When it comes down to it, in practice, we find that it is a very hard thing to work in a helpful way with our thoughts. What almost always happens is that we either end up fighting (in a perfectly futile way) against our thinking, or we end up carrying on thinking in the same old way that we always do. Neither of these does any good – in the first case our ‘fighting against the thinking’ feeds the thinking (which means that the struggle just goes on and on) and in the second case the fact that we are ‘carrying on thinking’ also feeds the thinking, and so this goes on and on forever too!
What makes it hard to work with our thinking is our lack of insight about a key point therefore, and that key point is that any involvement at all that I have with my thinking feeds that thinking, just as throwing fuel into a fire feeds the fire. Thinking is a game, and as soon as I get sucked into playing it I am putting energy into it. Not getting involved with the thinking game doesn’t mean ignoring it – if I try to ignore a game this is taking up a deliberate (or calculated) attitude towards it and this means that I am playing it despite myself! This is the same sort of thing as sulking, or being ‘passive aggressive’ – if I am in a sulk (or being what is called passive-aggressive) then I am refusing to get involved, I am refusing to communicate, but the thing about this is that my refusal to get involved is a form of involvement. My deliberate non-communication is of course a communication in itself because I am trying to get some point across! If I have some intention (or agenda) behind what I am doing, then this constitutes a game…
Instead of saying that a game is when I have some sort of intention or agenda behind what I am doing (which I may or may not be aware of) we could just say that it is when I have some kind of thought, some kind of thinking, behind what I am doing, and this perhaps makes it easier to understand. If there is thought behind what I am doing, then what I am doing is thinking, and as we have said thinking always reinforces thinking, no matter what type of thinking it is, no matter what the thinking in question may be about. Thinking always feeds thinking – that is the basic principle! Another way to put this would be to say that we can’t get rid of thinking with thinking, which makes perfect sense when we reflect on it. Working with our thinking in a helpful way doesn’t means discovering the right approach to take with it because all approaches are a manifestation of thinking – what it means is not having an approach, not playing an angle…
NOT HAVING AN APPROACH
In one way this sounds very difficult – if not impossible. How can I not have an approach? No matter what I do, it is going to be some approach or other. And even deliberately trying not to have an approach is an approach – it is the approach of having no approach! The more I think about this the more frustratingly impossible it seems and yet at the same time there is something delightfully straightforward, something delightfully simple about ‘having no attitude’. If I think about having no attitude, and what the right way might be to go about attaining such a wonderfully unprejudiced state of mind then of course the whole thing becomes impossibly complicated (since thinking is in itself an attitude) but then on the other hand if I’m not thinking about it then nothing could be simpler since ‘not having an attitude’ is the way we all are quite naturally, before we start thinking about things, before we start getting all ‘smart and sophisticated’ in ourselves. Not having an attitude just means that I don’t assume that I already know something about life – it means that I am looking at things with fresh eyes, eyes that are not contaminated by all the stuff that I think I know.
We could also say that not having an attitude means not looking at the world in terms of what we want from it, which shows again the difficulties that beset us if we start off from (as we almost certainly do) a position of wanting to have no attitude. Wanting to have no attitude is an attitude and so we’re banjaxed from the start! The question is therefore, how do I start to work with my thinking, when even my intention to ‘do something about it’ is a thought, is an attitude? The first point to make is that there has to be sincerity in this intention: if I am just in pain and as a result of being in pain my knee-jerk reaction is to find some way of making the pain stop then there is no sincerity in this and I won’t get anywhere on this basis. I have an agenda to do whatever I need to do to stop my thoughts tormenting me so much, and so all of a sudden I’m interested in learning whatever I need to learn to do something about this situation! Then – presumably – as soon as the problem has been solved I can go straight back to my previous ‘heedless’ way of life. I can go straight back to sleep! The only problem here is that this just won’t work because deep down – where it really counts – I just don’t give a damn. All I care about is getting rid of the irritation, all I care about is ‘mechanically reacting to pain and discomfort to make it go away’ and this isn’t a genuine motivation. I need to tap into a deeper source of motivation than this if anything is to change…
Luckily this ‘deeper motivation’, this ‘sincerity’, is there somewhere beneath the surface and constant unremitting suffering is the one thing that is guaranteed to put me in touch with it! Of course I want to the suffering that I am going through to end, but there is more than it to this. On a very deep level, I am disillusioned with the ‘way of being’ that I have that puts me in line for this type of suffering, and as a result something in me is genuinely interested in change. Anthony de Mello says that one thing he found out as a result of many years working as a psychotherapist was that people come looking to be ‘fixed’, so that they can go back to their games – very few people come to psychotherapy because they actually want to change in a profound way. It is as if we always want to go back to what we know, to resume the way of doing things that we used to have, back in ‘the good old days’. This is true even if there never were any good old days – looking back through rose-tinted glasses, ‘the way we used to be’ looks very attractive indeed when we are going through a difficult time and so as a result of this nostalgic view we have of it, we want very badly to get back to it. This is our usual ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to being subjected to pain that takes us beyond what our everyday coping mechanisms can deal with.
What can happen when we go through enough neurotic suffering however is that we discover within ourselves a sincere wish to change in a fundamental way – we no longer want to go back to the way we used to be because we can see that the way we used to be contains within it the root of our present suffering! What has happened in this case that we have reached a point where we are willing – on a very deep level – to let go of all the mass of unexamined attachments that are behind all the pain we are going through, and it is at this point that we can be said to have ‘rediscovered our sincerity’. It is – very clearly – only when we have reached this point that genuine change can take place. After all, how can change possibly take place when we have no genuine wish for that change? Heartfelt assent to change is the only thing that is needed for change to happen – the big obstacle is reaching this point! When we no longer have that ‘deep-down unconscious commitment’ to staying the same (or to returning to how we were before things became so challenging) then – and only then – have we been freed up enough to begin to change our relationship with our thoughts. Beforehand, whilst the ‘unconsciousness commitment to staying the same’ is still there and in full force, we are dependent upon our thoughts to help us. The thinking mind is the unscrupulous government and ‘change’ is the terrorist threat that it has frightened us with, and has promised to save us from, so to speak (just so long as we agree to it taking the appropriate measures). This being the way things are, of course we are never going to come anywhere close to be able to work with our thinking in a helpful (or ‘freeing’) way. This being the way things are, there is absolutely zero chance of changing the way we relate to our thoughts and any practices we undertake are only ever going to be a pretence, are only ever going to be a hollow façade.
The key to everything is not being scared or threatened or cajoled or in any way manipulated by our thinking into taking it seriously. The automatic thinking process will try to get us to buy into what it is saying, but that is all it can do – it’s up to us whether we buy into it or not. This is a freedom that we always have – whether we realize it or not. We don’t have to buy into anything thought tells us, just so long as it hasn’t ‘got anything over us’ – which is exactly what it does have when we’re fundamentally afraid of change. As long as we are absolutely afraid of something, then the thinking process can of course play this card to get our allegiance, and whenever it does play this card we won’t have the option of not going along with it… We are – in this case – the ‘helpless puppet of the thinking process’ and we will be dragged along (kicking and screaming as the case may be) to believe in whatever nonsense the thinking process wants us to believe in…
MAKING AN ISSUE OUT OF A DIFFICULTY
A very straightforward way of explaining what happens when we get ‘railroaded’ (or ‘puppeted’) by the thinking process is to talk in terms of issues. An issue is – quite simply – when we think we have to do something about what is happening. So, a ‘provocation’ comes along and I am pulled into thinking that I absolutely have to do something about it. My back’s against the wall. I’m caught. The provocation is essentially some kind of difficulty – it is something that makes more of a demand on us than we are used to, something that threatens to take us out of our comfort zone. If being ‘taken out of my comfort zone’ is something that I am absolutely afraid of then I will get sucked into thinking; on the other hand, if I’m willing to make the experiment of venturing out of my comfort zone, then I don’t necessarily have to react to the provocation. I don’t have to get caught up in the issue.
There is a world of a difference between ‘a difficulty’ and ‘an issue’ – a difficulty is when we find ourselves in a place that is hard for us to be in, whilst an issue is when we are faced with a possibility that we just can’t countenance. An issue is a problem that we need to fix therefore – there is no leeway with regard to ‘not fixing’. ‘Failure is not an option’, as the saying goes, as we make a virtue of this lack of freedom. This often-heard saying might sound good to us if we don’t reflect on it too much (or at all) but what it really means that instead of inner freedom what we have is a compulsion, what we have is ‘a rule’ that we are not allowed to question…
Difficulties and problems are totally different things – if something is difficult then it is difficult, but I am not on the run from that difficulty. There’s no compulsion in it, no rule saying that we have to ‘fix it’. The situation I’m in isn’t easy, but it is ‘workable’ nevertheless, to use Chogyam Trungpa’s phrase. When something is a problem then I have already evaluated – in a quite automatic way – the situation as being absolutely unacceptable. There is as we have said no leeway here – it has to be fixed and that is that. Because I have accepted that there is no leeway, because I have bought into the proposition that ‘failure is not an option’, all my energy and resourcefulness goes into the question of “how to fix it”. With problems it is always the burning question of ‘how do I fix it’ that obsesses us – this is what makes a problem into a problem, this is what makes an issue into an issue. “How?” is the bait that we automatically bite at, and “how?” also contains hidden within it the hook that makes sure we can’t break free, once we have ‘bitten’.
THE TRAP OF AUTOMATIC EVALUATION
What makes a problem into a problem is the lightening quick evaluation that we make, by sheer force of habit: “No way!” we say, but we say this in an inkling, so that we don’t even notice ourselves saying it. But once we have made this evaluation – which is also the same thing as ‘a decision’ – then this makes all the difference in the world. From then on we are locked into trying to obey the ‘invisible rule’ that we have bought into – everything hangs upon whether or not we can manage to obey the rule. The ‘rule’ is simply something to the effect of “I cannot allow this…” or “I have to do something about this…”
This lightening-quick decision to go along with the rule is something that I freely (if unconsciously) make, but the thing about this is that as soon as I make it, I forget that it is ‘a decision’. I’m trapped in my own unconscious choice about how the world is to be seen, in other words. I forget that the rule is only a rule because I choose to go along with it. I don’t see that I am seeing things this way because of a decision I made – I just see the way I am seeing things as ‘the way things are’.
We can therefore say that the basic process of how a difficulty gets turned into a problem all starts with that first crucial step of evaluating the difficult situation: first I evaluate, and then I react on the basis of my evaluation (or decision). The snag in this is that the business of reacting is so ‘all-consuming’ (in terms of my attention) that I never get a chance to question my original decision.
It is crucially important to understand this process of ‘converting a difficulty into a problem’ because this is precisely what bogs us down whenever we try to ‘work’ with difficult feelings or thoughts. In fact this process of getting ‘bogged down’ or ‘trapped’ generally happens with all our feelings and thoughts, not just the difficult ones – we just don’t notice being trapped in the thinking process when it isn’t painful for us. The truth of the matter – whether we realize it or not – is that we are controlled by our automatic reactions, which is to say, we turn just about every difficulty that comes along into a problem or issue. This is the ‘mechanical mode of existence’ – it as what happens to us when we get sucked helplessly into the mode of trying to ‘fix things’, as if life itself were nothing more than a series of problems crying out to be fixed.
The big question is “What do we do to prevent ourselves getting sucked into this dreadfully humourless ‘mechanical mode of being’?” What is the ‘key’ to not being controlled by the runaway rational mind? Actually there isn’t a key, not in the way we’d like for there to be one. We tend to want a literal key that we can remember, something like a helpful formula or recipe. The problem with this however is there just isn’t a handy formula – there can’t be because formulae are methods (or rather they are instructions for how to implement methods) and methods – by definition – are all about changing or controlling the situation. If I am looking for a method, then I must be looking for a means of control, I must be looking for ‘a way to stay on top of the situation’. Or we could say that if I am looking for ‘a way to stay on top of the situation’ then I am looking for a way to ‘win out’, and if I am looking for a way to ‘win out’ then I must have been sucked into an issue! I must have been sucked into an issue because it is only when I am caught up in issues that I feel the need to ‘win’. Only problems need to be fixed, in other words, and so if I’m trying to fix something then I must have already been swallowed up by the mechanical mode of functioning…
So this understanding is actually a sort of a key in itself – only it is what we could call a negative rather than a positive key that tells us what to do. A negative key means that when I see myself doing something, then I know from this that I have gone astray. In other words, it doesn’t tell me what the right thing to do is, it just tells me what isn’t the right thing. So if I notice myself struggling to ‘win out’ in some way, then I know straightaway that this isn’t the way to work with thoughts and feelings. I know that I’m just reacting mechanically. And if I make this into an issue, and start to try to ’win out against my habit of always trying to win out’, then I know that this isn’t the right way to work either!
We would generally much rather have a positive key rather than a negative one for the simple reason that we don’t want to do the work ourselves. We want to be told what to do! We want ‘an external authority’! A positive key tells us what the right thing to do is, and this makes life very easy for us. But there is no right way for dealing with issues (or dealing with difficult situations that are threatening to become issues) because if there was ‘a right way to deal with it’, then this means (by direct implication) that it needs to be dealt with. But if it needs to be dealt with, then that makes it an issue. If it needs to be dealt with then it’s a problem! Therefore, as we have already said, having a right way of doing things (which is the same thing as a method) is just another way of making an issue out of something – in this case, it is a way of ‘making an issue out of the need not to be making issues’.
INSIGHT IS ALWAYS NEW
When we use this ‘negative key’ to guide us rather than some sort of positive one, rather than some kind of method, then this pretty quickly teaches us something remarkable. What it teaches us is that whatever we do, it is ‘wrong’! Whatever we do to free ourselves from our thinking only entangles us in that thinking all the more. We make things worse by trying to make them better. This of course completely ties us up in knots and we end up despairing and asking ourselves or anybody else who happens to be around what the answer could be. But in doing this, we are going back to that old business of looking for a positive key. We are being ‘lazy’ – we want the ‘answer’ to be conveniently handed to us on a plate. We are waiting – as we always do – for the external authority to tell us what to do.
The ‘answer’ that we’re looking for doesn’t come from thinking or methods or books written by experts however – which is to say, it doesn’t come from our models, from our rational understanding of the world and how things work in that world. The answer isn’t to be found in the filing system that we have in our heads because the ‘answer’ is actually to look at reality directly without any of our old, limiting assumptions about what the world is and how things work in it. As Krishnamurti always says, we have to look at the world with ‘new eyes’, not the old ones. The old eyes won’t help us no matter how long we look because it is the old eyes that are the root of the problem in the first place.
When the answer comes, it comes from totally unexpected quarter, and this is why we can’t find it deliberately: I can only deliberately or purposefully find stuff that I already know about, if not in detail then at least in outline. Old stuff I can find on purpose, but new stuff I cannot, obviously! So what we are saying here is that the sort of answer that will show us how to helpfully work with out thoughts and feelings (and prevent us from turning everything into issues) comes in the form of a flash of insight, rather than coming as a result of any sort of acquired ‘cleverness’.
Because insight is ‘new’ (and not part of our repertoire) it is no good racking our brains to work out what to do when we’re feeling hard-pressed, when we’re ‘in the thick of it’. This in itself is helpful to know because this means that we can now see that there is simply no point in involving ourselves in thinking! This is an extraordinarily helpful thing to understand because normally we take it for granted that thinking is somehow going to save us, if we do enough of it (or if we do it in the ‘right way’). For this reason we ‘put all our money’ on this horse, and we end up as a result suffering from ‘over-thinking’, like a car which is having its engine revved up far more than is good for it. The result of over-valuing the rational mind and its box of tricks (as we always do) is that we end up suffering from the disease of ‘runaway thinking’, which happens as a result of us trying to get out of a difficult situation by being clever, by being skilful at manipulating stuff. We’re in a difficult situation and we think about this situation a hell of a lot because we’re hoping to find a way to escape from it, and this runaway thinking activity not only increases the pain we’re in, it prevents us from actually relating – in an honest rather than a manipulative way – with what’s going on. The thinking keeps us stuck, in other words.
THOUGHT AS A PARASITE
The disease of ‘over-thinking’ affects most of us, and yet we rarely realize just how debilitating it is for us. It takes up all our time, uses up lots and lots of energy, and distracts us from enjoying or appreciating what is actually going on at the time. And yet, despite the fact that it costs us so much (in terms of the ‘quality’ of our inner life) we don’t get anything worthwhile as a result of it. We could even go so far as to say that the runaway thinking process acts like a parasitic organism. Thinking never leads anywhere apart from more thinking – basically what I am doing (when it comes right down to it) is ‘thinking for the sake of thinking’. In other words, the normal everyday type of thinking that we all engage in is no more than a pointless and self-destructive habit – it is – not to put too fine a point on it – a form of mental activity that we engage ourselves in simply for the sake of distracting ourselves from what’s really going on. This sounds like a very extreme viewpoint on the matter, and most people undoubtedly wouldn’t agree with it for a second. But if anyone were to take the trouble to actually notice their own thinking during the course of the day, and reflect on just how useful it really is, they could not fail to be struck by the most salient feature of everyday, ‘common or garden’ thinking, which is its redundancy. It is empty chatter – and this empty chatter is somehow tolerated by us, as if it’s only right and proper that it should be there, in the background, passing banal comments on everything like an annoying sports commentator we can’t turn off.
Once we thoroughly realize that the normal everyday type of rational thinking is not going to help us, that it is not going to get us anywhere new, then as we have said this is profoundly helpful. We have already made the point that there can be no such thing as a ‘method’ for freeing us when we are ‘sucked up into issues’ (since the fact that there has to be a method re-affirms the issue) and the exact same thing is true for thinking. If we could clearly see rational thinking for what it is we would see it to be an endless series of issues, one after another, with nothing in the way of gaps in between them. When it comes down to it, there is never any ‘let-up’, never any break from the ceaseless demand that is made on our attention. All our available attention is hoovered up by the mechanical process of thinking. If there was a bit of a gap, a bit of a let-up, then this would constitute actual mental freedom, which is precisely what the engine of everyday rational thinking is geared to prevent!
Realising that the normal type of thinking that we engage in is not useful in the way that it implicitly claims to be, and that – moreover – it has the covert function of mopping up every last little bit of our mental freedom is helpful not because this realisation causes us to try to deliberately stop thinking (which is, as we have said, completely impossible) but because we stop believing in it. This is basically a process of disillusionment – it is just like when we keep meeting a guy who makes promise after promise every time we meet him, and keeps none of them. After a while, what happens is that we see through him, we get disillusioned with his false promises. We don’t need to punch the guy in the face, or roar and shout at him, or chase him away with a big stick, all we need to do is realize that he is a phoney and then it naturally happens that we no longer listen to his empty promises.
Exactly the same thing happens when we get disillusioned with the constant stream of rational thinking that goes on in our heads every day. We don’t need to criticise the thinking, or judge it, or chase it away, or get violent with it in any way, all we need to do is to see through it. Whether we are talking about this in terms of ‘thinking’, or ‘issues’, or ‘negative emotions or feelings’, the point remains the same – it is not action that is needed, but insight into the uselessness of thought-mediated action.
Difficult, hard-to-handle thoughts and feelings always provoke us to take action in order to escape the pain that they bring (‘action’ may mean doing something, or it may mean simply thinking). This action often brings us an initial feeling of relief, but the relief is short-lived and any pain that we escape in the short-term is repaid with interest on the long term. Therefore, we can say that any ‘action’ that we might take (or any ‘thinking about the problem’ that we might do) is only really postponing pain. It is postponing the pain we have waiting for us, and adding to it at the same time. If there is a difficulty there, then I may be able to momentarily postpone the moment when I have to face it, but that is all. I can’t really escape it. And whatever I do it is only making matters worse for myself…
Once we understand this, once we see through the sophisticated psychological game that we are playing with ourselves with all our ‘thinking about the problem’, then we naturally stop investing time and energy in the game. What this means is that when difficulties come along, more and more often it just naturally happens that we don’t make an issue of them. that we don’t distract ourselves with false hopes of ‘finding a way out’. This doesn’t mean that we straightaway cease thinking non-stop, attention-eating thoughts all the time – what it does mean however is that we face up to the fact that we are letting non-stop mechanical thinking eat up all our free attention (i.e. our unconditioned consciousness) the whole time. We don’t avoid seeing this by ‘believing in the thoughts’, by ‘buying into the distractions’. It isn’t ‘an issue’ because there is nothing we can do about it! It’s just ‘what’s happening’. So we don’t try to change what is happening – we just observe what is happening. And if we find that we’ve got caught up in a struggle to observe, caught up in forcing ourselves to observe (as if not-observing’ were a problem!) then we simply observe that this is what is happening. Whatever is happening, it’s only ‘what is happening’ – it isn’t really an issue unless we make it so…
When we get stuck, then this is what is happening. What is happening is that we are stuck in an issue. So we see that we’re stuck in an issue. This in itself isn’t an issue because there’s nothing we can do to change it! It’s just ‘what’s happening’… If we have the thought that it is a problem for us to be stuck in an issue then this is just another thought. It’s just a thought like any other. There isn’t really a problem – there is only a problem if we believe that there is. There is only a problem if we insist on believing that it is absolutely unacceptable for whatever is happening to be happening…