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The Origin of ‘Mental Illness’ [Part 1]

According to Carl Jung, all mental illness is the result of all of ‘the avoidance of our own true suffering’. What Jung said or didn’t say actually carries very little (if any) weight in modern psychological circles however; as a psychologist, he is barely mentioned in any current psychology textbooks and where he is it is in a very dismissive way. Jung’s own biographer completely failed to understand him, so what chance do the rest of us stand? As well as being a psychologist he was also a psychiatrist and even less mention (if that were possible) is made of him in the psychiatry textbooks. Psychiatry has come a long way since Jung – now it’s all about medication (not that this seems to be much of a step forward). For these reasons, Jung’s views on mental illness are entirely irrelevant to this modern age of ours; we are far too busy looking in other directions, directions that are for the most part directed by ‘big business’, by capitalism (or by the scientific fashions that are sponsored by big business, which comes down to the same thing). One problem in understanding (or even care enough to try to understand) Jung is to be found in the fact that he was an extraordinarily broad thinker, whilst psychology and psychiatry are now exceptionally narrow in their remit. What psychiatrist these days has studied classical literature, religion, world mythology and quantum physics? (Jung was a close friend of Wolfgang Pauli, he of the ‘Exclusion Principle,’ with whom he developed the concept of synchronicity.) What modern psychologist can boast a deep understanding of alchemy, Gnosticism, Tibetan Buddhism, and ancient Taoist philosophy? The truth of the matter (which surely no one would try to deny) is that the specialised expert is now considered to be the ultimate authority on everything under the sun, despite the fact that ‘specialism’ is really just another name for ignorance. Wisdom – or the idea that they could be such a thing as ‘a wise person’ doesn’t figure in our collective thinking – quite possibly we are the only civilisation in the history of the human race not to value wisdom! We put our money on something else; we put our money on black-and-white ‘technical knowledge’ and the ability to control that this gives us. In a limited way – and it is only in a limited (or ‘short-term’) way – this has worked spectacularly well and so what has happened here is that we have ‘let our success go to our heads’ – we have let our ‘external success’ blind us to the fact that ‘control’ and ‘positive knowledge’ don’t work across the board. Coercion doesn’t open any doors in the inner world, in other words. There are only two options here – one is where we put all our money on controlling processes (and obtaining the technical knowledge necessary to facilitate our controlling) or we look – with genuine open-minded curiosity – into what is actually happening, even if this doesn’t give us any means of changing things. Although the early psychologist such as Abraham Maslow, William James, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were original and insightful thinkers, the modern breed ‘hunt in packs’ and come out with pale, insipid versions of psychology – a type of ‘psychology’ that is not really worthy of the name. This is something that should come as no surprise given that the profession has become frighteningly conformist in character and the universities teaching psychology come down heavily on any sign of originality wherever they come across it. It is as if we imagine that originality cannot be ‘scientific’ or that being scientific somehow means ‘being dead in the head’! Towing the party line is rewarded whilst ‘thinking for yourself’ (or ‘thinking on the basis of actual insight rather than so-called ‘scientific research’) is simply not recognised. Personal insight counts for nothing! As we have already said, wisdom itself means nothing to us – instead, we place learning-by-rote and generic conformist thinking on a pedestal as if this is actually going to help us (although how abject collective cowardice is ever supposed to be of actual ‘help’ to the human race is a mystery).

It can be argued that this moral cowardice of ours (which means that we are always very keen indeed to be thinking along the lines that everyone else is thinking) is the root of our collective malaise, rather than being the means by which we can find a solution. The key to understanding what Jung means in that statement of his which we started our discussion off with lies in the idea of ‘our true suffering’ as opposed to any other (‘surrogate’) form of suffering which we might have become embroiled in. Our ‘true suffering’, we might say, derives from our unique situation in the world and – therefore – our ‘not knowing what to do about it’ or ‘how to live on this basis’. This is of course just another way of talking about what existential philosophers called ‘the essential risk of existence’. Existence is a risk because there is no precedence for it – how could there be any ‘precedence for existence’, after all? Every single person that has ever been born faces this tremendous risk, and almost all of us manage to avoid it by ‘copying what everyone else is doing’. We ‘take our cues from the outside’, in other words. The thing about this is of course that we are taking our cues from other people who are also taking their cues from other people, and so although we have might have successfully avoided the central risk of existence, we have done so at a price. We managed to avoid the existential risk by copying what everyone else is doing and they are also doing exactly what we are doing – we copy all the other people who are avoiding existential risk just we are avoiding it and this seems to us to be ‘an infallible recipe’. If there were to be one underlying psychological definition of society it would have to be this – ‘a tightly knit collection of people who are all copying each other’s way of looking at the world and being in the world so as to avoid the essential challenge of existing a unique or authentic way’. When we express things like this then it becomes very clear indeed that this is not a recipe for anything good! Whatever it is that comes out of this collective act of cowardice (and something is going to come out of it) it is most certainly going to spell big trouble for us.

Because Jung does place such great emphasis on the process of individuation we can relate this key idea to the question of our ‘true suffering’  – following the path of individuation wherever it may lead means that we are not evading this central risk of existence and this ‘not evading the risk of existence’ is what allows us to discover our actual individuality. Our mental health industries apply ‘generic or machine-like responses’ to generically defined ‘mental health conditions’ and so if, as Jung says, what we call ‘mental illness’ is caused by us avoiding our true suffering, then the types of generic treatment and generic therapies that we place so much stock in are not going to help anyone. They are the problem rather than the solution. To start off with, there is our ‘authentic suffering’ which has to do with us taking the risk of being who we really are, and living life in our own unique way, without any external prompts or guidelines. This ‘authentic suffering’ something very few of us can relate to however because we have automatically avoided it by becoming socialised – becoming part of society is how we can ‘legitimately’ avoid to change that life is making on us. We conform to a given structure; we adapt ourselves to the system. We avoid the challenge and then we clap ourselves heartily on the back for ‘behaving properly’, or ‘behaving responsibly’. When we become socialised what is happening is that we are identifying with the generic mind, identifying with the generic self, and when we have identified with the generic mind/self then there is no such thing as not avoiding our true suffering. This is now an impossibility; it has become an impossibility because ‘who we really are’ has been lost and is no longer part of the picture. What we are saying here then is that whatever suffering we experience as the generic self is surrogate suffering, or as Gurdjieff puts it, unconscious suffering. It is suffering that doesn’t actually have an owner, suffering that is – on this account – passed unceasingly from pillar to post.

Instead of saying that mental illness is caused by the avoidance of our true suffering we could equally well say that the cause of all mental health conditions is the generic self (or rather, the fact that we are convinced that this ridiculous generic self is who we are). A statement such as this isn’t going to be taken seriously these days (any more than Jung’s original assertion would be) since no one has the slightest appreciation that there is such a thing as ‘the generic self’. No one has the psychological insight to see that. The point here is that the generic self has no appreciation that there is any such thing as the generic self! Obviously this is true – the only way to play a game is when we don’t know that we are playing it, and the generic self is a game. The key point to understand about ‘surrogate suffering’ is that there is no one there to feel it and because there is no one there to feel it the only option is to either [1] pass it on to someone else or [2] bury it. Either we ‘act the pain out’ or we deny its existence. Surrogate pain is something to be processed, stored, manage, re-distributed, reallocated, returned to the original sender etc. The generic self does not feel pain; contrary to what we might think, it can only act out the pain or repress it. Either we pass the pain on to someone else (like a hot potato) or we play a delaying game with it and postpone the experiencing of it for a while (by sending it on to our future self to deal with because we don’t want to). It is pointless expecting the generic self to behave any differently – it avoids pain because that’s all it can do. It simply doesn’t have the capacity to genuinely suffer – the generic self is only a game after all, as we have said; it isn’t anyone really and so how can we possibly expect it to ‘feel the pain’?

Once we understand this business of the GM not being able to authentically suffer or authentically feel pain (and having therefore always to find ways of displacing it in some tricky way or other) then this straightaway allows us to see the mechanism underlying what used to be called ‘mental illness’ in a much more coherent way. The GS can only get by in one way and that is if it can continue to displace the pain of the genuine existential challenge that it is faced with in life; if it can’t do this then it simply can’t go on existing as ‘a going concern’. The game will then be up. So on the one hand we can say that it is ‘the avoidance of legitimate pain’ that lies behind all mental health conditions and on the other hand we can say that when we can no longer avoid our legitimate pain then the concrete, mind-created self that we identified with so strongly can no longer maintain its (virtual) existence. This clearly shows that what we us seeing isn’t a ‘pathological event’ but has to do with some kind of ‘underlying healthy process’, hard as this is for us to see. In very simple terms, the game of the generic self is being jinxed, and how can this not be a good thing given that it is the absolute belief that we are this mind-created self that prevents us (as of course it is bound to) from living authentically, from living as ‘who we actually are’? It’s not that anyone is saying that there isn’t a truly appalling amount of suffering here; the suffering is there without a doubt but it is only ‘pathological’ from the point of view of the generic self – from the point of view of our true individuality (the actual genuine essence of who we are and not the personality shell that we are identified with) the process clearly isn’t pathological. It depends, in other words, on how we’re looking at things. The suffering is terrible but it’s not a sickness; it is a ‘building down for the sake of building up’, as Johann Fabricius says in The Royal Art of the Alchemists. Or as we read in John 12:24 –

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

We can use anxiety as one particular example of what we talking about here. When we are clinically anxious then this definitely ‘jinxes the game’, as any anxiety sufferer will tell you (although they are unlikely to use those exact words). Every possible decision (no matter how trivial it might be) that we are faced with becomes freighted with the crippling fear that it might prove to be ‘the wrong choice’. We just can’t trust ourselves on this one – we actually have zero trust in ourselves in this regard – we have, on the one hand, no trust that we will ‘make the right choice’ and – on the other hand – we have no trust that that the outcome to our choice is going to turn out well no matter whether it was the right choice or not. We can very easily relate this to the undercover mechanism by which the GS maintains ‘the fiction of its own existence’. The mechanism that we are referring to here can be equated to Alfred’s Bandura’s idea of Perceived Self-Efficacy; PCE is regarded by all and sundry as a very good thing indeed, a most necessary thing in fact, as indeed it is from the viewpoint of the positive or purposeful self (which we can call ‘the generic self’ since it is blandly and ubiquitously the same for everybody). It is its perception that it is ‘making things happen’ that enables the generic self to believe, and carry on believing, on itself as ‘an actual bone fide entity or agent’. It is through my unquestioned belief in the importance of my goals and my ability to control my situation successfully so as to bring these goals about that enables me to believe in this concrete identity (this that I bring around with me wherever I go, that I insist on importing into every conceivable situation). It is Bandura’s PSE that allows me to maintain the plausible sense of being this concrete identity, and it is this concrete identity, – which I cherish so much and take so much care of – which keeps me in the position of being fundamentally alienated from life. The concrete identity is at all times fundamentally alienated from the life precisely because it is the concrete identity – to be the CI is to be [1] separate from life and [2] to be purposefully or deliberately acting on life (even though this was never a real situation in the first place).

Chronic anxiety very specifically attacks our ‘sense of self-efficacy’ and this means that it very effectively undermines the generic self (or ‘the purposeful self’, or ‘the abstracted / disconnected ego’, or whatever else we might want to call it. The shine is taken off it, its viability is compromised to the point at which the whole show then starts to go off the rails. This is after all the mechanism by which the illusion is created and maintained and this means that there isn’t anything that needs to be done for that illusion to be shown up for what it is. Nothing actually has to be ‘done’ to the illusion in order to get rid of it, nothing has to be done because the illusion of the generic self is an illusion. In a manner of speaking, it’s just waiting to be exposed what it is so that it can disappear since it was never there in the first place. In another way, of course, the I-concept absolutely doesn’t want to be shown up for what it is (or rather for what it isn’t) and it is the I-concept’s infinite resistance to this happening that drags out the suffering so much. If there is a pathology therefore then it is in our ‘holding onto what can’t really be held onto’; if there is a pathology then it is the pathology of ‘fighting as hard as we can not to see the truth’. ‘Fighting as hard as we can not to see the truth’ as an odd kind of thing because the more the truth starts to make itself known to us – in whatever way that might be – the harder we fight not to see it, even though if we were to reflect on the matter we would realise that fighting against the truth is the worst road we could ever travel down. It is the actual perceiving of the futility of our struggle that makes us struggle harder, in other words.

The question at all that inevitably tends to arise here is therefore “How could it possibly be ‘a good thing’ for our perceived self-efficacy to be completely jinxed so that we can no longer operate in the world on the basis of the concrete sense of self, the sense of oneself as being ‘the effective controller’, ‘the entity who gets things to happen in accordance with its own wishes?’ This question answers itself of course. If I can no longer operate in the world on the basis of this perception of ‘me as a controller’, ‘me as the one who wants this or wants that’, ‘me as the decider (the one who has to make the right decisions and not the wrong ones) then I simply give up the attempt to do so, and this always results in an increase in freedom. Awareness inevitably shows us that there is no effective agent (no one who controls or makes decisions) there. As Alan Watts says, there might be ‘a decision’ but there is no one there who ‘makes the decisions’. There might be a decision, but there is no decider – if there was a concrete decider then before we could decide we would first have to ‘decide to decide’, and this sets up an infinite regress. This is the ‘starting paradox’ and a paradox is ‘nature’s way of showing us that something just won’t work’. The concrete self ‘just won’t work’ – it’s actually an impossibility (even though we can’t see this). The whole idea of a concrete controller, the concrete decider is just plain dumb. So when we are free from that ‘dumb and unworkable idea’ things become a lot freer, a lot easier. I can decide, but I don’t have to ‘decide to decide’ – I don’t have to take ultimate responsibility for the choice that I make, as I would have to do if I were the ‘concrete decider’. Ultimately therefore everything just happens, and if everything ‘just happens’ then who is the one who has to take ultimate responsibility for it all? There’s no one who has to stress out over it, and personally carry all of that terrible responsibility, and be paralysed by it. Anxiety is the result of ‘false responsibility’, in other words, and when we see the hoax that is being played on us then we let go of that ‘false responsibility’, that ‘responsibility-within-a-game’.

To our normal everyday thinking this sounds reprehensible in the extreme – it sounds like we’re talking about a philosophy that promotes the handing over of all responsibility, a philosophy that advocates the widespread abandonment of personal responsibility. This isn’t the case however – what this philosophy advocates is the giving up of the false responsibility of living generically and taking up – instead – our true responsibility. We give up our ‘false responsibility’ of living life as the mind-created a generic self (and anything that is created by the thinking mind is generic), so instead of living life as the concrete controller (which as we keep saying, necessarily involves being alienated from life) we engage in life on the basis of who we truly are. We do this simply by facing ‘the risk of existing’ head on and not playing games!

To live on the basis of the concrete self is to live on the basis of an abstraction, which is never going to work out for us. That which is defined is unreal, and yet all we believe in our definitions, all we believe in are ‘defined things’. What has happens is that we have confused definitions for reality – as far as we’re concerned ‘what is defined is real and what is undefined is unreal’. Because we have confused ‘what is defined’ with ‘what is real’ we cling to what is defined – we cling to it for all we’re worth and this is what drags out the suffering so much. This is what drags out the whole business to the bitter end – and that is exactly what it is, a ‘bitter end’. We cling to the defined because we are afraid of the undefined, but the undefined is what’s real; the undefined is where all good comes from whereas nothing comes from the defined world except pain and frustration. We’re clinging to that which hurts and denies us whilst rejecting what is actually supporting us, just like a rebellious branch that tries to deny the existence of the mighty tree trunk that it springs from….

Image – Playground AI

  • Susan Kenny

    A rebellious branch eventually gets snapped off in the wind given that its’ dead wood. Completely useless….and the tree doesn’t care! And neither does the wind!

    PS. Brilliant appreciated articles, Nick @ The Negative Psychologist
    Say I.

    June 15, 2020 at 11:51 am Reply
    • Nick Williams

      Very good point about the dead wood! Thanks Susan!

      June 16, 2020 at 8:52 am Reply
  • Stefan

    Hi Nick,I’d like to bother you with an idea. Why don’t you publish your posts on

    June 22, 2020 at 8:48 am Reply
    • Nick Williams

      Hey Stefan. I have never heard of it but will check it out right now!

      June 22, 2020 at 6:48 pm Reply
      • Stefan

        Just started to read (and write) there too…

        June 24, 2020 at 6:03 pm Reply
      • Stefan

        So what do you think about it?

        June 28, 2020 at 9:11 pm Reply
        • Nick Williams

          It’s a very smart-looking website and well organized. It has an honest look to it too, no apparent bias. I will definitely give it a go! Would you send me a link to something you wrote?

          June 30, 2020 at 9:18 am Reply
  • Nick Williams

    Hi Stefan – I liked your articles, you have your own voice which is all you need!

    July 14, 2020 at 11:44 pm Reply

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