The Great Social Lie

For they (psychotherapists) 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 (Latin, ludere). 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…


Yet very few modern authorities on Buddhism or Vedanta seem to realize that social institutions constitute the maya, the illusion, from which they offer release. It is almost invariably assumed that Nirvana or moksha means release from the physical organism and the physical universe, an accomplishment involving powers of mind over matter that would give their possessor the omnipotence of a god…


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.


Here, then, is a major contradiction in the rules of the social game. The members of the game are to play as if they were independent agents, but they are not to know that they are just playing as if! It is explicit in the rules that the individual is self-determining, but implicit that he is so only by virtue of the rules. Furthermore, while he is defined as an independent agent, he must not be so independent as not to submit to the rules which define him. Thus he 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.


This is exactly the predicament which Gregory Bateson calls the “double-bind,” in which the individual is called upon to take two mutually exclusive courses of action and at the same time is prevented from being able to comment on the paradox. You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, and you mustn’t realize it. Bateson has suggested that the individual who finds himself in a family situation which imposes the double-bind upon him in an acute form is liable to schizophrenia. For if he cannot comment on the contradiction, what can he do but withdraw from the field? Yet society does not allow withdrawal; the individual must play the game.


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…


If all this is true, it becomes obvious that the ego feeling is pure hypnosis. Society is persuading the individual to do what it wants by making it appear that its commands are the individual’s inmost self. What we want is what you want. And this is a double-bind, as when a mother says to her child, who is longing to slush around in a mud puddle, “Now, darling, you don’t want to get into that mud!” This is misinformation, and this — if anything — is the “Great Social Lie.”


– Alan Watts,  Psychotherapy: East and West









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