Heart in Forest

Normally, when something happens, we automatically evaluate it. For something to happen to me without me instantly evaluating it would be extraordinary. In the normal run of events, it would be practically unheard of. ‘Evaluation’ is the same thing as ‘assessing’ which is the same thing as ‘judging’ which is the same thing as ‘labelling’. We evaluate stuff so automatically that it seems totally natural to us and because of this we do not even notice ourselves doing it. This habit of ‘evaluating our experience without acknowledging that we are doing so’ means that we are (psychologically speaking) unconscious. In other words, we are at the mercy of our automatic process of evaluation without realizing it.


So where is the harm in this? Evaluating is the way we make sense of the world after all – it is how we get to understand what is going on so that we can react appropriately. Why on earth would we want to ‘not evaluate’? There is a serious problem with ‘automatic evaluation’ however, a particularly nasty problem which crops up with a vengeance sooner or later. The problem is that the picture which our evaluation of the world paints for us in not actually correct. It is missing something out, and the inevitable consequence of this is that we end up relating to a faulty (or over-simplified) representation of reality rather than the real thing. Our thinking distorts reality, and this naturally causes problems for us further down the line. If we could see the distortion that would be okay, but the fact of the matter is that our ‘bias’ is perfectly invisible to us – we never even suspect that it is there. This blindness means that when problems or difficult consequences come about as a result of our biased or prejudiced approach we see the cause as being in the outside world, not in us.


One example of the sort of problem that crops up due to our unacknowledged mental blind-spot is anxiety. Anxiety occurs when we evaluate an event in a negative way and then react by trying to avoid this event even it would be a lot better if we could just go through it, or ‘let it happen’. Anxiety is basically a mental (and physical) reaction that happens automatically just as soon as we evaluate a possibility as being in some way ‘threatening’. When I assess something as being a threat I automatically react – my reaction follows the trigger, and the ‘trigger’ is my evaluation. I react by trying to escape and if I can’t successfully escape (or is I suspect that I will won’t be able to) then I start to get anxious. This shows us that anxiety arises as a direct result of the automatic process of evaluating.


If I don’t evaluate, I don’t get the anxiety – it is as simple as that. If I left the anticipated situation as being ‘as yet unknown’ (which is open-ended and therefore not an evaluation) then the anxiety would never start. I can only be afraid of what I know, I can’t be afraid of what I don’t know! If I am suffering from anxiety then this is a clear indication that I am reacting to my thinking about what is happening (or what is ‘going to happen’) rather than reacting to what is actually happening. Seeing what is happening is the thing, not having ideas about what is happening!


The point is that what is happening is always different from what I think is happening, because reality is a developing situation. My ideas are bound to miss the mark, and so they are no help to me. It is better simply to drop them, to stop taking them seriously. After all, reality isn’t a frozen static picture which we can ‘know’ once and for all, it is a process of ‘becoming’ – it is an unfolding of the new rather than a repetition of the old. It is only our thinking, only our evaluation that is always old. Our way of understanding the world may be definite, but the world itself is not, if only we could allow ourselves to see this.


It isn’t a question of trying to evaluate the threatening possibility in a positive way either because the motivation behind this evaluation is still the same – I am threatened by it and so I am trying to make the situation ‘safe’ by looking at things in positive way rather than a negative way. Trying to change a negative evaluation into a positive one is just a cheap trick and at the end of the day it fools nobody. Whether I say, “Its not going to be okay” or “It is going to be okay” makes no difference because I am still not going beyond my thinking. I am not letting reality be the ruling factor. Both the positive and the negative evaluation are wrong – they are guesses but I treat them as statements of fact, and so in this respect they are ‘lies’. The only honest thing to do would be to do nothing at all, and wait and see what happens. The only reason I am so keen to make a guess is because I am addicted to the feeling of security that this gives me, the feeling of ‘control’…


We don’t usually think of our automatic evaluation as being the root of the problem and so rather than getting better at ‘non-evaluating’ we put all our effort into getting better at avoiding whatever it is that we have evaluated as ‘bad’. Sometimes it may seem as if we have successfully avoided whatever it is that is worrying us, but actually all we have done is to buy ourselves a bit of time. We have postponed the inevitable in other words. At other times we find that we cannot even do this – we cannot even buy ourselves a bit of breathing space. We try to ‘push back the fear’, but it rebounds on us more or less instantaneously. Our resistance is totally futile, in other words.


We do not have any choice in this futile resistance (or ‘futile automatic avoiding’) at all, as anyone who has suffered from anxiety will tell you; the process happens all by itself and because I can’t help believing in my own evaluation of the situation I can’t help reacting – even though I can see that I am not getting anywhere. This involuntary but futile reacting is what anxiety is – in other words, anxiety is an automatic, involuntary, or ‘reflex’ response to certain triggers. Because this is the way things work, I am at the mercy of these triggers and my peace of mind (such as it is) is dependent upon how well I can avoid them. This might mean avoiding actual environmental triggers, or it might mean that I try to avoid certain thoughts that set off my anxiety. Either way, I am committed to avoidance.


Now as everyone knows avoidance doesn’t actually solve the problem, it just means that I am very busy the whole time trying to solve the problem, in a frantic and ultimately unsuccessful way. The problem isn’t the triggers, as we keep saying, because if it isn’t one thing then it will just be another. The real problem is my automatic reaction to these triggers – if I can free myself from this involuntary reacting, then I am free from the anxiety and the peace of mind I obtain as a result of this will be genuine peace of mind (which is to say, it won’t just be a precarious state of mind that I have artificially created for myself as a result of staying anxiously in control the whole time).


There is only one way in which we can achieve this genuine peace of mind, and that is by practicing the art of non-evaluation. This is not as easy as it sounds since (as we have said) it happens automatically, which is to say, it happens all by itself. An example may help explain this. Suppose that I am at lunch at the office canteen and I feel my face starting to go red. Some little thing has ‘set me off’ and now I can feel the blood rushing to my cheeks. Straightaway I evaluate this and I think “This is terrible” or “This is a nightmare”. As soon as I think this I am locked into ‘reacting’, and the reacting only makes me blush more! The thing about automatic evaluation is that it happens very fast and more-or-less unconsciously so I probably do not notice it very much. Now suppose that I have the intention of practicing non-evaluation, and as a result I am paying attention to my own mental processes. When I see myself evaluating my situation in this way I remember what I am supposed to be doing and of course the next thing is that I evaluate the fact that I am evaluating. “That is not right,” I say to myself, “I shouldn’t be doing that”. But then I realize that I have just evaluated my evaluation and that makes me even more vexed with myself. “Damn!” I think, “I am evaluating my evaluating and that is no good…”


This example shows us the trap that we fall into when we try to stop evaluating on purpose. The fact of the matter is that it is utterly and completely impossible to stop evaluating on purpose. If I get vexed about the fact that I am evaluating then the next thing is that I am going to get vexed about being vexed and then after this I am going to be ‘vexed about being vexed about being vexed’ so on and so forth. I am going to get tied up in mental knots and peace of mind is going to be further away then ever. Struggling to obtain peace of mind is a non-starter! Fighting to be peaceful just doesn’t work, no matter how much I might be tempted to go down this road.


The problem is that I am using the wrong sort of motivation: when I say to myself “I have to practice non-evaluation” my actual motivation for wanting to practice is that I want to gain something. This means that I have already (somewhere in the back of my head) made an evaluation that such-and-such an outcome is ‘good’ and such-and-such an outcome is ‘bad’. Therefore, the motivation that is behind my intention to practice non-evaluation is actually based on evaluation, and so the whole thing is spoiled even before I start. I am starting off on the wrong footing entirely! Any motivation that is tainted with thoughts of gain and loss (winning or losing) is by definition based on evaluation.


There are only two mental ‘modes of functioning’ that I can be in, and we can set out these two modes as follows:

[1] is where I am control mode (or G.O. mode), which means that I am acting on the basis of ‘profit & loss’ type motivation. Basically, I am thinking about what I stand to gain or lose, and everything I do is to make things happen the right way and not the wrong way. Everything I do is in order to eliminate any chance of ‘risk’.

[2] is where I am in reflect mode, which means I am honestly looking at myself, and ‘owning up’ to whatever it is that I see as a result. Reflect mode is simply where I see what is happening, without trying to force things to be another way. The motivation here is ‘sincere’, i.e. I am sincere in my wish to see the truth. In this mode I am ‘taking a risk’.


Whereas the motivation in ‘control mode’ is always tainted by self-interest, the motivation behind ‘reflect mode’ is perfectly untainted, simply because there is no way that I can rely on obtaining any sort of benefit from what I see. In fact, my suspicion is usually that I will see something that is painful to me, and so naturally there is no self-interest involved. While control mode is by definition biased, reflect mode is supremely unbiased – “tell me the truth, no matter how much it hurts” is our motto.


Thinking about the two modes is useful because it helps us get to grips with the idea of non-evaluation. Control mode is based on rules: this has to be such-and-such a way, and that has to be such-and-such a different way. Evaluation is also based on rules, only we usually call them ‘criteria’ in this case. What we say is that “if this happens then that means such-and-such a thing, and if that happens then that means some other sort of thing”. What this shows us is that evaluation is a subtle way of us being in control of what is going on around us – we can’t change what happening, but we can exert some subtle sort of control on the meaning that it has for us. The key point about this is that we get to have our cake and eat it – we get to feel as if we are objectively seeing what is happening, whilst at the same time surreptitiously controlling what we are seeing.


Evaluation is the way that we have of projecting own meaning on the world, whilst not seeing that this is in fact what we are doing. It is a way of hanging onto some sort of control, of hanging on to control mode. Non-evaluation, therefore, is where we allow the world to be exactly what it already is, without us saying what it is. I don’t seize control and tell myself what is going on, but rather I allow reality to unfold in its own good time, so that it shows me what it is. I am not the one who is in charge here! Clearly, this is a very big difference.


We have made the point that changing from evaluation (control) mode to non-evaluation (reflect) mode is not something we do deliberately. Non-evaluation is actually something we do naturally, it is basically just the same as ‘noticing stuff’. This is not the same as ‘looking for stuff’ because when we look for stuff we obviously know what it is we are looking for, which makes it a deliberate or purposeful sort of a thing. When we notice something we just notice it because it is there – we don’t decide to notice it, we just notice it. This is in fact the key to flipping over from control mode to reflect mode: all we have to do is to notice that we are in control mode (or notice that we are evaluating) and straight away we are in reflect mode. Nothing could be simpler or more effortless – all I have to do is see that I am evaluating and straightaway I am practicing non-evaluation.


This is actually almost too simple for us to grasp. All I need to do is just notice stuff as it happens; I just have to quietly notice whatever it is I am doing. “And then what?” I want to ask, “what do I do about whatever it is I notice?” But of course the whole point about letting reality unfold by itself, and reveal itself in its own good time, is that we don’t ‘do’ anything. Doing is really ‘fixing’ and the only reason we feel the urge to ‘fix’ things is because we are scared, or because we are greedy. This is ‘profit/loss’ type motivation, which is the motivation of compulsion.The reason we want to fix stuff is because this is how we get a feeling of security; basically, we want to have the advantage, we want to be ‘one up’ on whatever it is that is happening. This is like ‘staying ahead in the game’ – we feel that we have to be pro-active in some way, and not just let stuff happen to us. Of course this is pure nervousness, pure insecurity really, and therefore anything I do because of this is bound to mess things up. All that happens when I nervously (i.e. automatically) evaluate what is happening to me, or what is going to happen to me, is that I get trapped in my own invalid descriptions of the world. I get trapped in my expectations and as a result I just keep repeating the same old pattern of reacting, over and over again. In other words, the show goes on as usual!


It helps to see that when I am evaluating (or ‘labelling’) the world what I am really doing is keeping it at a safe distance from myself. This is very simple and very basic – there is something there that I find threatening, and so I am holding it at bay, I am keeping it all at arms length. Suppose for example that I feel as if I am being overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness or misery – some sort of emotional pain is afflicting me. As soon as the pain comes up on me I ‘mentally react’ to it by thinking about it. It doesn’t really matter what exactly my thoughts are – the point is that I identify what is happening to me as being this or that, and as soon as I identify it as being something that I totally know about (and totally don’t like) I loose interest in learning about it. It is still happening, but I have closed my mind to it! “This is bad and I don’t like it” I say, and in this way I refuse the experience that is happening to me. I am having the experience, but at the same time I have already decided that I know everything about what the experience is and what it means, so that rather than relating to it in an open way, I am relating to it in a closed way. This means that I am not relating to it at all really – I am only relating to my idea of it. When I close my mind to stuff (which is what automatic evaluation comes down to) I am by definition refusing to learn anything new. I have my way of thinking about things and I am not going to allow it to be challenged by anything as unimportant as reality! When my mind is closed my ideas about the world do not change, and because I am relating to my ideas about the world rather than the ever-changing world itself, that means that I do not change either. I am well and truly stuck.


To go back to our example of ‘evaluating mental or emotional pain’, we can say that what almost always happens is that we go straight into control mode, which is the worst thing we could possibly do. When I go into control mode I lock myself into a fixed view of the world. I assume that I know everything that is worth knowing about the pain and so I close myself off to it – I don’t allow myself to be changed by it, I don’t allow myself to learn anything from it. This isn’t a helpful attitude on my part because until I stop being ‘snobbish’ in this way about the pain it simply isn’t going to go away. It may fade into the background for a while, but it will be back again for sure at some point because the fact of the matter is that pain represents the reality of my situation at this point in time, and the thing about reality is that we can’t find a short-cut around it. The way this works is nothing if not simple: if I react automatically to the emotional pain then I get stuck in a posture of denial. I never get to properly feel the pain – I just get stuck in my mental anticipation of the pain, which is actually a far worse situation because it is sterile (i.e. nothing new will come out of it). The pain itself – the raw unprocessed experience – is difficult to be sure but it is far from sterile. When we perceive pain in a non-evaluative way this is always a creative process. It is ‘creative’ because it produces something that is genuinely new – it produces change. This is true not just for emotional pain, it is true generally. Whenever we perceive reality in a non-evaluation mode it changes us in a radical way. Why this should be so is obvious enough: when I perceive the world using evaluation (which is to say, on the basis of my pre-existing thinking) then everything I see only ever goes to confirm that I was correct in my basic assumptions. It doesn’t matter how I evaluate the world, whether I evaluate it as good or bad, interesting or uninteresting, meaningful or meaningless. Whichever way I see it this is only ever going to confirm the validity of the criteria that I was using to evaluate the world in the first place. I cannot escape my thinking (and my prejudices) by evaluating and analysing, no matter how hard I try.


Evaluating traps us in our thinking, and so we never see anything radically new. Because we never see anything radically new we never change, and this is our predicament – we are trapped in a pattern of reacting and all we can ever do is go around and around in circles. If I don’t evaluate then the one thing that is for sure is that whatever I see it will be new; it will be new because it has not come from my thinking but from reality. As we have said, in ‘control mode’ we struggle to change reality so that it fits in with our thinking, but in ‘reflect mode’ we allow reality to change us. The ‘most important consideration’ is different in each case: in the first case the most important consideration my ‘wants’ (which comes down to my need to carry on avoiding the truth), and in the second case the most important consideration is reality (i.e. the way things actually are). We hardly need to ask which of these two is the healthier!


The important thing about non-evaluation is not thinking about it but practicing it. The simplest, most natural way to do this is to treat every day as a sort of conveyor belt that brings various experiences to us. Normally, we manifest either positive or negative prejudice to what the conveyor belt brings us. This, I like; that, I don’t like, and so on and so forth. If I am practicing non-evaluation then I just notice what is coming down the line to me – each experience that comes I just notice that it is there. If I experience resistance (i.e. prejudice) then I notice this too. It is all about noticing – that is all I am doing. Although it doesn’t seem like much, it makes a total change from what I normally do, which is to work away at not noticing.





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