Cultivating Non-Aggression

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We are so habituated to controlling that we try to apply it to everything – like Abraham Maslow’s story of the carpenter whose only tool was a hammer. For this lamentably under-equipped carpenter, says Maslow, the whole world is a nail. If the whole world is a nail then the only thing to do with it is to hit it. The only thing to do with it  is to whack it hard with your hammer! And if this doesn’t work, then what else is there for it but to whack it again, only extra hard this time!


Already this scenario doesn’t sound very good! Control as an approach works in some cases (just as a hammer is an appropriate tool to use when what you’re hitting happens to be a nail) but one thing it is no good at all for is when dealing with distressing feelings or thoughts (which is to say, with painful states of mind). Control is no good when it comes to honestly relating to how we are, any more than it is good in honestly relating to how someone else is! It is of course true that when we are feeling bad then we automatically try to remedy the situation by controlling ourselves, by controlling the way that we feel. We start ‘using the hammer’, so to speak, and – not surprisingly – this doesn’t actually help the situation.  It doesn’t make anything better, but even though it doesn’t make things any better we keep on with it all the same. Control is all we know, after all…


Even though most of us would agree that our normal response of trying to control ourselves when we’re feeling bad doesn’t work, we still don’t tend to see ‘not-controlling’ as an acceptable option. Quite the reverse is true – not controlling seems entirely unacceptable!  After all, the fear is that if we stop trying to keep a lid on what we’re feeling (even if it isn’t actually helping) then how we are we to know that things won’t get a lot worse? The fact that we are ‘fighting against the painful mental state’ might be the only thing that is stopping us sliding off the edge of the precipice into a pit of bottomless suffering. We feel that the only thing to do is to keep on clinging (as best we can) to the edge of the cliff and hope for all we’re worth that the little tussock of grass that we’re clutching onto doesn’t give way. As it seems very likely to…


This is the fearful scenario that the thinking mind comes up with. But thinking this isn’t really any different to thinking that if we worry enough then this will stop the ‘bad thing’ that we’re worried about from happening. Not only does worrying not stop the bad thing from happening, it actually creates far more suffering for us that the bad thing happening ever would! The non-stop worrying is the real disaster! And in the same way resisting (or ‘trying to control’) how we feel doesn’t prevent how we feel from getting worse, it magnifies the pain many times over and – what’s worse – it ensures that we get stuck in it. Resisting the mental state unfailingly causes us to get so very stuck that a tractor couldn’t pull us out! Resisting (or controlling) is just like some kind of super-glue in this respect – it sticks us to what we are resisting as effectively as any fast-setting polymer. Fighting creates an unbreakable connection to what we are fighting against, no matter what the thinking mind may tell us.


The thinking mind is simply not to be believed in this matter – all the thinking mind knows is resistance – different shades of resistance, different varieties of resistance – and resistance only ever exacerbates painful states of mind. No one ever successfully resisted (or controlled) a painful state of mind, no matter what we might like to believe to the contrary. If we believe that pure stubborn old-fashioned resistance can ‘get us out of the pain we’re in’ (if we apply enough of it) then this is just hopeful thinking. Or even more to the point, it is denial – which is the ultimate form of resistance! Our belief that we can successfully control (or successfully ‘force an escape’) isn’t anything heroic (no matter what our culture might tell us) – it is simply fear. Resistance is the enactment of fear.


The very best we might hope for is that if we resist strongly enough, aggressively enough, then we might succeed in ‘pushing the pendulum out’ so that it temporarily swings away from us. Even if we do manage to do this however, the one thing that we can be sure of in this situation is that the pendulum is going to come right back again, with renewed energy. The unwanted painful feeling is going to come right back at us, and when it does then it is going to hit us harder than ever precisely because we have pushed it away so vigorously. What we are really dealing with here (if we took the time to look at what’s going on, that is, which we understandably don’t tend to do when we’re in pain) is our own aggression being reflected back at us, and causing us ‘extra pain’. The pain we’re in causes us to respond with aggression, but rather than helping anything that aggression comes right back to us in the form of a ‘pain backlash’. We very rarely have any insight into the fact that what we are experiencing is our own aggression rebounding on us, reflecting back at us, and this is why we keep on with what we’re doing. This is why we keep resorting to the ‘blunt instrument’ of control. This is why we keep on hitting out with the hammer..


Using the word ‘aggression’ in this context (in the context of controlling) doesn’t tend to sound right to us. We don’t see controlling as necessarily being aggressive. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be, most of us would probably say. But from a psychological point of view, controlling is always a manifestation of aggression! From a psychological point of view, controlling and aggression are synonymous. What we mean by controlling is, after all, simply ‘getting things to be the way that we want them to be’. Control means that we are ‘enforcing our will’; it means that we are ‘pushing our agenda’. In control there is no question of taking anything else (any other viewpoints, so to speak) into consideration – if there was then what we are talking about would not be control. No matter how ‘nice’ I might be about it, if I am controlling than its all about what I want to happen and this will always be ‘the bottom line’. I don’t care about anything else. I might be diplomatic, I might be tactful in my approach, I might use skilful persuasion, I might ‘sugar-coat the pill’, but if this doesn’t work then I’ll skip the ‘velvet glove’ and go straight to the ‘iron fist’!


We aren’t using the word ‘aggression’ in a moral sense here – as if to say that it is wrong or unacceptable. Saying that stuff is ‘wrong’ or ‘unacceptable’ is itself aggressive! We’re just using it in a neutral ‘technical’ sense to designate ‘the assertion of personal will’ (or, as we might equivalently say, the ‘unreflective enactment of a closed agenda’).  Sometimes it is helpful or appropriate to assert personal will but when we are talking about working with painful mental states asserting ‘how we want for things to be’ is not at all helpful. The contrary is true, as we have been saying – asserting ‘how we want for things to be’ unfailingly rebounds on us and causes us extra pain on top of the pain we were already feeling. Aggression doesn’t work! Control doesn’t work! It’s worth emphasizing that we have a very big blind-spot about this. We have a huge blind-spot about this. We can’t see why we shouldn’t be able to ‘force’ ourselves to change. We can’t see why it shouldn’t be possible to ‘quit’ a painful mind-state ‘on purpose’. We can change other things so why not this? We can escape other difficult situations, so why can’t we escape from a painful state of mind? Why can’t we just say “No” to it?


What we can’t seem to see is that we can’t use ‘how we are’ to change how we are! And when we try to change anything, we always use ‘the way we are’ as a basis. We always use ‘how we are’. What else would we use? We have nothing else to use other than the way we are. So using the way we are to try to change the way we are just isn’t going to work – not ever! It’s a non-starter. It’s a no go. Possibly the most intuitive example of why this can’t work is provided by the mental state of fear. Fear almost always turns straightaway into ‘controlling’ – we control so as to get away from the fear. On the one hand the controlling could mean ‘running away’, in which case we try to run away from the fear, and on the other hand the controlling could mean ‘fixing’, so that whatever we find frightening is no longer there to frighten us. These are the two ways of reacting to fear – either flee or fight, either run away from the problem or fix the problem. But if I try to run away from the fear then it is the fear that is making me run away, and so as I run I am of course bringing the fear with me! The running is the fear, so how can the running possibly help me escape my fearful state of mind? This is like trying to run away from my own shadow.


And if I try to fix the problem then my motivation for doing this is also fear, and so the fear is in the fixing. I am ‘fearfully fixing’ – fear is the only reason I am fixing and so the fixing is the fear. The fixing is a manifestation of the fearful state of mind and so even if I do manage to temporarily get rid of whatever was causing me to be afraid I haven’t got rid of the fear – I have just made myself into a ‘successful slave’ of the fear, I have just ‘done what the fear wants me to do’ and so how is this ‘escaping the fear’? How is this going to do me any good? Far from escaping the fear, I have made myself into its servant. It’s going now to rule me. If I automatically ‘obey’ the fear every time it comes along (by either fleeing or fixing) then it’s guaranteed to be with me full-time…


The same is clearly true for the mental state of anger. If I am in the state of anger then whatever I do I am going to be doing it angrily. If I shut the door then I will shut it angrily. If I go for a walk then I will walk angrily. If I apologize to you for losing my temper shouting (for example) then I will apologize angrily. If I try to control myself so as not to be angry then I will do this angrily too! I don’t have any choice – if I could just turn around and do something ‘not angrily’ then I wouldn’t be angry in the first place!  If I could tell myself not to be angry – and yet at the same time not tell myself this in an angry way – then obviously I wouldn’t be angry, and so I wouldn’t need to try to tell myself not to be angry! Worrying is another example – if I am worrying a lot and someone helpfully tells me not to worry (or advises me to stop worrying, i.e. says to me “Don’t worry about it”) then this is no good because all this does is provoke me to ‘worry about my worrying’. If I could simply tell myself to stop worrying then I wouldn’t be anxious in the first place so the advice to stop worrying would be unnecessary. And if on the other hand I actually am in an anxious state of mind then all the advice in the world – whether it is to do this, that or the other, will be no good at all because whatever I try to do the one thing that is one hundred per cent for sure is that I will be doing it in an anxious way….


Telling yourself not to be angry when you are angry (or telling yourself not to be nervous when you are nervous) is of course very crude stuff and we can easily see how this wouldn’t work (although we are admittedly unlikely to see this at the time). We do nevertheless hold onto the belief that that there must be some sort of sophisticated ‘scientific’ (or ‘psychological’) way of changing the unwanted state of mind that will work. We still hang on (with great persistence) to the idea that there must be some way to therapize the anger away, that where must be some way to rationally manipulate the anxious state of mind away. We may not be confident in this when we’re actually in the throes of the negative state of mind, but otherwise we’re quite convinced that there must be some way to ‘snap out of it’ by sheer effort of will. We’re equally convinced (although we might not come right out and say it) that if other people don’t do this then they’re just being awkward or lazy or even downright perverse. We know very well that we’d ‘snap out of it’ if it was us so why don’t they?


This is just not possible however. We can’t snap out of a painful state of mind just because we want to, even if we have got some sophisticated, supposedly ‘scientific’ method to do it with. Aggression is aggression, even if it is cloaked with sophisticated trappings, even if it is carried out in a very logical and systematic kind of a way. It’s either the one thing or the other, as we have said. When we look at this clearly, with an unclouded mind, we can see that it’s either one or the other! I can either be aggressive, or I can be non-aggressive, and that’s all there is to it. There’s no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ about it – there’s no smudging and there’s no fudging. I can’t be aggressive and non-aggressive at the same time – I can’t serve two masters. I can’t be ‘non-aggressive’ with a secret aggressive agenda! This is so simple that a child could understand it, and yet what is simple for a child to grasp is not necessarily simple for an adult, because being an adult usually involves having an awful lot of complicated baggage. To be an adult in this world that we live in is rather like being a politician – ‘the truth’ somehow becomes infinitely slippery and susceptible to all sorts of encroachments and modifications.


What we as adults find so very hard (if not impossible) to understand is that everything the rational mind does is aggression! This is sounds rather outrageous but when we remember our definition of ‘aggression’ as ‘trying to change things in accordance with a closed frame of reference’ the point becomes easier to understand. The rational mind functions by trying to change things in accordance with its own criteria, its own rules, its own agenda. It functions by controlling, in other words. Even if we’re only commenting on things this is still controlling because we’re putting our own spin on things. Even if we’re just naming stuff, or describing stuff, we’re trying to ‘say what reality is’ and this is controlling. By describing what’s going on we’re controlling the meaning of what’s going on! This makes the operation of the rational-conceptual mind a fundamentally aggressive sort of a thing; it is agressive because we are placing our own brand of order on the world, and then saying it was there all along (to paraphrase David Bohm). What’s not aggressive about this?


Aggression is aggression and non-aggression is non-aggression and if you’re going to have one then you can’t have other. The two can’t be mixed, they can’t be blended in some sort of ‘skilful mixture’. It is crucial to get this straight because the everyday thinking mind is so very prone to confusing the issue – in fact the everyday thinking mind can’t help confusing the issue! But once we have got this straight (and we are no longer relying on our thinking process to sort things out for us, our ‘aggression’ to sort things out for us) then what do we do? Where do we go from here? What’s the nest step? Aggression is easy because we do it all the time, without even knowing that we’re doing it, but how do we cultivate non-aggression?


A good way to look at this is in terms of ‘head’ and ‘heart,’ even though this may sound rather unscientific. We can illustrate the point by imagining a situation where we are sitting at a desk facing another person, facing another human being. There are two ways to do this – two ways to relate to another human being. Either (we may say) I can be ‘all official’ and relate to the person facing me in terms of who I am supposed to be (in terms of my role, or my idea of myself), or I can relate as my true, honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth self, which is not a role, not a mental construct. If I relate the first way then this is the ‘head’ relating and if I relate the second way then this is the ‘heart’ way – the way with no ‘attitude’, the way with no ‘artifice’. We don’t have to be in some kind of official role to be stuck in our heads, of course. Very often that just happens to be how we find ourselves – operating out of our heads rather than out of our hearts. Speaking in a general way, we could say this this happens because of the way in which we are defending ourselves against inner pain or fear or insecurity. The head is very often a place of defence, therefore. Operating out of our heads, out of our rational minds is a very normal way to be but it isn’t a helpful way to relate to other people because when we relate to other people in a rational (or logical) way we don’t see them as they are, but as our thinking makes them. We see them in terms of our own agenda, in other words.


People aren’t ‘defined things’. None of us are. We’re not counters in someone else’s game. We’re not ‘objects’ – even if the classifying mind says we are. On the contrary, ‘what we are’ is essentially undefined and undefinable. When we are defined (either by someone else or by ourselves) then this is an act of aggression. We have been ‘objectified’. For this reason when we to find ourselves being defined or evaluated it doesn’t feel good. If I am defining (or judging) you then I am aggressing you! If you label me you negate me, as Soren Kierkegaard says. This being the case there is no genuine ‘relating’ – there is only negating disguised as relating! This is a relatively easy point to understand with regard to relating to other people (since we all know how bad it feels to be judged or to be turned into objects in another person’s eyes, but not quite so easy to understand with regard to how we relate to our own painful states of mind, to our own thinking. And yet the principle is exactly the same – the only way to sincerely relate (i.e. relate in a non-aggressive way) to how we ourselves are is through the heart, not through the controlling and calculating head!


When we relate via our heads, via our rational mind then what happens is that our ‘attempt to control’ gets reflected back at us in the form of intensified pain. This is what Chogyam Trungpa calls negative negativity – first there is the original pain, and then when we try to control this pain, to clamp down on it, then this desperate aggression of ours gets reflected right back at us (like an echo in a cave) and causes us more pain than ever. Unaware that it is our aggressive (or attacking) reaction to our pain that is responsible for hurting us further, the intensified pain causes us to react even more aggressively, and this ‘counter-productive reaction’ causes us to get locked into a vicious circle of neurotic suffering. It is therefore only when we gain insight into this vicious circle – and the way that our own aggression is being reflected right back at us – that we can start to disengage from this pain-producing cycle (or loop) of ‘reacting and then reacting to our own reacting’. The understanding of what we are doing naturally weakens the mechanism of what we are doing, since this ‘mechanism’ relies on our ignorance of the way in which we ourselves are trapping ourselves in the cycle of suffering. “Order is born from understanding disorder” says Gurdjieff’s student Jean de Salzmann. As long as we remain sublimely ignorant, then we will continue to throw fresh logs upon the fire, and complain about the heat!


Aggression fuels (or intensifies) painful states of mind, rather than dissolving them, and when we see this then we quite naturally ‘let go’ of the aggression, of the controlling. When we let go of the controlling then what happens then is that we come back to ourselves, and when we come back to ourselves then what we find is that we are relating to the world (and ourselves) through our hearts and not through our heads. If the characteristic of the head (or the rational intellect) is that it is aggressive then the characteristic of the heart is that it is peaceful. It is not peaceful in a weak (or passively compliant) way, it is peaceful in a tremendously strong way.


We can think of the response of a strong and loving parent to a child who is upset, and creating lots of fuss. The strong parent doesn’t react to the distress of the child with yet more distress by being aggressive, by being controlling – instead, they are gently accepting of the child’s distressed state. There is allowing’, rather than ‘disallowing’, and this is precisely what makes them strong! By accepting the upset nature of the child rather than trying to control it (i.e. trying to ‘shut it down’), the situation is helped rather than aggravated. By not refusing the child’s distress, and meeting it with peace rather than aggression, the distress is allowed to empty itself into the infinite space of the parent’s love. Were the child’s distress to be disallowed, then it would have nowhere to go – if met with aggression then it is just going to intensify, which in turn will provoke further sanctions from the controlling parent, causing the situation to escalate rather than de-escalate.


In the same way when we don’t automatically attempt to control or stamp down on painful mental states, then the pain in it is allowed to empty out into the infinite space of the compassionate, patient, non-judgemental mind, whereas if we disallow this pain, if we reject the pain, then it just remains cooped up in the box of our denial, trapped and feeding on itself. It then festers and breeds new demons. It intensifies and becomes its own justification…


We control because control creates the need for more control, and this logic never lets up. Yet if we ‘step outside’ the logic-using head and become more truly ourselves, by being compassionately aware of what is going on rather than trying to control it, then – as the Buddhist traditions teach – the painful mind state will be allowed to ‘spontaneously liberate’ itself.