The idea of vexation, and the state of ‘being vexed’, relies on there being two essential ingredients:  – That I want things being a certain way, and  – That things aren’t that way. This is so simple and so obvious that we don’t really think about it like this. Of course we know it well enough, but it is so obvious that we don’t dwell on it – instead, we quickly rush on to the next bit which is where I get my teeth firmly into the all-important question of “How can I rectify the situation?”
This second stage, the stage where I dig my teeth into the problem like a dog gnawing a particularly juicy bone, is the stage that we call ‘vexation’ and this is where we get well and truly stuck. The first stage (which is where I see that things aren’t how I’d like them to be) is over in a flash, but the second stage can last for a long, long time. Sometimes it can last for years!
THE NEED TO WIN
If I could straightaway get things to be the way I want them to be then needless to say there would be no vexation, on the contrary, I would experience ‘triumph’ or ‘satisfaction’ or simply ‘relief from the problem that is bugging me’. Satisfaction is what we all want – this is what we are all gunning for the whole time. It is no exaggeration to say that for an awful lot of the time, this is the only thing on our minds. Our main interest in life is obtaining the satisfaction of getting things to go the way we want them to go. To put this another way, we are very often preoccupied with the fulfilment of our goals (and whether these goals actually mean anything or not doesn’t actually matter a lot when it comes right down to it).
WHY SHOULDN’T WE ‘WANT TO WIN’?
The fact that we have ‘a need to win’ doesn’t necessarily sound that bad to us. It sounds perfectly ok in fact. After all, what is wrong with wanting to be successful? What is wrong with wanted to ‘win out’ over adversity? What is wrong with wanting to achieve our goals? Isn’t it a sign of life to struggle to get things to work out for us? Isn’t it natural that we should want to succeed rather than fail? These questions sound perfectly reasonable, but as it happens the only reason they sound ‘perfectly reasonable’ is because we are not thinking the matter through properly. Imagine if there was a person who always got what they wanted, right from the word ‘go’. The question we have to ask is “Will this person be happy and be in a peaceful, content state all the time?” The answer is of course that they will most definitely not be happy or peaceful – in fact the exact opposite will be true because they will unfailingly be miserable and chronically malcontent, just like a spoilt child is miserable and chronically malcontent.
THE ‘INFANTILE WILL’
One word for this state of affairs is ‘infantilism’ – this term has been used by psychologists because of the way in which an infant seems to experience strong desires, which causes it to make a lot of fuss. If the infant gets what he or she wants then they are content, and so they quieten down, but if they don’t get what they want then they cry a hell of a lot and throw tantrums and generally make life very hard for everyone around them. This sort of behaviour is healthy in an infant – it obviously makes very good sense to let your carers know in no uncertain terms if and when you need something. However, if as an adult I still possess this sort of infantile will (which is the ‘will’ that wants to get what it wants straightaway for no other reason than the fact that it wants it) then this is clearly not at all healthy.
When my wants are unquestionable, and have to be obeyed no matter what, then this is – psychologically speaking – a unmitigated disaster. Given the fact that life can’t be the way I want it to be, the trait of infantilism means that I am going to be more or less permanently vexed! Even if I am a multimillionaire, and I have a hundred servants who will get me whatever I want as soon as I want it, I am still not going to be happy. One reason why I won’t be happy is because my life will have become utterly selfish, utterly self-centred, and there is no person more deeply miserable and unfulfilled than a person who is completely immersed in his or her own self! Another reason is that ‘the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’ (i.e. the more you get the more you want); when I make wanting my god, and exalt it above all else, then wanting becomes my ruination. There is no end to it.
Contrary to our automatic assumption, the gratification of our will in all things does not make us happy. Whoever said that just because I get what I want that will make me happy? This is a crazy idea that we all subscribe to without ever really questioning it. That this should be so is not surprising – after all, we are conditioned by the consumer society we live in to believe that satisfying our ‘wants’ (our so-called ‘needs’) is the way to find personal fulfilment. It makes sense for the consumerism-based society we live in to give us this belief, because then we will keep struggling to buy more, which means that we will have to work more to be able to afford the life-style. The end result is that the whole merry-go-round keeps turning, and the ‘economy’ continues to grow. That is supposed to be what life is all about – how much we ‘need’ (how greedy we are, in other words).
Greed is what drives the economy, as everyone knows, but the only problem with this is that greed never made anyone happy! It might be good for the economy (though in the long run this itself is questionable) but it certainly isn’t good for the individual. Never in the entire history of the human race did a single person ever get happy through trying very hard to be happy, no matter how clever they might have thought they were being about it!
FEEDING OUR OWN WEAKNESS
So that is one good reason why the urge to get things to work out our own way isn’t a good basis to build our life on – it does not result in happiness. Of course, this doesn’t means that if we become obsessed by denying ourselves satisfaction this is going to make us happy either… People are very cunning in the pursuit of happiness and this particular tactic (the tact of self-denial) has already been tried. If I ‘deny myself with the secret agenda of benefiting myself’ this is only going to make me even more miserable, and what is worse, it is going to make me self-righteously miserable into the bargain, which is a thousand times worse and more toxic than normal misery!
The reason self-denial tends to produce sanctimonious but fundamentally miserable people is because it is based on selfishness, (or greed) just as much as self-gratification is, only it is more dishonest. We said a minute ago that if we could obtain self-gratification in all things this would not make us happier people – similarly, if I conceive the wish to deny myself gratification, and I relentlessly enforce this wish, then I am obtaining self-gratification all the same. I am gratifying my wish not to gratify myself! Everything I do is self-gratification really, or at least it is the attempt to achieve self-gratification, and so I cannot escape from my predicament that easily.
VEXATION IS THE KEY
One of the best ways to escape from the trap of my own all-powerful and all-encompassing ‘urge to self-gratify’ is by paying attention to the situations that cause me to experience vexation. Vexations are the key to going beyond my own personal ‘infantile’ will because – as we have already said – vexations represent the way in which the world is not fitting in with my personal will. This means that at the time of being vexed, I actually have the possibility of accepting the fact that my will (which is to say, my wishes) are being flagrantly thwarted. The basic ingredient, luckily for me, is already in place – things are very rarely the way I want them to be!
The mismatch between ‘what I want’ and ‘how things are’ provides an opportunity for freedom for me – it provides an opportunity for me to realize that it doesn’t really matter if I get my own way or not and this is an incredibly valuable lesson. On the one hand, if I always launch straightaway into ‘trying to achieve satisfaction’ this simply reinforces the erroneous idea that my wishes are all-important and on the other hand, if I sit back and reflect on the matter, and refrain from immediately getting 100% preoccupied with seeking satisfaction, then I inevitably discover (in time) that my wishes are not so all-important after all. More than this, if I leave a gap between ‘stimulus’ and response’ I discover that my reaction is not actually helpful in any way since it generally ends up creating more problems than it solves.
My automatic reaction is of course to evaluate the situation of things not being the way I want them to be as ‘unacceptable’, and go straight into control mode. Control mode is where I struggle to change things so they are the way I want them. Now if I am being vexed then the one thing I know for sure is that I am not being successful in my struggle to win out. I am losing and there is nothing I can do about it. After all, that is precisely why I am feeling vexed, or frustrated, or angry, or resentful, etc. Now the fact that my will is being thwarted is good news for me if I want to weaken the ‘automatic urge to always try get my own way’ – and the fact of the matter is that the more I weaken this automatic urge the better off I will be.
Earlier we said that it is impossible to become happy on purpose, by being clever at controlling, or by being good at getting our own way. This is because the more I am successful in getting my own way (i.e. achieving my goals) then the stronger the need to get my own way will become in the future. And when this need is strong that means it will keep cropping up in every situation – time and time again. The ‘urge to get what I want’ will refuse to allow me any peace until I satisfy it, any more than a spoilt child will allow its parents any peace until it gets what it wants. For this reason we can see exactly why it is that we will never be happy until we stop being a slave to the compulsion to always get our own way.
ACTING ON ATTACHMENT FEEDS ATTACHMENT
Actually, we can see that the desire to ‘win out’ is bound to make us unfree as well as unhappy, because this urge is based on the motivation of fear and greed. Maybe I am in a bad situation and I am afraid of what will happen if I don’t get out of it, or maybe I see something that I badly want and I am afraid of not getting it. Either way, if I act on the urge that I am feeling then I feed the motivation of fear and greed and make it stronger. When this dual motivation (which is sometimes called attachment) becomes strong in my life, then I have precious little freedom left because I always have to obey either my fear or my greed.
This shows that even if I don’t succeed in getting my own way all the time, but do keep on trying, I am still strengthening my attachments. Therefore, it is not my own well-being, my own mental health that I am striving for – I am striving on behalf of my attachments and my attachments are against me. My attachments are the very thing that takes away from my well-being, my peace of mind and my happiness. This is a strange way of looking at things, but it is true nevertheless – most of the effort I put into fretting and struggling on what I take to be my behalf, is actually on behalf of the attachments that ceaselessly work against me to degrade whatever quality of life I have.
WANTING TO GET RID OF ATTACHMENTS
Attachments are straightforward enough to free ourselves from just so long as I am genuinely willing to take on the job, and I am able to see what is going on clearly. However, the whole point about attachments is that they distort our understanding and this makes it very hard to see things clearly. I keep thinking that what the attachment wants, I want, and this is the problem in a nutshell.
‘Wanting’ is the very thing that trips me up, time and time again. If I see that I have a particular attachment, and I want to undo the hold that it has over me, then this ‘wanting’ (and the ‘trying’ that comes from it) is itself attachment. I am attached to the idea of getting rid of my attachment (which is to say, I am negatively attached to attachment) and so what improvement is there in this?
We can also put this in terms of vexation: suppose that I realize that the ‘enemy’ is not what I am getting vexed about, but my automatic tendency to get vexed when things don’t go my way. This is the key insight, but the problem is that I want to change (or ‘correct’) this state of affairs. How I want to be is ‘not vexed’, how I actually am is ‘vexed’, and so once again reality fails to fit in with my wishes. What happens next of course is that I get vexed with myself for being vexed.
The pain of seeing that the reality is not what I wanted it to be acts as an instantaneous stimulus for me to go into control mode – even though there is absolutely no way for me to control myself so that I am no longer vexed. It is crucial to understand that I cannot make a goal of being ‘not vexed’ –
The reason for this is that the state of not being vexed is the state of ‘non-attachment’, and I cannot make a goal of being non-attached because goals are by definition attachments…!
There is absolutely no way around this one – ‘being vexed’ is what happens when I don’t succeed in attaining my goal, and so if I make a goal of ‘not being vexed’ and I fail to succeed in this goal (which I will do for the reason that we have just given) then what is going to happen is that I am going to get vexed. I am going to be vexed with myself for being vexed, so now I am doubly vexed!
ABSOLUTE NEED IS UNCONSCIOUS
So what is the answer? To put it as simply as possible, the answer is to see all this clearly. If I see the attachment, and if I also clearly see the absurdity (or impossibility) of trying to do anything about the attachment, then this seeing is itself ‘non-attachment’. Attachment means that I have to do something, or not do something, which is ‘absolute need’. But absolute need is an unconscious sort of a thing,
Because the need is absolute, it governs me absolutely and all I can do is try to work out how to fulfil it – nothing else matters but this. But if I can do something that is not connected to this need – such as seeing the attachment for what it is, then this seeing is by definition is non-attachment.
When we say that absolute need is an unconscious sort of thing, this means that all our attention is directed away from it, away from the all-important ‘rule’, towards whatever it is that the rule is about. Nothing else matters, which is another way of saying that we are not allowed the freedom to consider anything that is unconnected with the need. However, the supposed importance of obeying the rule or obeying the need is only a bluff – it is not really important at all. Actually, ‘the need’ is not really a need and ‘the rule’ is not really a rule – the secret is that they only seem like they are ‘absolutely important’ when we are preoccupied in obeying them. Attachments only have power over us when we are ‘unconscious’, in other words. If we ever stop to question them then we would realize that the whole thing is a bluff or a trick, because the one thing that we are always free to do is ‘be aware’. I am always free to see the need, and when I do see the need then I am on the way to becoming free from the need.
CLINGING EQUALS REJECTION
Attachment means that I am absolutely ruled by the need to get things my own way. When I am under the influence of the need then I cannot question it at all – all my energy goes into trying desperately to succeed, even if it is utterly impossible for me to win out I still put all my energy into trying to succeed. Attachment means clinging to how I want things to be no matter what. I cling blindly, I cling because I cannot question the authority of the need that I am feeling, because I cannot see through it. This desperate clinging means that I am rejecting awareness – awareness (or consciousness) is thrown to the dogs, it is jettisoned without a further thought. Clinging is all about refusing to see something, or refusing to accept something. Clinging to ‘YES’ means rejecting ‘NO’, which means that clinging and rejecting are the same thing. The state of clinging/rejecting means that we are trying to separate YES and NO, and when we fight to hold YES and NO apart this is unconsciousness – it is unconsciousness because we are trying to do something that is impossible, and by our very trying we are ignoring the fact that it is impossible. The reason that I cannot separate YES and NO is that by insisting on one, I create the reality of the other; YES and NO are the two ends of the same stick, which is to say –
When I create an ‘issue’ about something by saying that it is absolutely important for me to win the battle, I have enslaved myself to the need not to lose at the same time.
If I say that it is absolutely important for me to win, then at the same time I am saying that it is absolutely important for me not to lose – in other words, losing becomes as real to me as winning. This means that the NO outcome of the struggle becomes as meaningful and as pressing as the YES outcome; in other words, as soon as I create the reality of YES I also create the reality of NO.
‘WORKING WITH REALITY’
Another way of looking at this is to say that whatever it is that I have rejected is a problem to me only because I have rejected it. It is my rejecting that creates the problem. The answer therefore to the problem of my desperate attempt to separate the opposites of ‘win’ and ‘lose’ is to not reject the one outcome, and not cling to the other outcome. This solution is not only simple, it is also very practical and workable. It is practical and workable because what I am rejecting is actually the situation that already exists, and so I don’t have to ‘do’ anything to apply the solution, I just have to see that ‘the way things are is the way that they are’. This is obviously true – if I am desperately fighting to get things to work out the way I want them to, then this means that they must already be the way I don’t want them to be. This has to be so – if things were not ‘the way I don’t want them to be’ then I would not be struggling to get things to be ‘the way I do want them to be’. So if the solution is to let things be the way that they are, which is the way that I don’t want them to be, this is very practical because that is actually already the case. Now, I am working with reality, not against it.
Normally, we do not work with reality, we work against it and this basically means that we are ‘tormenting ourselves’. As we have said before, the state of affairs where ‘things are not the way that I want them’ to be is my opportunity for freedom from attachment. When I react as a result of vexation I am rejecting the one thing that can help me – I am rejecting the chance that I have of being free from vexation. This is due to the distorted (or ‘backwards’) way of seeing things that attachment causes in me – attachment causes me to ‘act against myself’, it causes me to ‘fight against my own best interests’. The end result of the distorted or ‘backwards’ way of understanding things is that I end up constantly haunting myself, so to speak. I am my own affliction – I make the trouble that I am complaining about, I create the whole situation. Another way of explaining this is to say that it is as if I am biting my own flesh, and the pain which this creates causes me to bite even more, in a mad attempt to ‘bite out the pain that the biting is causing’.
In the same sort of way, we can say that the state of being vexed is actually a form of self-tormenting’ because I take a position saying ‘such and such is totally not acceptable’ and then I torment myself about the fact that this is how things are. First I take the absolutely immovable position saying ‘this is totally unacceptable’, which gives me an illusory feeling of power or being in control, and then I notice that things are the way I said they mustn’t be, and this fact torments me. But really it is me tormenting myself because it was me that wilfully chose to pit myself against reality in the first place. I am the one who ‘made the rule’, and then got ‘hung up on the rule’.
But even if I see that I am fighting against myself, fighting against my own best interests, and try to reverse this, I am still no better off. If I see that I am rejecting the way things are, and try to stop myself rejecting the way things are, I am still rejecting the way things are because ‘the way thing are’ is that I am rejecting the way things are. When I try to stop rejecting nothing has changed because I am still rejecting – I am ‘rejecting rejecting’. The situation remains the same – there is me on the one side, which is the place that I don’t want to be, and I am straining towards the other side, which is the place where I do want to be. But the instant I decide to stop rejecting where I am, then the place where I don’t want to be is still where I am, and so I am still straining after the other side, which is of course as unattainable as ever it was.
SEEING THE TRAP
This is the trap of attachment, which is so hard to understand – the trap of attachment is that trying to escape from the trap is the trap!
When I try to do something about attachment, then I am acting on attachment. The attempt to escape attachment is attachment. When I see that the attempt to escape attachment is attachment, then I no longer harbour any hope of manipulating the situation so that it turns out the way I want it to. The key is therefore to ‘stop looking for a way out’ or to ‘stop looking for satisfaction’. This sort of ‘total surrender’ doesn’t come easily because attachment makes me think that what I am fighting for is what I actually need. It makes me think that I am fighting for my own best interests. It makes me think that ‘fighting’ will help me. What will help me is not ‘me desperately trying to help myself’ however – paradoxically, the only thing that will help me is when I give up trying to help myself. Instead of eternally (and so very wearisomely) looking for advantage, I surrender the game – I give up always trying to have my own way. This, at long last, is freedom.