Anxiety is a very misunderstood kind of a thing. We see it as being a problem, when really it is a teacher! Anxiety is a teacher and it teaches us something very important – it teaches us who we really are!
Straightaway when we hear this there tends to be a problem and that problem is that we almost always think that we already know very well ‘who we are really are’, and so on this account we don’t feel that we need anyone or anything to come along and teach us otherwise. The very idea that we don’t already know who we are comes across as being ridiculous, it comes across as being totally absurd. This however is because we have made a rather big assumption which we’re just not paying any attention to. Somehow, in our culture, it is assumed that ‘knowing who you really are’ is something that comes very easily – as easily as falling off a log in fact. This must be the case since everyone we meet automatically ‘knows who they are’, regardless of how much work they might (or might not) have put into uncovering the mystery. The way we are brought up to see it is that knowing who you are isn’t a difficult thing at all, but simply a formality, the same way we might know our national insurance number or address. It’s not considered a big deal, no matter what the philosophers of olden times might have said to the contrary! Because we believe that knowing our true identity isn’t a big deal (and that everyone automatically knows it, so to speak), the notion that anxiety could have a valuable function in helping us to learn (or perhaps remember) who we are doesn’t really make a hell of a lot of sense to us, and this is putting it mildly!
The thing is that when I think that I know ‘who I am’ all I really know is what I have been told or conditioned to believe about myself and this – very obviously, when we state it like this – isn’t the same thing at all. Knowing ‘who you are supposed to be in a game’ isn’t the same as knowing who you really are – knowing who you are in the game is just a matter of learning a role, it’s trivial. Thinking that you know ‘who you are’ because you believe what you’ve been told isn’t just ‘not quite the same’ as knowing who you really are – it’s the very antithesis of this. Very obviously, believing you are ‘who you’ve been told you are’ prevents you knowing ‘who you really are’…
The reason that anxiety manifests as such an intractable problem to us is because is because we are already so very sure that we know who we are. Or we could say, the reason that anxiety is such an intractable problem is because the lesson that it is teaching us is one that we are extremely resistant to learning. This lesson is the lesson in life we least want to learn; we are – it seems – so very resistant to learning it that we would rather put up with any amount of suffering rather than do so! The more resistant we are to seeing the truth, we might say, the more of an absolute ‘negative’ anxiety will be experienced as being, and it is pretty much undeniable that we experience anxiety as an absolute negative – we experience anxiety when it comes as an out-and-out curse, a curse with no good side to it at all.
So the reason anxiety is such a problem to us is because we really don’t want to know who we are. This is why we suffer so much. It is in fact no exaggeration to say that the thing we are most reluctant to learn in life (and using the word ‘reluctant’ is putting it far too mildly) is who we actually are.
On the face of it this sounds very strange – how could it possibly be the case that the thing we are most resistant to learning is who we are? What kind of a crazy idea is this? This is – admittedly – not the kind of idea that we tend to come across very often (if at all) in mainstream culture. We don’t come across it in the study of psychology either – there are all sorts of models, all sorts of theories that will be covered in a course on the psychology of personality but the theory that our single greatest fear is discovering who we really are is not one that sounds immediately familiar. Actually, it sounds very unfamiliar – so unfamiliar in fact that we would be unlikely to take it very seriously! And yet as an idea it isn’t entirely unheard of – it has a powerful resonance outside of the mainstream theories of psychology. The philosopher Alan Watts has explicitly referred to this curious state of affairs (the state of affairs in which we don’t want to know who we really are) in his book The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, the thesis of which is that the Number One (unspoken) social rule is that we should not be allowed to have any clue regarding our true identity and that we should all collude in covering it up as much as we possibly can by taking up some sort of prescribed role. As Alan Watts says –
Our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing — with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized. The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.
The one thing we are never supposed to go into (on pain of total social exclusion) is the question of who we really are under the opaque façade of who we are conventionally supposed to be, who we are told we are, who we habitually understand ourselves to be. It’s not of course that anyone explicitly addresses the issue, or in any way acknowledges that there is or might be an issue, but rather its something that we all just take for granted – that we all are who we think we are, that we all are who we understand each other to be. The very thought that we might not be, the thought that there might be some sort of conspiracy of silence going on here regarding ‘who we really are’ (and what life might really about) sounds totally ridiculous. We’re far too adult, far too hard-headed to tolerate any kind of airy-fairy talk like that. That just sounds plain silly to us.
The thing about a ‘conspiracy of silence’ – if we agree for the time being that there might be such a thing – is that if we all agree to pretend that whatever it is doesn’t exist (or isn’t an issue), and then we also agree to pretend that we didn’t ever make such an agreement. This of course means that if you ever do raise the issue (if you ever do suggest that there might be an issue here worth raising) then people will simply look at you strangely – whoever you’re talking to will look at you with that particular look on their faces that lets you know that there must be something wrong with you for coming out with such strange stuff. You will be made to feel that you are being ridiculous, and on the wider scale of things, you will be excluded from any ‘serious discourse’. So even though Alan Watts wrote the book The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are the ideas in it never reached the mainstream and never gets mentioned in any course in social psychology. This, after all, is what happens when you try to bring up something that is taboo, something that has already been decided to be ‘not a subject’ or ‘not an issue’. No one takes any notice of what you’re saying.
What we have collectively done – and this is fairly obvious once we get to thinking about it – is to make a very big assumption about ‘who we are’ and about ‘what life is all about’, and then we have rushed ahead without ever looking back. We aren’t interested in questioning the assumptions that we jumped to on the outset, we’re interested in what happens when we proceed on the basis of these assumptions. Looking at the assumption undermines the whole exercise that we are collectively engaged in, and inasmuch as we are all committed to the exercise (which simply equals ‘the type of life that we are all busy leading’) we don’t want to go spoiling the whole thing. And anyone who does want to go back and start looking at the flimsiness of our ‘starting off point’ is going to be very thoroughly excluded from the public discourse. That is the game we are playing after all, and this is how the game works.
Sociologists Berger and Luckman made this key point in their work The Social Construction of Reality – the only way to create any social structure (and the idea of ‘who we are’ and what ‘life is about’ is a social structure) is to pull a few rules or stipulations out of a hat, and then do a kind of a turnaround and say that we didn’t arbitrarily arrive at the rules or stipulations in question, but that they were there all along. We say that the rules are self-evident, that they were always there, or perhaps that God appeared in the form of a burning bush and dictated them to Moses, or something like that. Whatever way we do it we make those rules, those stipulations unquestionable – we make it so that if anyone does question them then it becomes clear to everyone that the problem is with them and not the rules! This is a type of conspiracy – it is a conspiracy of silence regarding the flimsiness of the foundation regarding the collective endeavour that we are all engaged in, the collective story of what it is we are all about, what life is supposed to be, who we are supposed to be, etc. Really what we’re talking about here is game-playing – a game is where we pick a bunch of rules at random and then act as if they weren’t picked at random, as if the rules ‘simply have to be there’ and that is that. We have to pretend that we aren’t free to question the rules or else the game just won’t work. ‘Not questioning the rules’ is what games are all about!
So we can say that the conspiracy of silence that we have been talking about is a necessity if we are to have any social structure to work with, but the only thing here is that the structure in question then takes over and we get stuck in it – upholding the structure becomes more important than anything else, it becomes more important than our mental health, it becomes more important than our happiness. It becomes more important than anything even though it’s only a game, even though it ‘doesn’t really need to be so’! We get so stuck in the game that we lose sight of the only genuinely meaningful quest in life – which as the philosophers and mystics have always said is the quest to know ourselves – and this loss of meaning naturally has very major consequences for us. Being locked into a way of life that is essentially meaningless (as of course all games are, outside their own frame of reference!) and which systematically denies who we really are is – very clearly – not going to be good news for us in the long run!
So looking at Berger and Luckman’s theory of reification and the general theory of games allows us to see how it could be that we don’t know who we really are, even though this might sound like a rather peculiar idea on first hearing. It also gives us a strong indication that there are going to be major ramifications in terms of our mental health, in terms of our ability to be happy and creative; not being in touch with our true selves is – after all – not exactly a recipe for happiness and creativity! We have said that the discovery of what has been covered up (our true selves) is not a trivial kind of thing – it is not like we can read it in a book or get told about it by some highly-trained expert. On the contrary, it is the work of a lifetime – and no one else can help us if. If they do try to help us, that will only lead us astray. There are no easy answers when it comes to discovering what the truth of our situation is – easy answers are only to be had in games, where everything is standardized, where everything has to be what it is designated to be by the rules of the game…
The thing that is being ‘covered up’ by the game has to be covered up for the game to proceed, and yet the other side of the coin is that from our point of view – as the actual individuals we are rather than the mere players of the game – what is being obscured is actually the only thing that truly matters in life! The journey by which we discover our true individuality is a ‘path with a heart’, as Castaneda puts it. It’s the only genuinely interesting pursuit in life – everything else is just a diversion, everything else is just a red-herring! In our culture, however, no time at all is given over to this endeavour, and instead all sorts of other tasks and duties and ‘responsibilities’ are pushed upon us, to the point where anything else gets quite buried. This is not to say that there isn’t a practical side to life that needs to be attended to – there obviously is – but no matter how important the practical aspects of life are if these ‘practical necessities’ (or ‘responsibilities’) are used as a way of stopping us ever reflecting on what this thing we call ‘life’ is all about, then something has clearly gone very wrong. And this is precisely what has happened – it is hard to imagine how anyone could deny it! First of all there are the things we have to do in life in order to attend to our material needs and then there are the things we do to entertain ourselves when we aren’t working, or when we aren’t attending to the practicalities of life, but between ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ there simply isn’t any space for anything else. When we’re not busy doing what we have to do in order to survive we’re busy entertaining ourselves – we’re watching television, or shopping, or going out drinking. This is the prescribed regime. That’s what modern life is like.
Jung makes the point somewhere that whilst in India there exists a tradition in which one can leave behind the life of a householder in one’s later years and turn to a life of reflection and contemplation, there is no corresponding tradition in the West. On the contrary, once we are past the ‘productive’ years of our lives (or the years in which we are still young and good-looking) we are no longer considered to have much to do in life. We hear talk of the ‘golden years’ that are to follow retirement but this is merely marketing speak designed to sell us pensions and life-assurance policies. In reality, no value is given to the second half of life because underneath all our fine talk we don’t understand life to consist of anything other than purely ‘surface-level’ matters – we have no comprehension of any psychic process, any movement in the ‘inner life’ that is the deeper meaning of our lives in this world. We only believe in externals, in ‘the image’, which is the important thing in the first half of life. No matter what we might say, as a society we don’t place any value in the inner life at all. The term itself is all but meaningless to us. Our so-called ‘inner life’ is simply the generic outer life that we have internalized, the external script or picture that we have unreflectively gone along with.
There is of course a good deal of lip-service paid to ‘self-development’, to this sort of therapy or that sort of therapy, this sort of healing or that sort of healing, but almost always this comes down to fixing the socially-prescribed image that we have of ourselves – almost all of it comes down to what Alan Watts calls ‘social adjustment therapy’. We go off the rails, one way or another, and the expert clinicians are there simply to help us to get back on them again! In Psychotherapy East and West Watts writes,
Whenever the therapist stands with society, he will interpret his work as adjusting the individual and coaxing his ‘unconscious drives’ into social respectability. But such ‘official psychotherapy’ lacks integrity and becomes the obedient tool of armies, bureaucracies, churches, corporations, and all agencies that require individual brainwashing. On the other hand, the therapist who is really interested in helping the individual is forced into social criticism. This does not mean that he has to engage directly in political revolution; it means that he has to help the individual in liberating himself from various forms of social conditioning, which includes liberation from hating this conditioning — hatred being a form of bondage to its object.
According to Alan Watts, a lot of our mental ‘un-wellness’ comes from the inherent contradictions of having to adapt to a system, to a way of life that restricts or denies our true individuality, and forces us to become regulated and mechanical. Simply patching us up and sending us back out onto the front-line again hardly qualifies as ‘therapy’! In Health as Expanding Consciousness, Professor of Nursing Margaret Newman speaks of ‘linear interventionism’, which is where we – as doctors or therapists – attempt return people to where they were before they became unwell. In the case of physical illness we can see that there is a lot of sense in this – if I break a leg I want to go back to being able to go walking and running again; if I get appendicitis or malaria, I want to recover so that I can go back to living my life again, and so on. But even in physical medicine there is the question of considering what elements in or aspects of my life-style predisposed me to becoming unwell in whatever way that I did, which means that healing is not just a matter of ‘us getting better so we can go back to what we were doing before we became unwell’! This may not be the case with a broken leg, or with some infectious disease, but with all of the endemic ‘life-style’ diseases that we are suffering from (such as heart-disease or diabetes) ‘going back to the way we were before we got sick’ is clearly not the answer at all. But with neurosis the idea that we can be patched up and ‘stuck back in the trenches’ is itself clearly pathological. This is the type of thinking that leads to entrenched neurotic mental suffering – the type of thinking in question being where we can’t let go of a fixed pattern of doing things even though that fixed pattern is doing us harm…
It’s not simply the case that we are stuck in one particular pattern that happens to be dysfunctional and that if we switched to a different pattern we would be a lot better off – neurosis is an automatic consequence of holding onto any sort of pattern! As far as mental health is concerned, there is no such thing as good pattern, there is no such thing as a good system. Mental health is synonymous with having the personal courage to let go of all patterns, to let go of all precedents, and this is the one thing that society (which is itself a fixed pattern of thinking and behaving) will never support us in doing. The rules of the game do not have any provision in them to encourage us to not play the game – the rules of society are never going to encourage us not to take them as seriously as they are asking us to! Society is a system that (like all systems) is made up of unquestionable precedents and this means that the one thing it is never going to do is play fast and loose with these precedents. That’s just not how things work, as we could very easily understand if only we could see that all logical systems necessarily have to repress the individuality (i.e. the ‘irregularity’) of the elements that comprise them.
So if we define mental health as fitting in with the world-view of everyone playing the game called ‘society’ we can see that linear interventionism makes a lot of sense. It is the ‘only way to go’ if this is how we understand mental health. This way of defining mental health is however really just a way of approving of our own arbitrary way of doing things – I have a certain set of prejudices about ‘how things should be’ and so then naturally I will go ahead and define good mental health as ‘subscribing to these prejudices’! I am making my way, my pattern, my system into the standard by which all things should be measured. This is clearly a cheat though because no matter what set of biases I start off with I’m going to promote this as being ‘the mentally healthy way to look at the world’. Really, therefore, I am abusing the word ‘health’ because health no longer means anything apart from what I want it to mean. It simply means conformity to the pattern to which I happen to subscribe. It is like me telling you that you are ‘sane’ if you happen to agree with what I say, or if you happen to believe what I believe, and that you are ‘mentally unwell’ (or insane) if you don’t. This way of defining mental health is clearly quite nonsensical, as well as being distinctly sinister into the bargain…
In Finite and Infinite Games James Carse differentiates between ‘society’ and what he calls ‘culture’ –
It is a highly valued function of society to prevent changes in the rules of the many games it embraces… Deviancy, however, is the very essence of culture. Whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past, is culturally impoverished. There are variations in the quality of deviation; not all divergence from the past is culturally significant. Any attempt to vary from the past in such a way as to cut the past off, causing it to be forgotten, has little cultural importance. Greater significance attaches to those variations that bring the tradition into view in a new way, allowing the familiar to be seen as unfamiliar, as requiring a new appraisal of all that we have been- and therefore all that we are. Cultural deviation does not return us to the past, but continues what was begun but not finished in the past…
To say that deviance is the very essence of culture is no different from saying that ‘deviance is the very essence of individuality’, and so we can rephrase what James Carse says above and say that ‘whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past has lost all awareness of who they truly are.’ When we follow the script, and substitute the collectively-validated ‘external life’ that we have been provided with for our inner life (without us either seeing that this substitution has taken place, or understanding what that means to us) then the unique individual self has been replaced by the generic self, which is a self made up of nothing more than theatrical appearances. The generic self doesn’t have any actual content – it can’t have any actual content because it’s ‘an externality’, because it’s a theatrical performance and nothing more. The outer life is of course made up of externalities – that’s why we are calling it the ‘external life’! The inner life, on the other hand, has no defined features or aspects that we can talk about, or readily discuss in a public forum, but instead of having generically recognizable features that can easily be talked about it is full of actual content. Hence, Carl Jung says –
Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.
When we dream, and live the external socially-validated life only, then what we gain in theatrical definition we lose in genuine content and saying that we ‘lose the content’ is just another way of saying that we lose the connection with who we truly are. What bigger thing could there be to lose than this? We worry about losing all sorts of unimportant, trivial things, but we never seem to worry about losing the biggest thing of all, which is losing our awareness of who we actually are. When we lose this we lose the heart, the core of who we are and as a result of this essential ‘hollowness’ we become slaves to this desire and that desire, this belief-structure and that belief-structure, all of which have the hold on us that they do because they promise to give us what deep-down we know we are missing. They promise to return to us our Wholeness, which we do not consciously see that we are missing.
Society itself is a belief structure that we cling to because it promises to remedy our inner deficit, and provide us – if we play the game well enough – with the much-sought-after social validation (often called success) which is the external substitute (or analogue) for ‘being who we truly are’. This is ironic because society is motivating us with the promise of remedying the painful inner deficit which it itself has engendered in us! It’s both the ‘cause’ of the sickness and the ‘cure’ at the same time, which is something that really ought to tip us off as to what is really going on here…
When we lose the core of who we are and have to go ahead on the basis of what Wei Wu Wei calls the self-concept and what Krishnamurti calls the self-image then we are at a disadvantage, even though we cannot directly see or understand what this disadvantage is. We’ve been ‘wrong-footed’ right from the start. We can talk about this disadvantage (or wrong-footedness’) in terms of loss of essential being – we have lost our essential being and have to make do instead with the theatrical ‘substitute for being’ – which is image or appearance. Some of the time we can get on like this just fine – if we believe the image to be the thing then we don’t see any problem. If we take the theatrical performance of the self-image to be the same thing as ‘who we genuinely are’ (as we almost always do) then we won’t necessarily feel ourselves to be ‘at a disadvantage’. But as we get removed further and further away from any connection with our true nature – from the well-spring of our being – we’re getting stretched thinner and thinner all the time. We’re getting into a sticky situation without being able to see that we are getting into a sticky situation.
As we ‘forget ourselves’ and caught up more and more with a false notion of who we are we end up in a very peculiar – if unappreciated – predicament. The predicament is that we have become ‘unreal without knowing that we are unreal’ and this is akin to having suffered a very serious accident without knowing that we have done so. We have suffered the most serious ‘accident’ of all, and yet we carry on blithely as if nothing had happened, getting caught up in one trivial issue after another. We’ve lost something without which we can’t really continue, and yet we haven’t worked this out for ourselves yet…
And yet there is a way in which this lost understanding can come to us, albeit a way that we cannot readily understand. We cannot see what has happened directly, in a straightforward way, but we can see it in an ‘upside-down way’, so to speak. When being is lost, then we don’t experience this loss of being, but we do experience the neurotic suffering that comes with it – all we need to do therefore is understand this neurotic suffering for what it truly is.
This isn’t actually a question of ‘doing’ – there’s nothing we can ‘do’ to purposefully regain our lost being. It is after all our unconscious attempt to regain our lost being (through all our surrogate purposeful activities) that keeps us trapped in our deficit condition. We just need to be aware of our loss of being, rather than automatically trying to correct it, rather than automatically trying to make it better. When we automatically try to ‘make it better’ all we’re doing is avoiding the awareness. The challenge isn’t to strive to become ‘more confident in ourselves’ (which everyone invariably says it is) – the challenge is to clearly see our lack of confidence and understand its root. The challenge is to fearlessly observe the reality of our situation. If we do somehow manage to become confident again (just like we used to be) all this would mean would be that we have managed to go back to sleep again, immerse ourselves in the dream again. The challenge isn’t to ‘go back to how we were before we became anxious’; the challenge isn’t to ‘go back to sleep’ – the challenge is to wake up!