Ours is a purposeful culture, and this inevitably brings a whole raft of neurotic mental health ‘conditions’ in its wake, which we then attempt to solve in a purposeful manner! The irony is lost on us, however.
Purposefulness is clearly a healthy part of life; no one is suggesting that we should abandon all purposeful behaviour, but – on the other hand – when purposefulness eclipses all else it becomes an evil, it becomes ‘a mental health hazard’. We only have to reflect on this for a moment to see that it is true – imagine what life would go like if we had to be purposeful all the time. What a nightmare this would be! The whole of life becomes one big grinding chore that never ends… This is not life but a cruel parody of it; the ultimate joke is being played on us and it is not a nice joke…
Alan Watts explains this point in terms of dancing, and the question of ‘who leads the dance’. If one partner leads all the time then the dance would be a very sterile affair – it would hardly deserve being called ‘a dance’ at all! It would be more like ‘having a conversation with oneself’. If both partners lead the dance to an equal extent however then the interaction immediately becomes creative, it immediately becomes a genuine dialogue.
In the same way, when purposefulness is overvalued in the culture then there is no ‘dance’ going on, merely the humourless and obsessive pursuit of goals. Life itself becomes devalued in this case because life (or ‘nature’) just become something that is supposed to ‘submit to our will’. What we forget, in this case, is that it isn’t ‘all about us’, that life isn’t just a matter of us ‘exerting our will’, or ‘conceiving a goal and then doing our level best to achieve it’.
When everything becomes about goals, and overcoming whatever obstacles might be standing in the way of us achieving them, then life becomes frighteningly sterile. ‘It takes two to tango’, as the saying has it, and control is always a one-way street – it’s a ‘top-down’ kind of a thing. When purposefulness is overvalued then – obviously – the only thing that matters to us is control, and how effective we are at it, and this is the recipe for neurotic suffering, not mental health.
When I am focussed entirely on ‘the attaining of my goals’ then I am stuck in ‘a relationship with myself’ – there’s nothing there else left to have a relationship with, after all! When life becomes all about purposefulness then there is just ‘me having a relationship with myself’ and the relationship between ‘me and myself’ isn’t actually a relationship at all (just as a dance between me and a purely passive partner isn’t really a dance at all). The most important element – the relationship with ‘the other’ – has been lost. There no longer is an ‘other’ in this case, and this is always the case with control. We only have to think about abusive relationships.
‘Overvaluing purposefulness’ is a bad road to go down, therefore. It’s a bad road to go down because we lose our relationship with reality and all that’s left is me playing a game with myself; all that’s left is me ‘relating’ to my own projections. One projection is called ‘winning’ and I think that this is a good thing, the other projection is called ‘losing’ and that is a bad thing. Actually, both are the very same thing – both are only my projections and my attempt to obtain the positive projection is every bit as sterile (or futile) is my attempt to avoid the negative projection.
When I think that life (or nature) is merely some kind of passive thing to be moulded as I see fit, to be controlled or manipulated as it suits me, then I am heading for disaster. On the ‘macro-‘ scale (which is to say, on the scale of the environment within which we live) then we all know what this disaster looks like. At this particular point in time at the beginning of the twenty-first century we are all becoming very aware indeed of the negative consequences of having a ‘one-way relationship’ with nature, a relationship in which we get to ‘call all the shots’.
The same disaster for faces us on the ‘micro-’ (or individual) scale of things too. When I treat the dance between me and life as if it’s only what I want that matters, then sooner or later I back myself into a sterile corner. My life becomes meaningless and pointless. If I keep on ‘leading’ and never show any sensitivity to what life, or my own ‘unconscious’, wants (if we may put it like this), then life will refuse to help me when I need it to. My own spontaneous nature will refuse to step in and help me when I finally realise that I need it to because ‘I have run out of answers’. It is at this point in time that I will truly become acquainted with this spiritual wasteland that we call ‘neurotic suffering’.
The assumption that we are making is that if we get to be ‘totally in control’, if we get to be ‘calling all the shots’, if we get to be ‘securing the outcomes we want’, etc, then this will of course be a very good thing. That’s our assumption but it couldn’t further from the truth, for the reasons that we have just given. What’s missing from this picture (as we have said) is a relationship with anything outside of us – in order for there to be a relationship there has to be something ‘coming back the other way’, so to speak, and that’s precisely what’s not happening…
Something else is needed and that ‘something else’ might be called ‘listening’, or ‘sensitivity,’ or ‘intuitiveness’, or something like that, but the thing about this is that we can’t do ‘listening’ or ‘sensitivity’ or ‘intuitiveness’ on purpose! If we did do it on purpose then that would mean that we knew in advance what we were listening or intuiting for, or what we were being sensitive to, and the whole point is that we don’t know. We can’t know and that is precisely the point. What we’re talking about is an entirely different ‘modality of being in the world’ therefore, and it doesn’t happen to be a modality we know very much (if anything) about in this rational-purposeful culture of ours. That is after all the very element that we’ve forgotten about in our great, all-consuming hurry to be ‘in control’…