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Negative Psychology

There are two types of psychology and two corresponding types of psychotherapy, and these two types, these two approaches, are diametrically opposed to each other. They diverge on every point. Of these two divergent approaches one is overwhelmingly dominant and is all around us, it is ‘in our faces’ every day, whilst the other approach is far less easy to encounter. One has to go looking for it, and in order to go looking for it one has to know about it in the first place. The dominant approach to psychology did not become dominant by arguing against its opponent, it did not win out by overcoming the opposing view in reasoned debate, but by ignoring it, by burying it in silence, by tacitly agreeing to pretend it isn’t there. In addition to this extremely effective tactic, the orthodox approach also has the advantage of being immediately accessible to our everyday way of understanding things, which is not the case for its silenced cousin.



These two types of psychological thought correspond to the positive and negative schools of philosophy, where a similar situation prevails. Positive philosophical theories abound, they are ten-a-penny, whilst negative philosophy is something few of us will ever encounter.  A positive approach ‘says what things are’, it makes assertions in a clear, unambiguous way, it utters with authority definite statements about the nature of reality and a logically coherent picture of the world is produced in this way. The negative approach on the other hand contents itself with saying what things aren’t, it simply points out what is false, what is illusion, what is deceptive. Rather than stating the truth, it operates by uncovering the lie. After this revolutionary act, the negative philosopher does no more, and withdraws gracefully to allow reality to show itself, on its own terms, in its own way, without the supposed benefit of any extraneous interpreter. The negative philosopher, therefore, does not presume to speak on nature’s behalf but restricts himself to making visible all the spurious conditioning that interposes itself between us and the world, so that we may perceive directly – which is to say, in an unmediated fashion – ‘what is there’ before some agency or other sets itself up as an unimpeachable authority and starts telling us what is there. This agency may be seen as our conditioning, our beliefs, our systematized so-called ‘knowledge’ about the world, it may be seen as the ‘rational-evaluative mind’, which unfailingly interposes itself between us and reality, and it may also be equated, as the Gnostics did, with the venerable and highly-respected institutions which govern our societies.




Positive philosophy has given rise to positive psychology, which is the only type of psychology we know about. Positive psychology offers us a way of solving our problems of adjustment to reality (or with our fellow human beings) by methods, by strategies, by procedures and protocols. It offers us clever ways of ‘adjusting ourselves to mental health,’ approved protocols of intervention that supposedly have the stamp of ‘science’ on them. A negative psychologist (if you could find one) would say that there is no clever or scientific way to adjust or manipulate ourselves to good mental health, that there is no procedure to obtain peace of mind, creativity or happiness. He or she would say that it is our very cleverness that stands in the way of all of those qualities that we associate with good mental health. What we call good mental health is after all simply spontaneity, the state of mind in which our spontaneous (or ‘true’) self can show itself, which it does through the qualities of humour, creativity, compassion, sincerity, peacefulness, joyfulness, and so on. How on earth do we imagine we can produce the spontaneous self ‘to order’ – as and when it suits us? The best we could do would be to produce a clever simulation of all these attributes, behaviours and qualities. Which is of course not a particularly unusual state of affairs.



The problem positive (or ‘rational’) psychology faces is that it has to put forward some sort of definition of what mental health consists of, along with its definition of the prescribed logical steps that are needed to return us to this state, from whatever ‘erroneous’ position we happen to have drifted into. Professor of Nursing Margaret Newman calls this ‘linear interventionism’. Linear interventionism in mental health is however not merely a problem – it is an impossibility since no one can describe or in any way define the spontaneous mind, any more than a mathematician – no matter how adroit he or she might be – can define a random number. A random number is a random number precisely because it cannot be specified, precisely because there is no specification or algorithm for how to obtain it. Spontaneity and randomness are very closely related and so in the same way that I can’t tell you how to produce a random number by cranking the handle on some kind of mathematical machine I can’t tell you either what the spontaneous mind is, nor how to get there. If I told you what steps to take in order to be spontaneous and you faithfully followed these steps then whatever else you might be as a result of ‘following the recipe’, you certainly wouldn’t be spontaneous. There is no way to be spontaneous on purpose – that is a flat contradiction in terms.



As the Taoists have been saying for many thousands of years (not that we seem to have the remotest interest in what they had to say) ‘the more you try to accord with the Way, the more you will deviate’. This is nothing if not simple, but the problem is that we enjoy control too much and are loathe to relinquish it – even if the unrealistic (or ‘hubristic’) responsibility that goes with it makes us unwell. In a nutshell, the purposefully constructed and purposefully directed self (i.e. the act) is hard work all the way: it is inherently frustrating, wretchedly awkward to be stuck with, ultimately unrewarding, and – worst of all – it isn’t actually who we are. The ‘act’ has the advantage of being under our control, but it is has the ultimate disadvantage of being completely hollow, completely inauthentic, completely lacking in substance. Who I really am is ‘off the map’ – it can’t be described or defined. Who I really am can’t be ‘deliberately directed’ either – not without losing the whole point of it. To control oneself (to direct oneself) is to falsify oneself – although we are culturally indisposed to understand this. Being ‘mentally healthy’ simply means being yourself, and the implication in this is of course that what causes us to suffer mentally is that we are not ourselves, that we are not true to ourselves. We are not true to ourselves because we don’t trust ourselves, and since we don’t trust ourselves we are left in the position of having to define ourselves, and direct ourselves.




This is where philosophy joins hands with psychology because it is the fact that we are ‘positive’ (in the psychological sense of the word, which means not only ‘defined’ but ‘deliberate’) about who we are and what life is all about that alienates us from ourselves in the first place – the self is not a positive statement, it is not a definite or specified thing, rather, it is a spontaneous – which is to say freely moving – process. The true self is a verb not a noun. Given that we live in a social milieu in which philosophical and religious positivism have held sway for thousands of years, it is not surprising that we identify with a positive image of the self. Given that society and the institutions that make up society tell us in a positive way what reality is, who we are, and what ‘it’ is all about, it is no wonder we are mentally unhealthy (i.e. mentally not whole, or ‘divorced from ourselves’). And to add insult to injury, along comes positive psychology to tell us how we ought to be functioning and what we ought to do in order to return to that normatively defined mode of being, as if this is going to help.



If we were messed up beforehand, then we are surely going to be a hundred times more messed up after we try to deliberately correct ourselves, although this may not be obvious on the surface. We may be able to learn to mimic spontaneous processes, but this won’t do us any good because that simply puts even more and more pressure on us as we start taking on responsibility for processes which aren’t actually our responsibility. Spontaneous processes happen by themselves, after all – that is what is so great about them. I can ‘take over the process’ myself if I want, but then it just turns into hard work, the whole thing turns into an onerous duty and so the point of it is completely lost. Worse, the pseudo-spontaneous behaviour is now completely false and insincere, since it has been stage-managed from the start. The very idea – which is at the heart of all forms of positive psychotherapy – that I should take responsibility for (i.e. direct) my own thoughts, my own feelings, my own mental processes, is an out-and-out nightmare, even if it seems to make perfect sense to us when we read it in a popular self-help book, or hear it from a professional therapist. If we see that we are spontaneous beings, and that spontaneity is at the heart of who we are, then it is clear that the way to return to that spontaneity is different for each of us, and that there is no standardized route. There is simply no map or route-planner, no series of steps, no method, no matter how much we might wish there were. As Krishnamurti has said, ‘truth is a pathless land’. This doesn’t mean that we can’t be helped, simply that we can’t be helped in a procedural or standardized sort of a way (‘procedural’ and ‘standardized’ come down to the same thing). The problem we have in seeing why psychotherapy can’t be a procedure might possibly come from a misapplication of the medical approach – the functional parameters of the heart, for example, can be defined and there are procedures which can correct deviations from these parameters. No one wants to have a unique or individual type of a heart beat. But the psyche is not an organ like the heart, it is the ultimate in self-organizing processes – it is not something that can be rationally understood or modelled. This is not an ‘unscientific’ statement – science, ever since chaos theory and complexity theory emerged in the mid nineteen-eighties, understands very well that non-linear, self-organizing processes can’t be modelled or predicted. That understanding has just not percolated particularly well down to medicine, psychiatry and psychology yet.



It is extraordinarily hard for us as a technological culture to acknowledge that there are some things we just can’t manipulate, some problems that we just can’t solve with our famous ‘cleverness’. If we agree that mental well-being or mental wholeness is freely given to us – i.e. that mental health is a ‘gift from above’ like creativity, joy, laughter or love – then it follows that ‘cleverness’ is not going to be of any help to us in this most important of matters. A negative psychologist would point out that it is precisely our cleverness that is the problem. In other words, it is our short-sighted and anxiety-driven attempt to benefit ourselves that stands in the way of our receiving the benefit which would have been bestowed on us with no effort on our part if we hadn’t ‘lost faith,’ so to speak, and tried to greedily grab hold of it for ourselves. We were ok until we tried to make sure that we were ok; we were fine until we began to suspect that we might not be fine.




Goal-orientated behaviour is certainly adaptive biologically, in terms of acquiring shelter, food, a mate and so on, but a different principle holds sway when we are talking about mental health as opposed to physical needs – we cannot acquire happiness for ourselves by reaching out and grabbing it any more than a writer can press a button for inspiration, or any more than I can reach out and grab hold of peace of mind for myself when I am troubled. It is precisely our lack of understanding on this point that causes the problem in the first place; for example if I am anxious and I either try to deliberately to fix or escape from that anxiety then this attempt to control or defend simply makes me more anxious than ever. Controlling is a symptom of anxiety, not its cure. We could also think about this principle – the principle of ‘counter-productivity’ – in terms of information and say that our lack of mental health is due to a reduction (or ‘narrowing’) of the scope of information that is available to us and that this ‘narrowing of our vision’ – this loss of perspective, in other words – occurs as a result of us straining too hard, trying too hard, and generally being to directed and purposeful.  Put simply, mental health corresponds to the situation of maximum perspective, and neurotic suffering results from the progressive and insidious loss of perspective (i.e. it is the result of a lack of available information which we don’t know about, which we have no information about).  The idea that we narrow our own attention as a result of adapting to our specific environment, and that we pay a price for this ‘adaptive narrowing’ in terms of what we might call our ‘mental health’, is explored here by Colin Wilson in his much-loved book Mysteries


Human beings have an incorrigible tendency to constrict their everyday consciousness. They do this out of anxiety, out of the need to focus clearly on immediate problems. But the paradoxical effect is to strangle their vitality.


This ‘constriction’ or narrowing of consciousness is like looking at an object under a magnifying glass. Its basic features are enlarged, but at the same time you can see less of it. If you place it under a microscope even greater magnification is obtained, but the visual field is made smaller than ever. As we constrict consciousness, we lose our over-all sense of meaning.


But this sense of meaning is our strength. When we can see meaning clearly, we know exactly what we are supposed to do, and our energies respond. When we cannot perceive meaning, we yawn with boredom, and our energies fail.


This explains one of the chief problems of everyday life. We can be perfectly comfortable, in an enviable situation, and yet be thoroughly bored. We can be uncomfortable, in a highly dangerous situation, and yet feel intensely alive. Danger forces us to make a mental effort. We ‘stand back’ from life, like a painter standing back from his canvas, and see over-all meanings. The result is a flood of vitality.


Although the answer to the problem of constricted attention is clearly to do what Colin Wilson says and ‘stand back’ from life (i.e. pull back from controlling or micro-managing it) the problem is that ‘standing back’ – or ‘regaining perspective’ – isn’t the sort of thing that I can deliberately do. The reason for this is that purposeful or goal-orientated action is a function of ‘constricted attention’ inasmuch as I can’t define a goal for myself without first narrowing the field of my attention. Without a narrowed field of attention ‘specifics’ simply don’t come into focus – I make them into specifics by focussing on them, by ignoring everything else. I can’t therefore deliberately stop controlling or micro-managing life because when I try to do this I find that I am attempting to control my controlling, or micro-managing my micro-managing. As a result, I lose perspective rather than gaining it, as was my aim. Instead of ‘constricted attention’ we could talk about ‘limited information’. In this case, good mental health could be defined in terms of having the maximum possible scope of information, the maximum possible perspective. The corresponding snag that appears here is that the more I try to focus in any one particular area to obtain more information the more I develop a blind-spot somewhere else. If I tune in to one signal I tune out of all the others; if I develop a model or theory to deal with one aspect of reality, I have to ignore all the other aspects (as Stuart Kauffman says, ‘knowing requires ignorance’). The reason this trade-off happens is because the universe is complex – it possesses many discontinuous aspects – whilst logic is linear, and can only deal with one aspect at a time, one thread at a time, one ‘continuum’ at a time. Logic simplifies the universe, which is a point we tend very much to forget. It transforms the non-linear into the linear.




We naturally think that it is advantageous to have a theory (or an idea) when squaring up to the world and this is the whole logic of specialization. Specialization pays dividends but it comes with a price, which is of course that I am only going to do well as long as my niche holds good. I have after all put all my eggs in the one basket, which would be perfectly fine if that basket were the only basket in the universe, but if on the other hand it turns out that there are other baskets out there then I am in trouble. In the philosophy of Eastern martial arts being uncommitted, being a generalist rather than a specialist, is spoken of as ‘open-handed’ approach – a warrior with an open hand has not invested in a strategy or a plan, he is not committed to any particular style of combat. The samurai of ancient Japan exemplified this approach in their philosophy: according to the samurai philosophy the perfect warrior has no ideas in his head, no thoughts, no expectations, no strategy that he hopes to bring out when the right situation comes along. Because he has no ‘baggage’ in his head he is ready for whatever might happen, and because in life no one can know for sure what situations might arise this unprepared open-handedness represents the optimum stance – the stance of no stance.



Another way to put this is to say that the open-handed warrior is not afraid to trust himself; he is not afraid to take the chance that he will be equal to the situation, no matter what that situation might be. Out of this trust (or ‘willingness to risk’) comes complete calm – the unflustered calm that allows us to wait patiently without feverishly trying to second-guess reality all the time. In the absence of this fearlessness however we are driven to hedge our bets, to make guesses about ‘what is going to happen next’ the whole time and then invest in strategies that we hope will give us the advantage. We replace open-ended spontaneity with closed and calculated responses which will give me the edge if I have guessed right about what is going to happen, but which will completely ‘wrong-foot’ me if my guess is wrong. We are, of course, all warriors in that we are constantly facing difficulties and dangers. The question is however, do we enter the fray with nothing up our sleeves, trusting that we will be equal to the challenge when the time comes, or do we go in ‘tooled up’ – weighted down with beliefs, theories, expectations, information, tactics, learned responses and so on?



Needless to say, the controlling technological culture that we are brought up in predisposes us to the latter. From school onwards we are subjected to a barrage of ‘positive education’ – we are crammed full of facts and figures, ideas and theories, recommended approaches for this and that and the other, so that it is a wonder we have any space left in our heads at all. Every time we go on another course or read another book we come away with even more ‘stuff’ to add to the pile, which is of course the whole idea behind positive education – that you keep learning more. Negative education, on the other hand, would mean we know a little bit less every time we have a learning experience, until eventually we find ourselves in the optimum (and very honest) position of realizing that we know nothing. In the absence of the fearlessness that does not need to try to pre-empt reality we have to invest in cumbersome and unwieldy defences, we are forced to become inflexible specialists hampered on top of everything else with a terminal case of tunnel vision. We know more and more about less and less. This is unarguably the route we as a culture have chosen – by default – to go down: we charge headlong down this road without even knowing that there is an alternative. We have of course become supremely resourceful in this – we are now all very secure indeed behind an intricate array of astonishingly effective defences and back-up systems. We are actually so secure that most of us find ourselves in the unhappy position of being pretty much bored silly with ourselves, whether we like to admit it or not. And aside from the tedium that always sets in with excess security, underneath the formidable defences we are not fearless, but fearful. We are – strangely enough – bored and anxious at the same time.



Investing in guarantees of safety is of course a manifestation of fear. The thicker the castle walls, the weaker I am behind them. I have put all my money on the walls doing the trick so for me, ‘failure is not an option’. The attitude that says ‘failure is not an option’ isn’t an attitude of strength however – it is an attitude of denial, it is a manifestation of ‘the inability to look at what I fear’. I am, therefore, both bored senseless in my castle prison, and devoured daily by anxiety at one and the same time (even though this anxiety may also be kept safely under the surface by whatever highly sophisticated and successful state-of-the-art anxiety-management strategies I may have learned, which is where positive psychology comes into the picture). The point is however that none of this is actually necessary – I didn’t need to put myself in this position in the first place. Defending yourself is exactly like telling a lie because once you start there is a ‘logic of irreversibility’ to the whole thing, which means in plain language that once you start you can’t stop. Furthermore, once you start at all you have to keep embellishing, and then you have to embellish your embellishments, and so it all snowballs, it just keeps on getting more and more cumbersome, more and more convoluted, more and more impossible to back out of. My fear is ‘initially assuaged’ but at the price of putting me in the most untenable position possible.




Just as there are two approaches to the art of warfare there, are two directions that are possible in the psychological growth (or development) of a human being. One direction is the direction of increasing openness, and the other is the direction of increasing closure. Needless to say, we can only travel in one direction or the other – we can’t have it both ways. I can’t go up the road and down the road at the same time since being closed necessarily precludes being open. Increasing security means decreasing openness and because we see security as a positive, as an advantage, we tend to develop in this direction during the course of our lives. The general rule is that if we don’t work to undo the process, we become more entrenched, more invested, more dug-in, as we get older and as a result we end up identifying with a particular fixed and rigid pattern of being. I say that this fixed, defensive pattern is ‘who I am’.



But even though I might have difficulty in appreciating this – the very self or identity that I habitually cling to and understand as ‘who I really am’ is ultimately no more than a defensive posture, a fall-back position against being hurt, a manifestation of my fearfulness. My personality is not ‘who I truly am’ but merely a set of strategies (i.e. habits, automatic reactions and opinions) which are there to protect me against the world, to protect me against what I don’t understand and don’t want to understand. Erich Fromm argued that our ultimate fear is ‘the fear of freedom’: my way of being in the world, therefore, is not an expression of my freedom to be myself, but my fear-driven way of defending myself against this freedom.  I don’t want freedom at all; on the contrary, I want routines, rules, predictability in general, the endlessly repeating pattern of ‘the known’. To use John G Bennett’s phrase, what I want is negative freedom – I want the freedom not to be free. Or to put this another way, I don’t want the freedom not to be who I think I am, and the result of this is that I am trapped in my conditioned identity.




We can also look at this in terms of games and say that by far the biggest part of our behaviour is – as social psychologist Eric Berne argues – the behaviour of games. This assertion tends to sound a bit strange but what it means is that we hide ourselves i.e. (our motivations) behind a layer of ‘obvious’ behaviour, behaviour that serves as a sort of publicly-acceptable decoy to safely distract attention from what we really think and feel. Or instead of ‘interpersonal’ games we could talk about ‘intra-personal’ games, in which case we can say that the behaviours are there to safely distract us from seeing what we ourselves don’t want to know about. We might think that that this doesn’t really happen too much – but then again, we would think this, wouldn’t we? After all, how would we know, given that we are in the business of not letting ourselves know stuff? Games are how we avoid challenges without knowing that we are avoiding challenges. According to Eric Berne, games serve the purpose on the one hand of allowing us to avoid the challenge of unstructured time (i.e. not knowing how to pass the day, or not knowing what to do with ourselves) and on the other hand they help us avoid the deadly peril of intimacy. Intimacy, says Berne, is when we encounter someone directly, with no barriers or defences put up, with nothing to hide behind. It is, in other words, when we are caught ‘out of our shells’ and have to meet other people as we really are, rather than as we would like to project ourselves.



Alan Watts points out that persona was originally the Greek word for actor, which is the sense in which modern psychotherapists use the word. The point Watts makes is that this is of course the root of the word ‘person,’ and this carries the unavoidable implication that ‘to be a person is to put on an act’. The persona is the self that we show the world – it is our deliberate or intentional face. Obviously, there is tremendous security in being able to do this and if I suddenly discovered that I was unable to show myself as it suits me to appear then this would come as a terrific shock. I would quite naturally experience paralyzing anxiety as an immediate consequence of this ‘lack of control’. The shock is all the more complete because I do not realize that I am not showing my true self – naturally enough I have become adapted to the convenient image and I take it for granted that this is who I really am. This is because the persona is a game – it is my way of avoiding something without knowing that I am avoiding anything.




Whilst it is a rare occurrence to experience sudden catastrophic failure with regard to the day-to-day functionality of the taken-for–granted persona, there is a whole raft of what we call ‘mental health problems’ that come into existence as a result of the invisible or unacknowledged replacement of the authentic self by the stage-managed act. In brief, the problems that we are talking about come down to the stifling constraints and anxiety-beset rigidity produced by the perceived necessity to keep up the act, along with the progressive loss of zest or aliveness that inevitably attends the conditioned and thus inauthentic life. The whole thrust of any genuine type of psychotherapy is therefore to weaken our reliance on the habitual persona, and at the same time encourage us to show our true selves a bit more than we usually do. The idea is that as I become less habitual, less compulsive in the utilization of the shield of the false self, a lot of my suffering dissolves. I am as a result of the weakening of the persona freer, lighter, happier, and more truly myself. My sense of disconnection and alienation reduces, my anxiety about being somehow caught out recedes, my guilt, shame or feeling of being a failure (or a freak) diminishes.



According to Watts, the sense of duty that attends conditioned life is not actually about living life correctly, which is how it is represented, but about ‘living life correctly according to the rules’ – when I feel that I am failing what I am really feeling is that I am failing to ‘keep up the show’. I am failing to keep up the pretence, but because I can’t let on to myself that it is only a pretence I experience the failure as being in me. I experience the failure as being far more important than it really is. We could make a distinction here therefore and say that whilst remorse has to do with something that I have done which I sincerely wish I had not done, guilt is where I feel bad because I think I ought to feel bad, because I have done something that my conditioning says I shouldn’t have done.




From childhood onwards we are all pressurized to live life in a certain way, and this is spoken of in terms of ‘being responsible’ or something of that sort. This task however is jinxed in that it is actually quite impossible to fulfil the role that our conditioning requires of us – naturally it is impossible since our conditioning requires of us that we be what we are not, and sooner or later this is simply not going to work out. If we fulfilled society’s idea of how to be a responsible member of society, a good person, a shining example for all our peers, and so on, we would limit ourselves tremendously, absolutely, since we are in essence far, far more than the crude template that is laid out for us to follow. But the consensus reality that we all inhabit does not in any way, shape or form acknowledge this – it has a picture or image for how we should be, and any deviation from this is frowned upon. The closer we approximate the image, on the other hand, the more we are rewarded and praised. Good mental health is seen not in terms of the being the individual we are, but in terms of successfully conforming to a way of understanding life that is not ‘ours’ at all, but which was given to us by the system that we were born into. So when I do successfully adapt to the template I am rewarded by everyone around me but the price for this acceptance is that I have colluded in doing actual damage to myself. I am now constrained to be some vastly inferior version of who I really am, I am bound up in a cruel straightjacket of conditioning which I am not allowed to see as a straightjacket but as an actual virtue. Genuine psychotherapy – as opposed to mere ‘social normalization therapy’ – works therefore by slowly releasing us from this constraint, by giving us permission to grow, as it were.



This is of course the very essence of negative psychology – we dissolve the husk, the hard defensive shell, and free up what was trapped inside so that it can shine more bravely forth. The task is identical to that of the ancient (and much misunderstood) alchemists, who sought to awaken the bright spark of the spirit from its death-like sleep, to rescue it from the dark subterranean tomb in which it was held prisoner for so long. The difficulty in all this arises because of the two diametrically opposed views of what therapy ought to be and what ‘mental health’ consists of.  We can highlight the stark nature of this dichotomy by comparing the persona, the outward ‘personality-shell’, with what Gurdjieff calls the essence – which is the true indefinable individuality, the ‘Mercurial Principle’ of the alchemists. From what we have been saying one might think that the separation of essence from personality is a relatively clear-cut and straightforward matter, even if it is, as one might expect, a very lengthy and arduous process. Pragmatically speaking, however, the process is anything but clear and straightforward. The key to the problem, the real ‘glitch’ in the process of liberation from the defensive shell which has become a fortified prison, arises as a result of the way in which I automatically mistake the mask for who I am beneath it, and so align myself with the alienating logic of the defence-system. This logic leads me to perversely devote myself to maintaining and protecting the agency which enslaves me, whilst at the same time rejecting the true self, the true individuality. In The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Vol. 9(1), in his Collected Works, Jung refers to this process in no uncertain terms –


A common instance of this is identity with the persona, which is the individual’s system of adaptation to, or the manner he assumes in dealing with, the world. Every calling or profession, for example, has its own characteristic persona. It is easy to study these things nowadays, when the photographs of public personalities so frequently appear in the press. A certain kind of behaviour is forced on them by the world, and professional people endeavour to come up to these expectations. Only, the danger is that they become identical to their personas – the professor with his text-book, the tenor with his voice. Then the damage is done; henceforth he lives exclusively against the background of his own biography. For by that time it is written: “…then he went to such and such a place and said this or that,” etc. The garment of Deianeira has grown fast to his skin, and a desperate decision like that of Heracles is needed if he is to tear this Nessus shirt from his body and step into the consuming fire of the flame of immortality, in order to transform himself into what he really is. One could say, with a little exaggeration, that the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is. In any case, the temptation to be what one seems to be is great, because the persona is usually rewarded in cash.


The mask grows fast to the skin, it takes root so that I cannot pull it off, and then – to complete the sinister process – it becomes me. I am from this point on no more than a carrier, a ‘host’ for the possessing persona, which can then proceed subvert my entire life to its ends, with absolutely no regard whatsoever for anything other than its own agenda. It doesn’t care about me any more than an invading package of malicious software that has managed to infect my PC will have any concern for whatever might have been there on the hard drive before it took over. Once I have identified with my captor in this way then very obviously the dynamic changes by 180 degrees because all the shots are now called by personality-husk rather than the essence, which has no sense of itself as it really is. It does not have any sense of itself as a free, uncontained and essentially autonomous consciousness as opposed to a mechanically-repeating pattern, which has no freedom to it at all since it is entirely dependent upon external rules to tell it what to do. This pattern has its own agenda and that agenda is simply itself; what matters for the conditioned self is its own integrity as an ongoing concern, as an ‘end in itself’, and this integrity – the integrity of the game – depends on me not having any awareness of what is going on. The game can only continue when I do not understand it to be a game.



The difference between conditioned and unconditioned consciousness can be explained by saying that the former is like free flowing water that has been channelled in order to operate some sort of machinery. We could for example think of a river which has been damned to create a head of pressure in order to drive a turbine, or – to give a more old-fashioned instance – of a water-way which is carefully regulated by a system of canals and locks so as to provide a means of transport for heavily-laden barges. We can then without too much difficulty imagine that the undefined water, if we can for the sake of the argument credit it with its own awareness, would identify itself with the system of constraints that now define it and perceive itself as being this conditioned pattern rather than being the formless medium that has thus been conditioned. This would of course be a perfectly natural mistake to make and it is not too far-fetched to apply this image to undefined consciousness as it too becomes regulated (and therefore defined) in order to perform various mechanical tasks.  Sogyal Rinpoche says that consciousness is essentially ‘gullible energy’ – it is gullible because it automatically accepts whatever structures it is presented with as being right and correct, just as a gullible man will believe whatever story he his told no matter how preposterous it is, just as a blank sheet of writing paper will accept whatever it is that is written upon it, no matter how nonsensical.




So using this metaphor we could say that consciousness is the water, and the machinery being operated is the personality. Or we could say that consciousness is the virginal sheet of paper, whilst conditioned consciousness is whatever has been inscribed upon it. Consciousness is the medium, the defined identity the message. Thus, I am not what my society has defined me as, nor what my biology has defined me as, nor even what I have defined myself as, but what I was before I became defined. In other words, I am what I was before I said what I am – which is a negative definition. To be what I assert myself to be – within the crudely limited terms of the system that I am using to do the asserting – is to play a game, and to play a game is to freely enter into constraint. This constraint however, is – in pragmatic terms – effectively ‘total’. If we were to talk about free consciousness as being constrained by its conditioning (i.e. its programming), then it can be seen that consciousness can ‘know’ only what its conditioning allows it to know and, this being the case, it can only know itself as that conditioning permits it to know itself. Because consciousness is not able to know itself for what it is, it has no way of seeing that it is not what thought represents it as being, and so there is no awareness of any conflict, of any compromise, of any constraint. The inability to see that I am constrained at all thus constitutes an ultimate form of constraint.



Even though the persona – the defined or written self – is no more that a collection of mechanical reflexes and conditioned responses, with no freedom to do anything other than what its reflexes cause it to do, it nevertheless experiences itself as an autonomous and creative agent in its own right. More accurately, we can say that the conditioned consciousness that is trapped in the persona experiences itself through that persona, and as that persona. From this biased or distorted viewpoint it is impossible to perceive that ‘being what I say I am’, or ‘being what I think I am’ is to voluntarily accept a tremendous loss of freedom; it is constitutionally impossible for us to understand how ‘being defined’ entails a loss of freedom – on the contrary, we see it as being a great advantage, if not to say totally necessary. Unless I can state what I am, in concrete terms, I feel that I do not exist at all, and this – naturally enough – seems to me like an absolute disaster. For the positive self, not to be defined is the very same thing as not existing. But this puts me in a bizarre – and ultimately untenable – predicament because I am now responsible for my own existence. I have to keep saying that I exist in order to exist, which means that I am going to be subject to the ongoing need to prove something that, deep-down, I know not to be true. After all, if it were true then I wouldn’t need to keep trying to prove it…



The everyday self is, as we have said, made up of a specific pattern of ‘positive statements’, i.e. definite viewpoints, definite opinions, definite beliefs, definite ideas and thoughts, definite descriptions, and so on. It is therefore characterized by the concrete nature of its goals and plans, and the predictable nature of the behaviour patterns that these goals and plans give rise to. The reason we can use the word ‘concrete’ is because there is only one level of meaning allowed here, as is the case with all games. This means that there is only one way to look at things and that way is a final way. It is not subject to revision or reinterpretation, it stands ‘as is’. Because the self utilizes a final way of looking at things it necessarily exists in a world of final (or literal objects), and it itself is a literal object. The pragmatic or experiential reality of the ‘me’ is in fact – as a moment’s reflection will show – the ultimate in concrete literalism.




The covert function of having a definite viewpoint (and the standardized mode or behaviour that goes with it) is that I am thereby able to create ontological security for myself. Ontological security is ‘security of being’, it is the security of being able to say that the world is definitely this or that, and that I am definitely this or that. What I am looking to do in this is to create a basis for myself where before there was none. Since my motivation is simply to create a basis it doesn’t matter what I say the world is, or what I say I am, just so long as I am absolutely definite about it. This seems straightforward enough but it isn’t because as soon as I make an absolutely definite statement I am at war with the antithesis of this statement – I am promoting one opposite over another. This is a game – it is just like a game one might play with a child where one keeps saying “Oh yes it is!” and they keep replying “Oh no it isn’t…!  Creating ground by making a positive assertion is a game just like this therefore – I unequivocally assert that such and such is the case in order to distract my attention from the antithetical assertion which always comes into being just as soon as I assert my thesis, which is the positive assertion that I came out with in the first place. This is the quintessential game – the game of the positive self. The positive self is ‘the act’, it is the identity which is claimed to be ‘definitely true’, it is the ground I create for myself when I say that I am ‘this, that or the other’.



Because this self is positively asserted in this way it exists in denial of its own antithesis. It exists in denial of the opposite and therefore complementary statement (which is the same thing as saying that it exists in denial of its own shadow). Thus, the positive self ‘exists’ because it is constantly fighting against the antithetical situation, which is where it doesn’t exist (but the supposed ‘non-existence’ of the self is the shadow of its ‘existence’ since without the latter there is certainly no need to worry about the former). We could also say that my conditioned idea of myself is ‘real and believable’ because I am constantly fighting against it being ‘unreal and unbelievable’. In general terms, the everyday self struggles doggedly to be a ‘winner’ and that this struggle can also be seen in terms of its ongoing attempt not to be a ‘loser’ – it struggles to be UP rather than DOWN, to be IN rather and OUT, and so on.



Whichever way we look at it, the endeavour always comes down to promoting one opposite over the other, and promoting one opposite is of course always the same as denying the other, complementary opposite. At the same time as wholeheartedly engaging in this positive endeavour, which is the perennial endeavour of the defined self, we ignore the crucial fact that any pair of complementary opposites (like UP and DOWN) are at all times absolutely inseparable, we ignore the fact that Up and DOWN are actually the same thing. As Alan Watts points out, the opposites – although publicly enemies – are behind the scenes very close buddies indeed. There can after all be no game if there was only winning (or only losing for that matter); winning needs losing and losing needs winning, just as an UP needs for there to be a DOWN if it is to mean anything at all.



Following Watts therefore, a basic definition of a game could therefore be to say that it is the situation where we pretend, for the sake of the play, that the opposites are not in cahoots, that they really are very serious enemies indeed. We pretend that the opposites are independent of each other, that they are not the two sides of the same coin. We have to pretend that it is possible to have the one without the other because without this pretense there is no game. This is in essence a theatre or pantomime, albeit a pantomime which is treated with the utmost seriousness by all concerned. But the hidden downside of this ‘serious pantomime’ is that we are fighting against ourselves the whole time, we are fighting against ourselves because to strive for one opposite is actually to strive for the other. As the Taoists in their wisdom say, ‘defeat is born at the moment of victory’. We on the other hand, in our culturally predisposed lack of wisdom, are forever trying to have a victory without any defeat, an UP without any trace of DOWN, a PLUS without a MINUS. We want to make a positive statement which doesn’t cast any shadow, which is ludicrous since any positive statement is always its own shadow, its own contradiction.



Another way of talking about the hidden downside of the game is to say that since there is no way that any opposite can ever lead anywhere except to the other, the game has no option but to go on for ever and ever, without ever getting anywhere. The game is an endless oscillation between two poles, an endless vibration or reverberation between YES and NO. It is a closed circle that somehow represents itself as being an open situation. It is pure appearance without any content – a candyfloss illusion that somehow represents itself as being solid and real.




What is true for the game is true for the self since the self is but a game. In the case of the game of the positive self, we can say that the hidden downside – the downside we are never told about – is that chasing after the desired opposite (whether we call it ‘success’, or ‘freedom’, or ‘happiness’) can only ever perpetuate the game and the game by definition always involves an exactly equal amount of ‘success’ and ‘failure’. The degree to which I achieve the desired opposite is also the degree to which I achieve the undesired one. As pointless and frustrating as this endless oscillation might be, as utterly misrepresentative of reality a closed circle might be, the futile and illusory self that I take myself to be can never exit the game on purpose (which is to say, whilst sticking to the terms of the game) since ‘escaping the game’ is one pole, which infallibly ‘drags me back’ to the other pole, which is ‘not escaping the game’. Quitting the game is a legitimate move within the game, and so there is no genuine quitting – the harder I throw myself into the task of freeing myself from the game of the conditioned self, the more embroiled in it I become, and the less free I become.



The game of the false self  – which is to say, the game of the ‘run-away’ or ‘out-of-control’ act or appearance – is therefore a never-ending game, a game with no way out, which for anyone with any imagination has got to be a deeply frightening concept. When we are caught up in the game however the prospect does not seem scary at all because we are so convinced that there is a way out – we are convinced that there is such a thing as a YES-without-a-NO, an UP-without-a-DOWN, and this is the escape we are constantly striving for. No matter how many times I keep coming back to square one, I never get tired of trying; I keep on ‘going for gold’, I keep on chasing the hypnotic lure of the isolated opposite.  I take it as a fundamental ‘given’ that the closed circle will one day transcend itself and take me somewhere that isn’t itself. I have absolute trust that ‘closed’ will in the end somehow transform into ‘open’.




The definitely described self is panicky about letting go of itself, it feels that it has to keep holding on tightly to itself in case something terrible happens, it feels that it has to keep maintaining itself in the face of the awful spectre of its own ultimate dissolution. This means that it can never relax, that it can never ‘let go’. And it is right – it exists solely because it keeps telling itself that it exists, it exists by effort of will in the same way that a particular belief remains believable to us because we keep on reiterating loudly to ourselves that it is true. So we can say that the conditioned self is a game, and that winning at this game is to keep on existing, and losing is to be annihilated, to cease existing. The annihilation or dissolution of the self is the horror that I fight against at all costs, even though this horror is created by the fact that I cling so resolutely, and so unreflectively, to the arbitrary statement which is the self. This unconscious and utterly overmastering motivation is known as fear – I am driven by fear to perpetuate and preserve myself, even though if asked I would not be able to say exactly why it is so extremely important for me to carry on doing this. I am not free to question this rule of self-perpetuation – I can only struggle blindly to obey it, in the face of what has to be inevitable defeat. But if I were to consciously examine what I am doing, and what my motivation is for doing it, then I would see in all clarity that if the act – the definite but arbitrary statement of ‘who I am’ – were to dissolve, to cease, this would in reality be no disaster at all. It would not be a disaster because the act isn’t who I really am, it was merely a random positive statement, it was only ever a playful role that I stepped into and then got lost in.



It is as if I get involved in a debate and choose to take up a particular viewpoint in the debate even though I do not really believe it any more than I believe any other possible viewpoint: in the heat and passion of the debate it can easily happen that I forget that I freely chose to champion that viewpoint and start taking it all very seriously. I might even get angry about it, I might start getting downright nasty and completely lose my sense of humour. But it isn’t really a completely terrible thing for me to lose the debate – even though I might in the heat of the moment think that it is – because the truth is that I never actually genuinely held that contested viewpoint in the first place! It was just a playfully held viewpoint that ended up getting rather ridiculously serious, and so it isn’t actually the big deal that I took it to be at the time. The same is true for the playfully assumed viewpoint that we have been calling the ‘conditioned self’. The reason the task of maintaining this viewpoint is so grim is essentially because it is a doomed struggle – there is no way I can ever manage it, and so the real struggle here is the struggle against allowing myself to see the truth. My situation is absurd, but I cannot see it – the position I am defending isn’t actually anything special at all.  I defend it involuntarily, I defend this conditioned identity because I feel that I have to, because I don’t have the perspective to see that I don’t really need to; I was presented with it, and because I was presented with it I will passively go along with it. What is more, there is absolutely no advantage at all to be had from being stuck with this conditioned identity since it is, as we have said, a horse that is never even going to come anywhere close to crossing the finishing line. It is a non-starter, a bad bet, but since I have foolishly put all my life savings on it – along with everything I was able to beg, borrow and steal – is an awareness that I am immensely reluctant to face up to. In fact to say that I am ‘immensely reluctant’ is to misrepresent the situation – I am committed to ‘not seeing the truth’ to the point of being an out-and-out fanatic. The situation of being ‘fanatically committed to an untenable position’ is what the self (the ‘everyday’ or ‘little’ self) is all about.




 Who I really am is not a point that needs to be argued, it is not a position that needs to be defended or proven one way or the other simply because I am not specifically claiming it to be this, that or the other. I am not making a statement. We could say that for the essential (or ‘undefined’) self all these particularities, all these details, are simply not issues: ‘winning versus’ losing is not an issue, ‘right versus wrong’ is not an issue, ‘true versus false’ is not an issue. Even ‘existence versus non-existence’ is not an issue. None of these polarities are issues for me to get caught up in because I am fine as I am – I have no axe to grind, I have nothing to prove. When we say here that ‘I am fine as I am’ this is not meant to imply any positive sense of identity, it is not a definite statement of the fact that ‘I am’ but rather we are using the first-person pronoun ‘I’ in a strictly negative way – I don’t know what I am, or how I am, or even if I am, but that’s ok because I don’t need to know. The negative self is the unstated self, the unattached self, the self that doesn’t try to say what it is, the image-less self. It is the ‘I’ which doesn’t want to possess itself, the ‘I’ that doesn’t need a ‘me’.



After all, when I am genuinely happy, I don’t have to check up on myself to make sure that I am still there enjoying the happiness. I don’t check up on myself to make sure I really am happy – that there hasn’t been a mistake or something like that. If I was checking up on myself in this way then I wouldn’t be ‘happy’ at all – on the contrary I would be anxious, I would be obsessive, I would be neurotic, and all of these states necessarily preclude any chance of what we call happiness. Happiness – which as Krishnamurti says is not at all the same as pleasure – is when I’m simply not there any more to be checking up on myself the whole time like some kind of suspicious policeman or jealous partner. It is when I have ‘let go of myself’. It is when I am relaxed enough, or trusting enough, to be ‘truly myself’, which means being spontaneous rather than being controlled, undefined rather than defined, free rather than constrained, and so on. When I am truly myself there are no issues, there are no issues because I am not holding on to anything.




We all know this perfectly well, we have simply forgotten it in the ‘heat of the moment’ and so as a consequence we end up thinking that happiness is something to be ‘grasped hold of’, that it is something to be ‘won’ through successfully playing some game or other. If I am clever enough, or strong enough, or diligent enough, then I will gain happiness, I think. Or perhaps if I am ‘responsible enough’, if I am ‘dutiful enough’, if I am ‘long-suffering’ enough, if I am a ‘good enough person’, etc, etc, then I will finally get to the position where I deserve happiness. But that isn’t going to happen, not ever. The theatrical self doesn’t get to have the reward of ‘final happiness’ no matter how long it waits, no matter how many brownie points it accumulates. The ‘peace that passeth understanding’ is forever withheld from it. It never ever connects with actual reality – which is to say – with ‘the content as opposed to the appearance’. This is of course only to be expected since the theatrical self is itself – by definition – only an appearance, only an outward show. How can an empty appearance, a facade, ever expect to yield anything real? Suppose for example that I deliberately behave throughout my life in an exemplary fashion, always being polite and helpful, always working hard and scrupulously refraining from bad habits like violence, gambling, drinking and sexual impropriety can this immense moral effort on my part be expected to bring some sort of reward to me? Can I, like a good Christian or a good Muslim, expect to be received in paradise after I die? Conventional wisdom would be that the façade of morality, the façade of good behaviour is indeed a genuine type of a thing, and that it is indeed worthwhile making the effort to do as well as we possibly can in this respect. But the reason we tend to think this can only be because we have grown so accustomed to living life on a purely theatrical level that we have forgotten that there is such a thing as actual content, it can only be because we have grown lazy in our thinking that we have come to take it for granted that the appearance is the same thing as the content, that the description is the same thing as what is described, that the label is the same thing as what is in the jar, and so on. The moral effort I make is therefore no more than a promise to be moral and the thing about this is that once I have actually promised to be ‘good’ in this way that is good enough for me and I assume that the task is already accomplished just because I have promised to do it. This is exactly like a student who, after weeks of procrastination, finally comes around to conceiving the clear and definite intention to write the essay that has been hanging over his head for months. Then, having made the intention, he immediately relaxes and never actually writes the essay at all because he has – in his own mind, in a purely ‘token’ form – already done it. In the same way, the intention to morally improve myself is ‘a token that passes for the real thing’.



What really happens when I make a moral effort is that I am straining to do the impossible. What I am trying to do is impossible because the more I strain to achieve the desired outcome the more resistance I create within myself; the more I try to push myself to perform the duty the more I secretly don’t want to. This is why duties become so onerous – they are onerous not because they are hard, or even because I don’t enjoy doing them, but because I make myself not want to do them by pushing myself to do them. It is as if I have a cow which is perfectly willing to walk through a gate from one field into another, perfectly willing because it actually wants to of its own accord, and then I come along and start whacking the creature on its arse, roaring and shouting at it to move on through the gate before I turn it into burgers. As soon as I do this however the cow rebels and refuses to take another step. The more I yell at it the more obstinate the cow gets and I can’t budge it no matter what I do. Even though we are predisposed to seeing effort as a positive thing it clearly isn’t in this instance because it ruins what was beforehand a perfectly good situation. The effort that I put into encouraging the cow to do what it was already going to do before I came along with my stick is not positive thing at all; on the contrary, it represents my insensitivity to the situation – it represents nothing more than my brutal ineptitude and lack of trust. Continuing with this analogy, what happens eventually is that by sheer bullying and meanness I eventually manage to get some semblance of what I want out of the poor cow, but now because I have taken on the role of motivator for the creature I have a full time job on my hands every time I want it to do anything. Furthermore, this is not a job that I am able to enjoy because the cow resists me whenever it can, and will jump at any chance it gets to sabotage my efforts. As soon as I turn my back on the creature it will find a gap in the hedge and go back to the original field.




The substitution of directed (i.e. ‘calculated’ or ‘mechanical’) processes for spontaneous ones is – we might say – the great cosmic error. It is nothing other than the Fall of man, as related mythologically in the book of Genesis. What we are essentially talking about here is the substitution of the directed self for the spontaneous self, the substitution of the trivial persona for the essential being (which corresponds to what Jung called the Self) – the directed self or persona being an incalculably inferior analogue of the genuine article, a parody of it, just as the act is a parody of the one who puts on the act. The directed self is a sad copy of the true self for the simple reason that it has no freedom – it is predicated on lack of freedom, on rules, on ‘directedness’. We see directedness in a back-to-front kind of a way as an advantageous state of affairs; we see it as being advantageous because we perceive ourselves as being in charge or in control. But all this means is that we ‘have to do what we tell ourselves to do’ which is not at all a free situation. I automatically feel that since it is me who makes the rules which I have then to follow then I must be ‘free in my directedness’ – I choose the rules, in other words. This however is simply not the case since I can only choose the rules that my limited rational mind (the system of thought) can provide for me in the first place. I am free to think or do anything I want just so long as it is in line with what the prison of the rational mind allows me to think or do, which is exactly the same as me telling you that you are free to do anything you want to do, just so long as you keep within the guidelines that I have laid down for you. The freedom to stick to someone else’s guidelines is of course no freedom at all because freedom does not come with any strings. To put this even more simply, the rational mind is a closed situation made up of a set of biases and so any choice I make on this basis is always going to be reflection or echo of those same biases. ‘Closed’ can never lead to ‘open’.



When I am identified with the fixed set of rules which constitutes the system of thought I generally experience myself as a free or autonomous agent. In neurosis however this fallacy is exposed because as the circle of my thinking inexorably narrows I start to experience the painful truth that I can only do what I tell myself to do, and I can only tell myself to do the same old things that I always tell myself to do. After all, if the real problem is the narrowness of my own mind, how is doing what my mind tells me to do going to help? When I have no freedom, I have no true self – I only have the ‘false or directed self’ that the system of thought allows me to have in place of that original limitlessness, or ‘wholeness’. What this means is that the ‘self’ I perceive myself to be is a species of hallucination, as is the possibility of effective or meaningful activity that I perceive that self to possess. As Gurdjieff says, we have no capacity to be, just as we have no capability to do.  Alan Watts makes the same point by stating that the everyday self or ego represents ‘the marriage of illusion to futility’. Watts further develops this thesis by saying that the everyday self is at root no more than a glorified state of tension, a solid lump of chronic straining, a painfully tight knot of ‘trying to do something on purpose that doesn’t need to be done on purpose’.



The idea that this painfully tight knot of tension can itself, by its own effort, attain relaxation or peace or happiness is of course quite ludicrous. Peace comes when the purposeful self ‘lets go of itself’ – it comes not as a reward for what I do, but as a consequence of not doing. After all, only the wearer of the mask can be at peace, not the mask itself. The mask can never be at peace because it is by its very nature ‘a sustained effort’. The idea that being can never be won through deliberate or intentional means is of course just another variation of the essential spiritual teaching – as long as I am trying to take the prize for myself then I cannot have it, but when I give up this purposeful effort (the effort to achieve something) then everything is given to me. The knot of straining which is my ‘purposeful self is therefore eternally hollow, eternally impoverished, eternally striving or hoping to fill the hole that is itself and so the trap it finds itself in is simply that the more it strives, the more impoverished and discontent it gets as a result.




When the habitual knot of tension relaxes properly it is no longer there. There is no more knot – not even a trace of it – there is no more ‘particularity’, there is no more of the positive self that always feels that it has to hold on to itself. There is no more of the uptight ego which is forever pressurized to defend itself and assert itself. The idea that the state of profound relaxation in which there is no longer any tight little knot of tension can be arrived at deliberately, ‘on purpose’, by straining or trying, is of course completely nonsensical since it is the straining or trying that creates the knot in the first place. If straining created the knot, then how can additional straining get rid of it? And yet this is what we are forever trying to do in one way or another. There is a whole industry out there – the ‘positive mental health industry’ – selling us the idea that mental health is something to be achieved by methods and manipulation, by effort of will or ‘positive doing’. We have now reached the point where mental health has become a commodity, a smartly packaged product to be bought from some company or other.


As a result of making mental health into something positive to be obtained however we end up tying ourselves in ever-more complicated knots, we end up moving further and further away from any real (i.e. unmanipulated) peace of mind the whole time. And to add insult to injury when we don’t ‘succeed’ we will feel bad about ourselves because here is yet another task we have failed at, yet another failure to add to the long list of failures that we are already carrying around with us. If I make it your responsibility to attain good mental health when it is the fact that you are already taking on too much responsibility that has made you unwell in the first place, then clearly I am only increasing the load on your back. The problem isn’t that I wasn’t trying hard enough, but that I was trying too much. ‘Not trying’, furthermore, (which Taoism calls Wu Wei) isn’t something I can do by following some sort of procedure, by following instructions or methods. There is no ‘way’ for me to do not doing.




As curious as it might seem, we are not our own responsibility. Life happens through us of itself when we learn to ‘step out of the way’ and allow it to happen. The more knowledgeable, sophisticated and goal-orientated we get the less we want to step out of the way; in fact the exact contrary is true – far from being ‘happy to step out of the way’ we want to be the centre of it all. We don’t want life to be happening by itself without our say-so, without us having a valuable – if not to say pivotal – role in the proceedings; we want to be there directing the show, taking the credit for it. For a culture that is as invested in controlling as we are letting go of the reins in is not just a terrifying prospect, it is a complete anathema. We might as well expect a sprinter who has trained all his life to suddenly pull back the moment before he finally wins the gold medal in the Olympics and let someone else finish before him. To say that this sort of thing goes against the grain is a masterful understatement, and this is the reason the ancient alchemists spoke of their endeavour as being the opus contra naturam, the ‘work against nature’. Just to reiterate the point, it is not just the case that we are frightened to let go of the persona, the elaborate system of defensive routines and protective decoys that we have ‘grown into’ over the years, but rather that the one who first invested in these mechanisms, these defences, these strategies, is long since gone and the servant sits in place of the master.



John Bennett expressed this idea by saying the instrument operates us rather than us operating the instrument. I don’t use the tool, the tool uses me. This being the case, the recovery or rediscovery of who I really am (i.e. the operator of the tool, the wearer of the mask) is simply not on the agenda. The instrument is not interested in discovering that it is only an instrument, the mask is not interested in discovering that it is only a mask. The everyday self with its petty concerns and its comfortable routines is not interested in discovering that it is not the centre of the universe, and that its likes and dislikes, its plans and goals don’t really matter a damn in the bigger scheme of things. It does not want to play second fiddle, it does not want to be ignominiously cast down from the throne which it has seen fit to take as its own. In terms of games, we could say that ‘it is not part of the game to discover that the game is only a game’. On the contrary, the whole point is that this critical bit of information remains a very well kept secret – the best kept secret of all.




What we are looking at here therefore is the idea that there are two, diametrically-opposed ways of defining mental health, and two ways in which that state of being may be reached. For the rigid personality-shell of the persona – which Krishnamurti refers to as the ‘self-image’ – good mental health is synonymous with the ‘continued integrity of the game’, the ‘preservation of the status quo at any cost’. This translates in practice into continually shoring up the defences, continually patching up or improving the mechanism of denial that allows us to carry on with our established way of life. The cracks must be papered over as they appear, no matter how many lorry-loads of wall-paper are needed. Any uncomfortable ripples or reverberations must be damped down so that they can’t get to the stage where they might threaten to overthrow the complicated structure that we have so painstakingly erected over the years. All alternative viewpoints must be suppressed, all dissenting voices must be silenced. In short, we take the way that we are (our ‘pattern of being’) as a basic given, as something that can never under any circumstances be questioned, and then – on this basis – we must do our level best to optimize the efficiency of this pattern. The ideal situation for us is therefore when this arbitrary and limited pattern can be optimized (or facilitated) to the ultimate extent, with nothing at all ever getting in the way. Facilitating the existing pattern means in practice that that pattern be perpetuated forever, in such a way as to permanently exclude anything that is not itself – in short, the ‘old’ must prevail over the ‘new’ so that our original assumptions about life, no matter how crappy or ridiculous they might be, are never overthrown. In this description of structure optimization we can recognize the mythological figure referred to by Joseph Campbell (1949, P 15-116 as ‘the Tyrant Holdfast’ –


The figure of the tyrant-monster is known to the mythologies, folk traditions, legends, and even nightmares, of the world; and his characteristics are everywhere essentially the same. He is the hoarder of the general benefit. He is the monster avid for the greedy rights of “my and mine.” The havoc wrought by him is described in mythology and fairy tales as being universal throughout his domain. This may be no more than his household, his own tortured psyche, or the lives that he blights with the touch of his friendship and assistance; or it may amount to the extent of his civilization. The inflated ego of the tyrant is a curse to himself and his world – no matter how his affairs may seem to prosper. Self-terrorized, fear-haunted, alert at every hand to meet and battle back the anticipated aggressions of his environment, which are primarily the reflections of the uncontrollable impulses to acquisition within himself, the giant of self-achieved independence is the world’s messenger of disaster, even though, in his mind, he may entertain himself with humane intentions. Wherever he sets his hand there is a cry (if not from the housetops, then – more miserably – within every human heart): a cry for the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence, will liberate the land.




The other way of defining mental health is not as ‘structure optimization’ (which is to say, the optimization of whatever structural basis we happen to start off with, simply because that is what we did happen to start off with) but as ‘structure transcendence’. Structure transcendence as the name implies is where we go beyond the structure we started off with and cease to identify ourselves with it. This involves going against the logic of the system that we are caught up in rather than always obeying it. This is not to say that we ‘do the opposite’ of what we feel like doing in any given situation (which would be like losing when we feel like winning, or going left when we feel like going right) but simply that we cease to take our automatic reactions so seriously. We relax from the task of validating our habitual way of being the whole time. Again, this doesn’t mean that I fight against my pattern of thinking or behaving (since fighting against a fixed or definite pattern inevitably means taking up with another fixed or definite pattern) but rather that I bring consciousness to what is going on, which essentially involves bringing perspective into play. I spend less time automatically obeying the rules that make up my conditioning, and stressing out when I can’t obey them, and more time actually seeing them. It can be seen that this view of mental health isn’t a definition at all since we aren’t saying what it is so much as what it isn’t. In other words, the ‘negative definition’ of mental health is to say that it is when we learn to see what we aren’t.



What is ‘healthy’ for the conditioned self is lack of insight, lack of awareness, lack of perspective. The supreme power of this mechanical self is its ability to turn a blind eye to whatever is really going on, its ability to instantly judge and evaluate everything that happens, its ability to interpret everything in its own terms and thereby retain control at all times. Whatever would be good and wholesome for the true self it either rejects outright or co-opts and puts its own spin on it, laying claim to it like some giant ubiquitous corporation that tries to sell us sunshine or fresh air. What is good and wholesome for the unconditioned self is simply the truth, in whatever form that might arise. Whilst the conditioned self only takes that part of the truth that suits it and ignores the rest, it is precisely the ‘ignored’ portion of the truth, the portion in which the everyday rational mind has no interest, which helps the true self grow and find its way. When we look where everyone else is looking, in the places that everyone beats a path to, then the one thing we know for sure is that whatever we find there won’t be worth the effort. What the whole world wants is mere vulgarity, and the doctrines and beliefs the world never tires of praising are mere empty nonsense. This is true for all of our goals – our goals are where we think the good stuff is, that is the nature of the game we are collectively playing, but the truth is that the overt goals or aims of the game are only really there as red-herrings, as decoys, as ‘perennial distractions’ to keep us from seeing the truth.



What helps the unconditioned self is anything that throws light on the true constrictive nature of the wretched dark prison which it previously imagined to be the whole wide world. This sort of help is not to be found where we look for it, but where we don’t look for it; it is to be found in the reject-pile or garbage can. As the alchemical maxim has it, “Our material is stuff of no price or value; whoever comes across it hardly troubles to pick it up.”  The alchemist’s material is that which has been discarded by everyone else – the unwanted and undesired states of mind, those difficult or painful feelings which we are forever trying to get away from. What we are interested in are the euphoric states of mind that arise as a result of ‘succeeding within the terms of the game’ – these temporarily rewarding states of mind are of course exactly what keep us imprisoned since the process of hunting for them takes us further and further from who we really are, and hands over more and more power to the tyranny of the false self.  This is like a man who tries to obtain status and material wealth as the result of conforming to whatever system happens to be there, regardless of how corrupt that system is. This is the classic trade-off – we obtain worldly benefits only in proportion to the extent to which we are willing to ‘sell our soul’.



It could also be said that what helps the unconditioned self – which according to Jung is symbolized by the motif of the child abandoned in the forest, the helpless infant left at the mercy of the wolves and bears and other dangerous creatures – is the failure of the system which was keeping it captive. In Campbell’s terms, what we are talking about here is the overthrowing of the tyrant by the hero, who appears from nowhere to battle the evil that has taken over the world –


The tyrant is proud, and therein lies his doom. He is proud because he thinks of his strength as his own; thus he is in the clown role, as a mistaker of shadow for substance; it is his destiny to be tricked. The mythological hero, reappearing from the darkness that is the source of the shapes of the day, brings a knowledge of the secret of the tyrant’s doom. With a gesture as simple as the pressing of a button, he annihilates the impressive configuration. The hero-deed is a continuous shattering of the crystallizations of the moment. The cycle rolls: mythology focuses on the growing-point. Transformation, fluidity, not stubborn ponderosity, is the characteristic of the living God. The great figure of the moment exists only to be broken, cut into chunks, and scattered abroad. Briefly: the ogre-tyrant is the champion of the prodigious fact, the hero the champion of creative life.




When the conditioned personality-shell starts to fail this is of course signaled by the rational mind as the greatest of all possible disasters, the most undesired of outcomes. When the system starts to fail all the alarm bells go off at once and we panic or become dismayed accordingly, but the break-down of the mechanical shell is the true self’s good fortune just as the collapse of a prison system is best possible news for those who are held captive within it. When the game is functioning well we never suspect that anything is wrong since the actual ‘workings’ – the gears and pulleys, so to speak – of the game are invisible to us and never come to our attention, just as one’s internal organs never come to our attention until they start to fail us. Once we see catch sight of the machinery that was previously hidden things can never be the same; it is like knowing how a conjuror does his tricks – this knowledge cannot but detract from the enjoyment of the performance. “Its all done with mirrors you know” remarks one member of the audience to the other, as he ostentatiously stifles a yawn. In the same way, once the mechanism of unconsciousness is laid bare by malfunction, the illusion that ‘all is as it should be’ in the life of the conditioned self is necessarily compromised, and it is hard to enter back into the state of ‘blissful ignorance’ that others take for granted.




One way to look at this is by considering Gurdjieff’s characteristically uncompromising comment that we – as we commonly find ourselves in this world – only imagine that we have the power to do, and the ability to be in our daily lives. The game-playing self can only achieve results in his game; indeed, he is only interested in results to the extent that they tally with his game. He gets somewhere therefore only in his imagination, in his dream – in reality he gets nowhere. The best he can hope for success in the game. With regard to being, Gurdjieff was clear that we never come anywhere close to realizing genuine presence via our everyday preoccupations, the type of stuff we are generally interested in. To think that the conditioned or unconscious self could ever be present is of course ridiculous – the unreal can never achieve reality no matter how many hoops it jumps through, no matter how many exams it passes, no matter how many certificates it has to stick up on the wall. The lack of the power to be or to do is of course not something we commonly experience – when I do find myself experiencing fraudulency with regard to my power to be, or impotence in relation to my power to do, then we call these perceived deficiencies depression and anxiety respectively. According to the orthodox medical view, the experiences that we have as a result of depression and anxiety are merely errors of our nervous system, of our physiology, of our brain chemistry, and so on. From the viewpoint of negative psychology however, these experiences are genuine and significant, and represent failures of the system of denial and because the experience of anxiety and depression are authentic, we can learn to value them as such. After all, the conditioned self is an arbitrary fabrication without any real substance, there is no actual genuine meaning to all the goals it holds so dear, and it certainly is ineffectual with regard to its ability to effect change in any real sense; it is after all a mere mechanism, running along predetermined tracks, jumping every time the next impulse comes along telling it to jump, reacting faithfully and unerringly to every trigger that ‘presses its buttons’.




It is a familiar enough thing in negative (or ‘esoteric’) psychology to come across the blunt assertion that we are powerless to change ourselves in any meaningful way, and that to have this understanding is the basis for everything. This kind of talk is, needless to say, anathema to positive psychology, which justifies its existence solely on its claim to offer the conditioned identity ways and means of improving its wretched condition. Suggesting to the conditioned identity, which sees itself as ‘an end in itself’, that there is nothing it can do and that there is nowhere that it can go, and that its only course of action is relinquish itself as a kind of ‘dead-end’ is naturally not going to be well accepted, and so it is that the positive psychologists outnumber their negative or esoteric brethren by many thousands to one. The idea that help is to come not through consolidating and improving the existing structure but through the collapse or failure of that structure is however not unknown to us – as Leonard Cohen says, ‘There’s a crack in everything and that’s how the light gets in’. Or as Rumi says, ‘The moment I am disappointed I am encouraged’.



The idea that we grow despite ourselves rather than because of ourselves is far from being unknown to us, it is simply the case that popular culture is overwhelmed with the other, crasser, idea – the idea that it is us ourselves who are to oversee and orchestrate our own psychological growth. The idea that success is always good and failure is always bad is crass because it glorifies the conditioned self, which is at its heart no more than a motley collection of randomly acquired prejudices – beliefs that are never examined, rules that are never challenged, habits that are never questioned. Whatever accidental flotsam is there, we make a virtue of it, we make a basis of it, we make a standard of it to compare the whole world to. When the conditioned self says that success is the greatest good, it means ‘success according to its own biased point of view’ or ‘success for itself’ and so all it is doing in this is covertly glorifying itself, as always.




Failure of the integrity of the game of the positive self occurs every time we don’t get something that we want, or, conversely, every time we get something that we don’t want. This is why failure of any sort feels so bad – it feels bad because it shows us in no uncertain terms that the universe is not taking us as seriously as we take ourselves. This is why we get so frustrated, upset, annoyed, angry or despairing when things repeatedly don’t work out to plan – because the game we are playing is starting to come apart at the seams. And the curious point about this, when we look at things this way, is that the irritation and frustration belong to the set of definite attitudes that constitute the act or mask, not to the ‘innocent’ essence which has got caught up in it. This is if course an absolutely tremendous reversal in our understanding of what we call the ‘negative emotions’. What I normally do is to identify immediately and wholeheartedly with these emotions, these reactions, as soon as they arise so that there is no question but that they are ‘mine’. But they are only mine because I choose for them to be mine, even if this choice occurs so very quickly and so very automatically as to be completely invisible to me. So when I am angry, it is the personality-husk that is angry, and because I identify myself so totally with this construct that there is  virtually no free essence left at all, I experience that ‘automated response’ as being an authentic expression of my own personal will. In fact I experience all of my automatic-type reactions as being expressions of my free will, which is why talk of the conditioned self being a deterministically-driven mechanism inevitably strikes us as being completely wrong. It is only when these reactions become so extreme as to be obviously self-destructive (as is the case with chronic anger or acute anxiety) that I start to see for myself two key truths: [1] that the reactions are not expressions of my true volition, and [2] that I am powerless not to go along with them.



Whilst anger may be associated with the personality-system not getting its own way (since it cannot help seeing its own arbitrary whims as being of supreme importance), anxiety comes about as a result of the system’s perception of its own imminent failure, the accurate but totally unacceptable perception that it is – in fact – fighting a doomed struggle. So, applying the same ‘reversed logic’ we can say that it is not the true self which is anxious (free consciousness has no reason ever to be anxious since it has not associated itself with, nor invested itself in, any fixed position) but the conditioned essence which we have been calling the personality-construct. If I feel anxious therefore, it must be the case that I am feeling anxious on behalf of the rigid and humourless personality-shell that I have ended up being identified with. I have taken the act so very seriously that I have quite forgotten that it is only an act, and so its dissolution – which is inevitable – seems to me to be the ultimate disaster, a catastrophe so frightening that I cannot even bring myself to contemplate it. Anxiety therefore consists not so much in the attempt to avert the particular failure that I happen to be focussed on at the time, as it is the failed attempt to distract myself from seeing that my comfort zone of ‘being in control’ is in fact an illusion. Whilst the positive approach in anxiety management is to restore – to whatever extent proves to be possible – this illusion of control, this illusion of ‘an autonomous, separate, deliberate controller’ (which positive psychology does not of course acknowledge as being an illusion), the negative approach would consist of fostering – in whatever way this can be done – the insight that the failure of the personality system is the best possible news from the wider point of view and that the anxiety we decry so much represents the beneficial collapse of what was, in a manner of speaking, a ‘corrupt regime’.




In the negative approach the very difficulties that we want help to get rid of are seen as the ‘birth-pangs’ of long-ignored true individuality. This is of course not an easy message to put across – it does tend to sound heartless if expressed in too bald a fashion. After all, if you tell someone that their anxiety or their depression represents a ‘valuable change’ or a ‘healthy process’ they are unlikely to be particularly gratified to hear this. But this is a very old message, and one that we ought not to see as unkind or unhelpful. In John, 12:24, Jesus says,

Verily, verily, I say to you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.


Johannes Fabricius (1976, P 17) elucidates upon this basic spiritual principle:


The alchemical principle of putrefaction builds on the doctrine that all nature is renewed after dying away, and that in order to grow, an organism must first die. An apple, or any other fruit, has to putrefy before its seed can take root and produce more apples.


Unless the mechanical personality is cracked open – which is inevitably going to be a painful and difficult process – the essence can not be freed to find its own life, the life that had been denied it for as long as the dead container had been perversely cherished over the living content. Contemporary culture is all about cherishing the container, the envelope, the image as a worthwhile thing-in-itself and in so doing it claims – in its sentimental fashion – to be life-affirming. But cherishing the definite exterior over the undefined (and indefinable) interior would only be life-affirming if the outer shell, the external appearance, were the whole of life, and there was nothing else other than this. This is in fact precisely what the rational mind implicitly claims to be the case, by tacitly ignoring anything that doesn’t correspond to its evaluative categories, to its fixed way of understanding the world. If something fits neatly into a category then it is of course a ‘defined something’ and so our everyday mind may be seen as ‘a device to screen out uncertainty’. From its perspective, there is no such thing as ‘irreducible uncertainty’, only uncertainty that has not been properly processed or resolved yet. The game we play therefore is the game that the universe consists only of those elements to correspond to our rule-based modality of perceiving it, only we don’t of course acknowledge that this is what we are doing, if we did acknowledge it then we wouldn’t be playing the game. As a result of the way the rational mind works therefore, we are effectively predisposed to living in a world made up of ‘shells,’ or ‘outer surfaces’ and the idea that the bigger part of the world is necessarily unknowable to us, because it is not just ‘an outer surface’, is something that we find frankly unacceptable. This intellectual hubris comes naturally to us. After all, I say, if I can’t model it with my rational-conceptual mind, how important can it be? The unavoidable intellectual hubris which says ‘if I can’t understand it then it doesn’t exist’ also means – again, quite unavoidably – that we can only understand our own growth in terms of the linear development of the mechanical personality. This blindness leads to the situation where we become our own worst enemies. We are our own worst enemies because we are implacable in our refusal to let ourselves grow in the non-linear (or discontinuous) way that is natural for us to. Using Joseph Campbell’s image, we are loathe to move out from the play-pen and acquaint ourselves with the big, wide world that awaits us out there once we get brave enough to leave the kindergarten. A discontinuity exists wherever there is an unpredictable or radical change, a change that involves ‘throwing away’ the structure that we previously were utilizing. The change from grain of wheat to the plant itself can in this sense we said to be a discontinuous change; other examples would be the change from a tadpole to a frog, or a caterpillar to a butterfly. Inasmuch we don’t believe in anything we can’t understand on the basis of what we already know, we are put in the position where we have to make a ‘permanent virtue’ of being frogs or caterpillars.  We have to make a virtue out of the play-pen, and the toys that are contained there, and put up tremendous barriers against anyone ever discovering that there is more to life than this tiny, stage-managed world.



One can imagine a situation where a writer contrives an allegory in order to have fun with this idea. The allegorical story could be called ‘Nut Land’ or something along those lines. The gist would be that in this land there are very severe laws prohibiting change. In Nut land, as in Brian Aldiss’ Malacia, change of any sort is forbidden by ancient decree and the penalty that is visited upon transgressors is both swift and merciless. Secret nut-police spy on the general population as they go about their business and file reports on anyone suspected of being involved in ‘un-nut-like’ behaviour; such citizens are more than likely to vanish from their houses in the early hours of the morning and never be seen again. Their friends and neighbours know better than to ask too many questions when this happens lest they too fall under suspicion. On the other hand, honorary titles are bestowed upon those exemplary and inspirational citizens who have devoted their lives to preserving and promoting the eternal values of nut-hood. Universities thrive, doing their bit to promote the arts and sciences, furthering the intellectual glory of Nutdom, exploring and elucidating all the multitudinous ways in which it is so great and so wonderful to be a nut. Sporting excellence is encouraged from school onwards, both for the sake of channelling the energy of the young nuts in a healthy and socially-sanctified direction, and in order to celebrate the magnificence of the Nut way of life. Schools inculcate the young nuts with a thorough understanding of how important it is to be a nut and equip them with everything they need to be good nut citizens. Philosophers abound, debating the eternal questions, such as “Why are nuts so great?” and “Is the universe a giant nut?” Religious teachers also proliferate, instructing everyone – both young and old – how best to adhere to the sacred dogmas, and the best way to demonstrate their faith in the One True Religion.



But underlying all this splendid activity a nameless fear lurks. Naturally enough – as is the way with nameless fears – no one speaks of it, but its ominous and disheartening presence is felt all the same, like the proverbial ‘spectre at the feast’. Occasionally the odd nut does crack up under the strain and start talking dangerous (and obviously insane) nonsense. When this happens the poor nut is taken away to the appropriate clinic or hospital, where they receive cognitive nut-behavioural therapy (CNBT) from specialists. (This – though no one in Nut Land realizes it – is the modern equivalent of what used to happen many centuries ago to those bewitched or enchanted nuts who started to grow shoots and had to be slowly burned on green wood in an attempt to save their souls from sure and certain damnation.) Some nuts crack up, as we have said, but most manage to carry on and put a brave face on things – at least in public. But all the same, the mental health of the Nut Nation is not the best. An honest chestnut wakes up in middle of the night in a cold sweat, shaking off memories of some formless vastness that had visited him in a dream. A hard-working acorn has become so stricken with depression that he can no longer manage to hold down his job, despite a life-time of service. A God-fearing almond has developed panic attacks and anxiety and cannot leave the house.  A walnut with an impeccable reputation falls prey to a dreadful addiction which leads him to ruination and disgrace. A hazel develops a terrible anger problem which makes life very hard for his poor family, and so on. What none of these troubled nuts realize is that they fear the vastness and grandeur of their own denied destiny. The chestnut is fighting off unspeakable visions of a magnificently spreading chestnut tree, the acorn can no longer keep up the pretence that its life is richly fulfilling and meaningful. The almond is afflicted by an overwhelming panic which derives from the repressed knowledge that one day its little world must end, so that the elegant splendour that is the almond tree may enter the world. The walnut has filled the emptiness of its life with the addiction, poor substitute thought it is and the hazel is helplessly, unconsciously displacing its pain onto its long-suffering family. After all, as Scott Peck says, if pain is not experienced voluntarily, and where it does belong, then it must be experienced involuntarily, and where it doesn’t belong. All of this suffering is, needless to say, spuriously ascribed to other causes, such as poor diet, bad parenting or weak moral fibre.



Notwithstanding the ban on change, notwithstanding the brutal penalties, notwithstanding the all-pervasive ignorance, there is however still talk – in hushed voices, in coded languages, in secret places. A message is passed on to those who are open to it. A message that is so radical that we can hardly even begin to appreciate it. Even the little bit that we do understand however is enough to shift our attitude by one hundred and eighty degrees – now we can say that the very force that was pushing us inexorably towards panic is pushing us towards a truth that was too magnificent for us to believe in. All we need to do is to let go of the littleness, the cramped posture, that we have insisted for so long on holding onto.



The message of negative psychology is that we too are seeds who don’t yet realize that we are seeds, seeds who have no use for such an idea, even. When we hear that there is no possibility of any meaningful change or development that we can hope to achieve in our present seed-form, we straightaway take this as being a reprehensibly pessimistic, if not to say, life-denying statement. We denounce it as out-and-out nihilism. Generations of Westerners have reacted with disapproving incomprehension upon hearing the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, which states that conditioned existence is dukkha (variously translated as suffering, pain, or frustration). If the conditioned life were the only life there was then one could say with some justification that the Buddha was a type of philosophical pessimist. But what the Buddha was saying is that there is no possibility of freedom as long as we cling to our narrow – and therefore unfree – way of seeing things. The idea is that we cannot be happy when we insist above all else upon having life fit into our extraordinarily limited view of it. This is pretty much the same as saying that I cannot be resolutely, implacably petty-minded and at the same time receive the boon of true happiness. This is, as any wise person would feel bound to say, simply not possible. “Why not?” I demand indignantly (and small-mindedly), and “How dare he say that?”



And so, instead of listening to the message that we don’t want to hear, we sack ‘the messenger (or have him done away with) and find instead some jargon-spouting smooth-talking fellow in the ubiquitous business suit who will be only too pleased to explain to us how we can both have our cake and eat it, just as long as we pay him his fee, that is. And we can’t really blame the smooth-talking, jargon-spouting man in the sharp business suit, the guy with all the easy answers; after all, he’s only ripping us off because we want him to. There is no one out there cheating us – we are cheating ourselves.







  • Martin John Milner

    Wow what a great site to stumble across! We have a ‘positive psychologist’ at our school, and a friend asked what a negative one would be like. So up you pop, and I’m instantly drawn to you. I need time to digest assures of this site and these concepts, but I will make time for it, and let it inspire my poetry and songs and teachings.
    One question: I wonder if you know of Bill Plotkin’s book ‘Wild Mind’, which proposes a nature-based psychology, and if you are, whether it resonates with you in any way.
    Thank you for this inspiration and the challenge to a probable source of our culture’s basic sickness. Peace and music Martin John Milner

    April 30, 2018 at 8:55 am Reply
    • Martin John Milner

      That should read ‘digest the treasures of this site’

      April 30, 2018 at 8:57 am Reply
      • Nick Williams

        Your enthusiasm is amazing Martin thank you. I haven’t heard of that book but I shall seek it out and let you know what I think! If you ever have a job going for a negative psychologist at your school let me know!

        April 30, 2018 at 10:31 pm Reply
  • Lex van den Oever

    Hey Nick,

    What a fantastic article. Rings super-duper true. One bump in the road, for me, is that you do seem to be talking about the true self and, dare I say, what is good for it. This seems rather… positive. Wouldn’t you agree, à la Wittgenstein, that it is better to remain silent where this enigmatic, undefinable “self” is concerned?



    January 29, 2019 at 7:33 am Reply
    • Nick Williams

      You’re right Lex, I cannot deny it – that’s a bit of a slip up alright…. It is much better to remain silent! I totally agree with both you and Wittgenstein.

      January 30, 2019 at 7:23 pm Reply
  • Enrico Bignetti

    I think you might be interested in this cognitive model “The Bignetti Model”:
    Bignetti E. Vie sensoriali e soft-brain. Annali della Facoltà di Medicina Veterinaria [In Italian]. University of Parma. 1994; 65-95.
    Bignetti E. Dissacrazione Della Coscienza [In Italian]. Il Valico Ed. Firenze, Italy. 2001.
    Bignetti E. Cervello e mente: Ovvero casualità e determinismo. Annali della Facoltà di Medicina Veterinaria[In Italian]. University of Parma. 2003; XXIII: 69-78.
    Bignetti E. Consciousness can learn but cannot decide. Annali della Facoltà di Medicina Veterinaria[In Italian]. University of Parma. 2004; XXIV: 31-52.
    Bignetti E. Free will is the illusionary by-product of self-perception. 4th International nonlinear science conference; The Soc. for chaos theory in psychology and life science. March 15-17, 2010; Palermo, Italy.
    Bignetti E, Ghirri A. Mind and free will. Annali della Facoltà di Medicina Veterinaria[In Italian]. University of Parma. 2010b; XXX: 31-40.
    Bignetti E. Ego and free will: A virtual binomial apt for cognition. Proc. Neuroplasticity and cognitive modifiability. Medimond Ed. Jerusalem. 2013.
    Bignetti E. The functional role of free-will illusion in cognition: The Bignetti model. Cognitive Systems Research. 2014; 32: 45-60.2014.04.001
    Bignetti E. From brain to mind: A plain route from neurobiology to psychology, Psychol Cogn Sci Open J. 2015; 1: 15-25.
    Bignetti E. Which is necessary for Cognition, Free Will or Free Will illusion? Psychol Cogn Sci Open J. 2017; 3(4): 116-122.
    Bignetti E, Martuzzi F, Tartabini A. A Psychophysical Approach to Test: “The Bignetti Model”. Psychol Cogn Sci Open J. 2017; 3(1): 24-35. 1
    Aimi A, Martuzzi F, Bignetti E. Rational Curves Modeling Psychophysical Tests Data: A Computational Approach Compatible With TBM Cognitive Model. Far East Journal of Mathematical Sciences (FJMS), Allahabad, India. 2018; 107, 1, 81-108.
    A new book in Italian appeared in Amazon-Kindle: Il binomio “Coscienza-Libero Arbitrio” è un’illusione vincente” (Enrico Bignetti, 2019)

    April 17, 2019 at 10:55 am Reply
  • Nick Williams

    Thanks Enrico, I haven’t heard of The Bignetti Model – it sounds very interesting and I will acquaint myself with it!



    April 19, 2019 at 10:19 am Reply

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