A good way to understand what is happening when we are anxious or panicking is to look at the difference between ‘noticing’ and ‘evaluating’ (noticing being where we are simply aware and present, and ‘evaluating’ being where we are trying to stay in control). Naturally enough we all think we know everything there is to know about being anxious and the state of being panicked, but what we know is how it feels when it happens, not how the process actually happens. We know all about how it feels, but – generally speaking – nothing at all about what is actually happening. This is the whole point – as is the case with all unconscious processes – if we could see clearly what was happening as it happened then it wouldn’t happen. It’s because we aren’t conscious of what’s happening that it gets to happen!
Firstly, in order to understand the unconscious mental activity that is anxiety, we need to look at ‘evaluation mode’ – the mode in which we automatically and rigidly evaluate everything that is happening to us. ‘Evaluation mode’ is by its very nature rigid and inflexible – everything has to be accommodated to it, rather than the other way around. The whole point of evaluation mode is to focus completely on whether or not things are the way that we think they ought to be. What this means is that ‘the way we think things have to be’ (i.e. our ‘assumed framework’) is never questioned for a second – it is enshrined in the background like some sort of untouchable holy dogma. The very idea of the ‘assumed framework’ having to accommodate itself to what it encounters is utterly unthinkable. Nothing could be more out of the question – it simply doesn’t work that way.
Not only is the evaluation mode is inherently rigid and inflexible, it is also fragile and brittle – like a china plate or a piece of Waterford crystal. It’s not something that can accommodate itself to change. Why this should be so is of course very easy to see: anything that has no give in it, no flexibility, will crack up, will ultimately ‘fly to pieces’ when it meets a force (or reality) which is bigger and stronger than itself, and which refuses to give way to it.
Thus, when we meet with difficult situation in the rigid and brittle mode of evaluation there can only be one outcome – we will start to feel that we are ‘cracking up’. We will of course try to control what is going on but when we find that we can’t then we will experience unbearable stress and tension. It feels for all the world as if cracks are starting to appear, small ones at first but then gradually branching out, inexorably spreading, getting wider and wider. Our very language reflects this – when we talk about ‘having a breakdown’, or ‘cracking up’, this is what we mean. The terrifying perception that we have is that the whole structure of ‘who we are’ is going to inevitably ‘crack up’ in catastrophic (and irreversible) way.
The reason this projected ‘cracking up’ process feels so very frightening is because we have associated ourselves completely with a fixed and unyielding structure – the structure being the rigid framework of assumptions or rules which lie at the heart of ‘evaluation mode’. This framework of rules is actually not who we are at all because we are not some inflexible ‘thing’ – we are not china plates and we actually can’t ‘crack up’. We aren’t mechanical things, we are living beings and life in its essence is always flexible and unfixed – not determined by any structure or pattern of rules. Only dead things are rigid and fixed, which is the idea expressed here in Chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching:
While alive, the body is soft and pliant
When dead, it is hard and rigid
All living things, grass and trees,
While alive, are soft and supple
When dead, become dry and brittle
Thus that which is hard and stiff
is the follower of death
That which is soft and yielding
is the follower of life
Somewhere along the line we have become convinced however that what is good by the mechanical standards of the utterly inflexible evaluation mode is good for us, and so we have tied our fortunes with its continuing existence. We have linked our well-being with the integrity of the particular pattern of rules that evaluation mode is based on; in fact to say that the two are ‘linked’ is not putting it strongly enough – we use these rules to define and ensure our well-being and so they are everything to us. It could be said that we have obeyed these rules so unthinkingly and for so long that we have become them. Our true nature is to be fluid and flexible – which is to say, it is to be free. It doesn’t contend with anything because it doesn’t have to – it’s got nothing to prove, no axe to grind. The trouble is however that our true nature has been forgotten about as a result of lack of use and as a result we’ve got lots to prove, many axes to grind.
Once we start going down this road of meeting difficult situations by automatically going into rigid ‘evaluation/control mode’ things we get all the more trapped in it. What happens next in the chain of events is that we meet the difficult situation of the projected ‘crack up’ of ‘who I think I am’ in the same inflexible (or ‘non-allowing’) way. ‘Inflexible’ means that we are setting ourselves up for another crack-up – so to speak – on top of the first; it means that only my way is acceptable and all other ways are unacceptable. That there should be a ‘crack-up’ is in itself of course totally unacceptable and so when I am confronted with the fact that this is happening I insist for all I’m worth that it mustn’t be happening. And when this doesn’t make any difference – which of course it won’t! – I start to crack up about this. I ‘crack-up about the fact that I am cracking-up’ and so instead of things getting better they get a lot worse. They get exponentially worse: I am helplessly ‘reacting to my own reacting’, I am ‘freaking out about freaking out’, and this is a chain reaction that can go on forever. When this happens I get a glimpse of the gates of hell opening before me – the hell of total panic – and this, needless to say, makes me crack up all the more…
Next we come to ‘noticing mode’. Noticing is a completely different kettle of fish entirely – it is not rigid or unyielding, but rather it is all about ‘giving way’ to the event that is happening. As Bruce Lee says,
Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.
Alan Watts (The Wisdom of Insecurity, P 96-97) also uses the metaphor of water, which by its very nature instantly and easily gives way to any object that is placed in it:
If, when swimming, you are caught in a strong current, it is fatal to resist. You must swim with it and gradually edge to the side. One who falls from a height with stiff limbs will break them, but if he relaxes like a cat he will fall safely. A building without “give” in its structure will easily collapse in storm or earthquake, and a car without the cushioning of tires and springs will soon come apart on the road.
The mind has just the same powers, for it has give and can absorb shocks like water or a cushion. But this giving way to an opposing force is not at all the same thing as running away. A body of water does not run away when you push it; it simply gives at the point of the push and encloses your hand. A shock absorber does not fall down like a bowling-pin when struck; it gives, and yet stays in the same place. To run away is the only defence of something rigid against an overwhelming force. Therefore the good shock absorber has not only “give,” but also stability or “weight.”
‘Noticing mode’ is perfectly explained by the metaphor of water, which accommodates without running away. When an object is placed in water the water doesn’t try to enforce its own rules, its own expectations. It does not demand that the object conform to its preordained pattern, its preferred shape. The whole thing about water is of course that it doesn’t have a fixed shape – it is fluid, non-rigid, infinitely adaptable. Water doesn’t ‘come with an agenda’, so to speak, and so it doesn’t waste time trying to enforce its expectations upon what it finds! It doesn’t have opinions and it doesn’t have prejudices.
In the same way therefore we can say that ‘noticing’ doesn’t come with a preordained pattern or agenda about whatever is to be noticed. The sole determining factor about what I notice is ‘what is there to be noticed’, not ‘what I like or dislike about it’ (or what I think ought to be there or not there). In other words, whatever is there is accommodated instantly and allowed to be what it already is. This, after all, is what noticing (or awareness) is all about! It’s not about us projecting our expectations on the world – it’s about us being open to what’s there in an unprejudiced way.
Noticing is something that takes place absolutely instantaneously. There is no question whatsoever of deliberating or choosing or in any way ‘processing the information’. The question of “How should I see this thing?” never comes into it. There is no need for any control, any input, any modifications, any preference on my part – whatever is, that’s just the way it is. Obviously enough, consciousness (which is another word for noticing) couldn’t work any other way. If it did work the other way – which is to say, if it were I who decided the nature of what I was seeing, or being aware of – then this wouldn’t be consciousness at all but the complete reversal of consciousness! When the information is coming in from outside of me, in a direct way, without any interference or ‘management’, then I am able to be honestly aware of what is there. But if the information about what is to be seen, how it is to be seen, etc, comes from me instead of outside me then this isn’t consciousness at all but projection. It’s my own delusory, self-referential system.
A projection – we might say – is an image of reality that I construct myself and then project like a film on top of reality so that I don’t actually see the true reality at all. Projection therefore obstructs consciousness; rather than helping the process of honest or authentic awareness it subverts it. Projection therefore is all about unconsciousness rather than consciousness – it is all about blocking or obscuring awareness with our unexamined expectations and prejudices. When we are unconscious we are ruled by the detritus (i.e. the useless remnants) of all the experiences (misunderstood experiences at that) which we have automatically accumulated in our minds. This ‘detritus’ is sometimes called our conditioning and the important thing to understand about conditioning is that we can’t ‘fight against it’ because ‘fighting’ or struggling’ (or any sort of purposeful doing) always means using our conditioning. It always involves us having definite models or maps of reality, definite expectations, assumptions which trap us helplessly within them whenever we use them. What we can do however is to become aware of our programming. This may not sound like very much but because becoming aware does not involve ‘taking stuff for granted’ (which purposeful action always does) it is the only way of becoming disentangled from the invisible framework of rules and arbitrary beliefs that lie behind ‘evaluation mode’.
If instead of associating ourselves with the evaluative mode the whole time we allow ourselves to remain more often in noticing mode, which is where we are naturally anyway, then when a difficult situation does come along there is some ‘give’ (as Bruce Lee and Alan Watts say) right there at the heart of us, instead of the usual mechanical rigidity. Of course, when a difficult situation comes along it is perfectly natural that we find ourselves going into evaluation mode – this is a long-standing habit because the evaluation/control mode is where we are used to getting our sense of security from. It’s what we have always used to ‘help’ ourselves, to ‘save’ ourselves so of course we are going to be automatically reaching out for it every time things get difficult. We just have to be aware of this tendency!
At this point however – if we understand a little bit about the difference between evaluation and noticing, the chances are that we will fall into the trap of trying to correct matters by attempting to notice what is going on instead of evaluating it. We will attempt to change ourselves: first we will notice that we are evaluating and then we will say to ourselves “This isn’t right, I am evaluating when I should be noticing!” and as soon as we say this we are of course firmly back in evaluation mode. We are evaluating our own evaluating, and from this point on we are caught up in the same old endless mechanical chain reaction of ‘the mind trying to escape the mind’.
The point is simply that it is impossible to go into the noticing mode on purpose. ‘On purpose’ means that it’s coming from me, not from outside of me and whatever comes from me is always the result of evaluation and control. As Alan Watts says somewhere else, control and methods are good for creating things that don’t yet exist, but ‘noticing mode’ – which is to say, consciousness – already exists. It is already there, we don’t have to invent it, or make ourselves ‘do it’. We don’t have ‘create consciousness’ – it’s not our responsibility to do this!
This is like ‘being yourself’ – there is no method to ‘being yourself’ because you already are yourself. Just as you already ‘are yourself’, so too are you ‘already aware’ – awareness is actually ‘what you are’ and it is therefore always right there at the heart of things. What this means is that whatever happens, no matter how much you might seem to be cracking up, you can always ‘just notice yourself cracking up’. And if you are noticing yourself crack up then you aren’t cracking up because ‘cracking up’ only ever happens in evaluation mode!
‘Noticing mode’ doesn’t crack up any more than water cracks up – it can’t crack up because it has no rules, no prejudices, no arbitrary and limiting assumptions to protect. It has no position to protect! It can’t crack up – that’s fundamentally impossible for it!
Furthermore, when it comes right down to it, noticing mode is – as we have said – where we always are. Noticing – which is to say awareness – is always there right at the heart of everything. We don’t have to engineer it, or plan for it, or arrange it; we don’t have to fix it, or analyse it, or correct it, or ‘have a theory for it’ or ‘do it on purpose’ – we don’t need to do any of that stuff at all. We don’t need to invent a way to be, we just need to be how we already – in our essence – are.