When we use strategies to deal with mental pain then what we are doing is postponing that pain. We’re passing it on to ourselves in the future, and so we’re really not gaining anything by the exercise. It’s as if there is a wrinkle in the tablecloth in front of us and we are smoothing out the little patch immediately in front of us – we can do this alright but when we smooth out the wrinkle we’re not getting rid of it, we’re simply moving it along. We are ‘chasing the problem away to a different place’, which isn’t really a legitimate solution at all. It might be fine for a while but then we come across the wrinkle again and we have to do the same old thing all over again. Similarly, when we ‘deal’ with mental or emotional pain via some kind of strategy things might then be fine for a while – if the strategy works – but then the same old pain is going to come up again and we’re going to have to use our ‘pain management’ strategies all over again. So really we’re not actually solving anything – we’re just caught up in a pointless ‘postponement game’!
Any ‘coping strategy’ is always going to be like this – it might get us through the difficulty, but only at the price of creating it again in the future. There are times when this is all we need – if there is something that I just have to do, then some kind of strategy to get me through it can be just what I need, but when ‘strategies’ are all I have, and I just keep on having to use them to get through the day, then this a very miserable place to be in. What is happening when I keep on using my strategies for getting through stuff is that I am perpetuating the same old pattern, over and over again. The pattern has periods of relief in it after I have ‘successfully done whatever it is I need to do’, but this simply makes the pattern addictive, it makes it like a drug that I can’t stop taking. And along with the periods of relief there is all the pressure and stress of having to keep on trying to ‘beat the pain’ when it starts to raise its head again. What is essentially happening here is that I am running into the same old problem over and over again and each time I am managing, temporarily, to avoid it. This is of course a form of torture in itself – it is the torture of being stuck in ‘Groundhog Day’…
The other possibility – other than being stuck interminably in Groundhog Day – would be if we were able to actually work through the pain in a genuine way – if we were actually able to process it rather than ‘dodge it’, in other words. In this case we wouldn’t have to keep on going through the same old thing – we wouldn’t be endlessly caught up in ‘managing’ our pain, as if there were something actually worthwhile in such a sterile exercise. This is something that is intuitively obvious even if it goes completely against the grain of our natural reactions – either I process the pain that I am going through (either I go through it) or I am doomed to keep on repeating it. Or to put this another way, if I actually feel a feeling then I don’t have to come back again at some future date and feel it all over again!
If this wasn’t the case then we would all be caught up with ‘repeating feelings’ on a full-time basis; if feelings didn’t go away after we had felt them then we would be completely clogged up with them all the time. Life would then become impossible. This of course can happen but the natural way of things is that when we feel the feeling (whatever it is) then we don’t have to feel it again. This is how it works. Life – once the natural order is re-established – moves onwards, it doesn’t keep going around in circles. It doesn’t keep repeating. Life only goes around in circles – we could say – when we aren’t feeling stuff, when we’re not processing mental or emotional pain…
We could say – by way of an illustration – that processing is like tasting something, or smelling something. I will taste my dinner when I am eating it, but (hopefully) I will not go on tasting it for the rest of the day! Similarly with smell, when I smell a rose it is at that moment in time that I smell it – not before and not after. I don’t (usually) get haunted by the ghost of the smell. What happens with painful feelings of course is that I don’t want to feel them, something in me (understandably) recoils from feeling them. We resist feeling the feelings, we resist ‘processing’ what is going on for us and so what happens as a result of this automatic resistance is that we absolutely do get haunted by feelings from the past, feelings that are ‘repeats’ of something we didn’t want to feel at the time. Because we do have this ability to ‘not feel whatever it is that we are feeling’ we can very easily find ourselves in a situation where we are running into the same old stuff over and over again…
When this is the case therefore, as it so often is, it can seem as if we won’t ever get out of the painful mental state. This becomes a very real proposition for us – in fact we find ourselves in situation where we find it all but impossible to believe that things ever could be different, ever could be substantially different. As Emily Dickinson says in her poem, when we are in pain, then the future becomes coloured (or stained) with this same pain:
Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.
When we are in pain then we see the world through the lens of that pain, so naturally we can’t see anything that doesn’t have pain in it. We could also say that we see the world through the ‘mind state’ of pain – whatever type of pain that might be – we are always going to see the world in terms of this mind state and this isn’t really something that we can fight against. How can we fight against our own mind state? The only thing we can do is to acknowledge the way that we are, the way that we feel, and by not automatically fighting against it we are not going to be trapped in it. Nothing stays the same forever. Change is the ultimate nature of everything and so how can we be an exception? How can the way we feel be an exception? Paradoxically, the only time things don’t change is when we are actively trying to bring it about, when we are ‘resisting’, when we are ‘tensing up against the way things are…
According to G.I. Gurdjieff everything comes to us in the form of impressions. We don’t come across the world so much as we come across our impressions of the world. Speaking in Gurdjieffian terms, Lee van Laer says,
If we choose to be sensitive to our life, rather than accepting the insensitivity we usually default to, we may notice that all of these things we call impressions are food. The body we inhabit is constantly drinking in life from every direction and with every sense, both inner and outer. This feeding on what is taking place never ends. Whether we are conscious of it or not, every bit of life, every moment we encounter, every sound we hear and touch we sense is food.
There are, we might therefore say, two things we can do with these ‘impressions’ – either we taste them fully and digest them properly as they come to us, or we just somehow ‘bolt’ them, without tasting them, without properly digesting them. In the first scenario, when the impressions are thoroughly tasted and digested, then we don’t have to do this again. That is the end of the impressions – they don’t get to hang around after that. They don’t stick with us after this. This is like saying that when a feeling has been felt, then we don’t have to feel it again. There is no need for a repeat performance, there is no need for an encore. But in the second scenario, when the impressions aren’t thoroughly tasted and digested, then that isn’t the end of them. If we bolt our food then it is going to lodge somewhere inside of us in an undigested state and it is going to ‘repeat’ on us in some way. That isn’t going to be the last we hear of it, not by a long chalk!
So just because we don’t register the impressions when they come to us (just because we’re not really aware of them at the time) this doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. They’re just ‘stuck inside of us’, out of sight somewhere, and they are without any doubt going to give us a bad dose of indigestion at some unspecified point in the future. And even if these undigested impressions don’t create a cutting ‘edge’ of pain that we can be directly aware of, they distort the way we see the world (and the way that we see ourselves) without us being aware that any distortion has taken place. The undigested impressions determine what we see and what we don’t see, what we think and what we don’t think, what we do and what we don’t do. This consequence – needless to say – is actually worse that simply causing us to re-experience old pain over and over again; because we’re unconscious of the distorting factors this causes us to live what we might call a ‘false’ life – a ‘life that isn’t ours’.
This is similar to the Indian concept of the subtle impressions or sanskaras that reside in our unconscious mind. According to the Wikipedia entry:
Sanskaras, once acquired and accumulated, form what can be compared to a lens through which the subjective aspects of our experience such as judgment arise. Thus when we perceive (either thoughts or external objects) we apperceive those objects through the lens of past experience. We perceive through the imprint or conditioning of past impressions or sanskaras.
Krishnamurti puts across another variant of this idea when he says that if we don’t pay attention to what is going on in the present moment then a ‘recording’ is formed which will keep on playing in the background and influencing our perceptions and thoughts. Our lives then end up revolving around old patterns or perceiving reality that are inaccessible to us, invisible to us, and which will for this reason continue to control our lives in a deterministic way without us knowing that we are being controlled. These recordings, we might say, will constitute the ‘script’ for our lives and we will have no choice but to keep on reading from this script, living from this script, as if this were the only way we could ever do things.
As soon as we become conscious of this script (which is the old, unexamined pattern of perceiving reality) then the script starts to lose its power to control us. The script becomes visible as a script, which is to say, as ‘a mere arbitrary pattern’, and as soon as we see it like this (which is what it really is) then it loses its power over us. “The very attention of looking wipes away recording” says Krishnamurti. Consciousness ‘erodes the authority of the recording’, we could say, just as consciousness erodes all authority. We don’t ‘fight against it’ (which is taking it seriously), we just ‘see it for what it really is’ – which is a non-aggressive act. If we are conscious of some ‘determining influence’, therefore, (i.e. some conditioning factor) then we are liberated from it. If we are not conscious of the influence (the conditioning factor) on the other hand, and instead just push it away into some dark corner of ourselves, then we are from this point on the helpless prisoner of what we thought we had gotten rid of. It controls us, in other words, because rather than actually looking at it, we simply shoved it down out of sight somewhere. Making stuff unconscious therefore – as a way of ‘protecting ourselves from it’ – simply doesn’t work. Not being conscious of stuff (in the manner of an ostrich) is our number one strategy, and it is also the single most disastrous thing we could ever do…
When the unconscious authority of our thinking patterns closes so tight on us that we can’t help seeing our predicament (i.e. seeing that our own thinking is running us ragged, and that we are going around in circles) then of course we get the idea that we should fight against these thought patterns. We get the idea that we should struggle to control them. We don’t seem to be able to see that that fighting against a pattern of thinking (or struggling to control it) only feeds into it. It is as if this is too subtle an idea for us as a culture to grasp; the idea that ‘fighting against the pattern is the pattern’ somehow eludes us. The idea that ‘we are controlled by what we try to control’ is not something that we get. As we have already said, the counterproductive nature of control is something that we have very little insight into in our modern world. Control is the all-important thing in this technologically-advanced world of ours – not consciousness.
In our modern world everything is about control; everything is about convenience – having what we want when we want it! When it comes to painful thoughts and feelings however this glib approach is completely disastrous. There couldn’t be an approach more suited to producing bucket-loads of suffering – if we wanted to give ourselves a thoroughly miserable time we couldn’t have come up with a better way than this! This is of course quite inadvertent. It’s not that we don’t want to pay attention to what’s going on in our lives, but rather that we want to attend as much as we can to the ‘good’ stuff, the stuff we like, and just ‘skip over’ – as much as possible – the stuff that we don’t think is so good, the stuff that is difficult or painful. Modern technology (and much of what we presume to call ‘therapy’) promises to help us do precisely this, only in a much more efficient, much more effective way; we have the attitude that it ought to be possible to target and surgically remove the painful elements of our experience – as if with smart-bombs or laser scalpels. The only thing is, trying to do this isn’t as ‘smart’ as we think it is!
If we try to pay attention only to the bits that we like we find out that we can’t pay attention at all. If we try to be conscious of only some of the stuff that is happening to us we find that we can’t be conscious at all – it’s ‘all or nothing’! Trying just to have the stuff that we like spoils everything. ‘Selective attention’ spoils everything, and the reason selective attention spoils everything is because it introduces pressure (or forcing) into the picture. If I am having a good time then I am under pressure to enjoy it and make the most of it, and if I am having a bad time then I am equally under pressure to control it so that it isn’t there. I am under pressure to eliminate or avoid it. It is therefore as if I am leaning into the times that I enjoy so as to enjoy them more, and leaning away from the times that I don’t enjoy so as to avoid them as much as possible. This ‘leaning’ however spoils things either way…
Pressure doesn’t work either way – when I try to get the most of the good times by putting pressure on myself to enjoy it more I actually enjoy it less, and when I try to avoid experiencing the bad times as much as I can I actually have a worse time then I would have done if I hadn’t been so keen to avoid it. This is the simple truth of the matter – for all that we don’t like to see it! What we find it so hard to understand therefore is that we can’t force ourselves to enjoy the good stuff anymore than we can force ourselves not to feel the pain associated with the bad stuff. Everything gets out of kilter when we try to do this with the net result that we get painfully dissociated from our own lives because of the way in which we are trying to ‘take control’ of the process.
The key to everything (the key to not getting painfully dissociated from our own lives) is to see that our resistance to what is going on (whether this resistance is of the positive or negative variety makes no difference whatsoever) makes everything a lot harder for us than it otherwise would be. By resisting we are jinxing ourselves. We could say that this ‘compulsion to resist’ (this ‘compulsion to try control’) comes out of our lack of trust in the process of life: because we don’t trust the process of what is going on we take charge of things ourselves and this as we have said infallibly jinxes everything. ‘Taking charge’ sounds like an empowering sort of a thing on the face of it and we very often hear the phrase ‘taking control of your life’ bandied about as if this were a great thing altogether, but what does it really mean? What does it mean to ‘take control’ of one’s own life? It doesn’t mean anything very inspiring when it comes down to it: ‘taking control’ simply means that ‘only what I say should happen gets to happen’ and this is just another way of talking about fear and the constriction of possibilities that comes about because of fear. Control is all about fear. Control equals fear. How could we not see this? How could we think otherwise?
Life is not about ‘taking charge’ or ‘being in control’. Life is actually not going to happen if we continue to take charge, if we continue to stay in control – what happens then is really the very antithesis of life! Life – we could say – is what happens when we find the courage to let things happen by themselves. Life is all about ‘letting go’, not controlling therefore. We can’t say what life ‘is’ or ‘is not’, what it ‘should’ or ‘should not’ be, all we can say is that life is what happens when we stop saying what it is or is not, what it should or shouldn’t be, when we stop imposing our own preferences or expectations on the process of what is going on! This is the best description of life that we can have and it is a negative description (i.e. it is a description of what life isn’t)…
Letting go and letting things happen as they’re going to – with regard to the working of our own psyche – is a very rare situation. We don’t usually trust own psyche enough to do this – on the contrary, what we are constantly trying to do is control the psyche on the basis of the rational-analytical mind, which is as Jung says only a very small part of the psyche. Because we don’t understand (and can’t understand) the psychic process (which is the process of who we are) we don’t trust it and because we don’t trust it we automatically try to control it wherever we can. We clamp down on it as much as we can; we try to ‘manage’ it – which is to say, we try to get it to work the way we think it should…
Control is as we have said all about ‘getting more of what we like and less of what we don’t like’. The good stuff we try to encourage and the bad stuff we try to contain or limit or ‘manage’. Or eliminate entirely, if we can! This equals what we have been calling ‘resistance’ and resistance is all about ‘not trusting the process’. We find that we are ‘lacking in trust’ when it comes to ‘life as it actually is’. We’re afraid – not to put too fine a point on it. We’re afraid that we won’t get as much of the good stuff as we’d like to get, and we’re also afraid that we’ll get more of the bad stuff than we bargained for! This cautious approach makes sense in a superficial way – in fact it makes so much sense that we carry it out on a fully automatic basis. It makes so much sense for us to be in control that we do so without ever reflecting on that fact that we’re doing it. It’s second nature to us. It’s ‘who we are’ to control; as Alan Watts says, we identify ourselves with the ‘knot of tension’ inside us that is forever trying to stay in control.
But the thing about this – as we keep saying – is that control spoils everything. Control jinxes everything. Life has to be entered into wholeheartedly – it’s no good trying to play games with life! Either I’m in it or I’m not in it, and not being in it’ feels a lot worse than being in it, not matter how painful or challenging things might get. When we try to be in control of the process of life (by resisting either positively or negatively) then we jinx the natural flow of things and instead of this flow we end up with a series of ‘static frames’ that are the result of the reiteration of the past. Or to put this another way, as a result of not trusting ourselves to the flow (because we don’t know where that flow will take us) we come out of the flow, and when we come out of the flow we don’t go anywhere!
All there is is the flow really. What else is there apart from the process of life (which is the same thing as the process of the psyche)? And if we don’t trust the flow, if we don’t trust the process, what else is there for us? All we’ve got left then is to keep on repeating patterns of thinking based on what we subconsciously imagine our past is, and even this isn’t true since the past was actually the flow too, and so our static representations of it are false. If we don’t trust the process, therefore, then it’s not just that we’re ‘doomed to keep repeating the past’. It’s worse than that – we’re doomed to keep on repeating what we falsely imagined the past to be…!