We all spend an awful lot of time wanting things to be different from the way in which they actually are. This is such a common thing to do that we don’t really see any harm in it. We see the ‘harm’ in the fact that things aren’t the way we want them to be, not in the fact that we are constantly wanting them to be different! In a way, we are hypnotized by the sheer familiarity of being in the ‘wanting’ or ‘desiring’ state of mind and so it seems perfectly normal to us. We never question the sense of it – wanting is ingrained, it is second nature to us, in fact it is usually the only nature we have. In this way, wanting (or desiring) may be said to be a kind of constant habit – or we could say that it is ‘a state of mind which we habitually exist within, and never see for what it is’.
THE COMFORT ZONE OF ‘HOPE’
It is usually the way that when I experience wanting, I also have some sort of expectation that I might get what I want. This expectation (or ‘hope’) gives me some relief from the pain of the wanting, and so too does any action that I might undertake on the basis of this expectation. In other words, when I start to plan how I might get things to be the way I want them to be, I start to feel better, and when I start to do something that I think will help me get what I want, this also makes me feel better.
Because any sort of ‘wanting’ that I might experience is straightaway followed by purposeful thinking and purposeful behaviour, I do not usually experience too much discomfort from wanting. Sometimes, in fact, the wanting is enjoyable because the expectation that I have about satisfying the wanting gives me a deliciously pleasurable sense of expectation. At other times, when I am in pain, or feeling fear, my expectation of escaping the pain or fear gives me some comfort, and makes me feel better as a result. Again, I am looking forward to ‘satisfying my wanting’ and this expectation is the comfort zone that I take refuge in.
THE INEVITABLE ‘HIDDEN DRAWBACK’
We might ask at this point, “Well what is the harm in this?” We all enjoy looking forward to the attainment of our goals – there is nothing wrong with that. And if the expectation of release from discomfort makes us feel a bit better then surely this must be a good thing? There is a drawback to the ‘comfort zone of expectation’ however, but it just so happens that the drawback is hidden and doesn’t show itself till later. And even then, when it does show itself, we are still very unlikely to understand what is going on – we are still very unlikely to ‘see the connection’, so to speak. The drawback in question is the same drawback that comes with all comfort zones and it has to do with the fact that when we habitually use comfort zones we very quickly lose all faith in our ability or capacity to be in a difficult situation without them. We can explain this drawback in the following way –
The ‘hidden cost’ of all comfort zones is that that they weaken us by making us dependent upon them, so that when they start to fail us (as every comfort zone eventually will) we are left having to rely on ourselves, but at the same time not believing that we are able to do this.
HOPING THAT THE BAD STUFF WILL GO AWAY
The question now is “When does the comfort zone of positive expectation let us down?” We might be forgiven for thinking, that no matter what happens, we can after all always hope. ‘Hope springs eternal to the human breast’, as we say. It is of course certainly true that ‘hope springs’ eternal and this is generally seen as a good thing because we are inspired by hope to keep on struggling against the odds (no matter how overwhelming the odds) rather than falling into unproductive and self-destructive despair. It is easy to understand how hope, in this context, can be seen to be a good thing, a ‘virtue’, even. But what is less easy to understand is how it could be the case that positive expectation (or hope) can be harmful thing, a cause of misery, a cause of pointlessly extended and exacerbated suffering.
We said earlier that ‘wanting’ is a habit with us. Wanting on its own however is pure pain with no relief in it, and so we get around this by cultivating, at the same time as the wanting, the expectation that the wanting might be fulfilled. The expectation is therefore an absolutely crucial part of the habit – if it wasn’t there then the wanting wouldn’t be able to persist the way it does persist. We were suggesting that there are ways in which ‘hope’ is not necessarily a good thing. It is easy to give an example – if every time I find myself in a difficult situation I automatically evade the discomfort of that difficulty by ‘hoping that it will soon be over’, then this is an example of hope being harmful rather than useful. In this case the comfort zone of hope weakens me, and makes me dependent upon a certain ‘conniving’ (or ‘tricky’) type of thinking in order to get through life. I am weakened because I quickly lose all faith in my ability to be in a difficult situation without looking forward to the time when the difficulty will be over (which also involves the belief that such a time will actually come), and I am dependent because unless I am able to believe that relief is on its way (which enables me to look forward to this time) then I am going to go to pieces in a major way. What the habit of ‘hoping that we won’t have to deal with stuff’ means in practice is that we are enabled (or so it seems) to ignore those parts of our life that are at all demanding, or boring, or depressing, or in any way difficult.
This of course sounds absolutely brilliant to us because there is nothing we would like so much as to be able to ‘skip’ the bits of life that are sad, boring, worrying, painful, frightening, etc and move on quickly to the ‘good bits’. We would all like to skip the ‘bad bits’, and to a certain extent we do skip over them – we do this through the habit of automatically distracting ourselves, by wanting things to be different, and by entertaining the state of positive anticipation that they will be different. What this comes down to is the hope that I will get away with it – the hope that if I ignore what is going on it will go away.
THE ‘NIGHTMARE SCENARIO’
The price we pay for this automatic (or unconscious) habit of coping with difficulty by distracting ourselves from the truth is that sometimes we can no longer distract ourselves. After all, we can’t always have everything our way, even in our imagination (or in our hopes). Certain situations are absolutely bound to come along that tax our ability to ‘avoid the truth’ beyond breaking point, so to speak. The question that arises now is this – “What happens when our habitual comfort zones unexpectedly fail us?” A good way to bring this home is to imagine a fairly everyday sort of a situation. Suppose you are leaving work at the end of a long day’s work. It is late, it is dark and everyone else has already gone home. Furthermore, you are tired and it is raining hard. You get into your car, throw your bag on the passenger seat and turn the key in the ignition. Up to now, all of this is pretty much on ‘automatic pilot’ – you might be a bit stressed, and a bit tired out, but it’s all purely automatic. You are not really paying attention. You have, after all, gone through exactly the same sequence more times than you would like to remember! When you turn the key however, nothing at all happens – there is no response no matter how many times you try it. There’s nothing, not a flicker. The car just won’t start for you!
The feeling we get when something like this happens is the same kind of feeling we get when any long-established comfort zone lets us down, only in the case of the comfort-zone of habitual self-distraction it is a lot worse. Our situation here is actually more like that of a bank robber who has just pulled off a job and jumps in the getaway car only to find that the engine won’t start! Just at the moment of my greatest need, the thing that was supposed to help me lets me down. This is of course a classic nightmarish situation – it is like one of those bad dreams where something awful is coming after me and I discover that I can’t run away, or where an icy cold hand seizes my ankle under the duvet, and I discover that I can’t scream to call for help.
When we go through the experience of having the rug pulled from under us in this way, we do not as a rule cope very well – in fact to say this is of course a ridiculous understatement! The general point that we are making in all this is that sooner or later something fairly major is going to happen to me and then I will discover to my horror that the comfort-zone of ‘positive anticipation’ just isn’t working any more. This is where I come face to face with the drawback associated with my long-standing habit of glossing over all the minor uncomfortable occurrences in my life. Basically, all I have done is to lull myself into a state of false security, and when that bubble bursts – as it inevitably will do at some point – the shock will be total. My habit of not facing difficulties properly has resulted in me living in a ‘fool’s paradise’, and when the awareness of this fact finally hits me it comes as an unimaginably terrible blow. There is nothing worse than being unexpectedly evicted from a fool’s paradise! At this point I go into a state of mind which is pure ‘not coping’ – a mixture of utter horrible panic, stunned disbelief and deep-rooted, paralysing despair.
The basic idea that we are talking about here is the idea that all comfort zones, all forms of ‘self-comforting’ or ‘self-distracting’ (i.e. ways of vainly and absurdly hoping that the problem will go away, or pretending that the problem isn’t there) are examples of false comfort, and so if I allow myself to become addicted to them as a way of coping with the difficulties that come my way in life, then I am doing myself no favours at all. So if for example something happens to me that I seriously don’t like, and which I can’t do anything about, what happens as a result of my addiction to self-comforting or self-distracting is that I am automatically plunged into a particularly nasty and distinctly ‘dysfunctional’ coping mechanism. The way that this dysfunctional coping mechanism works is that I keep noticing the way things are, and then reacting to this by saying to myself something to the effect that “It oughtn’t to be this way” or “This shouldn’t have happened” or “It isn’t fair” or “This is terrible” or “I can’t stand this” or some other variation on this theme.
Normally, the way that my comfort-zone works is as we have said that I straightaway want things to be different, and I allow myself to entertain the hopeful belief that maybe things can change to be more the way I want them to be. But suppose my situation just is a certain way, and I am desperately wanting it to be otherwise. I can’t help ‘reacting against’ my situation in this way because it is such a deeply ingrained habit, but my wanting is not helping me in any way, or making things any easier for me. On the contrary, it is a form of self-tormenting – I am locked into a never-ending cycle whereby I protest against my fate (and implicit in this protest is a hidden element of hope since otherwise I couldn’t find the motivation to protest), and then painfully re-emerge into the very same place that I was trying to escape from. This is the ‘universal dysfunctional coping mechanism’ – everyone knows how this goes.
This is true for ‘protesting’ and it is also true for ‘complaining’ – either way we are saying that things shouldn’t be a certain way, and the mere fact that we find it meaningful to say that they shouldn’t be that way means that, on some level, we are entertaining some absurdly unrealistic hope that they won’t be. This hope might be bizarrely unrealistic but it’s the only tool I’ve got left in my ‘box of tricks’ of ‘things to do to myself feel better’. The cyclical, recurring pattern of dysfunctional (or ‘self-tormenting’) behaviour that we are talking about is really just ‘a comfort zone that has all the comfort taken out of it’, but which we keep on repeating with because we do not know what else to do. The comfort-zone of ‘wanting and hoping that things will be different’ is an addiction, and as is the case with all addictions, the pattern of behaviour (and the unbearable craving) continues on long after all the pleasure is gone. Perhaps earlier on the addiction (or the comfort-zone) seemed like a friend, but now it is revealed for what it truly is, a deadly enemy.
NOTICING THE HABIT
There is only one way to work with this sort of dysfunctional coping strategy and that is to make it fully conscious. The whole point of the comfort zone of positive anticipation is that we do not let ourselves be aware of the fact that our positive anticipation is futile (or absurd). The usual way of it is that we are entirely blasé about the coping mechanism of ‘wanting things to be different’ – we do it all the time, hundreds of times every day in fact, and so we simply do not pay it any heed. This is like any long-standing habit. For example, suppose I have the habit of talking to myself constantly, and I have been doing this every day for many years. Because of the great familiarity that I have with the habit, I will not properly notice it – I will notice it in a way, but it will seem so very normal to me that I will not give it a second thought, so to speak. And yet it is not ‘normal’ at all really, or rather it is only normal because I have made it normal. If I was to see the habit for what it is – an odd sort of a thing that I have got thoroughly used to – then I would experience a degree of shock when I notice it. I would wonder at the fact that I have ended up this way, and it would be painfully difficult for me to realize the actual true nature of my situation.
We never usually feel this pain properly because a habit comes with its own built-in comfort zone. The comfort zone basically consists of ‘familiarity’, or ‘not questioning’, and so although a habit (any habit) is always an incongruous or absurd thing, familiarity and not-questioning means that we just don’t see this. This is true for all habits. Take for example the habit of smoking cigarettes: When I smoke all the time it seems so perfectly natural for me to have a fag between my fingers that I never take any notice of it. But actually it is rather bizarre that I have a slow-burning tube of dried leaf-material and chemicals between my fingers, and that I am sucking the smoke out of it repeatedly and taking it back into my lungs. This is a really strange thing!
Drinking is the same – if I am in the habit of getting drunk every day then I won’t see that there is anything strange in this, especially if I am with a gang of other people doing the same thing. But actually this is a very bizarre business altogether: Here I am intoxicating myself on some noxious substance that makes me lose my wits and talk nonsense, and which makes me stagger down the street for all the world as if I am suffering from some degenerative neurological disease. What is going on here? Why on earth would I (repeatedly) do this to myself? And yet because of the cloak of familiarity, it all seems perfectly ‘as it should be’ to me.
Television is another example – if I spend every evening of my life sitting in my living room staring fixedly at a screen for hours at a time, filling my head with stuff that has nothing at all to do with my own life no one will think this strange because we all do it, on a very regular basis. It’s very normal and entirely socially acceptable. It’s also a habit or addiction that does us no good at all, but because of its prevalence no one (or almost no one) ever questions it. If you walked into your neighbour’s living room only to find everyone busy taking heroin that would probably come as a shock (depending on the neighbourhood you are living in), but watching TV is basically the same sort of thing as taking heroin – it is a legal drug, a legitimized way of avoiding actual reality.
THE HABIT OF SELF-DECEPTION
The habit of wanting things to be different (i.e. wishing that reality wouldn’t be the way that it is) is exactly the same as all the examples we have just given – it is an absurd and totally useless thing to be doing, but because we do it all the time we completely fail to see this. When we want for things to be different (and somehow allow ourselves to believe that they might be just as a result of us wanting them to be) what we are really doing is playing a trick on ourselves in order that we might momentarily feel better. This is a dysfunctional coping mechanism because it really is only ‘just a trick’, and what is more, it is a trick that doesn’t actually work. Basically, if I am in a situation that I don’t want to face up to and I try to use the comfort zone of ‘wanting the situation to be different and hoping that it might be’ then what happens is that this attempt at finding comfort instantly rebounds on me – the reason this method of self-comforting rebounds on me is because as we have said it just doesn’t work.
We said that the attempt to use this habitual comfort zone turns into a form of ‘self-torturing’ – the torture comes out the fact that when I am totally dependent on the coping mechanism working and this mechanism fails to work, then I am really am ‘dropped right in it’. I am invested in the coping mechanism working, which is to say, all of my well-being is tied up in the comfort zone actually doing its job as a comfort zone, so that when it fails to help me, my well-being (as far as I am concerned at least) is zero. I am ‘well and truly scuppered’. I’m up shit creek without a paddle and my canoe has a whopping great hole in it…
When the comfort zone of ‘wanting and anticipating things to be different’ fails me I don’t just drop it like I might ditch a ballpoint pen that no longer writes. I can’t ‘just drop it’ because it’s all I know – I really don’t know any other way of coping. Instead I just get caught up in yet another version of this self-distracting mechanism in which I tell myself that things ought not to be this way, etc. I tell myself that I shouldn’t be in the pickle that I’m in – the pickle that the failure of my comfort zone has dropped me in. This is also a way of ‘tricking myself so that I momentarily feel better’ because there is a bit of comfort in thinking that my situation oughtn’t to be the way that it is.
Thinking “Why me?” is a classic example of this. Whilst I am thinking that things ought not to be this way, that thought gives me a transient sense of comfort; it makes me feel momentarily better to protest or complain about it. Again, this is just a form of ‘self-deception’ (or ‘self-trickery’) because I am looking at things in a particular sort of a way in order to make myself feel better, whilst validating (or justifying) this viewpoint at the same time. But really the viewpoint that I am taking is not at all valid or justifiable; actually it is utterly absurd – it doesn’t bear scrutiny for a second! It’s a nonsensical response
SEEING THE FUTILITY OF SELF-DECEPTION
The reason the viewpoint I am taking is absurd is simple: I find myself in a disagreeable or painful situation that I cannot get out of, and so I resort to the comfort zone of complaining or protesting about it. I am saying to myself that I ought not to be in this situation so that I will feel momentarily better. But where do I get this ‘ought not’ from? Who is saying that I ought not to be in the particular situation that I do find myself in? Obviously the answer is that I am saying that that I oughtn’t to be in it. But the only reason I am saying this (or thinking this) is because something is happening that is making me feel bad. I am feeling bad, and I saying that I oughtn’t to be feeling bad simply because I don’t like feeling bad. This means that my comfort zone is ‘saying that that I oughtn’t to feel this way and then straightaway believing what I have just said’.
When I say that whatever it is ‘oughtn’t’ to be happening what I am actually doing is validating my objection to feeling bad. In other words, the only reason I say that ‘it is not right for that to happen’ is because I don’t want it to be right. But this of course doesn’t mean a thing! After all when I make up the rules to suit myself, what real meaning is there in these rules? In my own mind I can say that reality doesn’t have the right to put me in the place that it has put me. According to me, “It’s not fair”. But this is crazy thinking – since when has reality needed my permission in order to do what it does? Since when has reality required my ‘say so’ in order to be the way it is? Who am I to say what is right and what is not right?
Due to my upside-down way of seeing things, I think that I am the centre of the universe. I think that I am so important that it is me who has the job of saying what is and is not right. When it comes right down to it, the ultimate ‘say so’ is of course not up to me at all. If reality puts me in a place that I don’t want to be in, then that is the place where I will be. The way my comfort zone works however is (as we have said) for me to take the viewpoint that my wishes are all-important rather than being ‘entirely irrelevant’. When I look at things this ‘upside-down’ way then I can complain to my heart’s content and feel as justified as I like, but really its all just an act of self-deception. Basically, I am addicted to tricking myself in order to momentarily feel better about things, and because this habit is so ingrained in me, I don’t see anything odd about it – I don’t see how downright crazy it is. As long as I stay unconscious, I will carry on not seeing the insanity of what I am doing, and as long as I carry on not seeing the insanity of what I am doing I will carry on with my dysfunctional coping mechanism, no matter how much torment it brings me. And I will bring this dysfunctional coping mechanism with me wherever I go.
All I need to do in order to become free from the torment-inducing insanity of my pernicious habit of ‘deceiving myself in order to feel momentarily better’ is as we have said to take the time to observe the utter absurdity and futility of what I am doing. As we have said, the habitual patterns of the unconscious mind can only persist if they stay unconsciousness – ‘unconsciousness’ is the comfort zone which enables us to carry on the way we always have been carrying on. All these patterns can only continue when we remain profoundly unconscious.
Another way of explaining this is to say that ‘not seeing the way in which we are tricking ourselves in order that we might momentarily feel better’ is the comfort zone that allows us to go on tricking ourselves. Once I see what is going on – once I catch myself deceiving myself – then my comfort zone is gone and as a result of this ‘loss of comfort’ it is absolutely impossible that I will carry on with this dysfunctional habit in the way that I always have done. Without the energy constantly being put into the self-deception mechanism, I cannot continue. As I bring consciousness into my day-to-day life all of these pain-generating automatic patterns of wanting and reacting will inevitably weaken and fall away from me, all by themselves. And then, instead of deriving pleasure from the thought that ‘things will be different’, I will be able to find joy and peace in ‘things being the way that they actually are’…