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Our collective cultural insanity

Doris Lessing believes we are all much closer to craziness than we like to believe. In conversations with Ivan Tyrrell she talks about age, breakdowns and sufism.

Lessing: I've been thinking a lot recently about an old woman I got to know, particularly with reference to Alzheimer's, a word we spray around fairly lightly. I knew her for six or seven years before she finally died when she was over ninety.

She was, in fact, a woman of low intelligence. She had a poor childhood and married because it was expected of her, Most of her adult life she was a waitress and adored her work. She was a completely social person — she danced and had a wonderful pub life — and this social satisfaction was what she wanted from life.

At the age of sixty-five she was given the sack from her job because she was too old. Shortly after that her husband died. She had no pension and she went to pieces. From having the restaurant, where she worked and where everybody knew and loved her and she had a lot of friends, she became an old woman alone in her room. She became a drunk. People round here told me about it, and at the time I got to know her, she was into her eighties and totally demoralised. Although by then she was no longer drinking so much, she was in a filthy condition and could hardly get out of the flat. What really interested me about this was not the side issues about social services and so on, it was that because she had never been anything else but a social person and couldn't cope with being alone, she got more and more stupid when she was on her own. Whenever you went to see her, if she had been alone for twenty-four hours, you'd think she was demented. I'm sure any doctor would say she was suffering from ‘Alzheimer's' or senility or something, but I noticed that if she had two or three people in to talk to her for a while, the craziness left her. She made sense. Sense on a pretty low level, but it was sense.

The point about her not being intelligent is relevant because, although she had always been a stupid woman, when she was normal, she made sense, was lively and quite funny. But whenever the services hadn't worked, and perhaps no one had seen her for two or three days, and I visited her, she was gone — totally senile again!

This happened again and again, I would go and see her and, when I arrived, she would ramble and waffle. She didn't know what time of day it was, what day of the week, or the year. But, by the time I left, she would be making perfect sense again. She was properly herself.

Now this seems to me terribly important. I cannot help but wonder how many old people are diagnosed as ill, or senile, when in fact they just need human contact.

Tyrrell: I'm sure that's true. I've also noticed that people who work on their own at home for long periods, for example, illustrators, behave oddly. I used to commission work from illustrators. Their work was detailed and time consuming requiring long periods of concentration. The artists often got obsessive about it and spent long, lonely hours working. And when I went to see them they would behave strangely for a while, either very extroverted — talking crazily a me for an hour or two, needing lots of attention — or be excessively introverted, taking ages to start talking and gradually becoming more themselves again. So people that work alone for days on end also get odd.

Lessing: But they weren't mentally ill?

What disturbed me was the readiness of the doctors to just drug her. I didn't see the point of that.

Tyrrell: Well, not disturbingly so. But illustrators and artists have a reputation for eccentricity and obsession and I think this is why. Some cultivate this, of course, but I noticed many times that, by spending time with them, they would get okay again. What you're saying is, if people are left alone for days orweeks on end, they are bound to go crazy.

Lessing: And then they are given drugs by some busy doctor who says, ‘This person is senile', or whatever. And then they get worse even more quickly. There was a time when this old lady was told to take five different kinds of drugs each day. But no one ever asked what relation these drugs had to each other in her brain and body. She threw the drugs away when no one was looking for which I applauded her. And then she became quite reasonable again. But I wonder if people who look after the elderly are taught the concept that an old person living by themselves is not necessarily crazy but maybe just needs more contact with other people?

Tyrrell: They must be. Many people must have observed this.

Lessing: If it is taught they certainly didn't apply it to her and, if it isn't taught, then that's pretty frightening.

Tyrrell: One nurse going round has to visit so many people, And these nurses are under so much pressure, they can only spare a few minutes with each one, which is sad if that visit is the highlight of that old person's week.

Lessing: At one time this particular old woman was getting visits most days from a nurse who would come in for five minutes to make sure she took her pills. A home help was also supposed to do an hour and a half a week with her but would usually end up doing ten minutes. A social worker would sweep in and out once a week but for as short a time as possible. The person who helped most was a good neighbour — she was the best of the lot. What disturbed me was the readiness of the doctors to just drug her. I didn't see the point of that.

Tyrrell: That's how doctors are taught to treat people but many of them question this nowadays.

Lessing: It's a matter of luck what doctor you have. I once met Dr William Sargent who wrote Battle for the Mind and we were talking about drug treatments and he said, "Put yourself in my position. I'm sitting at my desk and in front of me is a totally depressed person and I know that there's a good chance that this depression will be shifted by a course of a certain drug. Now, what would you do?" Well I didn't know what to say because I should imagine one would try anything to get rid of depression. But what strikes me is that all these drugs treatments are so hit and miss. No one really seems to know what they are doing. It's all "if it works, good. If not, let's try something else..."

Tyrrell: Do you know much about depression in other cultures?

Lessing: I only know that some cultures don't have a word for it. A doctor friend of mine who trained here in the west but is working out in Bangalore, told me that there they bring in young women day after day who are totally depressed, but it was no use talking to them in the language we use here — it was no good asking, "Are you unhappy?", or "Why are you unhappy?" or, "What do you think brought this on?" because happiness is not something that they feel they are entitled to. He had to develop a whole new approach to communicate with them. There was no way he could talk directly to the patient, he had to talk through the relatives, which was difficult because they were often responsible for the depression.

Peter Brent, who wrote, among other things, Godmen of India, mentioned in one of the books that a doctor in India would often take a mentally sick patient out of their family and into his own household to join his large, extended family. The idea was that a saner setting would cure the insane person. It's the opposite of putting people in mental hospitals. Apparently it often worked.

Tyrrell: There is a lot of evidence that depression and schizophrenia are due to people cracking up under impossible stresses from their family or work situation. The abnormal behaviours of schizophrenics often seem to be strategies for dealing with apparently irreconcilable situations.

Lessing: I think that we are all much nearer being crazy than we ever want to think about. I once sent myself crazed on purpose. I wrote about it in my book The Four Gated City. I had been struck by the fact that, if you read accounts of what shamans do when they initiate people, and what people experience in prison camps, and what schizophrenics and others describe, the symptoms are nearly always the same. They hear voices, become disassociated and have revelations. The thing they all have in common is that they haven't eaten or slept well.

Now this thought was precipitated by seeing what happened to a girl who was living at my house at the time. A tall, thin, beautiful girl who was unhappy in her love life. She didn't eat or sleep properly for weeks. One day she suddenly found herself floating above her own body looking down as she walked across Westminster Bridge.

So, okay, I thought, I am going to try this — and I do not recommend this to anybody. I went down to my place in Devon where I knew I wouldn't be interrupted because it's difficult to have a couple of weeks by oneself in London. I went without food and sleep, deliberately watching everything that happened. It took about three days for me to begin going crazy. Then what happened was that a 'figure' appeared that I christened the 'self-hater'. It's a creature schizophrenics often describe. This figure, a person who shouts and screams at us, is obviously the conditioned conscience. It is what society creates in us, what daddy and mummy do to us; "Oh, you're a naughty girl", or "Oh, you're a naughty boy." It exists inside one but sounds as if it's coming from outside.

Anyway this voice yammering away in my head was terrifying because it was so strong. And two thoughts were running through my mind as this was happening. The first thought was that, if I wasn't moderately sophisticated in this area, I'd rush off and tell a doctor what I was experiencing and he would fill me full of drugs and probably have me sectioned. And the other thought was the fact that some of the hallucinations I was experiencing were common in all accounts of breakdowns. For example, 'the voyage', which appears in different cultures all over the world and takes different forms. If you're a Tibetan you have one type of journey or if you're Egyptian you have another. Christians have the stations of the cross. Ancient Greeks had Jason looking for the golden fleece. There is always a journey. And I had my journey.

So I watched all these things going on inside me which would have landed me in a mental hospital if I didn't know what I was doing. Well, my time in Devon was coming to an end and, after two weeks, I started to eat and sleep properly again. It took a long time, at least three weeks, to get back to normal. So I think that perhaps a lot of people are having breakdowns, or described as schizophrenics, who are simply not eating or sleeping enough. Students studying for exams, for example, often go over the edge. People crossing the Atlantic in small boats hear God talking to them, especially when food is running low. It also seems to me that it's people who have been brought up too rigidly in one way or another who have this 'self-hater' in them — this bullying, "you are naughty" figure. And it's not too far below the surface. So craziness is not quite as far away as we like to think.

It seems to me that it's those people who have been brought up too rigidly in one way or another who have this 'self-hater' in them....

Tyrrell: No it's not. And, of course, sleep deprivation and poor diet have been used to manipulate people since time immemorial. But now this is well known it should be possible to help people who are suffering.

Lessing: That's right. It ought to be. Kurt Vonegutt's son had a schizophrenic breakdown in the 1960's. He went crazy and then wrote a stage by stage account of his breakdown and why it actually happened. He ended up giving the following advice to anyone subject to this kind of breakdown: eat three meals a day, take your vitamin pills, sleep properly, don't drink too much and never touch drugs, not even pot!

Tyrrell: That's interesting. Someone I knew whose home life was unhappy, recently began behaving oddly and is now under psychiatrists and labelled schizophrenic and, for several years, he hardly ate anything else other than bread and jam!

Lessing: Vitamins! For two or three years a doctor friend of mine in Sweden, a neurologist, has been testing the effects of diet and taking vitamins on two classes of people, schizophrenics and alcoholics. He discovered that poor diet and lack of vitamins create schizophrenics and alcoholics. And putting them on a proper diet cured a large percentage of them! The only thing he could never predict who was going to be cured. He couldn't be precise. All he could say was that, in which ward, X number will be cured if I give them plenty of vitamin B and a proper diet with all the vitamins they need.

Tyrrell: How else do you think we cope with craziness?

Lessing: Yesterday I visited a friend of mine who I knew first when I was twenty-one. He is tall, thin, bony and was adopted when he was six months old. For the first six months of his life he was in an orphanage and it's clearly quite obvious that nobody cuddled him much. He's had several breakdowns and he's a painter and it's the painting that keeps him from going crazy. Nothing else helps. He can't drink because that drives him over the top. He needs his therapeutic, absorbing hobby to keep him relatively sane. People are that close to breakdown but they find ways to cope. I know painting helps but it's not all that easy is it? You can't just say to someone, "Why don't you take up painting because it's good for you?"

Tyrrell: No. When someone is suffering in depression it's hard for them to change direction themselves. Spike Milligan, who was labelled manic depressive, said that, when you are down, you don't take responsibility for your own psychological state. But the difficulty is that painting and similar therapeutic activities are something you have to do for yourself, it has to come from within.

Lessing: That's the problem. You can't make people want to do something, even if it is what they need. Sometimes it helps to get people having a breakdown to talk about their feelings into a tape recorder. A doctor I knew, who treated angry, confused people, used to do that. He would say to them, " When you are alone and feel bad, talk into a tape recorder and tell me what you feel. It doesn't matter what you say, just say it. It doesn't matter if what you say makes sense or not. Shout it, scream it if necessary, but record what you are feeling for me to hear." And with some people that worked. It was like bursting a boil of pus.

Tyrrell: Some people just need someone to take a neutral interest when they're in a crisis and listen for a while in an accepting supportive way.

Lessing: That's the trouble isn't it? There aren't enough people to listen. I think that's why some find therapy successful because they are buying a friend really. I had therapy when I was in my early 30s, for two or three years, a pretty relaxed affair. It wasn't analysis or anything like that. But now, when I look back, I know that I was buying a friend, someone who supported me all the time because I was being got at by so many people. It so happens that she was a Jungian and a Roman Catholic, but she could have been anything. Anyway, people would say to me, "Isn't it just the same as having a very good friend listening to you?" But the patience of a good friend is limited. If they hear the same miseries day in and day out they get fed up.

Tyrrell: And time spent with a therapist is usually bound up by a time limit, an hour or two a week. Also, a good therapist remains detached and knows how to promote a positive change, whereas a friend can get sucked in.

Lessing: Very easily! It doesn't take much. We can all go over the edge and disappear so quickly. A friend of mine was once very seriously depressed having an extraordinary bad time — and another friend and I would take turns to go and listen to his depressing, monotone, monologue. After a couple of hours I would find myself thinking, "That's right, what is the point to it all? You might just as well die. You haven't got the life you want. You haven't got any friends..." and I had to rush off before I was overwhelmed and lost my sanity. It's difficult not to get sucked in. Depression seems to me to be the worst of all, much worse than schizophrenia.

Tyrrell: There's a hell of a lot of it about.

Never give up on someone, hard as that may seem sometimes.

Lessing: I wonder why? I know several people who get deeply depressed and they say it is the most painful thing physically. I couldn't understand this until three years ago when I really experienced the emotion of grief for the first time. It was not depression, but grief and anguish. It is an emotion that expresses itself physically.

Tyrrell: Heartache! The heart is supposed to be only a pump and yet there is a tremendous tightness and pain around the heart that's associated with these strong emotions.

Lessing: Jung said somewhere in one of his books that he would very often have a patient sitting in front of him who is completely in a trap in their life situation and neither he nor his patient could see any possible way out. Then he would meet this person four or five days later and find their problem had been solved in a way that neither of them could possibly have foreseen. And then he said something like this, that you have to have faith in the unconscious guide in the unconscious part of the person you are trying to help.

I'm sure that's true because you do see people who seem as if they are shut in a dark room and yet, somehow or other they get out, or somebody unexpectedly helps them out.

Another thing I've found is that you should never give up on anybody. That I am quite sure of because, over and over again, and I am sure you've had the same experience, we see people who are an absolutely dead loss. Hopeless cases. And yet they can, quite unexpectedly, be transformed later in their life. So, never give up on anyone, hard as it may seem sometimes.

One of the best ways to overcome that miserable feeling in the morning when you think, "Oh my God, I really can't face it!" is to smile! You don't want to smile. You don't feel like smiling. But if you move the set of your facial muscles into a smile it cheats your brain and changes the chemical balances in such a way that you quickly feel much better. I find it works like anything!

Tyrrell: Yes, that's partly why laughter is so therapeutic.

Lessing: I have a rather fanciful interpretation about schizophrenia, which is probably nonsense, but it might interest some people. It is that this self-hater part of ourselves, the conditioned conscience, is usually disassociated and is just sitting there ready to pounce. Then, then some crisis activates it, it gets plugged into the entire human psyche. It isn't just personal, it becomes an impersonal accuser, as if the whole of society is behind it. And that's why people can't bear it. It's so powerful. It isn't just the voice of mummy or daddy, it's the total collective power of dislike, accusation and pure hatred. In other cultures this is probably a recognised aspect of a god — I wouldn't be surprised — certainly in India you'd find it in, probably Kali or another of those terrible goddesses. But I'm sure that schizophrenics get plugged into something so enormously powerful they can't bear it.

Tyrrell: Perhaps that's why schizophrenics commonly believe they are being spied on by evil alien creatures.

Lessing: They often think they're spied on through electric sockets on skirting boards.

The latest one I've heard is the check-out points at supermarkets! There is an interesting cult in South Africa which I was told about. They believe that the world is being controlled by an evil force, '666', which is taking over the entire world through the agency of check-outs of supermarkets. And this is easily proved because so often the numbers on the printouts from these check-outs have 666 on them. You can't fault the logical of crazy people! And this cult now has a paid up membership. They are waiting for Satan. South Africa breeds amazing cults for some reason.

Tyrrells: Cults in human groups seem to form as automatically as crystals.

Lessing: Yes, they do. One of my most amazing and improbable memories is from New York in the 70s. I was walking across Central Park when I saw a man in a dressing gown, sitting cross-legged on the grass, surrounded by people. And I asked my friend. "Who is that chap?" She said, "That man started coming up to Central Park at lunchtimes for a break as regular as clockwork and he always sat down on the grass in some kind of robe. Before long people gathered and sat around him. He became known as the silent guru." Every day people appeared and sat with him through the lunch-hour for his 'silent benediction'. He never opened his mouth. He never said a word. Then summer ended, and no one sat on the grass any more. Apparently the man himself was immensely tickled by the whole thing.

That's how easy it is to create a legend and a cult!

Tyrrell: That reminds me of the Middle Eastern story of the traveller whose favourite donkey died on a pilgrimage. He was heartbroken when he buried the donkey and wept over its grave and people came by and saw how distraught he was. He was too upset to speak and the people assumed a holy man had died and built a tomb over the donkey's grave. People started to visit the tomb to receive blessings from the 'saint' they believed it contained. Eventually a town grew up around the tomb.

Lessing: That's a lovely story. It's supposed to be true.

Tyrrell: I know you feel that about our culture, and the way we live and entertain ourselves, blunts our sensibilities and prevents us from absorbing more subtle ideas and feelings. Can you expand on this?

Lessing: Well, we are all sensation junkies aren't we? Everything has to be bigger and better and louder and more noteworthy, I've been wondering a lot about music recently — I'm sure I'm not the first to wonder about it — and this is related to the problem. In past cultures it was always believed that music had powerful effects on our state of mind and people acted accordingly. War dance music, for example, was used to send men off to fight. Soldiers still march to music to bind them together. Patriotic music is used for every kind of occasion to whip up strong feelings of national identity. Shamans used music to induce trance states. All religions use music to generate emotions that they, I think mistakenly, believe are 'spiritual'. And we are told by genuine spiritual teachers that music is very powerful and has been used, under precise, controlled, conditions to assist with human development. And yet we now deluge ourselves in music day and night, usually extremely loudly, as if the effects were of no consequence. I wonder if we will ever ask ourselves what this is doing to us?

You know what it's like when something strikes you and you can't understand why you never saw it before? Well it's like this for me with this musical deluge. I ask myself, how is it possible that we don't question it? We switch on the radio and listen to music, we switch off and think, well, I wouldn't mind listening to a CD, and we listen to that. Some people even go round with music channelled straight into their ears and brain. But what is it doing to us?

Supposing continuous loud sounds are partly responsible for crime. It's a bit jump I know, but kids are not only saturated with television culture, which I'm sure is harmful, they're blasted with an excess of music. What sort of imbalance does that create in music and has anyone researched this?

Supposing continuous loud sounds are partly responsible for crime?

Tyrrell: Well there was research done in Canada on the effects of music. They had two groups of people. One attended a concert of exquisite, spiritual, uplifting music, and the other group heard no music in the previous twenty four hours. Both groups were then shown graphic details of a disgusting and violent crime and were asked to assess the sort of punishment given to the perpetrator.

The unexpected result was that the people who had just left the 'spiritually uplifting' concert reacted in a far more judgemental, cruel and insensitive way than those who just pottered through the day without hearing any music. The people who had heard the music tended to say the criminal should be executed, castrated or whatever, and the other group were more rational and would say things like, "He's a very sick man", "He needs treatment", and so on.

The thing that struck me about this is that all music raises the emotional temperature — and emotional temperature doesn't discriminate. I think we're not, as we like to believe, 'spiritually uplifted' by Mozart, but we are emotionally aroused. And this is a different thing entirely. Music is designed to manipulate our emotions. Film makers are experts at this. All films are an exercise in manipulating emotions with music, which is often highly enjoyable, but perhaps we should be more aware of it.

Lessing: More research is needed I think. My generation were swamped in highly emotional, usually yearning, loving music — mostly from the 20s and 30s. We listened to it day and night and I wonder if we were not enormously sentimentalised by it. Nowadays the music is more pounding — often with an air of brutal violence about it. This must reach a completely different area of our minds.

Tyrrell: I'm sure it does.

Lessing: Ever since I can remember things have got louder and more dramatic. It is almost as if we can't hear anything that isn't put dramatically. And we don't ask ourselves what it is doing to us. You can't see a television program without music. They can't show a deer running across a mountain side without a sentimental tune of some kind.

Tyrrell: Even news programs start with music!

Lessing: It's taken for granted that music is a good thing. It's incredible to me that this should be such an unexamined area.

Tyrrell: Well the people what examine it in one kind of way are those who make and use music – composers, performers, film makers, programme makers, advertisers etc. They use it to influence us so, in a sense, they have researched it because they know what works.

Lessing: But it isn't the sort of research that I would regard as useful. And this is because most people automatically think that music is a good thing? We should challenge our assumptions. Is music good for us? Is even classical music good and ennobling?

Tyrrell: The research that has been done seems to show it isn't. But few people would like that idea.

Lessing: I don't think we've begun to ask the range of questions about how we are manipulated and why we allow ourselves to be. Newspapers are another area which I think needs looking at. We disturb ourselves by buying newspapers. When I see a compartment in a train full of people reading just two or three different newspapers, it looks to me like mass brainwashing which we willingly allow. I crave print if I am deprived of it. I'm a print junkie.

Tyrrell: it's addictive...

Lessing: There are other things about ourselves we don't notice because they're taken so much for granted. Politics, for a start, which seems to become more and more like theatre and less to do with real information. Politics has become an entertainment similar to gambling. Look at our ridiculous election days for example, where we sit up all night watching all the prediction apparatus, trying to find out who will win, a fact we will all know anyway at 8 o'clock the following morning. The nation is locked into a gambling mentality.

Tyrrell: I think it's all part of raising the emotional temperature, using anything that is happening for emotional excitement which we mistake for 'bring more real'. But then we are being manipulated.

Lessing: True. The common denominator is the emotional temperature. Idries Shah, who introduced many new ideas into the spiritual and psychological tradition of Sufism said to me a long time ago that he had observed that our Western culture is soaked in two assumptions — we believe that politics and sex are the solution to everything. We never examine this so we don't know the extent by which we're manipulated by these assumptions. The corollary is that we find it extremely hard to look at previous cultures because they didn't have these assumptions. Past cultures operated by completely different sets of expectations and demands than those that operate us. Now I believe we have to add two other stimulants, crime and killing, to these assumptions. These are a major voyeuristic features of television every night. They are now doing real life reconstructions, horrific crimes lovingly recreated, two or three times a week. Even serious newspapers regularly include 'real life crime; stories in grizzly detail because they know it sells papers.

Tyrrell: Shah also said that, when he was younger, he had expected Westerners to take on board with enthusiasm all the information that modern research was revealing about human behaviour. He thought that this would be necessary as a precursor to further human development and had hoped it would happened much as the world absorbed the necessity for hygiene in the 19th century. But, over the years, he found it wasn't being absorbed, except in highly selective ways which unbalances us. He thought that the main reason for this was that the truth about ourselves is not emotionally exciting enough.

...we can't make much progress while we simplify everything like this...

Lessing: I know, I find this when I am interviewed. An interview is usually a map of the mind of the interviewer. I can go through the whole interview replying to questions that totally bore me. The interviewers usually say, "What would you like to talk about?" And I say, "Well this is what really interests me..." And I might like to talk, for example, about the discoveries of Edward T. Hall which he wrote up in books like The Silent Language, and The Dance of Life. His books are full of revolutionary observations about what we are like — he explored the unspoken ideas behind cultures and the rhythms of time and life — but he is hardly known. But the interviewers' faces fall and they quickly steer me back to my childhood, feminism or how many words a minute I write.

Tyrrell: Have you ever tried to talk to interviewers about human behaviour?

Lessing: Yes. They are not interested.

Tyrrell: And they don't publish it?

Lessing: Not only that, I can see they literally don't hear what I am saying.

Tyrrell: Have any of them asked you in any depth about your interest in what Sufis have observed and know about culture and human behaviour?

Lessing: Not really. The nearest some of them get is to say, "Oh I hear you are a Sufi." And by that you know immediately that they are quite ignorant of the subject. They, if they have thought about it at all, probably think Sufism is a cult — an easy mistake to make because there are many cults that call themselves Sufis. So then I stop them and what I say now is, "I've been studying this for a long time. It's what interests me more than anything else, but I don't want to make a series of cliché remarks which will be then misunderstood by you and your readers." And then I tell them that people who are really interested will find the necessary books that are freely available. That does the trick — They usually have amnesia about even having asked the question!

But sometimes I meet people as I travel around who are more serious and have studied the material and it has struck a chord in them. In Singapore recently I met two ordinary young men who wanted to talk about Shah's work. I can meet such people anywhere and can talk seriously about it. But interviewers are generally not interested in ideas and knowledge, not really.

The observations and evidence that Shah has presented about the way the world really works I continually find astonishing. Many of his ideas are now common currency. Thirty years ago they were unknown and, unless you can remember the shock of hearing these ideas when they were new to us, you cannot credit it because we think we've always thought like we do now. I see them around all over the place now. For example, he was the first to draw attention to all the different levels of importance of giving and receiving attention, and distinguishing the difference between wants and needs — which seems familiar and obvious now, but was quite startling and new in the 60s.

And the idea that most of what we do is fuelled by greed, even acts that appear altruistic, is now quite common but it wasn't at all then. When a new idea starts floating around I often think that it is something we first heard from Shah not so long ago, or it's in one of his books. I think the way he deliberately put ideas into our culture is an astonishing cultural phenomenon.

Tyrrell: It's a sort of seedling isn't it?

Lessing: Yes it is. There are things that we need to know about ourselves that might take generations to take root, but the ideas have to be planted. It's certainly happening. But few people notice, or are interested in, long term changes to whole cultures, changes that take generations to occur.

Tyrrell: But certain types of people are attracted to the larger view. It's one of the reasons the best of science fiction is so stimulating.

Lessing: Yes. And the rises and falls of civilizations provide a quite distinct excitement from the 'little girl having an emergency operation' type of story that we have evolved to get excited about. An observation I think about often is to the effect that, 'once we played with toys but now our toys play with us'. It's true! From cars to weapons! TV to computers. Everything! Our lives are determined by our inventions, which is why the Frankenstein theme is so popular.

Another thing that interests me is the fact that we have binary minds. We always have to have an 'either/or'. I see myself and others affected by this all the time. For example, if I'm giving a lecture, invariably half the questions begin, if I'm giving a lecture, invariably half the questions begin, "Mrs Lessing, do you think this or do you think that?" "Is it A or B?" And I say, "Well, it's both, or something else entirely", this satisfies nobody.

But this is how we think. We take some element out of a subject or person and use that to label it or them for ever after. It's as if we can only have one idea or fact — so we have to choose. We can't have a pattern in our minds about the subject or person, we have to have a single label that we can refer to all the time.

Tyrrell: It is unusual to find people who can look at a person and see a pattern. We're tremendously influenced by first impressions. When we meet somebody for the first time, if they happen to be angry or sad or laughing or frivolous, that is the impression that colours our lifelong image of that person. Later, when we know them much better, we still judge their actions against that first impression.

Instead of looking at a person and saying, "This is a person who at this moment is laughing," and knowing, as we all must know intellectually, that this person must have a vast hinterland of other behavioural reactions in different circumstances, we still work on this ridiculous labelling assumption.

Lessing: And we can't make much progress while we simplify everything like this. But I wonder why we do it?

Tyrrell: It's left brain functioning. I suppose it has and still has it's uses. I mean, you can get on if you remove doubt by labelling things, even if the label doesn't bear scrutiny. The trouble is, most of the time we are not aware we are doing it.

Lessing: It's easy to see it going on in another culture. In China it is so obvious. I went there recently and they have a slogan for absolutely everything. They never seem to analyse a problem, they reduce it to a label. "Let a thousand flowers bloom..." or something. I spoke to a Chinese official there, one of a whole group of young directors and writers, and I said that, from the outside, China struck us as a culture that swung very easily from one extreme to another...

Tyrrell: ... like a vast shoal of fish, all moving as one...

Lessing: ...yes. Immediately the Chinese in the group started laughing at me because they knew that I meant that, at the moment, they were in a liberal swing. And they told me about the story of a friend of theirs who had written a novel about the awful state of morale in China's army where the soldiers have just about as bad a time as Russian soldiers. This novel exposed the situation – he was allowed to write it because openness is supposed to reign now. But it was sent back from the censor with the following remark – 'Not every writer can be published. Not every book can be printed.' And that was the end of that. Everybody accepted it! That's what they are like. They have got labelling down to a fine art.

Tyrrell: That's worrying, the Chinese are going to have so much power over us too.

Lessing: They don't give a damn about Europe and the things we find important. They have a saying which I find rather endearing. Every time they are criticised about ill-treating people or whatever, they will say, "Ah yes, the Yangtze river always flows East, as they say." And that's the end of the matter.

My father used to say that people like me have no idea at all of what the minds of people were like when he was a child. He was brought up in the country near Colchester and said that people then didn't think about the world much at all. And if they thought about something happening in Europe, it was quite rare. What they thought about was the local scene – who is going to win the race in the next school picnic etc. And going up to London was a great treat. This provincialism was what a person's mind was like. And that must have been true for the whole of Europe, unless you were very rich. Then the First World War changed everything. Suddenly the outside world exploded into everyone's consciousness and there were films, radio, and so on. He said that, between his mind and his father's mind, there was a total gulf and between his mind and my mind was a total gulf. His father would not have believed that anyone could go to the moon. He would have just laughed at the idea – and at television and so on – all facts that we now take for granted. Now we think we know everything that happens everywhere in the world. But this deceives us because we have no idea what's important. There is nothing in us that really knows how to select those bits of information that are valuable. It's all on a par. Sadly, the way we entertain new ideas seems to depend almost entirely on whether they're exciting or not. Hardly anybody is interested in real information.

Tyrrell: People do get interested in little exciting bits, especially If they can be marketed, like NLP or 'How to Use Both Sides Of Your Brain', just little pieces of information really, but people build careers on them.

Lessing: Edward de Bono did just that.

Tyrrell: Many people do it. Exploiting information instead of absorbing it is one of my difficulties!

Lessing: For years my problem has been that I am much too emotional about everything and this over-emotional response is a great enemy. As you say, emotion stops us seeing what's really going on. But I don't know, you see, how much like other people I am. Am I worse or just the same? Is everyone so emotionally orientated? I don't know.

An interesting thing happened when I gave a lecture to the Institute of Cultural Research on 'Barriers to Perception'. I listed ten barriers to perception, one of which was guilt. Now, come question time, nobody asked a question about anything but guilt! People still stop me now and say "remember that lecture you gave about guilt?" This is astonishing to me! What are we so guilty about? Why are we all so ridden with guilt? What is this about? Maybe it's the embodied accuser again.

Tyrrell: I wonder if it's because we are not doing something which some part of us, deep within, knows we should be doing?

Lessing: Well, I think that's possibly true. With these emotions I've got myself now to the point where I am able to watch them proliferating away and can detach from them. But it isn't easy. Shah once said that, if you are in a state of terrific emotion, it's possible and useful to switch to another mode by, for example, doing an arithmetic problem in your head, or something very unemotional like listening to arousing music, then switching it off and doing a crossword puzzle — you use a completely different part of your brain.

Tyrrell: To do that on command would be wonderful, wouldn't it?

Lessing: Yes. But I find it almost impossible although I am better at it now. The interesting thing is that I wrote that tip down and forgot all about it until I re-read my diary last month. I had completely forgotten!

Tyrrell: Well, that's probably because the emotional part of your mind doesn't want you to think about it. It feels threatened and is protecting itself.

Lessing: Do you think everybody lives their lives in a tumult of emotion in one form or another? Because, if so, it's a pretty horrific thought. Even the so called intellect is emotional. In fact, in my experience intellectuals are very emotional.

Tyrrell: A lot of intellectual activity seems to me to be a strategy for suppressing or dealing with emotions, and the emotions often cause intellectuals to behave in peculiar ways, which is why they so often appear, despite their 'cleverness' to be blind to the obvious. It's an unthinking strategy. Although it's intellectual, it's done automatically. We can't help doing it.

Lessing: Yes. The sad thing is, all these issues about human behaviour are so important, and so fundamental to why people get ill, anxious, sad and behave criminally, that they ought to be looked at calmly and scientifically by more people and talked about more widely. But these issues are not explored yet much on TV or in other media and yet they are far more important that politics or the 'arts'. That's why what you're doing in the Human Givens Journal is so valuable.


Doris Lessing was a writer. In 2007 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.


This article first appeared in Volume 1, Issue 3 (1993) of the Human Givens journal (then known as The Therapist)

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