No Attitude

Buddha.1

What helps with mental distress is having no kind of attitude, no kind of ‘approach’. The only thing that helps is having no attitude! Anything else merely adds to the distress. This needs to be emphasized because we are so convinced to the contrary – we take it for granted that there is a right attitude to take, that there is a right ‘angle’ to come at the problem from, and so all our energy goes into finding it. This is a widespread cultural assumption, not just a personal one, and so it is very hard to question or look beyond.  Cultural assumptions have a very level of immunity to questioning – when we do question them, everyone else questions us and so we are very likely to end up doubting ourselves and going along with the ‘majority view’. It is hard to be going through mental distress, of whatever sort, and at the same time have the confidence (or the courage) to go against what everyone else thinks…

 

Every time someone gives us advice about ‘what to do’ or ‘how to think about our situation’ they are giving us an angle. The idea is – of course – that if we follow the advice about what attitude to take then this will make things better. This sort of thing never works, however – not really, not in the long run. It might sometimes seem as if it is working because it feels good to have a defined approach to take, but whatever angle we take is always going to turn into a ‘let down’ at the end. All positive approaches let us down in the end, and what is more, they don’t just let us down – they work against us. Even professional advice tends often to be of this kind – we are given ‘an angle’ and are told that this will work, if we put the right amount of effort into it. With ‘professionally approved’ advice the sense of security that we obtain (i.e. the feeling of being in control) is of course considerably greater than that associated with ‘general advice’ because of the authority that we invest it with. But this just means that the ‘let down’ is all the greater when it comes, as come it must, since no ‘positive approach’, no ‘angle’, no ‘approved method’, no ‘tried and trusted formula’ can ever really help us.

 

The approach we are taking might seem to change things in the first instance – we seem to be more ‘in control’ and getting ‘positive results’ as a result – but control is always an exercise in self-deception as far as mental health is concerned. The only sort of change that is worth anything (the only real sort of change) is change that happens by itself, rather than change that is artificially induced (i.e. brought about by methods or wilful effort). After all if I have to make it happen, then what is happening is a reflection of what I want, rather than of any spontaneous process, and the only way healing can take place is through a spontaneous process. There is a huge difference between the two possibilities (the two paradigms) that we’re talking about here: the former occurs via an act of ‘control’ whilst the latter takes place as a result of ‘trust’, and the crucial thing to understand about control is that it is of course the very antithesis of trust!

 

The essential reason why ‘having some sort of an attitude’ can’t ever really help us in the long run is surprisingly simple to explain. What having an attitude or having an angle does for us is that it gives us a ‘means of control’. That’s the whole point – this is what ‘having an angle’ is all about. Having some means of exerting control is what we all want because if we can have control over how we feel (if we can have a choice about what sort of a mental state we’re in) then all our problems are at an end. Or at the very least, we’re in some kind of a better position with regard to the type of distressing feelings and thoughts that we are being subjected to. The assumption is therefore that when we have an angle to approach things from (which is synonymous with ‘having a method of dealing with what’s going on’) then we are on our way to feeling better. This has got to be an improvement to our situation – or at least this is what we think.

 

This line of reasoning is however fatally flawed – it doesn’t work out in practice, no matter how good it might sound in theory. What we need to ask ourselves in order to discover why the reasoning is flawed is “what exactly do we mean by ‘control’?” This might sounds like a stupid question (since we all know what control is) but we will carry on regardless, no matter how obvious the answer might seem. Control is of course when we get the result that we want to happen, rather than the result that we don’t want. Control means that what we want happens and what we don’t want doesn’t happen! This is control in a nutshell – the unwanted outcome is excluded, and the desired one obtained. So in the context of mental distress and mental suffering, what we want is to not feel so bad – or perhaps even feel half-way good if that is at all possible. We want the suffering-producing thoughts and the suffering-producing feelings to go away, or at least lessen in their impact of that’s the best outcome we can have. This all sounds very logical, very straightforward…

 

But the problem is that everyday logic isn’t any good to us here. The type of thinking we use on a regular basis isn’t any good to us. ‘Common-sense’ isn’t any good to us. Rationalizations aren’t any good to us. Logical analysis isn’t any good to us. What is going to help us here is not ‘our normal way of thinking about things’ or ‘our normal way of doing things’ but psychological insight, which always goes against our habitual thinking, our mechanical ‘reflexes’ of thought and action. What helps with mental distress is not to learn how to be ‘more in control’ of what is going on (which is only ever about avoiding pain and painful awareness) but learning how to use the great resources of strength, compassion and wisdom that lie dormant within all of us that will allow us to relate to our pain more honestly, more directly…

 

Recovering our mental health and sense of well-being isn’t a matter of getting better at controlling our thoughts and feelings more effectively (i.e. getting better at managing or regulating them, as we like to say) but of learning to relate to them fearlessly as they actually are, rather than automatically judging and resisting them, as we almost always do. We’re not trying to change the picture, we’re not trying to tune into some more optimistic or more balanced way of seeing things, but rather we’re practising the art of honestly relating to the subjective reality we’re in – however painful that may be, however dark or distorted that reality may be. Whatever pain we are in really is there, no matter how negative or distorted our thinking may be – and those negative or distorted thoughts really are there, even though they are negative and distorted views of reality. Because the pain and the dark thoughts are there, we are honestly relating to them. This is very simple!

 

Control (which we love so much as it provides us with security) is no help here at all. How can control help us relate honestly with what is going on for us? Control is only good for changing things and trying to change the subjective reality of our situation simply involves us in a fight we cannot win. I can’t control myself to be more honest or more courageous – even though I might think that I can. The urge to control always stems from fear, not courage, so the idea that I can ‘control myself to be fearless’ is quite absurd. It’s a contradiction in terms. The only reason I’m trying to control myself to be more courageous is because I am afraid of what will happen if I don’t, so all I am doing is trying to use fear to control fear, which only ever goes around in circles and makes the fear stronger than ever.

 

I can no more ‘control myself to relate more honestly to my inner state’ (i.e. my subjective reality) than I can control myself to be more sincere, or more natural. Actually, as we all know, the more I control myself the less sincere, the less natural I am. Sincerity comes all by itself when I stop trying to control myself – it comes when I ‘allow myself to be the way that I genuinely am’. The same of course goes for ‘being natural’ (or ‘being spontaneous’) – the meaning of being natural or being spontaneous is that whatever it happening is happening by itself rather than being made to happen, so how can having the right attitude, the correct angle or approach help here? Having an attitude simply means forcing ourselves to be a particular way, and this is the opposite of being sincere, the opposite of being natural. If I am taking a particular angle on how I am approaching things, then this is being ‘controlled’, it is being ‘artificial’!

 

‘Relating honestly to our thoughts and feelings’ means ‘being the way that we actually are’ and this is most emphatically NOT about finding the right angle to play, finding the right advice (expert or otherwise) to listen to. It’s not about ‘getting clever’. I cannot control myself to be the way that I actually am, and neither can anyone else instruct me on how to be this way, on how to have ‘no attitude’. The idea that someone else can give me a method for how to honestly relate to my own inner state is quite ridiculous. This is not about methods and it is not about controlling – this is just about seeing things the way they are, which means not automatically judging and resisting the way that they are. Controlling (or ‘cleverness’) is the obstacle to this process – not the answer.

 

It is very clear – from an intuitive point of view – that trying to find a sure-fire way of controlling our thoughts and feelings (evidence-based or not evidence-based as the case may be) is not a way of being mentally healthy. As we have said, control is all about avoiding the pain that is there, and the automatic tactic of ‘avoiding mental pain’ is really the root cause of our difficulties, not the solution. Control means putting more and more barriers between ourselves and the inner pain that we are trying to escape from, but at the same time these barriers ‘protect’ us from the pain, they also cut us off from life. The tactic of ‘running away from the pain’ simply creates more and more neurotic veils for us to hide behind therefore and each of these ‘neurotic veils’ represents a loss of honesty, a loss of integrity with regard to how we are dealing with life. Intuitively, as we have said, the truth of this statement is very clear, but we are not an intuitive culture. We are very much a rational culture, as Carl Jung says. We are a fully-fledged ‘rational-technological’ culture and our way is the way of control.

 

The heart of the difficulty is of course that being with painful states of mind without trying to control them or run away from them is extraordinarily challenging. This is what it all comes down to – we want an easier answer. It’s not that we won’t do anything difficult in order to free ourselves from the distress we’re in – if we knew that doing something would help us we would of course do it, but the problem here is that this then equals ‘an agenda’ and an agenda equals ‘controlling’. If there was some kind of guarantee that if I ‘stuck with the pain’ for a certain amount of time then the pain would lessen or go away then the chances are that I would do it. That however would amount to a ‘method’ and as we have said a method is a way of controlling – albeit in this case a very subtle form of controlling where we ‘control by allowing things to be as they are’, so that (hopefully) they change! It can be seen therefore – from what we have just said – that this isn’t an honest way of relating to our own mental pain; if it were honest then I wouldn’t be hoping to get something for it. If there is a goal behind what we are doing (even if we don’t consciously realize that there is in fact a goal) then what we are doing isn’t ‘honest’…

 

This is what ‘having no attitude’ means – it means having no agenda, it means having no goal behind what we are doing. As soon as we make this point then we can see how very difficult a thing this is – it’s not difficult just because it’s hard, it’s difficult because it is foreign to our everyday nature, because it goes totally against the grain of how we (usually) operate in the world! We can’t ‘honestly relate to our own state of mind’ for a reason, because we want to obtain something as a result of doing so, because this is being manipulative rather than honest. We can’t honestly relate to painful thoughts and feelings because we want to get rid of them because that is not being honest. That’s being underhand, that’s being controlling!

 

Once we reflect on this we can see that just about everything we do, we do for a reason. How much of what we do ISN’T done ‘on purpose’, deliberately, intentionally, calculatedly, for a reason? How much of what we do in life ISN’T done with some sort of thought behind it, some kind of ghostly agenda there in the background? Because we’re generally being rational in our approach to life, we have a purpose for everything we do. Because we are primarily rational in our approach there is thinking behind everything we do…

 

Generally the only time we are uncalculated (and do stuff without thinking what we’re going to do before we do it) is when we are genuinely happy. This state of being tends to be a fairly rare one however. We can be euphoric fairly regularly (and we tend very much to mistake this conditioned state for happiness) but we are not so often happy in a deep-down honest-to-goodness genuine way! The difference between euphoria (or pleasure) and happiness is huge and it is immensely significant that we confuse the two so easily: euphoria is as we have said a conditioned state of mind (which is to say, it comes about because of a reason, because of ‘conditions’) whereas happiness is totally unconditioned. Happiness doesn’t come about because our ‘agenda has been fulfilled’ or because ‘things are going to plan’ or because ‘we have attained an important goal’, or anything like that. We very much tend to think that attaining an important goal does make us happy but this is (as we have said) because we confuse euphoria (or ‘personal satisfaction’) for happiness.

 

We could also say that the good feeling that comes when things ‘work out for us’ is euphoria rather than happiness because it is ‘externally based’ – because it is dependent – in the most fragile of ways – upon external contingencies. Euphoria is the good feeling that comes with successful control, in other words. Happiness, on the other hand, is a state of being that is ‘intrinsic’ (or natural) to us and is not precariously dependent upon some box being either ‘ticked’ or ‘not ticked’. It is not a ‘mind-moderated’ state – it is not a state that comes about when the goal-orientated mind rewards us for fulfilling its mechanical agenda.

 

Or we could just say that it is ‘natural’ for us to be happy – we could say that we are ‘naturally happy’ when the goal-orientated mind ‘buts out’ for a while and we forget to be constantly concerned about ourselves in the way that we usually are – i.e. we could just say that we’re ‘happy’ when we forget to do everything for a reason…

 

So in conclusion, we could say that ‘having no attitude’ is just another way of talking about being happy! This sounds fine perhaps until we remember that we started off saying (right at the beginning of this discussion) that the helpful way to work with unhappy or painful states of mind is to have no attitude towards them. So what we were really saying (in the case) is that the way to work with unhappy states of mind is to be happy about them!  When we put it like this it doesn’t just sound like a difficult thing to do, it sounds totally impossible. It sounds like a flat contradiction in terms! How can I be happy about not being happy? How can I be happy about being in pain?

 

There is however very good sense in what we have just said – it just isn’t ‘common-sense’, that’s all. We can look at what we have just said in the converse way in order to make it clearer – if it is true that having no attitude towards an unhappy mind-state is the helpful thing, and that having no attitude’ is the same as being happy (i.e. ‘unattached’) then it must also be true that when we do take a up a particular attitude or stance towards the unhappy mind-state then this attitude or stance is an extension of that very same mind-state! Anything that has a causal (i.e. logical) link to the mind-state equals that mind-state and this is why we can never fix or correct or control a painful state on purpose – because the fixing or correcting or controlling of the unwanted mind-state is a logical extension of that very same mind-state…

 

The only thing that can genuinely help us therefore is to remain ‘un-attached’ or ‘non-purposeful’! This might seem – on the face of it – to be forbiddingly difficult (or even totally impossible) but it is the only thing that will help. Anything else – anything purposeful – simply perpetuates our suffering, simply perpetuates the unhappy way that we are. This business of ‘honestly relating to our own state of mind’ that we keep talking about isn’t really impossible, of course. How could it be impossible? Being ‘honest’ is the one thing we can always do, no matter what our circumstances might be. The capability of being ‘honest’ (or ‘honestly relating to our situation) is something that no one (or no circumstances) can ever take away from us.

 

Our mental state is already there, it is already the way that it is. In fact, it is absolutely perfect at being the way that it is! We just have to see that it is already there. We just have to see that it is ‘absolutely perfect at being the way that it is’! It is no more impossible for us to honestly relate to our thoughts and feelings than it is for us to be sincere. We always have the capability of being sincere, no matter what we we’re going through, no matter what knots we’re tied up in, and in the same way we always have the capability of honestly relating to our thoughts and feelings. We just need to see that we really are thinking what we’re thinking, that we really are feeling the way that we’re feeling!

 

There is nothing more straightforward and uncomplicated than just being the way that we are, without having any ‘special attitude’ towards it, without having some sort of ‘subtle agenda’ for wanting to be this way (i.e. for wanting to be the way that we already are) but at the same time as being so straightforward and uncomplicated it is also the hardest thing! Being simple is the hardest thing of all!

 

Society gives us lots of ways of being sophisticated, lots of ways of being complicated, but no ways of being simple. The whole process of ‘education’ and ‘socialization’ and ‘enculturalization’ is a process of becoming more and more sophisticated, a process of developing more and more ‘layers’ to ourselves, and so becoming more and more separate (or ‘cut off’) from ourselves as a result!

 

This ought to come as no surprise as our rationality-based culture is all about finding clever solutions to the problems that beset us. This is what rationality is all about. In one way this sounds good – and of course in many purely practical instances it is good! – but for the most important thing of all – which is being ourselves – it isn’t any good at all…

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