Impossibility often shows itself to us in the form of paradox. We can see this happening when we try to make ourselves ‘calm down’ on purpose – when I try to mentally calm myself then what I do is to split off a new layer of thinking which stands over the old layer and directs it to relax. To put it another way, I create a new self which takes up a position of superiority towards the old self and tells it to stop doing what it is doing, i.e. it tells it to stop panicking or worrying.
But the snag is that in order for this ‘deliberate self-calming’ to work the new ‘executive’ level of thinking cannot relax itself. It cannot afford to relax because it has a job to do – it has to make sure that the instruction to relax is properly carried out. The new level of thinking has to stay on duty to make sure that the old level of thinking ‘takes it easy’. This is of course where the paradox comes in because as soon as I instruct myself to “RELAX” I have created the necessity to NOT RELAX. In other words, RELAX means DO NOT RELAX. This sounds like nonsense but it isn’t, it is a paradox, and a paradox (as someone has said) is just the truth standing on its head to attract our attention!
What exactly is the job of the executive level of thinking? Well, the executive level has three basic actions to perform: it has to monitor what is going on, evaluate the meaning of what it sees, and control the original level of thinking to do what it is ‘supposed’ to do. These three actions are all part of the same continuous process: monitor-evaluate-control, monitor-evaluate-control, monitor-evaluate-control, over and over again. I cannot ever take a break from all this, but at least if it all goes smoothly then I get to feel good about things. Successful controlling is my ‘comfort zone’.
Comfort zones, however, always let us down in the end and when that happens we get to feel bad about things instead. In anxiety what happens is that there is a big hefty spanner in the works because our belief in our own ability to control effectively is shot through. This raises the spectre of ‘things not going as they should do’. Once the executive level of thinking starts worrying about this possibility (the possibility that it cannot control the original level) then it is in serious need of calming down itself. So now I have a problem on my hands.
What I do then is that I split off a new executive level of thinking whose job is to regulate the old executive level of thinking (whose job was to regulate the original thinking). But once the rot starts it can only spread and so before very long the new executive level of thinking is starting to need calming down itself, which means that I have to create yet another executive level, and so on and so forth. When this sort of business (which in mathematics is called an infinite regression) really takes off what we have is a full-blown panic attack.
THE PERCEPTION OF ‘ABSOLUTE NEED’
When we suffer from panic attacks it is almost inevitable that we will say that we would really like to learn how to control our panic attacks, but we don’t really realize what we are saying here. What we call ‘panic’ comes down to ‘the perception of absolute need’ – basically, I perceive that there is a situation there that I absolutely have to do something about…
But the perception of absolute need creates anxiety by the lorry-load: If I perceive that there is an ‘absolute need’ to control my panic attack then this automatically raises the dreadful spectre of what might happen if I don’t manage to successfully control my panic attack! This, of course, feeds right back into the panic attack making it even worse. My panic-stricken perception that ‘I absolutely have to do something’ is intensified a thousand-fold and so I am even more keen to control what is going on.
Needless to say, this is a one way ticket to anxiety-hell. And the terrible thing is that next time my appetite for trouble is still as strong as ever – I am still as keen as ever to put the fire out by throwing buckets of petrol on it! What I can’t see is that the new level of thinking, the controlling over-view, is simply not needed at all. I can’t see that it is this new ‘tier of controlling’ which is in fact the problem. As Alan Watts says, the mind trying to control itself is like an eye trying to see itself, or a tooth trying to bite itself, or a puppy trying to catch its own tail, once I see clearly how absurd this is, how impossible it is, then I don’t start trying to do it in the first place. Instead of trying to get the fire to go out by throwing petrol on it (or by blowing oxygen at it) I just let it burn itself out, which it inevitably will do.
The key point to be mindful of is that this is an exercise in ‘not-doing’ not ‘doing’ – I can’t get out of this mess on purpose. Struggling against my own struggling only makes it worse; fighting my own fighting is not the answer. When I get caught up in trying to control my own out-of-control controlling, the way out is not for me to instruct myself to stop instructing myself. I don’t give myself the order not to give myself any more orders, because this has exactly the opposite effect to the effect that I want. It is exactly the same as ‘ordering myself to relax’ – it is a paradox or ‘double-bind’. I am ordering myself to do something that is impossible; I am in other words jinxing myself.
The secret is to realize that it is not about ‘doing’ at all, but ‘not-doing’, and ‘not-doing’ is not something that I deliberately do! Doing arises when I perceive that there is ‘a need’, and I get panicked into trying to fulfil this need. I perceive that I absolutely have to do something, and so I am desperately falling over myself in the hurry to ‘come up with the goods’, so to speak. If I start trying to control the situation, and then realize that this is making things worse, then I perceive the need to stop controlling, and so I try to do this, but then this too is ‘doing’. This too is me ‘trying desperately to respond to the absolute need that I perceive’.
Actually, however, there is no such thing as an ‘absolute need’. This is a fiction created by my panicking mind – it is a convincing bluff that I have been stampeded into believing. The implication with an ‘absolute need’ is that if we don’t act then something so incredibly terrible will happen that we mustn’t even think about it, but this is not true at all. It is as we have said ‘a fiction of the mind’ – it is an arbitrary rule that I am stampeded into believing…
When I say “This absolutely mustn’t happen” then as we have just said this is just a rule that I have made up out of thin air and then automatically believed in. I accept the rule uncritically and ‘run’ with it, straight into the ever-hungry jaws of anxiety. The point is that we don’t need to do anything! We don’t ‘have’ to do anything. Trying to ‘do’ something when we are anxious only ever makes the anxiety worse. We are ‘reifying’ (making real) rules that we then have no choice but to obey, even if obeying them plunges us into irresolvable paradox.
Seeing the paradox (seeing the impossibility of ‘trying to control myself to relax’) is on the other hand the key to freedom from anxiety because when I see this then I also realize that I don’t ‘need’ to do anything. Or as we could also say, seeing that ‘deliberate’ or ‘purposeful’ relaxation is a paradox (a flat contradiction in terms) is the key to genuine, ‘non-effortful’ relaxation…
Genuine relaxation is not a willed action; how it happens is actually a profound mystery – and yet at the same time it is the simplest thing in the world!