The Rational Disconnect

Self-affirmations are part of every ‘mental health tool-kit’ it seems, and yet there is nothing even remotely ‘mentally healthy’ about dutifully repeating self-affirmations. It is actually odd that we should accept this supposedly helpful practice so very uncritically – where the hell does this idea come from anyway, and where is the proof that it actually works?

 

For some reason the whole area of mental health seems to be one in which we take to heart advice with practically zero critical appraisal. We’re very gullible when it comes to the question of what will or will not help our mental health, which – when we come to think of it – probably isn’t so surprising. We’re very keen to be helped after all, and we’re not so keen to learn about potential ‘flies in the healing ointment’. There are a number of ways in which we could try to show why self affirmation isn’t a legitimate means of helping ourselves. One way is to point out that every affirmation we could ever possibly make is merely ‘a thought’ and no thought is ever true. Thoughts are simply thoughts – they are abstract mental evaluations or statements that we make about the world, and as such they ought not to be confused with the actual reality that they are referring to. It is the fact that we are always confusing our abstract mental labels and evaluation with the reality which they are referring to that causes our neurotic suffering in the first place, so ‘more of the same’ is hardly going to help matters! Yet more thinking isn’t really going to be the helpful thing because it was thinking that got us into the mess we’re in in the first place. The head can’t be used to cure the head, so to speak…

 

Although we are unlikely to stop and see things this way, when we engage in self-affirmations all we are doing is ‘telling ourselves what we would like to believe’ and this straightway makes the whole endeavour very suspect! Isn’t that what we do all the time anyway, in one way or another? Aren’t we always trying to validate ourselves with our thinking and our talking? The only time we’re not doing this – generally speaking – is when we are criticising ourselves or blaming ourselves or ‘putting ourselves down’ with our thinking and this too is a form of ‘validation’, even though we certainly don’t see it as such. Self-criticism and ‘self-blaming’ is negative validation and negative validation is still validation, despite the fact that it makes us feel bad instead of good.

 

We’re not very good at seeing this in our Western culture – we’re not very good at seeing that ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ are the two sides of the very same coin. That’s what the familiar yin-yang symbol is showing us – we are all familiar with this symbol but unfortunately we’re not so familiar with the philosophy behind it. The message of the yin-yang symbol is that if we push positive far enough then it will become negative! ‘At the moment of victory defeat is born’, as the ancient Chinese saying has it. We think we’re pretty smart in the West but our thinking isn’t subtle enough to appreciate this point, which is ‘the principle of the identity of the opposites’; very evidently, we simply ‘don’t get it’, no matter how sophisticated we might imagine ourselves to be. We insist on treating the opposites as if they weren’t mutually dependent, as if we can have ‘more of the one without by the same token having more of the other’.

 

If I keep telling myself (and others) that ‘everything is going to be okay’ this is a positive message for sure but – alt the same time – it straightaway spells a negative message on the unstated level. If I truly believe that everything is going to be okay then I wouldn’t have to keep on saying it, I wouldn’t have to be so extremely insistent on it! “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” as the well-known line from Hamlet goes. If I keep on loudly protesting my innocence this unfailingly makes me sound guilty. Or – to give another example – if I keep on assuring you that you can trust me, then this very clearly sends the opposite message to the one I want to get across. No one goes around telling people that they are trustworthy unless they aren’t!

 

Positive affirmations are exactly the same as this, therefore – we’re ‘protesting too much’ and this over-egging of the pudding ought to make us suspicious. It actually does make us suspicious on an unconscious level, and so we are then obliged to do our best to cover up our doubts by being louder and more insistent than ever with our positive self-affirmations! This is the trouble with all so-called ‘positive thinking’, it actually has the very opposite effect to the one we want  and so what happens then is that we actually get caught up in a struggle that won’t ever end. We have unwittingly created a counter-current (or counterforce) to the one we are actively trying to promote and so we then become locked into the very grim business of ‘fighting against the negative’. We get locked into ‘trying to control what we never should have started trying to control’. We get caught up in a fight that we can’t win and what’s so ‘mentally healthy’ about this?

 

‘Promoting the positive’ is the very same thing as ‘fighting against the negative’ – it’s just odd that we find it so extremely hard to gain this insight. Our whole culture is working against us however, so perhaps it isn’t so odd after all that we can’t see a way out of the neurotic mess that we have created. ‘Promoting the positive’ or ‘affirming the positive’ is a recipe for suffering plain and simple. It’s a guaranteed recipe for suffering – it works every time! If we wanted more suffering then we’d be delighted – we’d be very pleased with the results of our efforts, but the whole point is that we don’t like suffering, needless to say! That’s actually what we’re trying to escape from in the first place, of course.

 

What we need to understand is that our overly-rational culture is not good for our mental health, and it certainly isn’t qualified to be telling us how to go about obtaining it for ourselves! Mental health is not some kind of defined goal to be reached via our logical thinking, by our technology, by our rational strategies. To go about things this way is always to incur suffering. We try to be clever about it but that isn’t that just isn’t going to work. We’re trying to obtain good mental health by manipulating, by controlling, by ‘fixing’, and that’s like ‘trying to put out a fire with gasoline’. We can’t successfully use the thinking mind as a tool when it comes to mental health because thinking is always about ‘chasing the positive and resisting the negative’ and this kind of thing (which in the East is called attachment) is the very root of our problem not the cure. Attachment can’t cure attachment. Control (which arises from ‘like versus dislike’) is the cause of our suffering and when we engage in positive affirmations we are trying to control – it’s as simple as that.

 

Of course we’re trying to control – we’re trying to obtain a particular outcome (the ‘positive’ one) and that’s control! So if attempted control doesn’t work – but only in fact makes matters worse) then what’s the alternative? What else can we do? It turns out that there is only one alternative to control and that is to be ‘interested in things as they actually are’ (rather than being obsessively fixated on positive outcomes’). This doesn’t take cleverness or techniques, but simply sincerity, or as we might also say, honest and courageous self-observation. It’s the truth sets us free, not cleverness, not our ability to manipulate the situation. Instead of self-affirmation (which as we have said is an attempt to manipulate) we practice something much gentler and much more powerful. We give ourselves the permission to be the way that we actually are, which is not a form of manipulation, which is not a form of cleverness.

 

This ‘permission-giving’ isn’t a ‘rational–purposeful’ kind of thing of course – it’s ‘a letting go’ not a ‘holding on’, not a ‘clinging to some mental technique’ type of thing. If it was merely a rational-purposeful thing then we could turn it into a strategy, and that would make it into just another form of self-affirmation. We would just be repeating another ‘meaningless mantra’ to ourselves in the case – we would be changing the formula slightly but that’s all that will have changed. What we’re talking about is the type of thing that comes from the heart and not the head and the problem here is that we’ve pretty much forgotten about our hearts (due no doubt to the relentless pressure to be clever and competitive that we’re all under). We got a bit of a ‘disconnect’ going on in the heart department unfortunately and we can’t really gloss over that fact, no matter how much we’d like to. This is just something that we have to face – the problem isn’t in our DNA or in some ‘error’ in our own personal psychology, it’s in this bizarre disconnected and competitive way of life that we have invented for ourselves…

 

Our Western culture is a heartless one due to our bizarre and unpleasant emphasis on consumerism and it is also a soulless one (as Jung has said) because of the way we insist on putting rationality on a pedestal. Once we see this however then we are half-way there because we won’t be looking for answers any more from either the disconnected rational mind or our cold-hearted, insincere techno-consumerist society. All we have to do is honestly reconnect with ourselves, which means not trying to control or manage ourselves the whole time in the way that the so-called ‘experts’ say that we should…

 

 

Art – Ben Frost – Store In A Dark Place (Mickey on Prozac), 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Engaging With An Unreal World

The more we engage with the fast-moving machine that is society the more unreal we become. This isn’t particularly obvious though – far from being obvious, it is almost impossible to see. The type of unreality we’re talking about here is camouflaged; it’s unreality that is dressed up to look like the bee’s knees. It is unreality disguised as ‘the main event’. This is we could say a super-charged unreality – it’s a reality which really does seem to have a lot going on in it, like some kind of a high-speed super-frenetic cartoon. Because there’s so much frenetic activity we think that we are getting somewhere, that ‘progress’ is being made. We think that the machine is actually doing something; we think that it’s actually producing something.

 

The fast-moving machine that is society doesn’t produce anything, though. What do we imagine that it’s producing with all its activity? What kind of thing is it that the machine – which demands so much labour, so much man/woman-power, for so much of our lives – actually make for us? If we were to look closely we would see that the machine produces nothing but itself – it’s like a closed loop. All its energy (all our energy!) gets used up by the machine maintaining itself, perpetuating itself, promoting itself. As we have said, it’s a closed loop, a pointless, self-validating merry-go-round. We know this well enough – that’s why we talk about ‘the rat-race’. We know well that it’s a pointless merry-go-round; we know well that we are having to run as fast as we can just to stand still. We know it alright but we aren’t going to do anything about it.

 

We know it but we don’t know it at the same time. We know it but we won’t really admit to ourselves that we know it. We know it but when it comes down to it we’ll deny that we do. The official story is that the fast-moving machine that is society produces a good standard of living for us that we can enjoy. The machine turns over goods and services and these goods and services are supposed to be what gives us a decent standard of living, or whatever other phrase it is that we might use. Somehow, it is assumed that our standard of living is a function of the ‘economic growth’ that is going on in the part of the world where we are living – why this should be so doesn’t make much sense outside the heads of economists or politicians but it’s a dogma that they seem to be able to get away with.

 

This notion that we need to have a ‘certain standard of living’ – which comes down to ‘the ability to enjoy all the goods and services that society can provide us with, whether we really need them or not – is easily confused with the non-economically defined notion of ‘quality of life’. In practice it is undoubtedly true that we assume an equivalence. It’s not hard to see that the two are the same thing at all however. ‘Standard of living’ – to a large extent, at least – has to do with our ability to satisfy all the various conditioned needs that we have been implanted with – that’s how this thing called ‘consumerism’ works, after all. We are persuaded that we have to have all these things and so if we can’t have them then we will say that we are suffering from an unsatisfactory standard of living. We’re living a ‘sub-standard life’. But to acquire a habit or an addiction and then be given the means of satisfying it does not translate into ‘quality of life’! This is actually a self-cancelling sort of business as we can clearly see – first we create a need where before there was none (for example, the need to own a high-spec Android or iphone) and then we are provided with the means of satisfactorily servicing this need on an ongoing basis. We’d be in the same place after it all if we never had the need in the first place!

 

This sort of business doesn’t increase or enhance our quality of life at all, as most of us would probably have no problem in admitting. Quite the reverse is true – our quality of life deteriorates (sometimes to the point of being seriously unwell or troubled) as a result of owning buying into the conditioned needs that society brings. What we are essentially doing with our high-tech culture is acquiring more and more attachments and attachments don’t equate to ‘mental health’, even when they are being satisfactorily taken care of! The more attachments we have the more degraded our ‘quality of life’ is going to become. This is actually a good way of describing what QOL – we can define QOL as something that exists in inverse proportion to the number of attachments that we have. Or to express this the other way around, we can say that what we are calling ‘quality of life’ (for the want of anything better to call it) is actually just a way of talking about our essential ‘autonomy’ – the degree to which we are free to be (or express) ourselves without things that have nothing to do with us (attachments or conditioned needs) getting in the way, or getting ‘first priority’. To be alive is to have needs it is true, but our essential needs are relatively few – our ‘non-essential’ (or ‘artificial’) needs have on the other hand multiplied beyond all measure. When we talk, as we do, about the ‘complexity of modern life’ and all the demands that this put on us this is what we are referring to.

 

The state of being attached (i.e. the state of being in thrall to a host of conditioned needs) substitutes itself very neatly for genuine freedom; it substitutes itself for genuine freedom in such a way that we never notice that any such substitution has taken place. So instead of the freedom not to have anything to do with the attachments (and the deterministic or defined world they create) we see freedom in terms of our ability to service or satisfy these needs. The ideal state of freedom thus becomes the situation where we can satisfy whatever ‘needs’ we have just about as soon as we experience them. If we could satisfy them instantly that would be perfect! In this way ‘freedom’ becomes something that we can only have when we have successfully adjusted ourselves to the artificial world with which we have been presented and are therefore able to operate effectively within. This is – needless to say – very convenient for the artificial world that we are being persuaded to buy into. If we want freedom, then adjusting successfully to society is the only way in which we are going to be able to get it, in other words! The substitution that we were just talking about means that we can’t see that the so-called ‘freedom’ which we are chasing only exists as an artefact or construct of an artificial system, and it itself not a real thing therefore. The ‘freedom’ which we’re buying at such a high price is freedom of an artificial nature and so it really isn’t the bargain we take it to be. We’re buying a dud product. Real freedom isn’t actually a product and it doesn’t cost anything!

 

So this is why we can say that ‘the more we engage in the fast-moving machine that is society the more unreal we become’. There is no reality without freedom; reality and freedom are two ways of talking about the same thing – if we are compelled / directed / controlled / determined then we are simply no longer real. We are no longer who we are and this means that we ‘unreal’. We aren’t ourselves anymore, we are simply extensions of the machine. Our goals are the machine’s goals; our dreams are the machine’s dreams… To be controlled or regulated is to be defined and as soon as we are defined we have ceased to be real. Instead we have become ‘part of the socially-validated fiction’. Reality cannot be defined; similarly, if I am defined (or ‘regulated‘) then I’m not actually real. I’m lost in a virtual reality world. I’m a player within the game, a construct of the system. And what I’m being defined by are my needs, my attachments. When it comes down to it when we are wholly adapted to the artificial world that society creates for us, then we are our conditioned needs!

 

Ironically, we regard those who do not engage 100% with society as being misfits and oddballs and eccentrics who have ‘opted out’ of life for whatever reason whereas the truth of the matter is that it is us who have ‘opted out’! We have opted out of reality; we have opted out of reality without even acknowledging that we have done so. We have opted out of reality by opting in to the virtual reality social game that ‘everybody who is anybody’ is playing. We’ve bought into ‘the false self’. We’re looking for a slice of the pie and we think that this is where it’s to be found! Everyone else is looking for the prize here and we don’t want to get left out or left behind. Everyone else is playing the game so the pressure for us to be doing so too (and not be ‘the odd one out’) is absolutely immense. Everyone else is doing it and X millions of people can’t be wrong, surely…

 

So for this reason we end up unwittingly embracing unreality on a mass scale and shirking the one responsibility that we do have, which is to always keep an eye on the truth and not wander off into ‘illusion-land’. When we wander off blithely into illusion-land then this means ‘losing ourselves’ and if we lose ourselves (if we lose sight of who we really are) then nothing we do can benefit anyone, either ourselves or others…

 

Image taken from: Cyborgology, in thesocietypages.com

 

 

 

Ideas Are Never True

Every single thing we believe to be true only gets to be true to us because of the way in which we secretly select the context of understanding that makes it seem true. We make such a big song and dance about ‘these things that we hold to be true’ – we couldn’t make a bigger song and dance than the song and dance we make about ‘these things that we hold to be true’! The history of the human race is full of the bloody dramas that have resulted from disputes over ‘what we hold true’, and yet – as we have just said – what we claim so portentously to be true only gets to seem true to us because of the way in which we have chosen a particular way of looking at the world without admitting to ourselves that we have done so. This is the irony that underlies all of the conflicts that makes up human life, both in the past and in the present day. It is also an irony that we are oblivious to…

 

This is a remarkable thing to consider – our view of ourselves and our history tends to be rather pompous and overblown but really human history comes down to nothing more than an endless series of squalid squabbles over ‘what gets to be accepted as true’ when actually all our so-called ‘glorious truths’ are nothing more than self-serving fictions. We have a strange relationship with the truth both on an individual and a collective level – we hoot and bray about how much we value it and yet at the same time we couldn’t actually care less about it! If any one of us were confronted and told that the things we most seriously hold to be true are no more than fictions that we have set ourselves up to believe in we would deny this in the most vigorous way that we possibly could. Because we put so much energy and dedication into saying something is true when it just plain isn’t it stands to reason that we are going to react particularly violently to anyone who comes along and asks us to be so good as to acknowledge the fact of our self-deception in this regard. There is no way we can be unbiased about our bias – it wouldn’t be a bias otherwise! Maintaining the bias is the name of the game – this is our ‘major obsession’, this is the ‘pet project’ that takes up pretty much the whole of our life. Saying that the thing which isn’t true actually is true is a full-time job because we can never afford to relax too much in case it all starts to come unravelled on us.

 

‘Maintaining the fiction’ isn’t just a thing we do at weekends therefore – it subsumes everything else and becomes our whole life. What’s more, we all get together to form collectives dedicated to saying that the fiction we uphold isn’t a fiction at all, that it’s totally for real. When we all get together to say this it seems like the greatest thing in the world to us – it seems noble and wonderful to us, it stirs our spirit and makes us feel good about ourselves. It makes us want to wave a flag and cheer. And yet the bottom line is that what we so fervently hold to be true, isn’t true. We’re just conforming to the party lines – we’re just conforming to what everyone else is busy doing and at the same time we’re all telling each other that doing this is a great thing. It doesn’t matter how fervent we are, it doesn’t matter how many of us conform to upholding the narrative – none of this hoo-ha is going to make the slightest bit of difference, obviously. We simply don’t have the power to make what isn’t true be true, no matter how zealous we might be at the task. Just because fifty million people believe unquestioningly in a fiction that doesn’t make it any less fictitious!

 

What a tremendous thing it would be – we might say – if we put all of that effort, all of that dedication into something that wasn’t a lie. When we go against the truth then we don’t get anywhere, despite all the fine talk and elegant clothes, when we go with the truth however then there’s no limit to how far we can go. When we band together to go against the truth then there might be a fine spectacle that gets produced, there might be a great display of pomp and circumstance, but underneath all that show the misdirected energy is only ever going to turn into rivers of toxicity. It doesn’t matter whether the ‘lie’ we are claiming to be true is the ego, the organization we are a member of, or the nation or country we see ourselves as belonging to – toxicity is always going to be produced as a result. To paraphrase Philip K Dick, ‘we are in service to a wrong thing’ so toxicity or pain-displacement is inevitable; pain is produced and ‘passed on to someone else’. When we are unconscious we have to pass pain on since psychological unconsciousness may be defined as ‘that state in which we automatically displace pain’.

 

When we aren’t in service to a false master however, and we don’t turn all our energy against ourselves (like the scorpion which stings itself) then instead of toxicity and socially-sanctioned lies something happens – something which is necessarily mysterious and indescribable and yet at the same time the truest expression of what it means to be human. Our true nature – very clearly – is not to be as we are now. What we find so very hard to see is that it is perfectly possible to live, and yet not turn this living of ours into the fervent embracing of a socially-sanctioned lie! We can’t see this – of course – because the very last thing we are ever going to do is consider, even for a moment, that the things which we hold to be true are actually only fictions that we have ended up – for whatever reason – promoting and defending. Life – as we have said – has become synonymous with this business of ‘promoting and defending fictions’. The fact that this is a complete travesty of what life ‘ought’ to be never dawns on us. We never pause to consider this. What happens with us is that our ‘basic energy’ (if we may call it that) goes immediately astray – it goes astray because our fundamental way of being when we are in the unconscious mode is to defend our ‘idea of ourselves’ whilst remaining oblivious to who we actually are. The idea always comes first, in other words!

 

The effect of this orientation is to profoundly alter our way of interacting with the world, and with each other. The simplest way to explain this is to talk in terms of ‘sensitivity versus aggression’. When we are operating on the basis of our ideas then we are inevitably aggressive – everything then becomes about changing the world in accordance with our presuppositions about how it should be. Everything becomes about control, in other words. If you were to ask why there is such a pronounced tendency for us all to want to be in control, and to consider this a ‘good thing’, then this is the reason – it is because we are always operating on the basis of our ideas. Everything is always about making the world (and other people, of course) conform with our ideas for it (or for them). We create systems and then we put all our energy into trying to get everything to fit into these systems of ours, on the basis that when that happens then this will be a ‘good thing’. But everything is not just about trying to get the world and other people to conform to our ideas – it’s about trying to the world and other people to conform to our untrue ideas, our false ideas. It’s about trying to get everything to fit into a system (or construct) that isn’t actually real!

 

Ideas are always untrue. This is because they are ideas! Ideas (or thoughts) are necessarily unreal – they are only ‘provisional conjectures’, exercises in ‘what if…?’ Thoughts or ideas are ‘simplified descriptions of reality’ rather than being reality itself. We could also say that our ideas are metaphors, even though we very rarely understand them as being so. This is the ‘truth’ of ideas – that they are playfully made ‘versions’ of reality that aren’t really meant to be taken seriously. Having said this, we have to make the qualification that although thoughts aren’t ‘serious’, they very much do present themselves as being so! We could say that thoughts play at being literal descriptions in a very serious or deadpan fashion. The way our thoughts work is that they make ‘playful statements about reality’ that don’t in anyway declare themselves to be playful – their nature is akin to that of a person who is telling a joke whilst keeping a very straight face the whole time. Their deadpan expression doesn’t mean that they aren’t joking, it just means that they are pretending that they aren’t joking for the sake of the joke. Pretending that you aren’t joking is an essential part of the joke, in this case. The bottom line is that thoughts simply don’t have the flexibility to be ironic. Thoughts don’t have the flexibility within them to be ironic because – as Robert Anton Wilson says – they are based on Aristotelian logic and Aristotelian logic can either say YES or it can say NO and that’s about the size of it. Very clearly, there’s not a lot of humour or playfulness in this! Actually there’s no humour or irony in it at all. There’s zero humour in it and there’s also zero reality.There’s simply no category or facility for irony (which is to say ‘YES-that-doesn’t-really-mean-YES’) in logic and this is just the way logic is. That’s logic’s ‘necessary deficiency’. This doesn’t mean that the universe itself is lacking in irony or humour, though! The deficiency lies with us, not the universe. The joke’s on us, though we can’t see it…

 

When we operate on the basis of our literally-understood thoughts then we are fundamentally unreceptive to any new information – this is of course going to be the case because ‘new information’ is precisely that information which will contradict what we already understand to be true. That’s what ‘information’ is – it’s something that we don’t already know! ‘Aggression’ means therefore that we are both fighting against anything new, and struggling to consolidate what we already know (or rather think we know). When we are living life on the basis of ‘our idea of who we are’ then, as we have already said, this means that our actual raison d’être is to be perennially fighting against new information, even though we will never admit this. The ongoing struggle to humourlessly and aggressively assert our ‘truths’ – which aren’t actually true at all – has become synonymous with life itself. The antithesis of aggression is(as we have said)sensitivity and sensitivity – needless to say – is where we are very much open to new information, very much open to new ways of looking at the world. Sensitivity – we might say – is where we understand all of our constructs as being essentially playful and once we understand our constructs in this way we can use them to honestly investigate reality instead of dishonestly shutting it down.

 

What bigger difference could there be than this, therefore? What bigger difference could there be than the difference between open to the truth, interested in the truth, and fighting tooth-and-nail against the truth whilst at the same time claiming dishonestly to be championing it?  Or as we could also say, what bigger difference could there be than the one that exists between of being ‘a lover of the truth’ (i.e. literally – ‘a philo-sopher’) and a ‘fearer of the truth’? When we are in ‘control mode’ we are forever chasing this fantasy outcome, this mirage that everything is going to work out for us just so long as we control successfully. We ‘know best’ so all we have to do is stick to our guns – all we have to do is to push ahead to make it happen regardless of what obstacles might lie in our path. The stubborn conviction that ‘we know best’ is of course nothing more than a ridiculous illusion – we’re simply charging blindly ahead because we’re afraid to open our eyes and see what’s actually going on. We actually know nothing at all but we’re far too scared to ever admit it…

 

When we’re being sensitive, or ‘exploratory wrt reality’, then we know that we don’t know best. We’re open to new ways of being, new ways of looking at the world. We’re not meeting life with a hard, unyielding surface – which means of course that we’re not meeting life at all. We’re not playing – we’re shut down! When we’re in ‘aggression mode’ then we’re having nothing to do with life. We only relating on our own terms, which means that we’re not relating. We’re making the experiment of ‘not being part of life’, but only ‘part of what we think life should be’. What we think life should be isn’t life, however; it’s just a fantasy, it’s just an extension or projection of our frozen mind-state. There is no happy outcome to this fantasy however, no matter how far we push it, no matter how good at controlling we are. Saying that ‘there is no happy outcome’ tends to sound pessimistic to us. It actually sounds worse than pessimistic; it sounds heretical – we aren’t going to take that on for a moment. The other way of looking at this however is to say that discovering that ‘the experiment of not being part life’ is never going to work out for us is actually the best news ever! What could be better than this?

 

Through this failure of our project (the project of making what is untrue be true, the project of making our fantasies be real) we find ourselves in the situation of being able – finally – to discover that there is infinitely more to life than we ever thought there was! What a happy discovery this is! Who wants to be proved right, after all? The impulse to ‘want to be proved right’ is the most terribly perverse impulse we could ever entertain – how is this ever going to be a ‘good thing’? What are we going to do when we have proved ourselves to be right? When we have authoritatively and indisputably ‘validated our own lie’ then just where do we go from this? Just what do we think is going to happen next…?

 

 

 

 

The Generic Life

Society is the Great machine for producing the generic life. It’s not that society doesn’t or couldn’t have any other more practically useful functions aside from this but just that these ‘useful functions’ are completely overshadowed by this unacknowledged negative aspect. In this, the social organization of which we are all a part acts as ‘negative parent’. Just as a negative or toxic parent will – when challenged – point to the nurturing functions which they do provide, such as food, shelter, clothing, protection from external harm and make the indignant claim to be benevolent rather than malign – so too will society reject any accusation that it has failed us, and more than just failing us that it is doing us harm. This argument is easily seen through – suppose that I am a parent who does all of these things (and who even perhaps provides emotional support too) but who nevertheless has an underlying agenda to sabotage the developing autonomy of those under my care. Suppose that I am fostering dependence rather than independence. In this case can it still be said that I am acting as a ‘good parent’? This is of course a purely rhetorical question – we all know that a parent who provides food, clothing and shelter but nothing else is abusive. The rudiments of parenting are there but not the ‘higher functions’, which is something an uncaring robot could perfectly well manage. Physical health – in a very narrow sense – may be being fostered but not emotional or mental health. The trauma that is caused by emotional neglect is tremendous and may take many decades to work through. If the child has been kept dependent and subservient and has thus been prevented from reaching the state of true adult autonomy, this is too is a complete failure of parenting – the children then in this case become nothing more than versions or copies of the dysfunctional parent.

 

So the point we are making is that society is an abusive (or ‘negative’) parent in exactly the same way, no matter what claims it may implicitly make to the contrary. The evidence is all around us! We don’t see this – it is true – but blindness is par for the course. That’s how things work – we don’t know anything different, we don’t have anything else to go on. Society – the common system of relations that we are all part of – is a negative parent, an abusive guardian. ‘Culture isn’t your friend’, as Terence McKenna says. The reason society isn’t our friend is because it doesn’t allow us to grow; it doesn’t do all the really important things that a parent quite naturally does if they really care about the well-being of their children. If you care about your children (rather than just caring about yourself) you will let them go, you will let them evolve beyond you. Society never does this – it would never occur to it to do this. As far as ‘growing as people’ or ‘developing as individuals’, this absolutely isn’t going to happen – we have to copy or mimic the template or else we’re misfits, we have to ‘fit in’ or else we’re ‘weird’. It can’t happen – there is no growth within the generic life. The generic life is the generic life and that is that; the only time growth is going to happen is when we go beyond the limits that have been set for us, not when we stay faithfully within them like a machine that always works the way it is supposed to work. Moving beyond the prescribed way that we have of understanding ourselves is growth but this happens to be the very thing that society doesn’t allow – that is illegal, that is prohibited by the whole weight of society. This is of course how systems get to be systems: by enforcing limits, by treating limits in a very serious way. When we look into it, we can see that systems actually are the limits that they enforce, that they take seriously.

 

Whenever we collectively agree – by whatever process – that this is the way we do things and that this is the way we think about things then we have created a system. We have created a set of limits which we are now taking seriously and this set of limits, this system then acts so as to mould and regulate us. This is what we call ‘society’ – it’s a working template that we set above ourselves. The point here is that this template then develops a ‘life of its own’ – it becomes more important than the human units that make it up and so it prioritizes its well-being and survival over that of the individual lives that make it up. Of course it is more important – the mould is always more important that what is being moulded. Naturally the template tells us what to do – it tells us what to do, we don’t tell it what to do. We can’t play fast and loose with society’s laws, society’s conventions. Even the least of these laws or conventions, if we go against it, will bring huge penalties down on our head. Anyone who has ever had the experience, in any way, of ‘not fitting in’, will know what a tremendous force ‘peer pressure’ is to come up against. This is why we always do conform to conventions in the way that we do – because we know how it works, because we know that there is this tremendous coercive force there and we don’t want to find ourselves on the wrong side of it!

 

What happens when we ‘conform’, when we take seriously the limits that the system takes seriously (i.e. when we allow the system to mould and regulate us in accordance with these limits) is that we become generic. As we started off this discussion by saying, the societal life is the generic life. When we reflect on it, this is so obvious as to be hardly worth saying; it’s ridiculously obvious – it’s like saying that people who are sad are no happy or that people who are under five feet in height tend not to be tall. Yet we need to say it because we never actually think about it; we just don’t appreciate the implications of what we have just said here. The ‘implications’ couldn’t be bigger. The implications here simply couldn’t be overstated:

When we are living what we have called ‘the generic life’ – which is the default setting where everything is running smoothly ‘on automatic’ and nothing has happened to knock us off our pre-established trajectory – then we aren’t living as ourselves but simply as an idea of ourselves (i.e. as a generic idea of ourselves).

This is very easily said and it comes across perhaps as being rather glib, but when we come to grips with this idea and actually appreciate what it means to us then we can see that that it is an enormously disturbing revelation. It’s as if someone stole your life when you were still really young and then lived it instead of you, leaving you sidelined, leaving you marginalized, leaving you quite forgotten about. And not only this, it is also the case that the ‘thief’ who stole our life isn’t actually anybody but is only an idea, only a notion that has been passed on randomly from person to person like a cold, like a dose of the flu in winter.

 

This is what it means to ‘lead the generic life’ – it means to catch a cold! It means to catch cold and never get over it because you immune system has been suppressed. This then is not by any means a small thing; the enormity of what has happened to us can’t be overstated, as we have already argued’. When Jean Baudrillard speaks of ‘The Perfect Crime’ and ‘the murder of the real’ he is essentially speaking of this (although he is coming at it from a different angle). He is talking about the murder of who we really are, which is a job that has been started by our parents and then continued by everyone else we have ever met! Obviously, this is not done with any bad intent (or at least not usually) but it is done all the same. We don’t – as parents – have any choice in this: when we are ‘unconscious’ (i.e. unconscious of who we really are) we can’t help passing on the virus. That’s what we do when we’re unconscious – we act as passive vehicles for the generic impressions or imprints. Being unconscious means that we act as a passive medium or substrate which the ‘generic identity’ utilizes in order to propagate itself; our common understanding of ourselves is as this generic self (which is essentially nothing more than a cultural meme) and so naturally we’re going to see nothing wrong with this state of affairs – that’s why we are ‘passive’ in the process. Far from seeing anything wrong about it we’re going to see the situation in which the false or viral idea of self is maximally facilitated in propagating itself (at the expense of the true or ‘non-generic’ self) as being pre-eminently ‘healthy’ and desirable. We will adopt whatever strategies we can to bring this situation about, and maintain it. This is what we consider to be ‘the state of good mental health’, after all – ‘good mental health’ (to us!) means the continued unchallenged ascendancy of the generic self, the generic identity…

 

Nothing about the generic self is true – it doesn’t exist anymore than ‘an average value’ exists. Averages don’t really exist and yet they may all the same loom large in our minds as something to be aimed at or something to be avoided. We may live our whole life in the service of these ‘averages values’, in one way or another (we’re governed by social constructs, in other words). When we lead the generic life we’re living ‘someone else’s idea of what life is’ and not only this, we’re living ‘someone else’s idea of what life is on the basis of who or what someone else thinks we are (or ought to be)’! It’s no good pretending – as we generally do pretend – that this isn’t what the socially-conditioned life is like, that society (or our peers) are actually encouraging us to be our true authentic unique selves. It would be absurd to believe this. You would have to be asleep and dreaming (you’d have to be asleep and dreaming a socially-conditioned dream) to believe this!  When we say that we’re living ‘someone else’s idea of who we are or what life is’ it’s not really ‘someone else’ of course – we’re simply trying to approximate ourselves as best we can to an abstract idea that doesn’t belong to anyone. The generic ideas own us, we don’t own them! The generic idea owns us, but at the same time it doesn’t really exist; we’re putting ourselves through the wringer trying to approximate ourselves to an illusion – sometimes we fail and then we beat ourselves up (or are beaten up by our peers), or we succeed and we then go around feeling good about this, in a perfectly absurd fashion…

 

Life isn’t a matter of fitting into the pattern that we have been given; it isn’t a matter of ‘going along with the obvious answers that have been given to us without ever questioning them’. Life is a test, but it’s not that sort of test, it’s not a ‘test of obedience’ in the way that the fundamentalist Christians tell us it is. That’s just paternalistic bluster, that’s just ‘the Negative Father Image trying to frighten us, as always’! That’s just ‘The Old Tyrant‘! Life isn’t a test to see how good we are at going along with the prevailing bullshit – how could we possibly short-sighted enough to think this? We might like to think that it’s all about doing what we need to do in order to be good girls and good boys and get patted on the back or awarded medals but that of course is just a cop out so we don’t have to think for ourselves. That’s slavery, not life, even if it is slavery that we ourselves willingly walk into. Life’s not about embracing the generic life (and feeling either good or bad depending upon whether we are able to successfully do this), it’s about seeing through it.

 

This might sound like a rather simplistic or limited way of saying what life (which is obviously a pretty big thing) is or isn’t about but it hits the nail on the head in a lot of ways. It’s a pretty accurate way of putting things; after all, it’s only to the extent that we can see through (or beyond) ‘the generic life’ that we can live at all…