The Prison of Purposefulness


The cruellest prison we could ever find ourselves in is the prison of purposefulness. What could be crueller than this? The funny thing is though that we are more than likely to have very little (if any) appreciation of the truth of this statement. We don’t generally have the necessary perspective on the matter to appreciate just how inimical this situation would be. We don’t tend to have the imagination to see the sheer horror of ‘having to do everything on purpose’.


We don’t – on the whole – appreciate the freedom of not having to do everything on purpose! Collectively, we certainly don’t appreciate it – we’re full of talk about how great it is to be in control, how great it is to set goals for ourselves, how great it is to have this skill or that skill, skills which will allow us to be more effectively in control, more certain of being able to obtain our goals. There’s never any talk of how dreadful a situation it would be to have to be in control the whole time, to have to be doing everything ‘on purpose’ the whole time.


We don’t give this particular scenario very much (if any) thought, despite the fact that we are constantly pushing in this direction, despite the fact that we are constantly trying to maximize ‘being in control’. It’s as if we think that the place we’re trying so hard to get to (the place where we are in ‘total control’ of everything that happens to us) is something wonderful, something incredibly beneficial, something that is going to make us very happy indeed. We do think this. This is the message that is coming at us from all sides… There is never any talk about how dreadful a situation it is to always have to be in control the whole time, to always have to be doing everything on purpose the whole time. We are – as a culture – constantly harping on about how great it is to have an increased means of control, but we have no imagination at all for how thoroughly miserable a condition it is to be addicted to control, which is exactly what we are.


If we gave the matter any consideration at all we would have reason to question this assumption, question this message. We just haven’t properly understood what this much-desired state of ‘being totally in control’ actually means. What it means is that I can’t ever do anything, say anything, without first having to decide to do it, without first having to decide to say it, without first having to have the ‘purpose’ in mind. Nothing comes naturally, everything has to be thought of first, and then having had the thought I the next thing is that I have to turn it into action. This is essentially a sterile situation – nothing comes naturally and so I have to cover up for this ‘lack of spontaneity’ by inventing stuff, by cranking the handle of the purposeful mind! “Maybe I’ll do this, maybe I’ll do that”, I say to myself. We all find ourselves in this situation from time to time but it doesn’t generally last very long. But suppose I have to be like this all the time? Suppose nothing ever ‘comes naturally’? Suppose I can’t do anything without first have to decide to do it, without first having the idea to do it?


Clearly being stuck in the purposeful modality all the time wouldn’t exactly be a barrel of laughs. Everything is deliberate, planned, calculated. It is as if I’m reading life from a script. I am reading life from a script – the script of my rational mind, the script of my thoughts. If you saw me going around in this way you would notice it – you would see the purposefulness! I would appear wooden or mechanical, somehow lacking in grace or fluidity. If you were at all observant you would notice that something is amiss (or that ‘something is missing’). What would be missing is life itself – that little insignificant detail which we always leave out of our calculations when we are in purposeful mode!
Life isn’t something that comes out of a script. It isn’t something that proceeds from a formula, from a recipe, from a method. I can’t have the idea, “I know – I’ll go and live life!” and then follow up on this. I can have the idea alright but it won’t get me anywhere. It doesn’t work like this – I can’t live life on purpose because I’m can’t make life into a goal and the reason I can’t make life into a goal is because I don’t have the faintest idea what it is! Life isn’t something I can define or formulate. I can’t ‘plan to live life’. Or rather I can plan to live but when I do this isn’t living – it’s just the thinking mind’s version of living! It’s a very crude version of living. I’m grasping clumsily at something that always slips out of my fingers…


We can’t live life on purpose because life isn’t a construct of the mind. Or we could say that we can’t live life on purpose because – as Alan Watts says – life hasn’t got a purpose. To say that life has a purpose is to bring it down to the level of the purpose we have in mind for it, and our purposes are only dead mechanical constructs. What would life need a purpose for? That would be like saying that a small child ‘needs a purpose’. Only adults think that they need a purpose and that is because they are out of step with life, because they are living the thinking mind’s clumsy and graceless version of life. As over-rational adults we feel that we need a purpose because our ‘purposes’ are our substitute for life….


Purposes exist in the future and the future is a projection of the thinking mind. When we’re purposeful we’re living in a world that is entirely made up of ‘our ideas’, in other words. Life on the other hand is what’s happening now. When we let the thinking mind take charge of life and start planning it and regulating it and managing it and so on then we’re missing the present moment entirely. We can’t ‘manage ourselves’ to be in the present moment! We can’t control ourselves to be ‘in the flow of life’ because controlling automatically takes us out of the flow. Everything we think (and everything we do on the basis of thought) takes us out of the flow, and we think all the time! Thinking is there (either in the foreground or the background) almost continuously, like a TV in an adjoining room that no one ever bothers to turn off, and so how are we ever going to be in the present moment (given that the function of thought is to take us out of the present moment)?


Thinking is always trying to ‘take charge of the process of life’. That’s what it does. Thinking takes charge by being purposeful – by aiming at things it says are good and trying to avoid the things it says are bad. Its purposes are its own constructs and it doesn’t trust anything that isn’t its own construct. Thinking doesn’t trust uncharted territory because uncharted territory isn’t one of its constructs. Thinking doesn’t trust uncertainty because uncertainty isn’t a construct! Uncertainty means that the thinking mind has to let go of the reins and this is of course the one thing that it doesn’t want to do!


Even if we were to understand that controlling ourselves and being purposeful the whole time is not a fruitful thing to do (even if we wanted to embrace uncertainty at least to some extent on our lives) the thinking mind will inevitably try to take charge of this process. It will get excited about the idea – the same that it gets excited by all of its ideas – and it will try to put into practice this new project of ‘letting go’. This will become the new policy, the new concept, the new buzzword. I will think about it, talk about it, enthuse about it. Maybe I will read a book about it or go on a course. I will make plans to instigate letting go. But none of this will bring me any closer to the actual reality of ‘letting go’ – it will actually take me further away than ever because all of this mental activity is only serving to feed the thinking mind and this thinking mind is the very thing that stands between me and letting go!


Somehow – as always – the purposeful mind has taken charge and inveigled itself into equation. It has – as it always does – sneakily made itself indispensible for the process. “You want to let go of the thinking mind?” says the thinking mind, “Great, let me take care of that for you. let me handle that. Let me be the project manager…” This is like Krishnamurti’s joke:

You may remember the story of how the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street, when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket. The friend said to the devil, “What did that man pick up?” “He picked up a piece of Truth,” said the devil. “That is a very bad business for you, then,” said his friend. “Oh, not at all,” the devil replied, “I am going to let him organize it.”

The simple truth is that life begins when we let go of our thinking, when we let go of our goals, when we let go of our purposes, when we let go of our plans, hopes and dreams (loathe as we are to do this). Or as we could also say, life begins when we let go of our idea of it; when we no longer imagine that we know what it is, or what it should be. Whatever we may happen to think about life, the one thing we may be sure of is that this is missing the point! That’s just the thinking mind doing its thing. That’s just the thinking mind trying to name everything, define everything, explain everything, control everything. That’s just the thinking mind trying to ‘take charge’, as it always does….


Thinking strangles life. This is the point that we seem so remarkably resistant to seeing. We never seem to get it, no matter how much suffering thinking brings us. If you want to spoil life, just try thinking about it! Try regulating it, try controlling it. Try planning for it. Try deliberately trying to ‘do it’. If you really want to take every last bit of joy out of life, set about ‘managing’ it! If that’s what you want then place life under the jurisdiction of the grey bureaucracy of thought and you may consider the job done…


There is only one beneficiary when the thinking mind is placed in charge of life and that is the thinking mind itself. This is a question of ‘jobs for the boys’. Unnecessary admin posts are set up. Pointless hoops are created that we all have to jump through. Boxes are created that we have to get ticked. Policies and procedures are put in place that we have to satisfy. The entire unholy bureaucracy of thought is created and once this bureaucracy gets a hold then the one thing we can be sure of is that it’s never going to let go. Not voluntarily, at any rate. We might as well put Count Dracula and his cronies in charge of the Nation Blood Transfusion Service and expect him to voluntarily relinquish the post! We might as well expect the government to vote itself out of power once it has gained it! We might as well expect a multinational corporation to voluntarily disband itself and give all its ill-gained billions to the poor!


The reason we are so extraordinarily resistant to seeing the life-denying nature of the runaway thinking mind is of course because we are always seeing everything from its point of view. We’re not seeing things clearly at all – we’re seeing everything skew-ways! The thinking mind is – we might say – a bias and when we see everything from the point of view of a bias then we ‘can’t see the bias as a bias’. We can’t see the bias at all – it is profoundly invisible to us. It’s like a guy who is highly prejudiced about something – he can’t see that his prejudiced! He just thinks that he’s ‘right’! The distortion that thought introduces is always invisible to thought, therefore – thought necessarily assumes its own position to be the correct one. When we think about things everything becomes ‘black and white’ and the one thing we are guaranteed not to get is that the clear-cut ideas of ‘right and wrong’ don’t actually exist anywhere outside of our own taken-for-granted thinking mind…


Operating on the basis of an ‘invisible bias’ (a bias we see as being ‘normal’ or ‘right’) creates problems. It creates a whole load of glitches that we then have to try to solve by using the very same invisible bias that gave rise to them in the first place! This is what cybernetic pioneer Gregory Bateson was pointing out way back in the sixties. The more problems come about as a result of our overly rational approach to life the keener we are to vote for the rational mind to take on extra powers for itself in order to ‘deal with the emergency’. The bigger the problem the keener we become we place ourselves under the authority of this mind since fear makes us more gullible, not less! And if this sounds like a familiar story then this should come as no surprise since the macrocosm always reflects the microcosm – what goes on in the outside world reflects what is occurring on the inside. Society is – as David Bohm says – the faithful extension of the system of thought. It’s all the same thing; it’s all the one structure…


What we’re talking about here – in traditional psychological language – is neurosis. Neurosis is where the self-regulatory mechanisms of the thinking mind take over completely and proceed to choke the life out of us. The self-regulatory mechanisms take over and reduce life to a mere chore. There’s a whole bunch of rules and we have to follow them. Life becomes no more than an unremitting unforgiving ‘anxiety-driven’ routine where the only point is to ‘tick the boxes’ that we’re supposed to tick. Then – having done this – the system of thought finds us a whole new lot of boxes to tick. Either this or it’s the same old boxes all over again…


Who doesn’t know what this feels like? In our modern super-advanced technologically triumphant world the incidence of anxiety and depression is increasing all the time. The curve on the graph is going up and up and it shows no sign of slowing down, no matter how many antidepressants we might be taking! According to the World Health Organization depression and anxiety are set to eclipse all other chronic conditions (such as arthritis or cardiovascular disease) as the biggest cause of disability by the year 2050. There is a children’s joke – “If superman is so smart then how come he wears his underpants on the outside of his tights?” In a similar vein, we could ask, “If we’re so damn clever (and we certainly think that we are) then how come we are the most neurotic generation ever to walk the face of this planet?


Actually, of course, the question itself supplies the answer. It is precisely because we are so clever that we are heirs to such a weight of neurotic suffering. We have cleverness coming out of our ears but it doesn’t do us any good! It’s not that ‘cleverness’ is bad news per se, but simply that we can’t live life any better by being clever about it! Life isn’t a puzzle (or a problem) to be solved after all. And it’s not just that our much-vaunted cleverness isn’t doing us any good – it is as we have been saying the very cause of our suffering in the first place.


And true to the pattern that always prevails wherever rationality is involved, we try to cure the problem with the very thing that caused it in the first place! We try to ‘control’ our neurotic symptoms, we drone on and on about ‘managing’ them. We make a goal of not being neurotic. We purposefully set out to free ourselves from the burden of the neurotic suffering that has been caused by our out-of-control purposefulness in the first place. We’re using thought to try to cure ourselves of the sickness that is caused by too much thinking. In a nutshell – we’re trying to escape from the Prison of Purposefulness on purpose!