The Root Of Neurosis
The clearest and most essential way that we have of understanding neurosis and neurotic suffering of all kinds is to say that it arises as a direct consequence of the narrow way which we have of defining ourselves. The narrower my definition of myself (or the narrower society’s definition of the self, which we buy into) the greater the neurotic backlash is going to be. The pain of the neurotic backlash is the pain of our narrow definition – it’s just that there’s a ‘delay factor’ built into the equation that very effectively prevents us from seeing what is going on. This ‘delay factor’ (or ‘time-lag’) corresponds to the euphoria that also comes about as a result of defining ourselves as ‘the narrow self’…
Although this way of understanding neurotic suffering is remarkably elegant, uncomplicated and profound, it nevertheless eludes us. It’s too simple, too elegant for us to see and so we opt for more cumbersome and confusing explanations. It’s also too challenging for us – we are obliged to encumber ourselves with all sorts of ‘non-essential’ explanations of what lies behind the neurotic conditions because we don’t want to get too close to the truth. The reason we are so ‘wary of the truth’ is – of course – because we have identified ourselves with the narrow definition of who we are and so we don’t want to find out that we are hugely more than this. That would spoil our game, our ‘avoidance mechanism’. If we think that we are this narrow definition then very clearly we’re not going to start messing with it – on the contrary, we’re going to take it as ‘a given’ and go looking elsewhere for the answers to all our problems. This is exactly what we are doing. As the Buddha says in the Lotus Sutra, we ‘delight in inferior doctrines’ – we want to have truths to pontificate about, to seek comfort and reassurance in, but we don’t want the real truth because that would be a different kettle of fish entirely. There’s no comfort, no reassurance in that. In Saying 82 of The Gospel of Thomas, we read –
Jesus said: He who is near to me is near the fire, and he who is far from me is far from the kingdom.
The point about ‘the fire’ (which is the all-consuming fire of truth’ is of course that it will burn us up, and that is precisely what we don’t want!
If we genuinely wanted to become free from all the neurotic suffering that we’re going through then all we would have to do is to let go of our blind attachment to the narrow sense of self that we’re clinging to and which is causing all the problems. We just need to stop defining ourselves in this way that we are. We’re causing the pain ourselves by ‘clinging to the construct’ and so all we would need to do is to stop clinging quite so tightly. We just need to ‘loosen up’ a bit in other words! The remedy to neurosis is to loosen up a bit with all the controlling and defining and obsessing, which doesn’t come as very much of a surprise of course (since that’s what everyone’s telling us anyway) but what is a surprise – generally speaking – is to learning that the reason we can’t let go of all this controlling and obsessing and evaluating / defining is because we’re maintaining a self-construct that isn’t real. That’s what no one tells us, and the reason no one tells us this is because it’s true for them too and they don’t want to learn about it! No one wants to know about this, and so we all conspire to look the other way. We look for other answers.
So there’s a very big stumbling block as regards any ‘loosening up’ (or letting go’) of our obsession with the narrow sense of self that we have been talking about and that stumbling block has to do with the fact that we really don’t want to do this. We fundamentally don’t want to do this. We’re very strongly identified with this false sense of self and so of course we don’t want to let go of it – we’ll let go of anything else but not this. There’s no way we want to let go of this narrow sense of self – we think that this is who we are so naturally we don’t want to let go of it. We don’t like all this neurotic pain its true, we’d happily complain about it every minute of the day if it was bad enough, but this doesn’t mean that we really want to do something about it. This is our basic predicament: we are fundamentally averse to all the pain and suffering that is coming our way but we’re ALSO fundamentally averse to ever seeing the truth of our situation because seeing that would necessarily involve letting go of something we don’t want to let go of – our ‘selves’!
What we’re really afraid of is the unknown. When I am identified with a very narrow definition of ‘who I am’ then this trick effectively does away with the unknown. It gets rid of it. The reason identifying ourselves with a narrow definition of who we are is so effective at ‘eliminating the unknown’ is because when we define ourselves as this ‘narrow or encapsulated self’ then we are at the same time defining everything else in the world in this same narrow way. By ‘eliminating the unknown’ in this way we have cunningly oversimplified reality!The only world we know is the world as it is seen by this limited little self and so what we’re really seeing here is simply this limited little self projected outwards on the world. At a stroke, therefore, all radical uncertainty has been gotten rid of; all that’s left is the trivial uncertainty of ‘What’s going to happen next to this narrow little sense of self that I’m clinging so determinedly so?’ This – needless to say – is the only question we’re usually interested in. That’s everything to us. It’s certainly the only thing the ‘defined self’ is ever interested in…
Letting go of our narrow identification with the mind-created self means seeing the world around us in an infinitely broader way therefore; it involves seeing the world around us and all the people around us in a way that isn’t wholly ‘self-referential’, in a way that isn’t ‘all about us’. This miraculous escape from closed self-referentiality actually feels wonderfully good – as we all know on some level – a bit of reality comes back into the picture, a bit of spaciousness and freedom and creativity comes back into the picture. A bit of love and compassion comes back into the picture! Humour comes back, peace of mind comes back, all sorts of good things come back… All of these qualities were missing from ‘the narrow definition of self and world’ that was all we knew before. Reality itself was missing, although we didn’t realize this at the time because we had nothing else to go on apart from what we had been given by the closed rational mind. The absence of all these qualities, plus the addition of an over-riding sense of compulsion – along with bucket-loads of negative/toxic emotion which automatically comes up whenever we can obey the external compulsion that is driving us – is precisely what constitutes ‘neurotic suffering’. When we ‘loosen up on things’ therefore – when we stop being so rigid and controlling about it all – then the unknown comes back and when this happens that can be either very welcome to us, or very unwelcome, depending upon our attitude!
It’s a curious thing that the unknown should be ‘unwelcome’ to us, even though this ‘fear of the unknown’ is of course practically a universal state of affairs. The unknown is life itself, so how can life itself ‘not be welcome’ to us? What strange state of affairs is this? Are we not, after all, examples of life ourselves? How can life be afraid of life? But when we define ourselves in a rigid, controlling and humourless way this is precisely what we are doing – we are shutting out the unknown, we are shutting out life. This is the name of the game – this is the nature of the operation that we are carrying out. When we define ourselves in a concrete, black-and-white way then what we have done is to hugely oversimplify life. Following this oversimplification there is only ‘me’ and whatever it is that has relevance to me (whether it is relevant in a positive way or a negative way). ‘Positive’ relevance means that we perceive the possibility of consolidating and strengthening our position, whilst ‘negative’ relevance means that we perceive the converse possibility of our position being undermined and weakened. Either way, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it’s all about me, which means that I have absolutely zero interest in what James Carse calls the ‘radical other’; I’m playing a closed game and the whole point of the game is that I get to shut out the unknown. This is what we do individually, when we play the game of being this concrete defined self, and it is also what we do collectively, as society as a whole. No matter what we may claim to the contrary, when it comes down to brass tacks it’s all about shutting out the unknown’.
This all basically comes down to ‘control’ – controlling is how we eliminate radical uncertainty, controlling is how we shut out the known. Controlling is also how we create the narrow sense of self that we are so attached (or ‘addicted’) to – the more we invest in controlling the narrower (or more ‘concrete’) our sense of self becomes! ‘Controlling and ‘defining’ are therefore the same thing – they are two different ways of talking about the same process. To control is to define and to define is to control. There is this tight little whirlpool going on – a tight little disturbance that is busy forever chasing itself around and around. Controlling creates the self and the self needs to keep on controlling in order to secure itself against the radical uncertainty (or ‘radical risk’) that is all around it, the radical uncertainty/risk that is life. This is of course a classic vicious circle – it is, we might say, the Grand Daddy of all vicious circles, the template from which all other vicious circles are built. Of its own accord, this ‘whirlpool’, this ‘self-devouring loop’, this ‘glitch in reality’, will never loosen up – it can only ever go one way and that is to keep on tightening. Why this should be isn’t hard to see. The vicious circle, the ‘closed loop’, is based solely on the law of positive feedback – this is the only mechanism that is operating here. The more I control the more reified my sense of self becomes and the more reified my sense of self becomes the more intense is the over-riding ‘urge to control’…
This is directly analogous to ‘the game of making money’ – when we really get stuck into this game then there are no ‘brakes’ to it. It’s not the case that when we reach a certain ceiling then we’re going to ease up on the accelerator pedal and start to take an interest in other aspects of life apart from making money. We don’t at some point start to lose our interest in the narrow little game we’re playing just because we’ve got enough for our needs, and then some. We all know that this doesn’t happen – if it did the world would be a very different place! It’s exactly the same situation when one person is enjoying exercising power over another person, or over another group of people. If I have power over you and am controlling you in order to satisfy some kind of a need that I have then – as is well known – this process is also lacking in any kind of internal checks. There’s no ‘ceiling of control’ that I will reach, no point at which I will feel satiated and ease up on my malignant controlling. That just doesn’t happen, as anyone who has ever been in an abusive relationship will know. The whole thing just keeps escalating and escalating – I have to keep on tightening my grip on you, my pathological ‘need to control’ will never be satisfied no matter how much suffering I inflict. Similarly, the positive feed-back loop of the controlling self which creates (or reifies) itself with its own controlling knows no limits – the obsession simply keeps on deepening. The controlling self never reaches the point at which it doesn’t need to control anymore; it never obtains any ‘final reward’ for its controlling which means that it can hang its hat up and retire with a nice pension. It never gets to this happy position, even though it is constantly feeling that it can do, if it plays its cards right. The concrete self is driven by the belief that if it controls successfully enough, that if it learns to play the game well enough, then one day it will never have control again, that it will never have to play again. James Carse calls this ‘the contradictoriness of finite play’ – we play in order to bring an end to the play. In finite play we’re chasing the ultimate intoxicating goal, but the goal’s a dream, the goal’s a mirage, the goal’s not real…
Although we say that there are no checks built into this process of narrowing (this process of the self continually chasing its own tail and becoming narrower and narrower as it does so) there is a type of a ‘check’ that comes into play all the same. It’s just not coming from us. As the concrete self narrows and narrows it becomes more and more addicted to control, since its ‘narrowness’ creates the insatiable hunger that drives the need to control, and this collapsing positive feedback loop eventually causes so much pain that we simply cannot continue any further in it. The narrowness that we’re talking about here is pain – the narrowness is ‘the hunger that cannot be satiated’ and that hunger equals pain. ‘Narrowness’ is just another way of talking about ‘unreality’; instead of saying that ‘the more we control the narrower we become’ we could equally well say ‘the more unreal we become’. The unconscious sense of our own unreality (which is something we are afflicting ourselves with because of the way we are shutting out everything that doesn’t make sense to our narrow little way of seeing things) is what drives our controlling, our unbridled aggression against the universe, but this controlling, this unbridled aggression is backfiring on us. Our aggression is reflected right back at us causing us unbearable pain [see Chogyam Trungpa’s description of ‘the development of hell] and so clearly – eventually – something has to give. The process is self-defeating, in other words; the whole endeavour of ‘being this defined/controlling self’ is self-defeating (or ‘self-thwarting’) and so gradually, painfully, the awareness of this contradiction grows inexorably until the pain associated with it becomes unbearable to us and our position is finally revealed as being untenable. This then is the ‘end-point’ of the neurotic process, the final fruition of consciousness which is born out of the insoluble pain of the neurotic conflict. Hell comes about because of the way we have narrowed ourselves – and our world – down so much – but we can only narrow down so much!
As soon as we see neurosis like this (which is, indeed, the only ‘non-deluded’ way to see it!) we see another thing too. We see that there is no point in trying to halt or reverse the process, or ‘rectify’ it in some way. We see that there is no point in trying to interfere with it in the way that we are constantly attempting to. And it’s not just that there’s no point in trying to fight against (or rectify) the process, but rather that our attempt to correct the neurosis actually is the neurosis. Our attempts to fix the neurosis are the neurosis; our rational (or ‘thought-based’) therapies are themselves manifestations of the very same neurosis that they are attempting to cure (which is to say, our very reasonable attempts to ameliorate the pain caused by the neurotic conflict that we are caught up in are actually making matters worse). The question that comes up next is of course “What then is the helpful way to work with neurotic pain and distress?” If interfering only makes things worse then what should we do? If trying – in any way – to interfere with the inexorable working out of the neurotic process is only an additional complication and obscuration of this process, a kind of ‘extra kink’ in it, then does this mean that we just have to let neurosis run its course? Do we just have to let ourselves, or other people, go right ahead and be neurotic? This doesn’t seem like much of an answer; it sounds like more of a cop out than an answer…
There is a non-neurotic alternative, however. There is always a non-neurotic way to live, no matter what the thinking mind will tell us. The ‘non-neurotic way of living life’ is simply when we live life with curiosity rather than always being fixated upon goals or ‘outcomes’. Or we could also say that the non-neurotic way of living life is when we live what is actually happening to us rather than being preoccupied with thoughts of what we would like to be happening (or not like to be happening). This is very easy to say of course, but aside from that objection it is also a perfectly natural thing to happen rather than being something that has to happen in accordance with some complicated plan or theory of the thinking mind. Whatever you’re eating, just taste it as you’re eating it. Whatever it is, just taste it, just be aware of it. Take the time to be aware of what’s going on. Be where you are, not where you’d like to be! Normally, we’re always ‘living life for a reason’ – we have our conscious goals and we also have our ‘unconscious agenda’. The conscious goals are whatever outcomes we’re fixated upon at the time and the unconscious agenda has to do with what we’re doing whilst not letting on to ourselves that we’re doing it. This is ‘living life unconsciously’. When we live life unconsciously then everything else (everything else apart from our secret agenda) is just a side-show, just a distraction. We say that it matters to us but it doesn’t. We say that we care but we don’t. The only thing that really matters is maintaining the self-construct – the self-construct that isn’t actually real in the first place!
When we’re living life consciously instead of unconsciously then our allegiance is no longer to promoting the unreal self, come what may. Preserving the status quo is no longer the only thing that matters to us – there is now a higher consideration and that is the truth! A tremendous change has taken place therefore, even though things may not look very different on the surface. Instead of being trapped in that vicious whirlpool of increasing control and delusion which only ever gets tighter and tighter (and more and more unreal) we are moving in the other direction – our ‘sense of self’ is no longer narrowing, it is widening to include more and more. Our consciousness is expanding, as they used to say in the sixties. Our world has got bigger. We’re actually interested in what’s going on around us, which is a revolution. The unknown is no longer our enemy! Instead of being aggressive towards life, aggressive towards the universe, we are curious instead, and curiosity does not come with a ‘backlash’.
When our fundamental (unacknowledged) allegiance is to the comfortable lie – which is to say, the lie that there is ‘no such thing’ as the radical other, no such thing as radical uncertainty – then suffering will be our lot. Our only way of ‘helping’ ourselves will be through the lies that we tell ourselves, our only resort will be self-deception; aggressive denial will be our only tool, and it is a tool that doesn’t work! And it’s not just that self-deception ‘doesn’t work’ – it actually adds a whole new level of suffering onto the suffering that we already have. It adds new twist to that suffering. When our allegiance is to the truth, on the other hand, then everything works the other way around. Everything now works for us, instead of against us…
Art: Garrett Ziegler
Love it. Uncanny parallels. I hope to connect sometime.
Thanks Jeffrey, I am in the process of looking at your website Negative Geography which is full of fascinating parallels to this website! I will add a link here to one of your articles for anyone who wants to follow it –
Much obliged. I’ve still got a lot more to read here. Enjoying all of it.