You are responsible for your fate in life, and you are helpless against it.
The new DSM-5, the psychiatric diagnostic bible of mental illness, defines delusion as follows:
Delusions are fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence. Their content may include a variety of themes (e.g. persecutory, referential, somatic, religious, grandiose).[…] Delusions are deemed bizarre if they are clearly implausible and not understandable to same-culture peers and do not derive from ordinary life experiences. […] The distinction between a delusion and a strongly held idea is sometimes difficult to make and depends in part on the degree of conviction with which the belief is held despite clear or reasonable contradictory evidence regarding its veracity.
This is interesting since it accounts for only one of Karl Jaspers’ original criteria for delusion, which include certainty, incorrigibility, and falsity. This, along with the DSM’s ambivalence over the distinction between a delusion and a strongly held idea, leaves plenty of room for fellows like me, who could otherwise be easily deemed delusional. I suppose we should thank Heaven for small favors.
Alan Watts once spent an hour of a seminar he held especially for psychotherapists and other mental health workers, during which he invited them to ask him questions as if he were a patient in a psychiatric institution who believed he was God. It is an extraordinarily entertaining encounter, well worth the hour you spend with it.
The truly delightful part of that encounter, of course, is that Watts was actually “under the delusion” — it was the cornerstone of his teaching, that we are all divine, all of us Gods.
Now my personal delusion is that we are all, as it were, favored by god — that is to say, there are sources of help available to every one of us that go far beyond the human, the institutional, the mechanical, and the economic or political sources of visible, worldly help.
Unfortunately, however, there are other, actual delusions which impair the truthful operation of the helping-cosmos delusion. I’ve quoted one of these at the top of this page, which arose during a recent meditation. Since we’ve been listening to Watts today, I’d like to quote another of his characteristically accurate phrases: the belief that I heard in my meditation — “you are responsible for your fate and helpless against it” — is what he would have called a “double-binding” belief. That is to say, you’re both responsible and helpless. But isn’t this precisely how many of us conceive or face fate?
I’ve already touched on the bizarre sense of inadequacy and despair — classic fatalism, if you will — that is built into our culture’s language and attitudes towards fate, in my analysis of “It is what it is”, which is one of those cultural memes whose poison pervades the blood stream of our society. This time, I would like to focus on the notion of helplessness, which is the monozygotic twin of fatalism.
Think of all the sources of help to which we typically appeal in our lives — banks, corporations, government, technology, religion, the media, connections both personal and professional — and you begin to see where the real source of delusion lies. It’s no wonder that we collapse so quickly and easily into helplessness.
Let’s take another look at that DSM definition: fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence. Capitalism, in light of recurring and worsening recessions over the past century or so, not to mention a disease of social inequality that only gets more endemic with time? Christianity, in light of its institutionally un-Christian behavior (war; social disparity; feudal-era fixations of both belief and action; sexual perversions rampant through its clergy; etc., etc.)? Government, in light of its maddening deafness to common sense, as evidenced by its recurrent usage of and dependence on the other two wells of delusion?
Now my point here is not to brand money, religion, and government as evil. In fact, there is no such thing as evil; but that is another day’s topic. No: the point is that when we leave the use of language up to institutions like the psychiatric collective behind the DSM, we get these wrong-footed definitions such as the one for delusion. You see, the DSM, along with all other group-based definers of delusion, waffles the entire picture of delusion with this disclaimer: “…not understandable to same-culture peers and do not derive from ordinary life experiences.” Ah…so if enough of us “peers” believe the same delusion, it’s no longer a delusion, even if both “ordinary experience” and the “light of conflicting evidence” tend to completely undermine and defy that belief.
Now why would a body of supposed clinical experts and healers choose such a weak and Janus-faced vision of delusion? Well, for one thing the DSM and the entire structure of modern mind-medicine is a group-based and group-oriented system of belief. It has pharmaceutical companies to answer to; it has a vast system of physical institutions — hospitals, psychiatric centers, mental health clinics, and even prisons — to answer to; and it has its own internal association of doctors, therapists, psychiatrists, and related professionals to answer to.
The problem here is that, as peripherally useful as institutions, clinics, drugs, and degrees may be, the healing encounter is not an institutional experience. It is at its heart a personal, interpersonal, and I would add a trans-personal phenomenon. Whenever I have done therapy or personal counseling with someone — whenever I have done it well, at any rate — I have remembered to call a third element — the unseen therapist, the invisible helper, into the encounter. This goes, incidentally, for other and more familiar relationships as well: romantic, spousal, child-parent, professional, and personal relationships.
Perhaps this is the kind of point that Watts was leading to in his entertainment with the therapists in that recording: that sense or intimation of another presence that invites the sacred amid the profane; that restores both balance and unity to mind and body, self and other, seen and unseen, physical and quantum, matter and energy. Presence is the ground of the universal; that third element is the ineffable quality of healing which cannot be fit into a book, a diagnostic manual, or a body of belief, delusional or otherwise. Our institutions — medical, political, governmental, spiritual, and economic alike — can only fulfill their social missions by acknowledging and supporting that invisible sense of presence and intimacy, which Watts reveals in his dialogue with those clinicians. But to the extent they raise themselves and their parochial agenda above and beyond the sacred space that contains the healer, the seeker, and the presence that joins and supports them — to that extent, all institutions fail; they become, in fact and in effect, delusional.
Now before I close I’d like to return to that delusion of mine that I quoted at the top. You are responsible for your fate in life, and you are helpless against it.
As I said, this phrase arose to me during a meditation, in which I actively called for that help, that insight, which arises from the very presence I refer to above. The skeptical response to that, I suppose, would be: you’re fighting one delusion (the double-bind statement about being both responsible for and helpless against the same thing) with another (the belief in a helping cosmic force or invisible energy that can somehow defeat or “untie” the double-bind).
Well, first of all, I have no belief in that cosmic force. It’s just there, I experience it. You may as well say I believe in the air that I breathe or the gravitational force that holds me to the earth. That is to say, the third element of healing and growth — what Joseph Campbell used to call “hidden hands” — is not something I made up; it’s something I revealed or discovered within myself.
Second, there is an actual healing or, if you will, clinical function behind my connection to this energy. Its influence goes beyond the merely diagnostic: it doesn’t just show me the source of my trouble or the impediment to my growth or healing; it tells me how I can surpass that impediment by stripping off the corrupt clothing of group belief and derived despair.
Third, it works. I have no data on that beyond my experience with others and in my personal work. It’s not the only thing that works; but I think it is an essential aspect of every successful healing (though obviously you won’t experience it as I do, for each healing is as unique as the person being healed). Drugs often help (I have had both personal and therapeutic experience on this front); other kinds of traditional and so-called “alternative” therapies and medicines can work; and technology can be an enormous help to the healing process.
But if you place all your eggs into the basket of the mechanical, the institutional, and the empirical, then I doubt if you will have either healing or growth. For then you will have crossed over into delusion.
I close, therefore, with my personal definition of delusion: it is a belief that has forgotten that it is only a belief. A delusion suffocates and then forestalls true experience by attempting to control it. Thus I see far more of delusion in our institutions than I do in people. But as I implied above, this is entirely correctable, if we as individuals can demand that our institutions be responsible not to their agenda or their general ledger, but to us.
Finally, I ask that readers test these ideas of mine not so much in their minds as in their lives. Let your experience be my judge, and I will accept the verdict. After all, much of what I am learning these days comes from a creature who once lived with me in this realm, and now teaches me from another world, a world that is also within me. Perhaps I am indeed mad; or perhaps that delusion of Alan Watts is leading us, paradoxically, to the clearest of all possible perceptions.