trying not to try

Each one of us has the possibility of two different ways of functioning: one is the directed and the other is the spontaneous mode. The two are completely different from each other, but at the same time each has its rightful place. A typical example of the directed mode of thinking and behaviour is making a cup of tea – the point being that I have to know in advance what I want to do, and then work out a way to achieve it. This is a very familiar idea to us – first I have a goal or a purpose or an agenda, and then I have a plan or a method to reach the goal or realize the purpose or meet the agenda, and finally I put the plan or method into action. And then, hopefully, I get the cup of tea!


We are much less familiar with the idea that there is a spontaneous mode of thinking and behaviour but all the same there are many examples that we could give. A basic example that we often hear about is ‘being yourself’ – this is something for which planning and purposefulness have no part to play at all, and in fact if I try to be myself on purpose I invariably find that I spoil it! Another excellent example of the spontaneous mode would be showing kindness to another person – I cannot plan to be kind because kindness is not something that I can turn on and off at will; I can of course go through the motions of being caring but if it is not happening ‘of itself’ then the whole thing is false, calculated and insincere. This gives us another example of the spontaneous mode – sincerity. Sincerity cannot be purposeful because if it was then it would be ‘part of the act’, part of the deliberately manufactured appearance of myself. Deliberate sincerity is in fact the antithesis of sincerity – it is a pretence. So there are lots of things we cannot do on purpose.


One final example of what we are talking about is when I suddenly have insight into something that was bothering me. Normally when I have a problem I try to solve it with directed thinking, which means that I already have some sort of idea about where to look for the answer (i.e. I have already made up my mind about what sort of shape or form that answer is going to have). This deliberate (or ‘controlled’) type of thinking works fine in some cases, but in other cases it is utterly useless because the actual solution to our problem comes from seeing things in a totally different way to the way that we are doing. Directed thinking locks us into our habitual framework of understanding, it is blind to any other (logically unconnected) possibilities. This is why scientists often report that the answer to a riddle they have been pondering comes when they ‘give up’ trying to work it out. Until I give up beating my head against the wall I cannot get any helpful insight, but when I stop trying, then the light suddenly dawns!


This brings us to a crucial point, which is that there is no way that I can switch from the directed mode to the spontaneous mode on purpose, because everything that I do ‘on purpose’ is part of the directed mode. This may seem fairly obvious, but the fact is that when we are under pressure to solve a problem we never stop to consider that maybe the problem we are trying to fix is unfixable by the directed mode. That just doesn’t occur to us! There is a reason why this should be so and that is because when we are under pressure we are scared, and when we are scared we automatically fall back into the directed mode. The thing about the directed (or purposeful) mode is that it is based on the elimination of risk. I know the result that I want, and I know (or I think I know) how I want to achieve it, and nowhere in this set-ups is there any role for ‘taking risks’.


This is obvious enough really – the directed mode of being is all about control and control equals the eradication of risk, which is to say, it equals ‘the suppression of anything that has not been specified in advance’. The worst fear when we are in this mode is being out of control, i.e. finding ourselves in the situation where stuff happens that we haven’t previously chosen to happen. The important point here is that control does not simply means that we insist on eliminating the possibility of any outcome that we have identified as being WRONG, it also means that by insisting on what we see as the RIGHT result we are automatically excluding any outcomes that we don’t know about, even though some of them will be more helpful than the (known) one that we are insisting on.


This draws our attention to a strange fact: when I react to being under pressure by going into the directed (control) mode, this means that I am insisting (in effect) on solving my problem on the basis of what I already know. Now that is fine if I can solve the problem on the basis of what I already know, but if (as is so often the case) I can’t, then by insisting that I only want a solution that makes sense within my limited understanding, I have condemned myself to suffer within a trap of my own making. Basically, I am ‘cutting my own throat’ due to my refusal to take a risk. ‘Risk’ translates as ‘anything that I don’t already know about’ and so, in a nutshell, what we are saying is that threat causes us to retreat into the realm of the known, which is not where the answer lies. The ‘safe place’ turns out to be an impregnable prison – it might feel safe but it’s no good to us at all.


The thing is, even when I think I understand this, the chances are that I haven’t really because even if I get the idea that the directed mode consists of a clear cut RIGHT WAY versus an equally clear cut WRONG WAY, and I understand that this is a way of trying to avoid risk, and I see that the only escape out of my prison is to take a risk, all that happens is that I start saying that the RIGHT WAY to do things is to take risks. This therefore becomes my new strategy. So here I am – still desperately trying to play it safe, desperately trying to control myself to stop controlling. The glitch is that I am ‘trying not to try’.


What helps is to remember that if I am in a prison then it is a prison of my own making. If I am caught up in a deadly glitch, it is only because of my insistence of having my own way, when I simply cannot have my own way. In reality there is no glitch, it is only in my head that there is such an insoluble problem. A good way to understand this is by thinking in terms of  conscious versus unconscious trying. Normally, when I am ‘trying’, I am completely in my head, which is to say, I am ‘psychologically unconscious’. We could say that I am trying to do something that is impossible, but I’m not letting on to myself that it is. We can make this point clearer by taking the example of a person who is feeling bad. When I feel bad, I automatically start to think of ways in which I can relieve this bad feeling. In other words, when I am in pain, my mind starts looking around for a handy ‘comfort zone’ that I can make my way to. Naturally, as soon as I think of a way out this makes me feel better straight away, even before I have done anything. Basically, having a goal in my mind equals a comfort zone, so that even when I am in discomfort, I can be in a comfort zone because I have my eyes on an ‘exit’ – the goal of escaping. So I am straining to solve the problem (even though I can’t) but the straining itself (i.e. the trying) is a distraction for me.


By fixating my attention on an exit, I have (in my head) already solved the problem, and so I feel relief. What has happened therefore is that I have avoided focusing on the reality of ‘how it is’ by concentrating my attention on a goal – this has the immediate benefit of making me feel better but actually this is an ‘unreal solution’ because nothing has changed. What is more, nothing will change as a result of me jumping into a mental comfort zone because rather than dealing with reality, I am simply escaping into my head. This example allows us to define what we mean by ‘unconscious trying’ – we can say that the state of unconscious trying is when I believe that it is possible for me to obtain the goal that I have in my head. Obviously, when I am convinced that it is possible to realize my goal, then all my attention and all my effort goes in to trying to achieve it. This is a ‘game’ because my secret intention is not really to obtain the goal, but to distract myself from seeing that I cannot ever obtain it. This self-distracted state, which is the state associated with games, is what we mean by ‘psychological unconsciousness’.


Now we have already seen the snag that we run into when we try to deliberately stop trying. I cannot cure my self-distracted state in this way because all that happens is that I create a goal of ‘not-being-distracted’ in my head, and then I proceed to be hypnotized by this goal in just the same way that I get hypnotized by every other goal! I strain not to be straining, and this too is a self-distracted state! There is a ‘cure’ all the same however, and the ‘cure’ is to see through the game that I am playing. I can’t ‘stop trying on purpose’ but what I can do is allow myself to see that the goal which I am trying to obtain is in fact just a ‘carrot’ that I am dangling in front of my own eyes in order to take my attention from where I actually am. The moment I stop believing in the plausibility of (deliberately) obtaining the goal my mental comfort zone evaporates and I am – all of a sudden – living life honestly again, without the dubious benefit of self-deception. This is helpful to me because when the illusory carrot is taken away the heart goes out of the engine of my ‘trying’, and the whole business runs out of steam. An essential element (i.e. the unconsciousness) has been taken away and so I simply cannot continue any more in the same old way. So in this case I am still straining (or trying) but the difference is that I am not using it to distract myself any more. This then is what we could call the state of ‘conscious trying’, which is ‘trying that we are not throwing ourselves into quite so much’. It is ‘trying that we are not using as a comfort zone’. Or we could say that it is trying that I am seeing honestly.


‘Trying’ (when I believe in the possibility of success) is my comfort zone – this is the driven state of unconsciousness. Seeing that I am fooling myself (i.e. conscious trying) even as I automatically keep on at it is no comfort at all. This is therefore not a distraction from the truth. The point therefore is not to stop trying (which is impossible) but to stop using trying as a comfort zone!


By seeing the impossibility of controlling myself to stop controlling what has happened is that I have lost faith in controlling itself, this happens because the honest perception of impossibility always marks the end of belief in controlling. When I lose faith or belief in the power of controlling (or scheming) to solve my problems I let go, and when I let go I straightaway find myself in the ‘risk taking’ or spontaneous mode of consciousness, which is a mode of being with no ‘trying’ in it. And even if I am trying, I am not trying either to [1] believe that I am going to get somewhere with it, or [2] believe that I can stop trying with yet more trying…


So this way I surround my ‘trying’ with ‘not trying’. I surround my painful straining with non-judgmental space which will inevitably – in time – dissolve that straining. Who we really are is ‘the spontaneous self’ and the spontaneous self is (we could say) the ‘child within us’ – the inner child that has got deeply buried under the directed (or ‘adult’) mode of being. We can’t try to be spontaneous – this just isn’t going to work! The point is however that we don’t need to – we don’t need to because we already are that spontaneous self!






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