Alan Watts about social rules and insanity

Social regulations and insanity

Psychotherapy East and West

The following text consists of excerpts from Alan Watts’ book “Psychotherapy East and West”(1961)

Psychotherapy and Liberation
If we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism and Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West. We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy.
The main resemblance between the Eastern way of life and Western psychotherapy is in the concern of both with bringing about changes of consciousness, changes in our ways of feeling our own existence and our relation to human society and the natural world.
The psychotherapist has, for the most part, been interested in changing the consciousness of peculiarly disturbed individuals. The disciplines of Buddhism and Taoism are, however, concerned with changing the consciousness of normal, socially adjusted people.
But it is increasingly apparent to psychotherapists that the normal state of consciousness in our culture is both the context and the breeding ground of mental disease.

To the naked eye a distant galaxy looks like a solid star and a piece of steel like a continuous and impenetrable mass of matter. But when we change the level of magnification, the galaxy assumes the clear structure of a spiral nebula and the piece of steel turns out to be a system of electrical impulses whirling in relatively vast spaces. The idea of stuff expresses no more than the experience of coming to a limit at which our sense or our instruments are not fine enough to make out the pattern.
Something of the same kind happens when the scientist investigates any unit of patterns so distinct to the naked eye that it has been considered a separate entity. He finds that the more carefully he observes and describes it, the more he is also describing the environment in which it moves and other patterns to which it seems inseparably related.
The farther and more deeply we penetrate into matter, by means of increasingly powerful methods, the more we are confounded by the interdependence of its parts** It is impossible to cut into the network, to isolate a portion without it becoming frayed and unraveled at all its edges.
In place of the inarticulate cohesion of mere stuff we find the articulate cohesion of inseparably interconnected patterns.

The effect of this upon the study of human behavior is that it becomes impossible to separate psychological patterns from patterns that are sociological, biological, or ecological. Departments of knowledge based upon what now appear to be crude and primitive divisions of nature begin to coalesce into such awkwardly named hybrids as neuropsychaitry, sociobiology, biophysics, and geopolitics. At a certain depth of specialization the divisions of scientific knowledge begin to run together because they are far enough advanced to see that the world itself runs together, however clear-cut its parts may have seemed to be.
But from this point of view the troubles and symptoms from which the patient seeks relief, and the unconscious factors behind them, cease to be merely psychological. They lie in the whole pattern of his relationships with other people and, more particularly, in the social institutions by which these relationships are governed: the rules of communication employed by the culture or group. These include the conventions of language and law, of ethics and aesthetics, of status, role, and identity, and of cosmology, philosophy, and religion. For this whole social complex is what provides the individual’s conception of himself, his state of consciousness, his very feeling of existence. What is more, it provides the human organism’s idea of its individuality, which can take a number of quite different forms.

Seeing this, the psychotherapist must realize that his science, or art, is misnamed, for he is dealing with something far more extensive than a psyche and its private troubles. This is just what so many psychotherapists are recognizing and what, at the same time, makes the Eastern ways of liberation so pertinent to their work. For they are dealing with people whose distress arises from what may be termed maya, to use the Hindu-Buddhist word whose exact meaning is not merely “illusion” but the entire world-conception of a culture, considered as illusion in the strict etymological sense of a play.
The aim of a way of liberation is not the destruction of maya but seeing it for what it is, or seeing through it. Play is not to be taken seriously, or, in other words, ideas of the world and of oneself which are social conventions, and institutions are not to be confused with reality.
The rules of communication are not necessarily the rules of the universe, and man is not the role or identity which society thrusts upon him. For when a man no longer confuses himself with the definition of himself that others have given him, he is at once universal and unique. He is universal by virtue of the inseparability of his organism from the cosmos. He is unique in that he is just this organism and not any stereotype of role, class, or identity assumed for the convenience of social communication.

There are many reasons why distress comes from confusing this social maya with reality. There is direct conflict between what the individual organism is and what others say it is and expect it to be.
The rules of social communication often contain contradictions which lead to impossible dilemmas in thought, feeling, and action. Or it may be that confusion of oneself with a limiting and impoverished view of one’s role or identity creates feelings of isolation, loneliness, and alienation.
The multitudinous differences between individuals and their social contexts lead to as many ways of seeking relief from these conflicts. Some seeks it in the psychoses and neuroses which lead to psychiatric treatment, but for the most part release is sought in the socially permissible orgies of mass entertainment (sports), religious fanaticism, chronic sexual titillation, alcoholism, war-the whole sad list of tedious and barbarous escapes.

Thus far, then, we have seen that psychotherapy and the ways of liberation have two interests in common: first, the transformation of consciousness, of the inner feeling of one’s own existence; and second, the release of the individual from forms of conditioning imposed upon him by social institutions.** It helps us to distinguish between social fictions, on the one hand, and natural patterns and relationships, on the other.

It cannot be stressed too strongly that liberation does not involve the loss or destruction of such conventional concepts as the ego; it means seeing through them-in the same way we can use the idea of the equator without confusing it with a physical mark upon the surface of Earth.

Society and Sanity

The basic rule of human societies is that one must be consistent. If you want to belong to our society, you must play our game-or, simply, if we are going to be consistent, we must be consistent. The conclusion is substituted for the premise. But this is understandable because, as we have seen, human society is so complex and volatile that consistency is difficult to maintain. Children keep slipping out of the patterns of behavior we try to impose upon them, and for this and similar reasons our social conventions have to be maintained by force.
The first rule of the game, put in another way, is that the game must continue, that the survival of society is necessary. But we must not lose sight of the fact that the consistencies or regularities of nature are patterns that do occur, not patterns that must occur. Natural events do not obey commandments in the same way that human beings obey the law.

Or put in still other words, the first rule of the game is that the game is serious, i.e., is not a game. This is called the primordial “repression”. It may be our most deeply ingrained social attitude. But just as soon as we feel that certain things, such as survival, are serious necessities, life becomes problematic in a very special sense. Life and problem become the same; the human situation becomes a predicament for which there is no solution.

This self-frustrating activity is samsara, the vicious circle from which the ways of liberation propose release. Release depends upon becoming aware of that primordial repression which is responsible for the feeling that life is a problem, that it is serious, that it must go on.

It is obvious, then, that when we are talking about the order and structure of the world, we are talking about the order of our grids. “Laws, like the law of causation, etc., treat of the network and not of what the network describes” (Wittgenstein). In other words, what we call the regularities of nature are the regularities of our grids – our descriptions.

The mind or psychological structure of the individual cannot be identified with some entity inside his skin.
If the mind is socially constituted, then the field or locus of any individual mind must extend as far as the social activity or apparatus of social relations. And that is just the paradox of the situation: society gives us the idea that the mind or ego is inside the skin and that it acts on its own apart from society.

Individual is defined as an agent in order to be held responsible to the group for “his” actions. The rules of the game confer independence and take it away at the same time, without revealing the contradiction.

You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, and you mustn’t realize it.
What can individual do but withdraw from the field? Yet society does not allow withdrawal; the individual must play the game. Thus in order to withdraw the individual must imply that he is not withdrawing, that his withdrawal is happening, and that he cannot help himself. In other words, he must “lose his mind” and become insane.

But in liberation this comes to pass not through an unconscious compulsion but through insight, through understanding and breaking the double-bind which society imposes. One does not then get into the position of not being able to play the game; one can play it all the better for seeing that it is a game.
The schizophrenic withdrawal affects a minority, and occurs in circumstances where the double-bind imposed by society in general is compounded by special types of double-bind peculiar to a special family situation. The rest of us are in differing degrees of neurosis, tolerable to the extent to which we can forget the contradiction thrust upon us, to which we can “forget ourselves” by absorption in hobbies, mystery novels, social service, television, business, and warfare. Thus it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are accepting a definition of sanity which is insane, and that as a result our common human problems are so persistently insoluble that they add up to the perennial and universal “predicament of man”, which is attributed to nature, to the Devil, or to God himself.

Galina Toktalieva

Kyrgyzstan-born author residing in Graz, Austria

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