be seen in a peaceful way. Perspective brings peace, in other words – we no longer have to see things on their own terms, and this means that we are no longer compelled to react or interact with them on their own terms. ‘Reacting’ (or ‘interacting with problem on its own terms’) IS the storm! There’s nothing purposeful or goal-orientated about ‘growth’ however – we can’t ‘grow as a strategy’! We can’t make personal growth into a goal. If personal growth was a strategy then this would mean that we are trying to ‘avoid some sort of an unwanted outcome’ and no one ever grows as a result of trying to avoid an unwanted outcome! That’s the wrong motivation entirely! If personal growth was ‘a goal’ then we would have to know where this growth was taking us,but by definition we don’t know this and never can.
Growth is a lot simpler than we would think. No strategies, no skills, no gimmicks are needed – the only prerequisite for psychological growth is that we stay with the difficulty, whenever that difficulty might be. A natural inclination is of course to look for a quick fix and when we go down this road we might develop skills at strategising, but we do not grow. This is a ‘trade-off’: we’re getting better at being tricky (i.e. we’re getting better at controlling or scheming or manipulating) instead of growing, and this simply means that we are engaged in digging a very deep hole for ourselves. It does of course go totally against common sense to ‘relate to the difficulty in an uncomplicated way’, and appreciate just exactly what that difficulty feels like for us. This is a very simple thing to do however – the difficult situation is real, it’s actually happening, and so we just have to take that on board; we just have to acknowledge that this is our situation and this acknowledgement is itself growth. Being ‘willing to see the truth’ is growth.
This idea can be all too easily taken up the wrong way however because we are very much inclined to turn this insight into a strategy which is completely unproductive, to say the least. This isn’t something we can do (or not do) on purpose – it’s more of an attitude than anything else and we can’t engineer our own attitude, no matter what the positive thinking movement might tell us. When we realise that it’s not about what we do (i.e. running away from the pain on the one hand or trying to stick with it on the other) but rather that all that is needed is for us to live our lives consciously, in whatever way our lives happen to be unfolding. If we take the attitude that all the responsibility lies with us, and that we have to enact some strategy correctly if we are to get out of the hole we’re in (whether that strategy is to fix the pain or force ourselves to stay with it) then this is what the alchemists called the via erratum (or ‘the way of error’). If I have what Julian Rotter called an ‘internal locus of control’ then I firmly believe that I am in control of my own mental state but this belief just isn’t going to work out in practice. How can perspective be ‘all down to me’ – how can I control the amount of perspective I have when ‘controlling’ always reduces perspective? I could of course always try to control my controlling so that I’m not controlling so much but this isn’t really going to help very much! If I think that this is going to work then that shows for sure that I don’t have any perspective…
In our culture we find it astonishingly hard to understand that we can’t change or modify a painful state of mind by thinking about it. We just won’t have this – we’re very bull-headed about it. The point that I just can’t grasp is that the painful state of mind is my actual reality and I can’t conveniently run away from it. I am that state of mind so how can I possibly change it? How can a state of mind change itself by acting upon itself? What foolish thinking is this? We are of course assuming that we have access to some objectively true and independent viewpoint from which to act but we don’t – we only have ourselves from which to act (or to put this another way, we only have our necessarily biased ‘subjective illusion of ourselves’ from which to act, and we’re never going to get anywhere on this flawed basis)…
Trying to change our state of mind by thinking about it is the most futile thing in the whole wide world and we as a culture are utterly unable to see this. There couldn’t be a more futile thing than this, there just couldn’t be. As Jesus asks (in Matthew 6:27) – ‘Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his height?’ Two thousand years later, we are still no closer to understanding this simple psychological fact! We don’t want to understand it because it makes us feel too powerless. This isn’t a hopeless message we’re talking about here however – it might look hopeless but it isn’t. The moment we stop going down the wrong road we are already on the right one, so to speak. To see that something is futile is to be free from it. The moment we see the via erratum for what it is we are already on the via veritas, the road of truth… To be on the road of truth, all we need to do is see the truth – no striving is necessary. We can’t force ourselves to be honest, after all…