Dropping Aggression

All we know is aggression but because we don’t see our aggression for what it actually is, we just we just see it as the normal way of being in the world. We don’t have any other modality of existence, we don’t know of any other modality…


‘Aggression’ means ‘trying to get things to be the way we want them to be’; on a deeper level, it means ‘imposing our own way of seeing things on the world without acknowledging that we are doing so’.


This sort of basic aggression is invisible, therefore – it forms the backdrop for everything, it’s the baseline for everything we do. It’s the baseline we work off. Any attempt to say to tell us that we are fundamentally aggressive, that we live in an aggression-based way world, will be met with honest incomprehension. Nobody will know what we talking about.


To not be aggressive is the ultimate ‘radical action’ therefore, even though it isn’t an action, strictly speaking. There’s nothing more radical, nothing more revolutionary, than ‘non-aggression’. Non-aggression changes everything, whilst aggression (even though the whole point of it is to make changes) changes nothing. Nonaggression freezer; aggression locks us into the very situation that we are fighting against.


This is illustrated by the Buddhist story of Prince Five-weapons, as related by Joseph Campbell. The Prince in the story adept in the use of five weapons, as the name of the story implies, but when he encounters the forest ogre known as ‘Sticky-hair’ he quickly discovers that none of them are any use to him. Everything sticks to this ogre (his name is Sticky-hair for a reason) including his two feet and his two fists, when he uses them as weapons. When both arms and legs are firmly stuck to the ogre’s hair, he uses his head as a last resort and then this get stuck too. He’s stuck to the ogre in five places!


Prince Five-weapons then has the insight that whatever he does to fight the ogre is always going to be turned against him, and the results of this insight is that he has a change of attitude that allowed him to practice non-aggression instead of aggression, and this transforms the situation in that his own aggression is no longer being turned against him. In modern psychotherapy parlance non-aggression is sometimes called ‘radical acceptance’ – we are no longer seeking to change the situation, either overtly or covertly, but instead we are wholeheartedly surrendering to it. We are assenting to it one hundred per cent, with no reservations; we are surrendering to it peacefully, with an open heart, not as a tactic, nor as an act of despair. This interpretation doesn’t entirely seem to tally with the last part of the story because in the story Prince Five-weapons tells the ogre Sticky-hair that the reason he isn’t afraid (which Sticky-hair is understandably worried about) is because he has an ultimate weapon in his belly – a thunderbolt which will tear the demon to pieces. This is no ordinary weapon however: in Tibetan Buddhism a thunderbolt means the Vajra (or Dorje) which is a battle club made of diamond. This diamond club sumbolizes ‘immutable wisdom’ or the power of enlightenment to see through illusion. According to Barbara O’Brien writing in thoughtco.com:

The term vajra is a Sanskrit word that is usually defined as “diamond” or “thunderbolt.” It also defines a kind of battle club that achieved its name through its reputation for hardness and invincibility. The vajra has special significance in Tibetan Buddhism, and the word is adopted as a label for the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism, one of the three major forms of Buddhism. The visual icon of the vajra club, along with the bell (ghanta), form a principal symbol of the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet.


A diamond is spotlessly pure and indestructible. The Sanskrit word means “unbreakable or impregnable, being durable and eternal”. As such, the word vajra sometimes signifies the lighting-bolt power of enlightenment and the absolute, indestructible reality of shunyata, “emptiness.”

In terms of the symbolism of Tibetan Buddhism we can say therefore that the thunderbolt weapon is not ‘aggressive’ in nature. It sounds odd to say that a tremendous weapon like this is not aggressive but the truth doesn’t threaten anything, and it doesn’t try to change anything. The only thing that is threatened by the Vajra weapon is illusion, and illusion isn’t there in the first place! The difficulty we have is in seeing how not wanting to change anything’ can result in the situation being totally transformed. In the case of demon Sticky-hair, we would be very much inclined to say that Prince was actually defeated, since he could not overcome his opponent by force of arms. What self-respecting ogre is going to be put off by us not fighting it, by us not opposing it with every means at our disposal? In the real world – surely – the ogre is going to walk all over us. The ogre is going to eat us for breakfast. Isn’t that the way that things work in this world? If we are aggressive enough then we will be triumphant whilst the weak and the timid and the inoffensive will have to put up with being eaten…


The ogre in the story is essentially ‘an inner demon’ however and to not be aggressive towards our own inner demons (but to unconditionally allow them to be what they are, and see them for what they are) is not cowardice (or ‘giving in’) but the ultimate act of courage. Who wants to come face to face with their inner demons after all? No one wishes to get intimately acquainted with their inner demons, and so what we do instead (by ‘default’, so to speak) is to deny their existence and thereby allow them to possess us. As Jung says, very few of us have the courage to own up to the darkness that is within us, and as a result this darkness is rejected (or ‘split off’) and becomes an autonomous agent that gets to walk the streets unchallenged, free to work evil in the world.


Non-aggression doesn’t just radically transform our relationship with the demon(s) that possess us (by making that relationship conscious rather than unconscious), it radically transforms our understanding of ourselves and the world. It radically transforms everything, in other words! The essence of aggression, as we have already said, is that it is ‘us imposing our own way of seeing things in the world without knowing that we are doing so’. Because we are imposing our own viewpoint on the world without knowing that we are doing so we are very effectively trapped it; we are trapped in a viewpoint that we do not know to be a viewpoint and this is what our ‘unconscious aggression’ does to us. It backfires on us in a big way, in the biggest possible way, and we never know it. We are the ‘prisoners of our own device’; we have checked in but we can’t check out…


Why are we so very quick to be always imposing a framework on the world, we might wonder? What is it that causes us to do to do this? Why do we always have to contextualize everything within an artificial context? The best way to answer this question is simply to say that it is due to our ‘insecurity’ – we are insecure and so we impose our own familiar way of seeing things on the world. We are insecure and so we project our ‘automatically assumed framework’ on the world, and so we only see things within the terms of this framework, this context. When we impose our old familiar way of looking at things on the world that makes us feel secure – it gives us a feeling of ‘being in control’, a sense that we are ‘playing a game that we know about’. When we project the same old predictable ‘framework of meaning’ onto the world then that makes us feel secure – nothing is ever going to radically surprise us because we are always going to be ‘explaining the new in terms of the old’.


We are protecting ourselves against the new (or the unknown), in other words – we are maintaining our own narrow way of understanding the world and this is aggression pure and simple. We’re not allowing things to be what they actually are, but instead we are covertly forcing them to be that way that we unconsciously want them to be. We’re doing this without admitting that we are doing this – we’re saying that ‘we aren’t doing anything’! We’re imposing our own brand of order, our own brand of ‘commonsense’ on the world. We do this by squeezing the whole universe through our narrow concepts, through our narrow ideas, through our narrow mental categories. If something doesn’t fit our unexamined expectations then we don’t give it the time of day. There is therefore an all-out war going on – there’s a war going on between the meaning we want, and everything that disagrees with this meaning, anything that undermines our preferred way of seeing things.


This is ‘fundamental aggression’ – this is the aggression we engaging in every single day of our lives without ever knowing that we are. This is the ‘invisible aggression’ that we are engaging in every second of every day of our lives, just about. This is the fundamental aggression that forms the very basis of our lives – it’s our baseline and so we never look at it. We never question it or remark on it. We don’t understand that there is any other way of being in the world – to us anything else simply means ‘defeat’ or ‘losing’.


And yet as we have been saying, all this visible aggression rebounds on us; it backfires on us with a vengeance. It’s not benefitting us at all really; quite the reverse is true – we’re ‘shooting ourselves in the foot; we’re ‘scoring an own-goal’.  We’re ‘self-harming’, so to speak – we’re self-sabotaging in a big way. We’re limiting ourselves cruelly and pointlessly without owning up to the fact that we are – we are putting ourselves into an airless sterile conceptual box and stubbornly pretending that the box is the whole world. We are suppressing our innate curiosity about what the world would be like if we left it alone and didn’t impose our own private meaning on it. We’re far too afraid, far too insecure to see what would happen if we did that. We can’t even allow ourselves to see that this is a possibility! That’s what aggression is therefore – it’s simply ‘fear in disguise’.


When we talk about ‘trying to get things to be the way we want them’ to be this is what we’re talking about – this is control in a nutshell. This isn’t to say that there is anything wrong or unhealthy about control because clearly control has a vital part to play in life. We can’t just let ‘everything go to hell’! Control has a very specific domain of applicability however, which is to say, it’s good for some things but not for everything! When we have to control everything then – as we all know – this is profoundly unhealthy. We never apply this principle to the question of ‘how we perceive the world’ however; if we did then we’d see that ‘controlling the way that we see or understand the world without admitting to ourselves that we are doing so’ is the most ‘unhealthy’ thing there is? What could be unhealthier than ‘limiting ourselves for no other reason’? What could be unhealthier than ‘limiting ourselves because we’re afraid and don’t want to see that we’re afraid’? We can say that ‘non-aggression is the ultimately revolutionary act’ therefore because it marks the ending of this pointless limitation…


Image – Golden Vajra at Swayambhunath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal





Getting Off The Conveyor Belt

How do we start to be mindful, how do we get started being mindful for the first time when the practice of mindfulness (whatever that might be) is not something with which we are culturally familiar? Even the intellectual understanding of what is called ‘mindfulness’ is rather elusive; never mind actually putting it into practice. The great difficulty is that we keep thinking of it as a task, as something to ‘do’. We always think of everything as a task, and this is because we are always operating out of our thinking mind; we’re always seeing everything as a problem, in other words! As soon as we start thinking in this way then we automatically tense up in preparation for the act of ‘achieving some outcome or other’. We might not know what the outcome or result is supposed to be, because we are not familiar with it, but we tense up anyway in expectation of having to do something.We can’t help thinking that we have to ‘do something’, and this puts us under pressure…


This ‘tensing up’ is a habitual sort of thing – we are always doing it, it is the main thing we have to do in life, or so it tends to seem. We have to tense up in preparation for doing something, in preparation for ‘making something happen’… Life appears to be a series of problems or challenges, one after another after another, sometimes with hardly any break between, or even perhaps no break between them. If this is so (if life is a never-ending series of problems with scarcely any break between them) then what this means is that life itself is interpreted as a problem – and this is not an unusual situation. In everyday language this situation – where life itself becomes the problem – is known as generalized anxiety.Because we see life as ‘a problem to be fixed’, we become vulnerable to deep-seated doubts about our ability to do whatever it is that we are supposed to do (even though we don’t really know what this is).


The more we identify with the thinking mind the more we see everything as a problem because this is the only way the thinking mind can relate to things! It’s a ‘problem-solving machine’ and so that’s what it does. The rational mind is a machine for fixing problems and if we identify with it then that’ll turn us into a machine too!  We will become more and more mechanical, more and more rigid in our thinking, more and more ‘brittle’ with regard to surprising or unwanted outcomes. More and more of us are suffering from anxiety disorders in recent times for the simple reason that our technologically-orientated culture compels us to ‘identify with the thinking mind’. Our rational-technological culture forces us into a position of automatic congruence with the mind-created image of ‘who we are’ and this ‘confusion of identity’ can only ever lead to anxiety, in the long run…


Saying that we tend to relate to life itself as a ‘task’, as something we have to ‘do’, is the same as saying that we habitually tense up (mentally, and sometimes also physically) when we are confronted with any challenge at all. We tense up because we have to change something from the way it is into some other way. We have to take personal responsibility for doing this. If I do have some sort of physical task, such as lifting up a heavy weight, then of course this makes sense. Similarly, if I have to work out something, solve some problem or other, tensing up mentally (which is to say, concentrating) makes perfect sense. But tensing up in the fact of life itself, as if life itself were a heavy weight to be lifted, or a problem to be solved, takes us into the realm of anxiety.


When we are anxious it is this chronic unrelieved ‘tensing up’ that causes us all the distress, all the suffering. We don’t see this however because we think that it is whatever problems or  issues we are faced with at the time that are the source or origin of our distress, and so we try to solve them as quickly as we can so that we can be free from it. This only makes matters worse however because trying to get rid of all issues the minute they arise exacerbates the underlying chronic unrelieved tension, and it is this chronic unrelieved tension that is the true author of our suffering. Try to solve innumerable tasks and issues just drives the tension up a notch. The logic behind the attempt to eradicate all problems is of course that when they are all gotten rid of we will at last be able to relax, but experience shows that this never ever happens. There are always more issues piling up for us to attend to – life is a never-ending conveyer belt of problems and issues and tasks and jobs and ‘general responsibilities’.


We never obtain that longed-for relief as a result of frantically solving problems, sorting out tasks and attending to issues or responsibilities because the real source of the pressure isn’t in these problems, tasks, issues and responsibilities but in my ‘attitude’, so to speak. My ‘attitude’ is one of high-alertness, of maximum vigilance and tension. But we can’t say that this attitude, this constant unremitting underlying state of inner tension is ‘the problem’ because saying this simply adds more fuel to the fire. If we treat the constant unremitting underlying tension as the problem that need to be fixed or solved or otherwise dealt with then this just makes us tense up even more, in readiness to deal with the problem. Trying to do something about this inner tension only causes me to tense up all the more, and so if I was ‘feeling the pinch’ before I will be feeling it twice as much, three times as much, a hundred times as much. The more I try to do something about the tension the tenser I get and the tenser I get the more I feel that I have to do something about the situation! I’m caught on the treadmill of runaway thinking and I don’t know how to get off…


The reason we find ourselves in this trap is because we don’t have any other possibility of relating to difficulties other than trying to fix or solve them (or if we can’t do this, wishing or hoping that we could fix of solve them). This ‘lack of any other possible modality of relating’ is after all what lies behind the anxiety in the first place. All we know is the modality of ‘trying to change the way things are’ (or – failing this – of wanting or wishing to change the way things are, and feeling that we ought to change them even if we can’t, even if it is a practical impossibility for us to change anything). This is the modality of doing.


The possibility that we are missing when we are anxious is the modality of being. The possibility that doesn’t seem to be available to us (that we are in effect blind to) in anxiety is the possibility of being the way that we are rather than changing (or rather constantly trying to change) the way that we are. There is a reason for us being blind to this possibility. After all, in anxiety all we are is ‘straining’ or ‘striving’ or ‘trying’. Everything that we are is caught up within this constant massive effort that we are making. Everything that we are is subsumed within this habitual or automatic constant attempt to change things, or fix things, or escape from things. This is the essence of the situation – being subsumed in this way in ‘doing mode’ so that straining and more straining is all that we know. We are reduced to this – if straining or tensing up inside doesn’t work then the only option that is left open to us is the option of straining and tensing even more.


This chronic inner straining or tension is very much like a muscular cramp or spasm – once the cramping ‘takes hold’ then there is nothing we can do to avert the process. We just have to wait for it to ease up in its own time, acutely painful though it may be. Obviously if I ‘tense up’ against the cramp in any way this only exacerbates the underlying situation. The same is true for the mental cramp of generalized anxiety – anything I do to try to make it go away only adds to it. Even telling myself not to be anxious makes me more anxious – after all, telling myself not to be anxious, trying to ‘talk away the anxiety’, is me tensing up against the anxiety. Since the anxiety is nothing more than chronic ‘tensing up’ anyway, how can this possibly help? Even wishing that I wasn’t anxious is a form of tensing up – it is a form of resistance, and any resistance to anxiety always exacerbates that anxiety.


So what we need to learn is how to refrain from tensing up. What we need to learn is how to not resist the fact of our anxiety – which is itself nothing more than a huge mass of chronic automatic resistance. Our automatic reaction is of course to try to deliberately refrain from tensing up, to deliberately – by act of will – try not to resist. Needless to say this doesn’t work because anything I do deliberately is resistance, anything I do on purpose, as an act of will, is ‘tensing up’. I can’t do ‘not doing’. I can’t deliberately get out of ‘doing mode’. I can’t ‘not do’ on purpose because ‘on purpose’ means straining and tensing and striving and trying and wanting and hoping. So what is the answer? How do I get back from ‘doing’ to ‘being’?


The first step is not to try to stop trying, to not resist our own resisting. Instead of trying not to try, of trying to stop trying not to try, and so on (which is of course a road that never comes to an end) I give myself permission to be whatever way it is that I am just for five minutes. This is a small beginning but it is also a realistic one because this is always a possibility – I give myself permission to be whatever way I actually am just for this short space of time. Any longer would be asking too much. Any longer (in the beginning, anyway) would translate into ‘pressure to perform’, pressure to be a certain way, and that would be counterproductive. We don’t want to turn meditation into yet another task…


After giving myself permission to be the way I am for five minutes I can then begin to be mindful of the way that I am (whatever way that is). So I sit there (or lie there), close my eyes if I can and gently start to notice what is going on for me. The chances are that I will notice myself being tense, that I will notice myself automatically straining to change myself, or to change my situation. This is like noticing that my muscles are locked into a spasm or cramp. Noticing this inner underlying chronic tension is synonymous with feeling the pain of that tension – just as noticing a physical cramp is synonymous with feeling the pain of that cramp. At this point I remind myself – if necessary – that I have given myself permission to be whatever way I am and ‘the way that I am’ is ‘being tense’. So just for the next five minutes I can allow that tension to be there, having given it permission to be there, and also having given permission of the pain of the tension to be there.


Allowing myself to be tense means gently noticing that I am tense – I bring my attention to the pain of the tension and give that pain permission to be there, just for a few minutes. This is like touching something very gently with my finger – I touch it but I don’t try to push or apply pressure. I am just acknowledging that whatever I am touching is there, just by ‘tipping off’ it very gently with the outstretched tip of my finger. In the same way when I notice my underlying inner tenseness I just bring my attention (which is to say, my awareness) to it very gently, acknowledging that it is there without trying to change it in any way. This is a very gentle and undemanding exercise, but it is also highly significant because it is the beginning of what we have forgotten how to do – it is the beginning of ‘being mindful’, the beginning of the practice mindfulness. We’re learning something very challenging; we’re learning how to stop always treating life as ‘a task’, or as ‘a problem that needs to be solved’. We’re learning how to get off the non-terminating conveyor belt of the thinking mind….







The main difficulty with anxiety is that we generally try to solve it in ways that make the problem worse; we use exactly same approach that was responsible for generating the anxiety in the first place. The idea that there are some ways of tackling a problem that only make the problem worse is quite familiar to us and we can give a few common-place examples of what we might call ‘counterproductive problem-solving’ to illustrate the point.


[1]   Screaming at a crying child to make it stop crying.  This is something that most parents would know about!  If I as a parent am stressed out and feel that I can’t take any more, the strongest impulse is to yell at the child to shut up. Experience shows that this usually only upsets the child more, and so it cries more. It is a method of curing the problem that makes the problem worse – like trying to put out a fire by throwing petrol on it.  The same principle also holds true for grown-ups too of course: if you are upset and I shout at you to “stop worrying”, this is only going to upset you more.  Trying to solve the so-called problem of ‘you feeling pressurized’ by putting pressure on you not to feel pressurized is classic counterproductivity.


[2] Trying to solve embarrassment by ‘acting normal’.   This again is something that we can all relate to.  Suppose that I find myself in a social situation and I am acutely embarrassed for some reason. Being embarrassed means that I feel that everyone can see what an idiot I am; in addition to this, having everyone see that I am embarrassed is itself highly embarrassing! My knee-jerk reaction to finding myself in this situation is to make a tremendous effort to appear perfectly normal and at ease. This is counterproductive because it is my self-consciousness, and my preoccupation with what everyone else is thinking about me, that has made me anxious in the first place, yet here am I now focussing even more on ‘how I look’, and ‘how other people see me’.  To be at ease is to have no worries, and yet here am being very worried about the fact that I am worried. Obviously, the state of being ‘unworried’ (which is how I want to be) cannot be achieved by worrying (which is what I am doing). The more I try to correct the situation, the worse it gets – I am going about things in completely the wrong way.


[3]    Being ‘non-suspicious’.  A similar example would be trying ‘not to look suspicious’. Suppose that I am passing through customs and it suddenly occurs to me that I ought to look nonchalant and not at all suspicious. This is an absurdly foolish course of action because, as everyone knows, nothing looks as suspicious as someone who is trying not to look suspicious!  A person who had nothing to hide would not give a damn whether they looked suspicious or not, and therefore all I have done is to demonstrate that I must have something to hide, which is exactly what I did not want to do…


[4] Over-preparing for an exam.  This is a fairly familiar example of counterproductivity:  most people get anxious about exams and the tendency is for us to try to placate the anxiety by making every effort possible to minimize the chances of doing badly. If taken too, far, this natural reaction (which is really, as we have said, an attempt to get rid of the anxiety by ensuring that the thing we are anxious about could never happen) has the reverse effect – it makes us do worse not better. If I stay up half the night revising and trying to figure out what the exam questions might be, and leave home extra early to make sure that I don’t miss the bus, the chances are that by the time I sit down to actually take the exam I will be in a terrible state. Basically, I will be putting far too much pressure on myself to do well, and as a result my performance will suffer. This is similar to over-rehearsing for an interview – if I go over what I think is going to happen two hundred times, then when it happens in reality I am going to be a burnt-out wreck!


The above examples are easy enough to understand, but the way in which our reaction to anxiety is also counterproductive is possibly a little bit harder to see. Example 4 actually touches upon this: the point was that by making the goal of ‘doing well’ so important to us we actually sabotage our chances. Whenever stuff gets that important, it gets impossible, because the consequence of failure becomes so frightening to us that we seize up.  There is a phrase “failure is not an option”.  This is supposed to resonate with confidence and iron-determination, but in fact, if one listens to it with a ‘psychological ear,’ it is not hard to detect the undertones of desperation. The hidden message of bravado is fear; in fact bravado is nothing else but unacknowledged fear – what we are talking about here is ‘denial’ since failure is always an option whether one admits it or not. And if I say that ‘failure is not an option,’ and subsequently this refused option comes to pass, then what sort of situation am I in now? Inflexibility is not a strength, on the contrary, it is setting oneself up for disaster.


The root of anxiety is refused fear, or, to put it another way, ‘fear of fear’. Straightforward fear itself is not the same as anxiety, anxiety is when we try to problem-solve fear by trying to make sure that the fear-provoking situation can never happen. I make it very, very important that fear should not happen, and so, unwittingly, I have made fear into a far worse problem than it would have otherwise been. When anxiety comes, we try to problem-solve that too, not seeing that the anxiety stems from problem-solving fear in the first place. So, I am experiencing anxiety and my automatic reaction is to avoid the anxiety, to deal with it, to push it away, to neutralize it. I want help doing this, if possible. Ideally, I would like a powerful high-tech weapon to zap the anxiety with and blast it out of existence. I may expect this weapon to come in the form of pharmaceutical drugs, or possibly high-powered therapy of some sort. Maybe somebody could hypnotize it away, or analyze it away!  What I don’t see is that all of this is reinforcing the anxiety-generating idea that a certain possibility has to be avoided at all costs. If I invest so heavily in defending myself, then obvious the enemy that I am defending myself against must be truly terrible. And yet, the enemy is ‘me trying to defend myself’ – it is my defensive manoeuvres (otherwise known as ‘avoidance’) that constitute the actual problem, and so if I go on to instigate even more frantic measures to ensure that the feared eventuality never happens, I have actually created yet another level to my nightmare. I have taken it to a new level.


This is a phenomenon known as ‘positive feed-back’ – what this basically means is that ‘the worse it gets, the worse it gets.’   In other words, I notice myself deviating from the track that I am on, and so I correct. However, if my so-called ‘correction’ is actually counter-productive, then things start to go badly wrong, because my ‘correction’ causes me to deviate even more from normality, which causes me to panic and correct even more drastically, which causes even more deviation, which in turn makes me correct even more drastically than I did the last time…!   Positive feedback is the mechanism behind the ‘anxiety spiral’ which leads to a full-blown panic attack. Worry feeds off worry, anxiety feeds off anxiety.


So far we have illustrated the idea of counterproductivity and we have gone on from there to apply the concept to anxiety.  The reason anxiety is so hard to shift, we have said, is that we tend to apply our old, counterproductive thinking to it. This is easy to point out, but much harder to do anything about for the simple reason that when we get anxious or stressed we automatically resort to ‘reflex’ behaviour. For example, if a poisonous snake lunges to bite my hand, I pull back without stopping to think. This is the right thing to do under these circumstances – if I hung around to consider all the possibilities then I would get bitten for sure. This is a case where a deeply engrained habit (or reflex) can save my life! Anxiety is different, though, because it is my habit of reacting automatically that creates the anxiety.  In this case, the poisonous snake is my ‘tendency to avoid,’ and therefore automatic avoidance is like trying to put out a fire by throwing petrol on it.


Panic makes us go back to old ways of dealing with problems – it constricts our sense of freedom, it reduces the ‘spaciousness’ of the present moment so that we feel that we have no time to examine what is going on. Instead of looking at what is actually happening, we react – and this is our downfall.  To get from the place where anxiety is a problem, to the place where anxiety is not a problem is done by dropping our old thinking. Albert Einstein has said that “You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created that problem” and anxiety is a bit like this. We need to look at things in a new way. This sounds perfectly straightforward, but there is one unnoticed little snag which trips us up, and that snag is that we cannot manufacture the new way of thinking out of the old way. Anything we manufacture out of the old thinking is also the old thinking, because there is an unbroken thread of logic which connects everything. It is this thread of logic which holds us back.


The way we break the thread is to stop having expectations about the future. The key is to stay in the ‘here and now’ and allow things to unfold as they do, without us attempting to second-guess them. Normally we are orientated securely in our thinking, and we think we know what sort of things are likely to happen next, in any situation. We have preferences over what is going to happen next, we are not ‘even-minded’ about it all; in other words, we always have an agenda. Our agendas are constructed upon our old way of thinking, and for this reason the old way of thinking gets carried forward into the future – our thinking goes ahead of us! There is only one way to drop our agendas and that is to stay in the present moment: the future is made up of our thoughts and expectations; the past is likewise made up of thinking and memories. It is all connected with the same thread, and so it is all the same structure, the same pattern.  Right at the heart of everything, though, is the reality of ‘here and now’, which is a totally different kettle of fish because we don’t construct it with our thinking. The here and now isn’t a memory, and it isn’t an expectation. It isn’t an idea at all, it is the actual reality. All we need to do to drop the pattern of our thinking is to come back to where we are right now.


This is not to say that having an agenda is bad news, and that we would be better off without them. On the contrary, there are times when it is helpful to have an agenda (as shown by the example of the striking snake); at other times it is not. It all comes down to knowing when it is helpful to have an agenda, and when it is helpful to drop it. This, needless to say, is not always easy to see. We can, however, take a few more examples to make the general idea a bit clearer. For instance, if I need to get to work at a specific time, and I don’t have my own transport, then the agenda of ‘catching a bus’ is a very useful one. Therefore, I look up the time of the buses in the time-table and I plan to leave the house in time to be at the bus stop when the bus I need passes by. But suppose I am late for some reason, and I see the bus pulling off down the road? Well, in this case it is useful to drop my agenda to catch the bus. This sounds very simple, but what tends to happen in practise is that I don’t drop my agenda. Even though it is an impossibility, I am still attached to the idea of being on that bus. This is where counterproductivity can come in: trying to catch a bus when it is travelling at speed is counterproductive, since I am liable to suffer an unpleasant accident of some sort. Even if I don’t physically try to get on the bus, being mentally attached to the idea of the bus is still highly counterproductive because that is going to put me in a bad mood, and therefore the inconvenience of being late for work will be compounded by the fact that I am in a foul humour!


Another example that we can use is the example of ‘appearing normal’. In everyday social situations it is useful to have the agenda of ‘appearing normal’ – in fact this agenda is usually unconscious because we do it automatically.  There are rules governing social interactions and in order to interact effectively we need to observe these rules. If I go into the supermarket wearing only my underwear and barking like a dog I am probably going to get taken away by the police and therefore I will not be able to shop effectively. But suppose that, due to circumstances beyond my control, I find myself unable to behave normally. Perhaps I have been overcome by grief and I am crying uncontrollably, or perhaps I am feeling very anxious and I cannot talk to people. In cases like this it is helpful to drop my agenda to appear normal. After all, it is ridiculous for us to try to have our emotions under control all the time – we are not robots! To try to insist on looking normal at such times is counterproductive because the extra pressure that we are putting on ourselves will make us feel worse than ever.


The problem is that when we get anxious we hold on very tightly to our counterproductive belief, and because of this we are less likely than we would otherwise be to see that the belief is not helpful.  Instead of seeing that our agenda is only relatively important, we think that it is absolutely important. The option of ‘dropping the agenda’ is completely forgotten about, and our actions become compulsive. We insist upon the impossible, which is asking for trouble!


There is an unexpected principle which comes up here, and that is the principle which says ‘you cannot make a goal of not being anxious’. You can want to be ‘not anxious.’  You can attend an anxiety management course, and maybe one day you will not see anxiety as an issue any more. But what you can’t do is get from position <A> of ‘being anxious’ to position <B> of ‘not being anxious’ by will-power and determination. It is not possible to become ‘non-anxious’ on purpose…


This statement tends to seem quite outrageous – it threatens a deep-down belief that we all have, a belief in our own problem-solving ability, our own cleverness. A lot of the self-help literature that is commonly available promotes the message that we can transform ourselves by the power of our own minds, by self-affirmation and positive thinking, and so on. The idea is that we can escape anxiety, if only we tried in the right way – in a logical, positive way that some highly-qualified expert is now going to tell us about. The implication is that if you are anxious or depressed, it’s because you aren’t really trying, and yet the problem in anxiety is that we try too hard. Anxiety-sufferers aren’t people with no will-power, quite the opposite tends to be true.


It is not hard to see the flaw in the ‘positivist’ argument.  ‘Not being anxious’ is the state of mind where you don’t care whether you are anxious or not. It doesn’t matter to you.  It is not an issue, it is completely irrelevant. That is what ‘not being anxious’ means – that you don’t have an issue with stuff. It doesn’t mean that you have an issue with something or other, but you have cleverly manipulated the situation so that it doesn’t seem to stress you out as much as it used to do. That isn’t freedom from anxiety – that is denial!  Freedom from anxiety is much, much simpler than that: freedom from anxiety is when you don’t have defend yourself because it doesn’t occur to you that there is anything there to defend yourself against! There is no longer a battle going on. Another way to explain it is to say that ‘not being anxious’ is the state of equanimity, of not caring. The idea that I can arrive at such a state deliberately is totally absurd. It is the classic example of counterproductivity – I am trying to be in the state of not trying, I am making a goal out of not being goal-orientated, I am hungry to be not hungry. Basically, it matters very much to me that stuff should not matter. What all of this actually comes down to is the supremely counterproductive endeavour of ‘trying to be spontaneous on purpose’.


What we have just done is to draw attention to a paradoxical element within the theory of what we shall provisionally call ‘radical anxiety management’ (although the phrase ‘anxiety management’ is not a helpful term when it comes down to it because it implies control and trying to control anxiety is like trying to put out a fire by adding lots of petrol). ‘Paradoxical’ means that there is something very confusing there, something we can’t make sense of within our existing way of thinking. This forces us to either [1] drop our old way of thinking, or [2] invest heavily in ignoring the paradox.  If I want to ignore, then instead of radical anxiety management, I go for trivial anxiety management, which is where I get to keep my old pattern in a somewhat modified form.  I adjust it, but I don’t scrap it. In trivial anxiety management there are no paradoxes to challenge me, there are just a set of instructions which I have to follow.


The awkward paradoxical element in the rationale behind radical anxiety management which seems to mess everything up isn’t actually a bad thing at all, it only looks like a bad thing because we don’t want to let go of the security of our thinking. We want to have a nice, dependable structure to hold on to when things get tough; we want a formula that is guaranteed to get us through anything that life might throw at us. The trouble is, there is no such thing! There is no way to second-guess life. Rather than face up to this truth, what we do is to ignore the fact that our model no longer works (that our theory no longer holds good), and press ahead anyway. Our behaviour is ‘ignore-ant’ because it is based on ignoring facts that we don’t want to see, and this is of course what we have just been talking about in the section on ‘counterproductivity’.


The only way not to carry on getting bogged down in endless counterproductivity is to obtain insight into the paradox. Obtaining insight is something only I can do, or only you can do; no one can do it for us, and no one can tell us how to do it. Insight can’t be obtained through instruction or through copying – on the contrary, it arises spontaneously, unpredictably. The answer to challenge of the paradox is simple; what the paradox is doing is to throw back responsibility onto the person confronting the paradox. I cannot hand over responsibility to a formula, or a theory, or a procedure, or a skill, or an expert or helper, I have to let go of all these supports and do it myself! Autonomy means being independent, it means not being reliant upon a crutch of any kind. Anxiety, on the other hand, might be characterized as being a dissatisfied state of mind where one is constantly craving an impossible dream of security; it is a ‘clinging’ mentality – I am continuously looking for something solid to grasp hold of, something beyond myself. A straight-forward, non-paradoxical (i.e. self-consistent) treatment rationale is just the sort of thing I am looking for: if you as a therapist present me with a sure-fire method I will cling to it as hard as I can, and therefore you will actually be encouraging the clinging (or anxious) side of me. And anyway, as we have said, there are no ‘sure-fire’ methods!


What sounds like terrible news to start with (there is no such thing as security) turns out to be a liberation. A toddler will be terrified to be left on its own, away from the reassuring presence of its parents, but when the apron-strings have been cut there is a whole new world of freedom out there, just waiting to be discovered. When we do not let go of our need for security, we become stunted by dependency – trapped in the prison of our ‘secure place’.  Increasing autonomy is simply another way of talking about personal growth, and saying that there is no method or procedure to help us gain autonomy is the same as saying that we cannot grow on purpose, because the type of change takes place as a result of purpose is not growth, but adaptation, and adaptation (as Gregory Bateson has said) is just another name for dependency. We do not grow through positive thinking, but only through dropping our old patterns of thinking and this ‘outgrowing’ is a spontaneous process, rather than a willed process. It happens, like happiness or peace of mind, despite our efforts in this direction and not because of them!


To sum up, anxiety occurs as a result of us trying to find a security for ourselves that isn’t there. Another way of putting this is to say that anxiety is our automatic, unreflective rejection of a profound type of freedom, a freedom that we can’t avoid because it is intrinsic to our nature. We unconsciously want to hold on tight to an over-simplified or ‘black and white’ version of the world, a limited and defined version of world that we see in terms of ‘security’ but which does not exist outside of our imaginations. And if it were it to exist, it would be no more than a prison, a fundamental lack of freedom – an absolute obstacle to any change or psychological growth. To see that the security which we instinctively crave is impossible and that it wouldn’t do us any good even if we could achieve it is the essential first step towards freedom from anxiety. Everything else follows on from this key insight. When we realize that there is nothing to cling onto, then we will naturally stop putting so much effort into clinging, and the less effort we put into clinging the less anxious we will be. Anxiety is nothing other than clinging to something we can’t have, after all. We can’t have what we’re clinging onto (or rather attempting to cling onto) because it simply doesn’t exist…








The Machine Self

The biggest thing that we don’t know, but would benefit immensely from knowing, is that we are constantly turning ourselves into machines, for all the world as if there was some great advantage to be had in this! We turn into machines out of laziness and fear of responsibility on the one hand, and as a result of the unrelenting pressure of society on the other hand, which wants us to become machines. Society wants us to become machines because it – needless to say – is itself a machine. Society is a machine and it needs us to become machines too.


A handy definition of a machine – in this context – is to say that a machine is something that always does everything for a reason. Alan Watts says that a person who always does everything for a purpose is a ‘vulture’, which is nicely put, but we could just as well say that such a person is ‘a machine’. When we put ourselves in the position of doing everything for a purpose’ we demean ourselves – worse than just demean, we lose ourselves. The mechanical world is a world in which consciousness is completely lost, like water soaking into blotting paper. Consciousness has nothing to do with purposes, and purposes have nothing to do with consciousness. Consciousness is another realm entirely, and purposes have no meaning here – they carry no weight.


‘Purposes’ are always smaller than we are, and so if we live for the sake of these purposes we become no bigger than they are. We become petty, in other words. We may say that the purposes in question are serving us of course, but this is simply not true! We serve our purposes, rather than vice versa. The boot is on the other foot.


This ought to be obvious – generally when we have a purpose or goal we say to ourselves (or think to ourselves) that we have to do such and such, or that we ought to do such and such. This is us being ruled by our purposes; if we could say ‘I can do such and such but I don’t have to’ then that would be entirely different but all too often we can’t say this (or even if we do say it, or do believe it) it isn’t  actually true. We just prefer to see things this way; we prefer not to uncover the true nature of our situation.


Often – very often in fact – when we succeed in obtaining a goal we feel good because the ‘pressure’ to obtain is gone and we feel great relief because of this. We have been a ‘successful slave’. The curious thing is that we actually see this pressure (which we can’t shake off until we’ve ‘done the thing that we’re supposed to do’) as being the very same thing as our own true motivation. We say that we are ‘motivated’! It might be ‘motivation,’ but it’s not ours however!


Whenever we feel that we are not doing well enough, that we not ‘making the grade’, that we have ‘failed’, that we have let ourselves (or someone else) down, then this is because of this external (or extrinsic) motivation. We are being ‘bullied from the inside’, to put it bluntly and this relentless bully, this heartless ‘inner critic’, isn’t our own true motivation. It has nothing to do with us whatsoever – it’s a ‘foreign introject’. Genuine motivation isn’t like this – genuine motivation isn’t a tyrant, isn’t a bully, isn’t relentlessly punishing if we don’t manage to do whatever it is that we are ‘supposed to have done’.


Our own true motivation never makes us feel bad in this way; it inspires us rather than forces us to engage in the task. It’s based on curiosity and playfulness rather than ‘crude non-negotiable need’. Everyone talks about ‘satisfying our needs’ but needs for machines, not human beings. ‘Pressure is for tires’, as they say. Needs are unfree – they are rules that we have to obey. ‘Needs’ are the stick that beats us up and down the garden path, and the rewarding feeling that we get when we meet them is due more to the relief from the pain of the need as anything else. The cessation of all-pervading, all-conditioning pain equals pleasure.


True motivation (which is intrinsic not extrinsic) isn’t all about ‘goals’ or ‘end results’. That’s ‘machine talk’! True motivation is about the process, not the end results. It isn’t about ‘end-gaming’, it isn’t about ‘ticking the box’ so that we can feel better and then move on to the next task. It’s not driven by goals, but by the genuine heartfelt interest we feel in engaging in whatever process it is that we are engaging in. We’re doing it simply ‘because we doing it’, not because we hope to get something out of it. We aren’t being ‘vultures’, we’re being human beings. Who wants to go around being a greedy old vulture, after all?


It remains true of course that in some respects we are machines, inasmuch as we are generally subject to certain hardwired rules or needs. That is in our biology, that’s part of being living organisms – if we are hungry then we have to eat, and there’s no getting away from this. There are also ‘psychological needs’ like ‘the need to be accepted by the people around us’ (or ‘the need to belong’) and these needs also have their place. We don’t need to let them rule our lives, or determine everything about us, but we can acknowledge that they are there, and give them due respect on this basis. We have a ‘machine-like’ aspect, but we are also tremendously more than that. We can be ‘machine’ and ‘not machine’ at the same time, and that is the whole art of living consciously!


The ‘Great Tendency’ is however (as we have said) for the Machine Self to take over and become the whole of who we are. The Machine Self is a jealous god and it tolerates no other influences – if it can, it will devour us whole every day. It does devour us whole every day! This is Rumi’s ‘lower self’ – the fearsome dragon which must never be woken up. If it gets woken up it will gobble us up in a flash and then extrinsic motivation will be the only type of motivation there is and everything will become about obtaining goals, following rules and ‘doing things for a purpose’. Life will become a mere mechanical routine. As a result of falling into the mechanical mode of being we become alienated from our own humanity and it’s not just ‘easy’ for this to happen – it’s what almost always does happen. It’s a foregone conclusion. This is what society will unfailingly do to us, if we just stand by and let it. We’re willing participants in the process. We ‘do it to ourselves’, we are complicit in the conspiracy without knowing that we are. That’s what society is, after all – it’s an unconscious thing; it’s ‘us doing all of this to ourselves’. We are all busy doing this thing to ourselves; busy turning ourselves into machines without any free (or unconditioned) consciousness, for all the world as if this were ‘a good thing’….


Being reduced to the level of our purposes and our thoughts is as we have said a demeaning kind of a thing – it strips us of what is best of us, leaving nothing behind but a mechanical husk. Our purposes (or thoughts) end up defining our whole lives, defining who we are, and yet they have nothing to do with us really – they are trivial things, superficial things, meaningless things. Our purposes would mean something if they served our true being, if they served who we really are, but they don’t. Who we really are has been lost in all this unceasing mechanical ‘busy-ness’, which always claims to be serving some so-called ‘higher purpose’, but which doesn’t. We’re caught up in an endless circular game that has no ‘purpose’ outside of itself. It is its own goal.


There is no ‘higher purpose’ to the mechanical life, to ‘life as a machine’ – there is only ‘busy-ness for the sake of busy-ness’, pointless busy-ness which leads on to nothing more than yet more pointless busy-ness. We’re kept so busy with all the purposeful doing that we never get the chance to see what we have lost through it, which is our true (non-mechanical) nature. We’ve have become alienated from this nature, and so would no longer recognize it even if we came across it. We think that our well-being is something to strive for mechanically, something that needs to be obtained or won but it isn’t. It’s there already, and can only be discovered when we STOP striving and grasping all the time…






Working With Anxiety

There is no such thing as a ‘technical fix for anxiety’. There can be on the short term, to be sure, but only at the price of ‘aggravating the original problem and causing it to rebound onus even more painfully in the future’. The so-called ‘technical fix’ isn’t any kind of ‘fix’ at all therefore, it’s only a postponement.


The only thing that can really help with anxiety is gaining perspective, and a gain in perspective doesn’t come about as a result of any technical procedure or methodology that we might engage in! Technical procedures only ever reduce our perspective; the ‘problem-solving approach’ only ever reduces our perspective. The reason for this is nothing if not obvious – by going all-out to ‘fix’ a problem we automatically reaffirm the importance, the centrality, the validity of that problem! We ‘narrow things down’…


Anxiety – we might say – is where problems or issues get ‘blown up out of all proportion’. This might seem like a rather childishly simplistic or ‘non-technical’ way of talking about anxiety (i.e. it may not sound fancy enough for us) but it is all the same an excellent, down-to-earth definition of what it means to be anxious. Things bother us that really oughtn’t to bother us, and not only did they ‘bother’ us and completely disturb our peace of mind, they put us through the ringer. This is no small inconvenience we’re talking about here –  if anything that comes into our head is liable to get blown up out of all proportion (and as a result cause us maximum distress) then life very quickly becomes all but impossible. We run into a brick wall.


Saying that things get ‘blown up out of all proportion when we are anxious’ is of course just another way of saying that anxiety comes out of our ‘lack of perspective’. Who could possibly argue with this? And what this means – as we have said – is that they cannot be any such thing as a ‘technical fix’. This ought to be obvious to us but somehow it isn’t – in this excessively rational world of ours we fondly imagine that ‘technical fixes’ are the answer to everything. We fondly imagine that control is the answer to everything, so that if only we can get good enough at controlling (and have the right strategies at hand) then all our problems will be at an end.


When we try to solve something then as we have said this automatically reaffirms whatever problem it is that we are trying to solve as being important, as having the status of ‘needing to be solved’. The issue in question undergoes a shift and becomes ‘absolutely important’ rather than instead of just ‘relatively important’, which is its true status. Fixing immediately narrows our focus, narrows our sense of perspective, and so the anxiety around the issue in question gets aggravated rather than lessened and there is no way that this cannot be the case! This is always, always, always what happens when we try to control.


When we try to fix (or solve) anxiety then we doing the most unhelpful thing we could ever possibly do! Straightaway we are losing perspective – straightaway anxiety is becoming a bigger and bigger issue, straightaway everything is becoming very ‘black-and-white’, which is another way of saying that they are only two possibilities for us – either we ‘fix’ the anxiety (which is that ‘good outcome’) so we fail to fix it (which is the ‘bad outcome’). Black and white thinking lies at the very heart of anxiety, at the very heart of neurosis. Black-and-white thinking actually IS anxiety!


The only thing that helps to ‘loosen the knot of anxiety’ is perspective, and there’s no technical fix for this, as we keep saying. They can’t be a technical fix for the increasing of perspective for the reasons that we have just gone into. The very idea that there could a technical way of increasing perspective is utterly absurd, utterly ridiculous. Perspective is what we get when we aren’t trying to control. We’d have to be suffering from a chronic lack of perspective not to see this! What this term ‘perspective’ means is that we’re not being hemmed in by any biases or prejudices; it means that we have lots of possible different ways of seeing or relating to the world, and as soon as we start thinking in terms of ‘defined outcomes’ and ‘specified ways of obtaining these outcomes’ (i.e. strategies’) then we end up with only the one way of seeing things. We end up with only the one way of seeing the world and this is the ‘black-and-white way’, the polar viewpoint which says there is either ‘winning’ or ‘losing’, ‘getting it right’ or ‘getting it wrong’.


This view of things (which equals ‘the fixing view’ or ‘the controlling view’) is the very epitome of an unfree state of mind, even though we can’t generally see it as such. We don’t see this black-and-white state of mind as being ‘unfree’ (and therefore ‘suffering-producing’) because we are so hypnotised by the prospect of the so-called ‘positive outcome’. We think that if we obtain the positive outcome then everything will be OK. We think that if we can just ‘tick this box’ then we will finally be free, then we will finally be at peace. This is completely and utterly untrue however – this belief is actually what is stopping us from being free, stopping us from being peace. What’s stopping us from being free is our black and white way of seeing the world, and straining after a defined outcome (or goal’) is not going to take us out of our black-and-white thinking! Straining to obtain the goal is only going to aggravate the problem yet further, as we keep saying.


When we try to ‘solve anxiety’ what we really trying to do, unbeknownst to ourselves, is ‘solve life’ and the reason we say this is because ‘life’ (or ‘reality’) is a state of unconditional open-endedness, which is to say, it is ‘the unbounded state in which there are an infinite number of possibilities, none of which have been decided upon yet’. Trying to ‘solve life’ isn’t a good road that to go down, obviously enough – it isn’t a good idea to treat life as ‘a problem that needs to be solved’! ‘Solving life’ means ‘narrowing it down to manageable proportions’; it means restricting it so that there aren’t so many different possibilities in it any more. ‘Solving’ life means closing it down, in other words, and this is what we are constantly trying to do with all our black-and-white thinking, with all our busy-busy goal-orientated activity.


When we reduce life down to ‘only the one possibility’ what we’re actually doing is turning it into something that isn’t life. This is our solution to life’s existential challenge – to hide away in our beliefs, our routines, our narrow way of interacting with the world. This solution – as any psychotherapist will tell you – is no solution at all when it comes down to it; it is no solution at all because instead of actually helping ourselves we are creating extra problems! By ‘running away from openness’ we are actually creating problems that aren’t really there; we are ‘reducing our perspective as a means of making things better for us’ and yet this lack of perspective – as we have said – is the root cause of all our neurosis, the root cause of all our anxiety and existential dread. Closing down life (i.e. ignoring it, or ‘living it only on our terms’!) creates all our problems rather than solving them.


This discussion is all very well, but what we really want to know is how to go about regaining the perspective that we have lost. What can we do to help ourselves when ‘straining for outcomes’ isn’t the answer? The very first thing that we need to know – and understand very clearly – is that ‘methods’ and ‘strategies’ and ‘procedures’ aren’t going to be of any help at all. This is a tremendous thing to understand – we are all so very convinced that controlling is the answer to everything that it takes an awful lot to shake this monumental belief! When we do see this then it naturally happens that we stop investing so very much in control, and this eases our anxiety straightaway. A precious bit of perspective comes back into the picture, like a ray of sunshine falling in a dark cave. We’ve come back to ourselves a bit.


It is the unexamined belief in the power of controlling to fix all our problems that fuels our anxiety – trying to control is ‘adding petrol to the fire in the misguided attempt to put it out’. When our absolute unquestioned allegiance to (or investment in) control as ‘the way to go’ has had a dent put in it then our ‘mechanical reacting’ no longer has the vicious force in it that it used to have. There’s still plenty of force there, there’s still plenty of momentum, but is not the same – the ‘dark spell’ that kept us trapped in this business of ‘blind mechanical reacting’ is now been broken and as a result things can only get better. What helps anxiety is not to compulsively try to fix it (or fix the particular problems that we are worried about) but to ‘practice staying in the present moment’ and this is not a strategy.


There is a ‘simple rule of thumb’ that we can apply here. There are (we might say) only two things that can be going on with us at any point in time – either there is ‘trying to control’ or there is ‘staying in the present moment’. When we ‘try to control’ then we are reaching out for defined goals, defined outcomes, and this is reducing our perspective on things and creating black-and-white (i.e. compulsive) thinking. Our attempts to control engenders anxiety in other words and this is the ‘basic equation’ that we need to remember – “the attempt to control equals anxiety”. There is no controlling involved in staying in the present moment – the present moment has already been obtained, after all! It’s already there! All we need to do is ‘notice what’s happening, no matter what is happening’ and there is no controlling in this. This is called ‘being in the world’ and this no controlling involved in ‘being in the world’! This is the very thing that we keep forgetting. We forget that we don’t need to do anything in order just to ‘be’ and as a result we get caught in the trap of trying to control our own reality.


Anxiety – we might say – arises out of unconsciousness. By ‘unconsciousness’ we mean ‘investing everything in controlling, and thereby turning our backs on the present moment’. Controlling may take us into the future, or it may take us back into the past, but it will never bring it into the present moment! Being conscious, on the other hand, means that we aren’t forever trying to stay in control. ‘Control’ and ‘consciousness’ exist in inverse proportion, therefore, and this is just another way of saying that consciousness is the same thing as perspective. This doesn’t mean that we can’t ever control, or that it somehow ‘wrong’ to seek to control, it just means that we don’t try to control what doesn’t need to be controlled. It means that we don’t try to solve life itself. We are controlling out of awareness, in other words, rather than out of blind reflexive compulsion. We control when it is helpful to do so and we ‘let go’ when it isn’t helpful and we are able to do this because we have a bit of perspective on things. Without perspective the inevitable result is that we try to control all the time; we try to control all the time because we have forgotten that we don’t actually need to! We are ‘slaves to the need to control’ and the need isn’t a real one – it comes out of lack of perspective, lack of awareness. We live in a world where everything is controlling in other words, and this is because we have lost sight of any other world.


It might seem rather ‘over-simplistic’ or ‘inadequate’ to talk about the answer to anxiety being something as nebulous as ‘staying in the present moment’. When we are suffering from anxiety it definitely doesn’t sound concrete enough (or technical enough) to be of any use! No one is telling us things that we need to do, steps that we ought to take. We have not been handed any method or strategy which we can place our trust in. But if someone did give us some concrete method or strategy then they wouldn’t be helping us, they would merely be adding to our suffering, as if there wasn’t enough of it there already.


Our usual approach is to narrow down the field of possibilities until only two possible outcomes exist; we ‘narrow things down’ until it seems to us that only the two possible outcomes exist – ‘succeed’ or ‘fail’, ‘win’ or ‘lose’. All that’s left for us then is to hope that we get the right rather than wrong! Neither of these outcomes are ‘real things’ however – they are simply ‘ideas’, they are ‘over-simplified mental projections of an imaginary future’. Out of our complete lack of perspective we have personalised life into only two things  – ‘fixing the problem’ and ‘not fixing it’, ‘getting it right’ and  ‘getting it wrong’. If we had our precious perspective back again however we would immediately see that life has got nothing whatsoever to do with fixing problems, we would see that it has nothing to do with ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.


The only real thing there ever could be is the ‘wide-open field of undecided possibilities’ that is the present moment. There’s nothing over-simplistic or inadequate about this therefore – what IS over-simplistic is our regular approach to life, which is to try to reduce it into a set of abstract polarities, such as yes and no, win or lose, right and wrong. Staying in the present moment means disengaging from our thinking therefore and this isn’t a strategy because if it were then we would be engaging with our thinking rather than disengaging! When we disengage from our thinking we come back into the world where there is no right and no wrong, no need to control, no need to ‘automatically fix’, and this is a world which isn’t ruled by anxiety. This is the world that exists outside of our thinking.




Paying Attention With The Whole Of Your Body

A good way to come out of the uncomfortably cramped and over-regulated little ‘office-space’ inside our heads is to use the whole body as a sense-organ, rather than just listening narrowly ‘through the prescribed channels’, so to speak.


Normally we attend mainly to the senses of vision and hearing, smell and taste, and on occasion to bodily feelings of either pleasure or pain, comfort or discomfort. But these sensory channels are – almost always – routed through the head, through the rational mind. Because this sensory input is routed through the ‘central processing unit’ which is the rational mind we always do the same thing with it: we process it, we categorize it, we evaluate it, we compare it with our memories, with our expectations, with some kind of taken-for-granted ‘framework of interpretation’.


Via this rule-based business of processing we establish a relationship to the information that we are receiving so that we either like it or dislike it, and then having established this relationship we try to control what happens next on this basis. The ‘relationship’ in question is all about us being in control. Evaluating, measuring, categorizing, analyzing, comparing and so on is all typical run-of-the-mill ‘head-type’ stuff – the type of stuff that goes on automatically (and pretty much incessantly) in the ‘central processing unit’ which is the rational mind.


This processing operation of the rational mind is useful in specific instances, but it is not useful when it is running the whole time, running without ever taking a break. When everything we experience is being routed through the central processing unit of the thinking mind then this is very far from being useful – on the contrary, this then becomes something that very significantly detracts from our quality of life. After all, what is left of life after it has been filtered through the rational mind? The actual taste or flavour of life is then lost and all we get instead is a whole load of dry mental evaluations – mental evaluations that are coupled with automatic reaction-pathways of one sort or another. Instead of enjoying life, we end up thinking about it (or automatically reacting to it).


We might assume that automatically evaluating and reacting to life is life (since we don’t know any different) but it isn’t! Really this is keeping life at arm’s length, keeping it at a safe distance. Because we’re always in control (or trying to be in control, which comes down to the same thing) there is always a gap between us and life and this ‘gap’ equals the rational (or controlling) mind…


The degree to which I think about life is the degree to which I am separate from it, isolated from it, fragmented from it. My thinking about life is a gap I can never bridge just so long as I keep on thinking, just so long as I keep on comparing and evaluating and analyzing and planning.


What happens when the processing mind never disengages is that we think about life instead of actually living it, which isn’t the same thing at all. As we have said, thinking is good for certain things – it is good for solving specific problems – but since life as a whole is not a problem, or a puzzle to be solved, when we think about it the whole time we have missed the point! When the machine of the mind is left running permanently then what happens is that life is turned into a kind of ‘administrative problem’ – something to be sorted through and put into the appropriate boxes. It’s all just a dry mechanical process. Its accountancy…


The only thing the mind knows how to do is sort stuff: it goes through its automatic procedures, its protocols, its routines, its mechanical operations. When we see stuff, hear stuff, taste stuff, feel stuff the CPU of the mind – restless as ever, unwilling to stay still as ever – causes us to evaluate what we see, hear, feel and taste. It causes us to run innumerable comparisons. And yet this kind of business is only useful when a specific job is being done – otherwise, it is all just a waste of time and energy!


This processing business is a lot worse than merely being ‘a waste of time and energy’ – it is a senseless mechanical process by which the beauty and profundity of ‘unprocessed reality’ is being systematically degraded on an ongoing basis, turned into yet more empty mental chatter, turned into a pointless time-consuming exercise in accountancy…


The head compares and evaluates, evaluates and compares – this is what it does. This is all that it can do. And yet if there is no specific job to be done then what is the point in all this activity? If reality is already there, all around me, then what on earth is the point in me constantly commenting on it, trying to ‘do things’ with it as if it were some sort of puzzle to be worked out? What is the point in me constantly trying to improve it or fix it?


Comparing and evaluating is all the head can do, just as a tin opener is really only any good for opening tins. When I have opened the tin then I put down the tin opener, I have no further use for it, but the tin-opener which is the thinking mind never gets put down. It is kept running the whole time! In this way the whole world gets turned into a tin of pineapple chunks or peach slices…


When the head is kept running all the time it just turns into a useless racket – a humming, buzzing, clattering noise that is always going on somewhere in the background, and which detracts in a major way from our enjoyment and appreciation of life. It uses up energy and soaks up our precious attention and completely shatters the stillness that is all around us with the useless rotten racket it is making the whole time, like an empty-headed fool who never stops yakking day and night. The more empty-headed the fool the more he has to say, and the more energy he puts into saying it!


The mechanical mind causes us to be forever attending to what it thinks is important, and never to what is genuinely meaningful, and as a result our quality of life is savagely curtailed, viciously truncated. We don’t on the whole notice this curtailment, this truncation, but that is because we simply ‘don’t know any better’. We have got used to it – we think it’s normal. The mind and its mechanical carry on is all that I know.


So we just go on paying attention to what the mechanical mind wants us to pay attention to, which is basically the same old thing, the same old thing, the same old thing, repeated over and over again. What else can a machine do? We are so helplessly captivated by the senseless, automatic ‘repetition of the old’ that we almost always miss out on the beauty of ‘the new’, which is there all around us if only we could see it…


The helpful thing about paying attention with the whole body is therefore that this breaks us out of the habit of evaluating and comparing everything we experience – it bypasses the usual channels, so to speak. It takes ‘the processing mind’ out of the equation. The exercise works best if carried out in the open air where there is likely to be more chance of the wind or the sun being felt on the body. It is as if I am listening with the whole of my body, rather than just my ears.


What I do for this exercise is to sit or lie outside with my eyes shut for about twenty minutes or so, in a natural environment if possible, and I pay attention to that environment with my whole body. If there is a sensation of any sort of breeze or touch of the air on my skin this is very helpful, and if I can feel the sun or a sensation of either hot or cold this also helps a lot. It is as we have said as if I am using my entire body as a sense organ, as if I am listening with my whole body rather than just narrowly paying attention, with my judging mind, to what I hear and see. I am simply ‘being there’, rather than ‘being there as an information processor’…


There will of course still be sounds but for the twenty minutes that I am sitting or lying I just ‘allow those sounds to be there’, just as I allow any sensations on (or in) my body to be there, without bothering to analyze them or make sense of them in any way. It is the central processing unit of the mind that analyzes and makes sense of things, and for this exercise the central processing unit of the mind is allowed to rest, is allowed a holiday, is allowed to go off duty…


So any sounds, like any other perceptions, are just allowed to be there. They are not singled out for processing, they are not picked out for individual attention, they are all just allowed to become part of the overall sense impression. All my perceptions are simply allowed to be part of a unified whole without any compartmentalization, without drawing any boundaries around this feeling or that feeling, this sensation or that sensation. I notice what it feels like to be paying attention in this way, but I don’t make any effort to do anything with what I am experiencing. It’s just ‘what’s happening right now’…


If a train of thought appears and starts to kidnap my attention – as trains of thought always do! – then I pay attention to this process happening. I notice the way in which the thoughts greedily grab hold of my attention, I notice the ‘narrowing’ that takes place when this happens, and then I gently come back to the wide-open unified stream of sensations that the thoughts are trying to take me away from. I gently come back to the peaceful experience of ‘being in my body’ rather than ‘being in my head’ – which is never peaceful, never spacious.


The kidnapping process whereby I get sucked up into my thinking and then promptly imprisoned in claustrophobically narrow office-space of the processing mind only works when I don’t notice myself being kidnapped, it only works when I don’t notice being taken away from what was happening before, and so all I need to do is see it happening. Then when I see it happening I bring my attention back into the totality of the ‘whole body’ experience, which as we have said has no compartments, no divisions, in it.


The whole-body experience has a quality to it which is alive and vivid and at the same time very peaceful, and this is a quality which is totally different from the experience of being trapped in my head, which is dull, sterile, mechanical and unsettling in its nature rather than being peaceful. Once I learn to see this essential difference then it is much easier for me to notice being kidnapped away into the dreary tiresome colourless anxiety-provoking world of my thoughts. It is like noticing the sun momentarily going behind a cloud.


The ‘whole-body’ experience is very much not part of the mental inventory – it does not belong in the dusty bureaucratic filing system of the central processing unit. It is not a thought but a reality! This is a much wider and more spacious reality than the world of my thoughts and because it is so much bigger and wider any thoughts that arise will in time naturally dissolve back into the vastly more expansive, ‘all-accepting’ realm of unprocessed awareness.


Unprocessed awareness is the natural state of affairs – it comes before everything else and so it itself can never be lost. Unprocessed awareness is the ‘original consciousness’ that was there before I started processing stuff, before I started thinking about things, analyzing and comparing things, and this original consciousness can never be disturbed or spoiled or contaminated. It can only ever be temporarily covered up or obscured…


Unprocessed awareness is the priceless gift I am always throwing away! Or we could also say that it is the priceless gift which I am always parcelling up with my thoughts, with my evaluations, and then filing away somewhere in the dusty recesses of my over-officious bureaucratic rational mind!


Unprocessed awareness is the untouched reality of the present moment as it unfolds. This unfolding moment is always unique – it does not exist in relation to something else, it is not constructed (or validated) in comparison to something. It does not have to be ‘fitted in’ to some scheme of things, some assumed framework of thinking. It stands alone – it has nothing to do with anything that we have ever thought before and this is what makes it real. It is not part of our thinking.


Coming back into unprocessed awareness is a movement from what we thought we knew into what we realize we don’t know – it is a movement, therefore, from the static enclosed prison of the categorizing mind into the open-ended freedom of actual reality…




Hooked On Controlling

Mindfulness – we might say – is where we aren’t fighting with ourselves, managing ourselves, controlling ourselves, repressing (or ‘soothing’) ourselves the whole time. It isn’t quite right to say this though because when we practice mindfulness we don’t try to stop ourselves from fighting ourselves, controlling ourselves, repressing or soothing ourselves – if it was the case that we were trying to stop ourselves from doing all this then we’d still be controlling ourselves!


And yet the other side of the coin is that when we really are trying to control ourselves, manage ourselves, et cetera, then all of our focus is on the goal of ‘being in control’, the goal of ‘successfully managing ourselves’, and whenever our attention is wholly upon this goal – or upon any goal – we not being mindful, we are not being aware. When our eye is ‘on the goal’ then it’s all about ‘how great it will be if the goal is attained’ or ‘how terrible it will be if it isn’t attained’ and this is the very antithesis of being mindful, being aware!


Mindfulness is so very often confused with ‘soothing the mind’ (or ‘quietening our thoughts’) but this then is merely another form of goal-orientated behaviour. When we’re engaged in attempted ‘self-quietening’ then we are not actually being aware at all because we are – as usual – fixated upon the two extremes of ‘getting it right’ and ‘getting it wrong’! To successfully soothe or quieten our minds equals ‘getting it right’ and not to do so equals ‘getting it wrong’; we’re busy controlling in other words, and when we’re busy controlling then there is never any time for awareness. There’s no time for life itself, when it comes down to it – ‘life is something that will happen when we successfully control, when we get to the end of our control sequence’, or so we think! First we have to ‘tick all the boxes’, in other words, and then we can live…


It’s not that we think this consciously – is just a kind of a thing we are automatically assuming without ever realising what it is that we have automatically assumed. We imagine that when everything is properly managed, when we get ‘all our ducks in a row’, then we will be better able to let go of our controlling and then ‘kick back and enjoy life’. We imagine that we’ll finally be able to ‘chill out and let our hair down’… We’re assuming, in other words, that ‘controlling/managing’ is somehow a good preparation for ‘letting go’, which is clearly not the case at all. Controlling no more prepares us for ‘letting go of control’ than taking heroin twice a day prepares us for giving up the heroin at some future date!


Quietening our minds isn’t a good preparation for being mindful therefore; it’s just another form of controlling and controlling is a slippery slope to yet more controlling. It’s certainly not a pathway to giving up controlling! And yet if we deliberately try to stop managing our own thinking then this too is ‘managing’, this too is ‘controlling’. So how do we get out of this trap? How do we let things happen naturally? How do we get back into the flow? The key is not falling for the trick that our mind is always playing on us, which is getting us to believe that when we control successfully, then we will somehow be free.


This really is the ‘big illusion’, the illusion that keeps us ‘hooked on controlling’. Controlling is an unfree state of mind – it’s unfree because we are constantly tied up by the need to make sure that the good outcome happens rather than the bad outcome. This doesn’t leave us any space (or ‘freedom’) to do anything else, or to be ‘aware’ of anything else. The goal (i.e. the ‘good outcome’) represents freedom for us and that’s why we chase it as avidly as we do! We are the greyhounds and the mechanical hare is the goal which represents our release from the mechanical (or ‘unfree’) situation that we are unhappily trapped in. The goal is unconsciously associated with ‘the end of all our problems’, in other words, which is clearly ‘wishful thinking’ on an epic scale!


To actually see the absurdity of this is to be free from the power of the illusion, therefore. This simply means ‘seeing things clearly’, or ‘seeing things for what they are’ – our belief is that if we control tightly enough, then through this feat of controlling we will eventually become free, even though controlling (i.e. being constantly subject to the need to control) is the very antithesis of ‘being free’. I’m doing the very thing that prevents me from ever being free, yet I imagine this by investing in it enough (and ‘enough’ here means 100%) then everything is somehow going to work out for me. I imagine, in other words, that the payoff for my dedication, the payoff for my investment, will be the prize of ‘freedom’.


Practicing mindfulness means that we are aware of our mechanical nature (i.e., our constantly controlling or managing or striving) without fighting against it. It’s one thing to have a momentary awareness of the mechanical forces that are controlling us and to immediately try to fight against them, and quite another to be aware, and yet not fight. We are living the unconscious (or mechanical) life, and yet we are at the same time aware in it. We’re living our run-of-the mill everyday life, as who we actually are, in accordance with the way that we actually are, but we’re doing it consciously, with great sensitivity and without lying to ourselves or turning a blind eye to anything. And the ‘key ingredient’ here is that we no longer have this flat unconscious belief that our mechanical behaviour is one day going to ‘pay off’ for us! There is a world of difference between being 100% committed to the mechanical way of life (without even knowing that we are) and ‘going through the motions’ of mechanical existence whilst no longer being 100% invested in the logic of that type of existence.


Normally – as we have said – we have total belief in the efficacy of purposeful or controlling activity to deliver the outcome that we want. Even if we aren’t particularly confident about our own ability to control, we still unquestioningly believe that controlling is the right road to go down, that ‘the instrument of thought’ and the purposeful activity that comes out of it can deliver us the outcome that we want. Even when we are anxious, and have a deep-seated doubt in our own ability to control effectively, and get things to turn out the way we want them to, we are still no closer to ‘doubting the doubt’, which is to say, doubting our unexamined belief that purposeful or controlling activity is the right tool for the job no matter what that job might be. I might be rubbish as a controller, which will I believe will have very bad consequences for me, yet I still don’t doubt that ‘controlling is the way to go’. I don’t doubt that ‘controlling is the way to freedom’. I only doubt myself.


This belief in the power of thought/control is pretty much absolute in everyday life and this is what keeps us unconscious (which is to say, ‘completely under the power of illusionary appearances’). To see with perfect, unstrained clarity that what is most important – which is to say, stillness or ‘inner connectedness’ – can never be attained through thinking or through purposeful activity completely changes things therefore. We are no longer ‘putting all our money on the wrong horse’, which is what is keeping us in the trap of the thinking mind. By pure habit we will of course still be putting a lot of money on that horse, but no longer all of it and that slight difference makes all the difference in the world! That in itself completely changes the dynamic of what’s going on – a little bit of light has entered the picture and nothing will ever be the same again…


Our normal way of being in the world is one in which we are constantly trying to achieve by purposefulness’. To be operating on the basis of the thinking/conceptualising mind is to be contingent constantly striving’, constantly trying to get things to be the right way’. That’s how the thinking conceptualising mind functions, that the way that it has to think to function. Thinking ‘strives’ just as a wheel rolls, just as the pendulum swings, just as an escalator escalates! Certainly it is true that some things need to be controlled, but the most important thing of all – as we have just said – can’t be arrived at via control or via purposeful doing, and this is stillness. We might wonder what is so great about stillness (which is obviously something that isn’t particularly valued in our society!) and the answer is simply that it is through stillness that we connect with who we really are. How important is that? This doesn’t mean that we have to be passive or withdrawn or disengaged – it just means that we aren’t constantly clutching at (or striving for) something the whole time. We’re not striving to attain the whole time, and this isn’t a mark of weakness or indifference! We can act all the more effectively when we are not constantly clutching or straining or striving – the action is much more spontaneous, much more fluid, much more ‘appropriate to the moment’ when we are not driven by ‘attachment’.


We can’t manipulate stillness, we can’t avail of it as part of our ‘overall strategy’ or ‘design’, we can’t make a goal of it any more than we can make goal of freedom. Particular goals are worth may be worth strategising for striving for, but life itself isn’t! Not only is life itself something that we can’t strain for or attain by skilful actions) it’s actually the case that we miss it every time when this is our approach, and when we are operating on the basis of the thinking mind then this – as we have just said – is inevitably going to be our approach. Thought can only ever grasp!


When we’re living life (or rather trying to live life!) on the basis of thought (or on the basis of control, which is the same thing) then we’re constantly ‘missing the mark’, we are constantly in a state of frustration, and this is why the Buddha states in his First Noble Truth that conditioned existence is dukkha, or ‘suffering/frustration’. Of course living on the basis of constant striving (or living on the basis of constantly ‘trying to attain’) is going to result in suffering and frustration – if the most important thing of all cannot be attained by striving, by controlling, by ‘managing’, then we’re actually working against ourselves the whole time, even though we think that we’re doing something to ‘help ourselves’…