Not Scratching An Itchy Nose


The key to finding freedom from compulsivity (which is where we very strongly feel that we have to do something!) is being able to hang out in our discomfort zones. It is the inability to hang out in our discomfort zones that makes us helpless slaves to whatever compulsion it is that comes along. A simple example of this principle is a person who cannot say no when someone asks him or her for a favour. Now it is of course good to do favours but it is not good if I help people out only because I am unable not to do so! Suppose that I am one such person. You ask me if I would mind looking after your three children for a couple of hours while you go off to see to some matter or other. On this occasion, let us say, I have stuff to do myself, and it would be very inconvenient for me to baby-sit. However, I know that if I say “no” then I will feel terrible – it might be that I will feel bad that I am so mean to you, or terrified in case you think I am an awful person, or frightened that I might be hurting your feelings by my rejection. I might feel guilty about not helping you – it is, after all, very easy to take on board someone else’s problems and then feel bad if we can’t do something to help.


It can be seen from this example however that my real concern is to do with not experiencing the pain of the guilt, or the pain of (possibly) hurting someone’s feelings, or the pain of being negatively evaluated by another person. Because I am so unwilling to experience the pain (or the discomfort) of not doing what you want me to do, I have to go ahead and say “yes”, even though saying “yes” is going to cause me a whole lot of trouble later on. I have no other choice. If I could find some way of saying “no” and avoiding the pain at the same time I would, but I am caught in a trap. Either I go along with what you want and put up with the inconvenience, or I say “no” and feel bad, and the thought of feeling bad makes me automatically take the first option. The cure for this situation is obvious enough – don’t be afraid of feeling bad. If I have no problem with feeling bad then I am not in a trap – I can say “yes” if it is not too inconvenient, or I can say “no”. In other words, I am free to say “yes” or “no”, I am not being pressurized. Normally, we think it is the other person (or the situation) that is pressurizing us, but it isn’t – it is our own unexamined refusal to experience discomfort that has us under pressure!


The example given above is a simplistic one, but the principle applies for all compulsions, without exception. Whether it is the urge to smoke a cigarette, the urge to lose my temper with someone who is annoying me, the urge to escape from an anxiety-provoking situation, the urge to feel sorry for myself – they are all compulsions and they all make me their slave purely because of my unwillingness to experience discomfort (i.e. the discomfort of not acting on the urge).


So now we have redefined the problem. Instead of saying that the problem is how to successfully obey the compulsion, or successfully fight the compulsion with an equal and opposite compulsion, we are saying that the problem is how to refrain from obeying and/or fighting. The problem is how to ‘hang out’ in the discomfort zone. In the most profound sense this is not a problem at all because there is nothing to be achieved that is not already there. I am already in the discomfort zone, and so I don’t have anything to do. In a practical sense, however, there is a problem because I don’t know how to ‘not do’. I am so used to automatically ‘doing’, automatically ‘reacting’, that I simply do not know any other way. Either I obey the urge, which is , or I fight the urge, which is . I don’t know anything else apart from oscillating between these two poles. Basically, I am trapped in reacting – either I react, or I react to my reacting. Either I say or to the original compulsion, or I say to my saying or , but whatever I do, it still inevitably comes down to or . So how do I escape my own automatic reacting?


There is a neat way of illustrating this predicament and that is the exercise of ‘not scratching an itchy nose’. All you have to do is wait until the next time you have an itchy nose and try out not scratching it. The first thing we notice is that the urge to scratch actually gets worse when we try to resist it – it dominates our consciousness, it becomes huge. What has happened is that we have made scratching/not scratching into a major issue, and as a consequence we have got sucked into an ongoing irresolvable conflict situation.


It is of course possible to sit there and deliberately not scratch, even though the itch has by now assumed unbearable proportions. The problem is though that the thing has already gone wrong because it has become such an issue – I have come to a virtual standstill because all my resources are going into fighting the compulsion, and the more I fight the more obsessively fixated I get on the little itch (which is by now not such a little itch). We intuitively know that the whole thing has become stupid at this stage and so what usually happens is that we just say – “The hell with it” and give the itch a scratch so that we can forget about it and get on with our lives. We know on some level that, even if we do successfully resist the compulsion, the victory is a false one because all we did was substitute another compulsion for the itch. In other words, I manage to not obey the ‘scratching compulsion’ by obeying the ‘compulsion not to scratch’, so actually I am still copping out. I am still scratching, only this time the itch I am scratching is the new itch which is the itch to resist scratching. I swapped itches, but I am still in the state of slavery to itches. I am still just an ‘automatic reaction machine’.


The point here is that it is totally and utterly impossible to defeat a compulsion by saying or to it. As soon as we do that we are lost, which is to say, as soon as we assume a deliberate posture with regard to the itch, we are reacting. Another way to explain this is to say that a compulsion is ‘an invitation to play the game’. If I say “Yes I will play the game” then I am playing the game, and if I say “No I will not play the game” then I am still playing the game, because by taking the compulsion seriously I have (without realizing it) accepted the terms of the game. The terms of the game are simply that the game by taken seriously, that the goals which are important within the context of the game should also be seen as important by me. Obviously, once I do that, then I am by definition playing the game!


We can also explain this by saying that the compulsion is a trigger – it triggers us to react, to do. It doesn’t matter what sort of reacting, what sort of doing, because as soon as we are triggered into doing we have got sucked into the game. The trigger is of no consequence if I do not react because nothing comes of it – if I do not ‘do’ then I do not make an issue of anything and so I do not get stuck in the issue, and so there is no problem, no conflict situation. Not doing – not reacting to the trigger – doesn’t mean ignoring the trigger (which is treating the trigger as something special), it means treating the trigger the same as everything else. In the terms which we have been using, saying and both means ‘treating the trigger as something special’. ‘Not doing’ can be expressed in terms of <?>, which is open, unprejudiced awareness. <?> is simply consciousness, or ‘seeing what is there’.


Going back to the ‘itchy nose’ experiment, what this means is that the way to do it is by just being aware of the itchiness, without treating it as anything special. Where I tend to go wrong is by thinking that I have to be ‘aware of the itchiness’ on purpose, which is a mistake because the awareness is there by itself. Seeing happens by itself, it is not something that we ‘do’. The crucial insight is that I cannot deliberately be in a state of open, unprejudiced awareness, because ‘deliberate’ always means prejudice. The answer is simply to be myself, but I cannot be myself on purpose because ‘being myself’ is not a deliberate stance – it is not a position in a game, it is what happens naturally when I am not making an issue of anything.


<?> is a kind of natural balance point that needs no energy input to maintain. If I say then I have to maintain it and if I say I have to maintain it. I need to be there, to be actively involved in ‘propping up the situation’. If I take up a position then I need to defend that position. We can explain what we mean by this by looking at the problem of low self-esteem.


Often when a person has low self-esteem they are advised to try to think more positively about themselves. In other words, they are told to take up a certain position with regard to the question of whether they are crappy or not. We can analyse this in the same way that we have been looking at ‘scratching an itch’. In the case of low self-esteem, the feeling of inferiority (or embarrassment/shame) is the trigger and reacting to the trigger (i.e. scratching the itch) takes the form of either [1] saying to it by saying that “I am a crap person” or [2] saying to it by saying “I am a worthwhile person”. Both of these reactions provide momentary relief from the pain of the itch, but both also exacerbate the underlying problem – both responses make the itch worse, i.e. they make the issue bigger not smaller. The helpful thing to do is to take no position on the underlying painful feeling of inadequacy or inferiority. Seeing it is all I can do, really.


We might say that the thing to do is to take an ‘unprejudiced’ position but this would be misleading, because (as we have already noted) any position that I deliberately take is inevitably going to be prejudiced. It has to be prejudiced because it (i.e. the attitude or position) arose in connection with an aim or goal, and goals are by definition prejudiced! On the one hand what we are saying here seems to be ‘hopeless’ because what we are saying is that it is utterly impossible to mentally manoeuvre ourselves so as to not have low self-esteem, if we do have low self-esteem. There is no way to put a helpful slant on it in order to ‘adjust’ away the inadequate feelings. This sounds bad, naturally. On the other hand, what we are saying is actually good news, because what we are saying is that we are already doing the right thing, before we even started doing anything. The ‘right thing’ is simply to feel the pain and not try to fix things so I don’t feel so bad. Going back to the example of the itchy nose, the point is that it is okay for the itch to be there – the itch doesn’t really need a response, it just feels like it does. As long as I don’t fall into the trap of thinking that ‘I need to do something about it’, then there is no problem. I don’t need to react, and I don’t need to act so that I don’t react. The situation is right just as it is.


We have used the example of an itchy nose and the example of low self-esteem. The principle applies across the board, as we have said – it doesn’t matter what the itch or compulsion is. In anxiety it is ‘the itch to run away’ (i.e. fear), in anger it is the itch to attack, or the itch to defend oneself, and in OCD it is the itch to check or correct. In all cases what is happening is that we are trying to avoid discomfort or pain, and by avoiding the pain we only succeed in making the underlying compulsion stronger, just for the sake of momentary relief.


The key is to not feed the engine of reacting, because when we stop feeding it the engine gradually runs out of steam, without anyone having to ‘do’ anything. One metaphor is that of the muddy pool. When a pond gets muddy no amount of stirring or ‘messing about’ will fix it to make it stop being muddy. The more we mess about with it the muddier it gets, because it is our attempts to clear the water that keep it cloudy. The cure is to leave it to be muddy, even though this might be annoying, frustrating or painful to us. Once we stop interfering the mud will unfailingly settle and the water will clear all by itself – it might take a while, but there is no way to rush it. There is nothing else to do apart from letting it alone. The exact same is true with the muddied pond of our thoughts and emotions. We cannot use thinking to clear an upset or distorted mind because it is thinking that made everything confused in the first place.


No matter how bad the discomfort is in our mind, if it is allowed (if it is left alone) it will return to clarity and peace. Even though this is a very simple remedy, it is still easy to get confused. It seems that we can’t help trying to ‘smooth out the wrinkles’ ourselves, and even when we understand the idea of ‘not doing’ we spoil it by trying to ‘do’ the ‘not doing’. Suppose I have a compulsion to scratch an itch. My original formulation of my predicament is to say that it is the pain of the itch, which I try to solve by scratching. My attempt to scratch is based on my desire to escape the pain. When I get a bit of insight I see that my predicament is actually my on-going attempt to ‘fix’ the itch, and my inability to stop fixing.


This is always the predicament when it comes right down to it. There is absolutely no way to deliberately free myself from automatic reacting, and my attempts to do so only serve to fuel the whole thing. This is the bottom line – I cannot escape on purpose, and if I think I can then that is only because I am psychologically unconscious. One way of defining the state of psychological unconsciousness is to say that it is pain avoidance which is so thorough that we do not even know that this is what we are doing. In other words, I believe that my motivation for acting is one thing, whilst actually I have a hidden agenda the whole time and that hidden agenda is to distract myself from seeing something that I don’t want to see.


When I am in the state of psychological unconsciousness I always believe that there is some way to ‘fix it’. Because of this belief, I am always on the move, never accepting the truth of where I am. Therefore, although the discovery that I cannot escape on purpose (become free from my mind on purpose) initially seems like bad news, actually it is a very helpful insight because it means that I am no longer unconscious. I am no longer avoiding the pain of seeing my true predicament, which is that I cannot really change my situation by deliberate action – and because I am no longer avoiding pain I am no longer feeding the engine of automatic reacting. Even though I can’t stop trying to fix, by seeing that my attempts to fix the situation are futile I am in the state of conscious frustration, and it is through conscious frustration that the engine of automatic reacting is drained of its terrible ‘dead momentum’. This is how we do psychological work.






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