There is an answer to all of the problems and difficulties that we struggle with, but because this answer is so obvious, we very rarely see it. What happens when we don’t ‘see it’ is that we get locked into thinking about the problem we face, over and over again: we anticipate what is going to happen (or what we think is going to happen) and somehow we get stuck in this process – what we are doing doesn’t actually help as such, it just seems to produce uncertainty, doubt, indecision, and a general sense of dread. Even when we are convinced that we know what is going to happen next, we still don’t let it go – instead we keep at it and at it like a dog with a particularly juicy bone. Our ‘mental jaws’ just keep working away at the problem, even when we know we can’t fix it.
Basically- this process of ‘thinking about how bad the problem is’ doesn’t actually help me at all; on the contrary, the more I re-run the scenario in my head the more terrible I feel. The more I play about with the possibilities, desperately trying to ‘find a way out’, the more locked in and caught up I become. Thinking about the problem becomes part of the problem; we could even say that it becomes ‘the biggest part of the problem’. The problem is ‘me trying vainly to fix the problem’, the problem is me trying to anticipate ‘what happens next’ and driving myself totally cracked as I do so.
The answer is of course ‘not to anticipate an outcome’. Anticipating outcomes is the fault, the glitch in the process that unfailingly ruins everything. But here is a problem to ponder – how do I ‘not anticipate an outcome’? If I say that I am not going to anticipate the outcome then I have already anticipated an outcome, i.e. I have anticipated that I will cease to anticipate outcomes. I am therefore trapped in a closed loop of <anticipating that I will not anticipate> and this whole loop is nothing other than ‘anticipation’ – it is the same old thing all over again, only now it somehow manages to appear in a new, fresh, and more hopeful form.
This is exactly what always happens with thinking – we never get so fed up and disillusioned with our tired old thinking that we actually give it up because our thinking always manages to reinvent itself in an apparently new and fresh form. That old false friend of ‘my thinking’ reappears just like a jaded politician coming on TV before elections, having put a new and hopeful kind of a spin on his campaign, knowing that I am just the kind of sucker to swallow all that rubbish yet again. “Won’t get fooled again” doesn’t apply to me – you can go on fooling me indefinitely, apparently!
This ‘hopeful spin’ is like a kind of make-up that a thought wears to make itself attractive and seductive, to make us go down the mental road that it offers. We are attracted to the thought because of the way it seems to hold out a promise of some kind of resolution or answer, and so as soon as the thought comes along (like the number 2 bus), we jump on board and get taken for a ride. Thought sell themselves to us on the basis that they are actually useful, on the basis that they are actually going to take us somewhere real, but in reality thoughts never take us anywhere.
CASTLES IN THE AIR
Thoughts can never get us anywhere real – even if I thought away at top speed for a hundred billion years my thoughts could not get me anywhere. The reason for this is because rational (or ‘directed’) thoughts do not connect with reality, they only ever connect with yet more thoughts. Thinking leads to more thinking, which leads in turn to yet more thinking.
Even the best and most satisfactory thought that I ever had is only ever ‘a thought’ – it is a mental conclusion that I have reached, which only makes sense in relation to all the other thoughts I have had, and all the assumptions that I have had to make along the way before I could even begin with the thinking. The whole thing is just like a ‘castle in the clouds’ because I could just turn around and look at it a different way on day, and the whole edifice would disappear in a puff of smoke. My beliefs only seem real to me because of the way I choose to look at things (even though I don’t actually realize that there is any other way to look at things at the time). Therefore, the ‘pictures’ shown to us by our thoughts seem very real at the time of the showing, but really they are as insubstantial as dreams or strands of fog drifting around a field in the early morning. In short, the mental representations produced by our thinking are ‘only apparently real’.
Thoughts only ever tell me what I already know in a slightly different way, and ‘what I already know’ is just a con job anyway. What I thought I know I don’t really know. Once I realize this, once I realize the essential sterility of rational thought, its total inability to take me somewhere new (or its ‘inability to bring me into reality’) then I stop relying on it as a ‘saviour’. When I anticipate an outcome, I do so (of course) with my thinking, but once I understand very deeply (in my bones, so to speak) the impossibility of thought ever showing me anything new, then the whole business of ‘anticipating outcomes’ becomes redundant.
THE LAW OF CHANGE
Anticipating ‘what comes next’ is not only impossible, it goes against the law of the universe. Reality is a ‘flow of the new’ – it is change (or flux), as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said. What this means in practical terms is that reality shows itself to us, it does the showing not our rational minds. Reality – from this point of view – is a constant, eternal ‘showing’. We can rely on reality doing the job of showing us ‘what happens next’ perfectly and flawlessly because it always has done. That is why it gets to be called ‘reality’, after all. Reality never ever fails to unfold itself correctly, but we often fail to see it because we are simply too preoccupied with our thoughts, too busy trying to ‘anticipate outcomes’.
But if I (out of deep-rooted anxiety) try to short-circuit this process and explain to myself in advance what is going to happen next, this is not reality at all but a kind of mental time loop, going around in circles forever and never actually getting anywhere. When I rely on my thinking rather than reality to call the shot what happens is that I end up rehashing my limited (and essentially misguided) assumptions over and over again – I recycle my redundant and irrelevant ideas forever, to no effect at all. And all this futile and frustrating mental striving is simply because I am afraid of taking the risk of seeing what actually is happening.
CONTROLLING FOR CONTROLLING’S SAKE
So far, we have not really explained the idea of ‘not anticipating an outcome’ very well because we have not put it in context. If you explain the idea as we have above, the first thing that your listener will (probably) come up with is the objection that we cannot successfully carry on living in the world if we stop looking ahead. For example, suppose I am driving down the street and I do not anticipate – as well as I can – the behaviour of pedestrians and other motorists. If I refuse to anticipate, I will end up having an accident. Similarly, if I do not anticipate that my family is going to get hungry, if I ‘wait for it to happen’, then I will not go to the shops and I will not cook any food and this is not going to suit anybody. I will have a lot of complaining people on my hands. To give just one more example, suppose I am in charge of the blood bank in a busy hospital, and I do not anticipate that we are going to run out of AB negative blood. Suppose I just sit back and watch it happening? Obviously if I refuse to anticipate the shortfall people are going to die.
This objection is correct, but it is not entirely correct. What we are really looking at are two entirely different types of thing here: there is stuff which I can anticipate, and there is also stuff which I can’t, and it is crucially important that I am able to tell the difference. The ability that the rational mind has to ‘model’ reality and tell us in advance what it going to happen is very valuable in the right place. This ability is a vital tool, but like all tools it only has a limited domain of use. A hammer is great for driving nails into a plank, but it can’t solve all my problems. Stupid as it may seem however, we tend to use the tool of anticipation for everything. This is the same sort of thing that Abraham Maslow was getting at when he said that ‘for a man whose only tool is a hammer, the whole world is a nail.’
But in the case that we are talking about, the answer isn’t to find another tool that can work better, but to drop all tools (all attempts at control) and let things pan out as they will. There are times when this is the appropriate (or we might say ‘sane’) thing to do. Sometimes things are simply outside my control and outside my ability to forecast and at this point the helpful thing to do is to let them be ‘out of my control’. Deep down, we always know when this is the case, but out of fear we go on controlling (or anticipating), only now it is ‘controlling for controlling’s sake’. Controlling for controlling’s sake means that I feel safe or secure by trying to stay in control, even if the bottom line is that what I am doing is impossible. Striving to succeed is how I keep myself from seeing that I can’t do what I have set my heart on doing, it is how I ‘postpone the inevitable’.
YOU CANNOT SUBDIVIDE A BLESSING
The reason that I feel driven to postpone the inevitable is that I have subdivided life to GOOD and BAD, ACCEPTABLE and UNACCEPTABLE. As Carlos Castaneda says, we divide life into blessings and curses and so we spend all our time trying to obtain the former, and avoid the latter. What we don’t see, in our desperate desire to ‘stay in control’ is that this compartmentalization of life into blessings and curses is itself a curse. What we don’t understand – what we have forgotten – is that all of life is a blessing. Life is all the one thing and it cannot (ultimately) be subdivided into ‘the bits that I like’ and ‘the bits that I don’t like’.
Ultimately, I have to go through all of life, not just the bits I like. I cannot have pleasure without pain, health without illness. If I am born, then I have to die. But the point about all this is that if we are going to go with this ‘life’ thing at all, we have to go with all of it. We cannot be picking and choosing and deciding whether or not we will accept it. “Shall I decide to risk it?” I ask myself cautiously, failing to see that this is the stupidest of all questions. There is nothing else apart from life. If I do not take life on its terms, I simply do not get to live, and instead I end up going around in circles in the frustrating sterility of my own rational mind – doubting, worrying, hoping, fearing….
The answer is to give everything equal attention, equal interest, equal care. Everything is allowed – ultimately – because everything is life. Although there are times when I might feel that I am in control, or that I ought to be in control, really the whole thing (life as a whole) is something that happens to me. Life as a whole is necessarily ‘out of control’ – how can it be otherwise? As Alan Watts says, life is a ‘happening’: it is something that ‘happens to me’, and I am not responsible for ‘making it happen’ anymore than I am responsible for making a summer’s day happen. That’s simply not my job!
If I see life as a whole, then I realize that I have no choice, and I realize that I might as well sit back and enjoy the show. I’m not in control, but then again, I’m not supposed to be in control. And when I give everything equal attention, equal value, then I realize that it is not the case that some bits are blessings and other bits curses – actually the whole thing is a blessing. It’s all to be treated the same. It’s all life, every bit of it… (as Kurt Vonnegut says in one of his books). Everything that happens to me is life, and life – taken as a whole – is a blessing.