Increasing Perspective


What is perspective? Most people would probably answer that perspective has something to do with ‘seeing things from more than just one angle’ – of being able to get the true picture, i.e. not just a one-sided or narrow view of what we are looking at. There is also the implication of not being too ‘up close’ to our problem, perspective means being able to pull back so that we do not get trapped by one way of looking at what is going on. This means that perspective is basically a way of talking about freedom, we might say ‘freedom of perception.’ When I have freedom of perception I can look at an object in lots of different ways, and when I add up all these different viewpoints I get an ‘all-round’ view.  Once I have an all-round view, I am not so likely to jump to conclusions about my situation. I am not so likely to subscribe to a distorted view of reality, and therefore I will be able to act more effectively. If I have a problem, I will be able to see that problem (and my own part in it) that much more clearly.


There is a story about four men and an elephant that is sometimes used to illustrate this idea.  The story goes like this: Four men bump into an elephant one day, in the dark. None of them has ever heard of an elephant before, and they are all very interested in the strange creature that they have encountered. They have a meeting to try to come to some basic agreement about what sort of beast they have discovered. The first man bumped into the side of the elephant and he says that the elephant is a bit like a wall. The second man met the trunk and so he says that an elephant is rather like a giant snake. The third man came across an ear and he thinks that an elephant is just like a huge fan. The forth man found a leg and so he says that an elephant is like nothing so much as a massive tree trunk. All four are right, given the perspective they were operating from, and yet at the same time none of them are right, because they each try to use their limited perspective to explain the whole thing.  Complete perspective in this case would be to examine the elephant from every single side, and then take all the different aspects into account to see what they add up to.


If I jump to the (understandable) conclusion that an elephant is best pictured as a ‘wall-like creature’, and then proceed to interact with all the elephants I ever meet on the basis of this premature and incomplete understanding, then all my future dealing with elephants are going to fraught with difficulties. This is because I will not actually be interacting with an elephant, but only with my idea of an elephant – which is not at all the same thing! For this reason my actions will backfire on me – unexpected problems will keep coming up that I am quite unable to understand, and which, naturally enough, I never will be able to understand just as long as I stick to my one-sided theory (or ‘model’) of elephants.


This example is of course rather over-simplified and not entirely plausible either, but we can apply it to real-life situations all the same.  Everyone of us interacts with the world on the basis of an incomplete or premature understanding. That is to say, every single person has a model for what is going on.  It is a fact that models, without exception, are always incomplete; there is inevitably going to be a difference between reality and our idea of it – no one can get around that. If this wasn’t so then life could never surprise us, and it always does, sooner or later; that is how we learn stuff – through being surprised!  The trouble is, of course, that there is a part of us which doesn’t like surprises very much, and this is why we have a natural tendency to want to have a theory that ‘explains everything’.  Another way to put this would be to say that we really want to believe that our map matches the territory exactly, and that there is nothing significant that we have left out, lurking in the twilight zone somewhere. Once we believe that we have a map that matches reality in every detail, then we are able to do what we really want to do, i.e. hand over responsibility to it. Life is under control, I say to myself, I have it licked!  There is a big danger here, though: when we completely identify with our map of reality we can’t actually tell the difference between the idea and the truth any more. Our thoughts become the word, they become all there is – we never go beyond them any more. This is ‘loss of perspective,’ big time. When we think we know it all, we are no longer capable of learning and growing; as a result, life has lost its flavour – it becomes a technicality, a job, a foregone conclusion one way or the other.


Usually when we hear of someone who thinks they know it all, we think that they must be big-headed or arrogant. There is however, another, more common, reason for us jumping to the unwarranted conclusion that we know it all, and that reason is fear! This might seem like a bit of an odd suggestion, but let us consider it a bit further. When I am frightened I feel that I can’t afford to hang around in the ‘scared place,’ I have to do something fast to get out of there. Now, there is no way that I can hit upon a plan and put that plan into action without jumping to the conclusion that I know what is happening – I need a map in order to act, and once I start acting there is no time to question whether that map was right in the first place. I cannot afford, at that stage, to question my basic assumptions; at least, I don’t feel as if I can. As long as I am doing something ‘definite’  about my situation I feel a bit more secure and the last thing I want to do is consider the possibility that my action is based on an inaccurate representation of reality, and therefore useless, or even worse-than-useless. I’d rather carry on acting, and feeling secure in acting – ignorance is bliss, as they say! This sort of unquestioning action is mechanical in nature, it is unconscious and automatic.


Fear comes in many guises – it might be that we really want (or need) something, in which case the fear is the fear of not getting it, the fear of not having our needs met.  Generally speaking, fear occurs because of the awareness of uncertainty, or ‘lack of security,’ and the behaviour it tends to inspire is action that is geared towards increasing our sense of security and control. It is my need for control (i.e. my insecurity) that makes me want a theory that explains everything.


If my theory explains (and therefore predicts) everything, then the possibility of ‘total control’ is only one step away. Total control is our dream – it equals ‘total security’. Or so we think. Total control means that we can have everything ‘our own way,’ and who does not want this?  This is what we tend to think of when we hear the word freedom – we think of ‘the freedom to have everything the way we want it…’  Put another way, we think of the freedom to have whatever we want. Great…..  Fantastic…… But is this really freedom? What if our underlying understanding is incomplete? What if we’ve missed out something important out in our haste to feel that we have things ‘under control’?  If all maps are incomplete, as we have said that they are, then the ‘freedom to have things the way we want them to be’ actually means ‘the freedom to escape reality,’ or ‘the freedom to live in an imaginary place’.  What we are dreaming of is the freedom to live in a world which exactly matches our incomplete idea of it, which sounds a bit strange, to say the least. Even if we could have this so-called ‘freedom’ to be in a place where reality cannot reach us, would that turn out to be as great as we think, or would it not turn out to be some kind of ghastly nightmare?  After all, if I am not in reality, then just where the hell am I?


There is another question I could ask. If I am not in a real place, then perhaps I am not being my real self either. And when I am not being my true self, then just who am I being? When I am completely identified with my map of myself, I am not being myself, but only my false idea of myself. In other words, I am putting on a show, or an act. True happiness, it is said, comes about through discovering who one really is, being true to oneself.  “If only I could just be myself…” I say.  “Just act naturally, be yourself…” advise my friends (in the fond belief that they are saying something helpful).  But how do I go about discovering my true self? ‘Being myself’ sounds so simple, yet everything I do seems to take me further away from it; the more I try to control myself to be myself (or, more accurately, what I think ‘myself’ should be) the more wrong I seem to go.  This is the very root of the problem – my inability to be myself through trying is the very thing which stands in the way of my happiness. ‘Trying’ means that I act purposefully on the basis of my ideas, and because my idea about who I am is not who I am, trying only makes me more artificial.


Just like there is a feeling of security in having a 100% reliable map of reality, so too there is security in ‘knowing who I am’.  Society itself provides us with well-defined roles and identities: I am a father, a patient, an income tax accountant, a Hell’s Angel, a free-mason, a communist, an alcoholic, a sports-fan, etc. I also have a nationality: I am German, or Irish, or Japanese! All of these descriptions provide security and predictability, the only problem being that they are not really who I am at all. Okay, so I can take on these roles, but they do not define me – there is always more to me than just a father or or just a patient.  Someone may point at me and say “so, you are English…” and then think that this says something important about me, but it doesn’t.  It leaves an awful lot out! Because our roles are not the whole truth about us, this is a guaranteed recipe for trouble. There is a conflict going on between my map and the reality which it is trying to explain.


As we have said, there is always a strong tendency for us to identify with our descriptions of reality and take them to be 100% reliable. When we are under any kind of stress we do this, and then the actions that we take on the basis of our narrow view of ourselves becomes increasingly ‘at odds’ with who we really are, which has the effect of making the original problem even worse.  A lot of the distress involved in ‘mental illness’ arises out of this mismatch between idea and reality: we are trying to fulfil some idea of who we are; we are provided with a set of assumptions about ‘who we are,’ and then we try to live up to them. Therapy, we might think, ought to allow us to play out our roles and games without any conflict or ‘role-stress’. But this conflict cannot be eliminated, and, even if it could, that in itself would be a disaster – we would be truly lost then, with no helpful pain to remind us that we have lost our authenticity somewhere along the line.


When I identify with a fixed idea of ‘who I am,’ then I lose vital perspective, and this loss of perspective causes inflexibility, the inability to grow and change as a person. Identification provides a feeling of security; identification gives us something to grab hold of – a solid, non-ambiguous structure to rely on in times of trouble. The disadvantages, as we have said, are that I lose contact with my true self, and with the true nature of the ‘troublesome’ situation that I find myself in. This means that the conflict is actually perpetuated, and exacerbated, despite the illusory feeling that we are dong something positive.  This basic idea, that we reduce our own perspective deliberately (yet without really knowing what we are doing) in order to cope with stress, gives us a good way of looking at all neurotic states of mind. Phobias, depression, anxiety, obsessions, compulsions – all of these come down to ‘loss of perspective’. We are not just talking about the more unusual extremes of neurotic disturbance either – everyday neuroticism involves exactly the same principle, and so do the common negative emotions such as anger, jealousy, bitterness, self-pity, sulking, and so on. In all of these emotional states we experience a collapse of perspective which makes it impossible to see anything that can help us get out of the mood that we are in.  We can take a few examples:

[1]    ANGER    When I am angry I focus on stuff that makes me angry, and lose awareness of all the things that don’t help me in justifying myself in my anger. I see only one side of the story!

[2]   JEALOUSY    When I am jealous all the information I receive seems to support my idea that my partner is betraying me – there is no such thing as an ‘innocent explanation’. All the other explanations are simply unbelievable to me, I am no longer able to keep a balanced outlook.

[3]    SULKING   When I am sulking or bitter, everything I see serves to remind me of the wrong that has been done to me. I make myself into the centre of the universe and as a result I cannot get beyond this ‘poor me’ story even though there might be things happening around me that are fun and exciting.


Perspective means ‘freedom of perception’, and so the loss of perspective means being trapped in just the one way of seeing things.  I am not free to move from one viewpoint to another; I am restricted; am in a hole and I can’t climb out.  Normally, the viewpoints listed above such as anger, jealousy, etc, still exist, but so do all of the others, too. The difference is that I don’t dally with them – they hold no special attraction to them, and so I move on effortlessly. Nothing is excluded from my view of the world, and it is precisely this lack of exclusion that makes it a free-flowing situation; once I want to (consciously or unconsciously) block out certain ways of seeing the world, then the fluidity and freedom is lost. Therefore, the answer to being stuck in a negative mood or a neurotic, obsessive state of mind, might be said to be to increase perspective. When someone tells me this my most likely response will be to say “Fine, but how do I do this? How do I increase my perspective?”


This sounds like a helpful question to ask, but actually it isn’t all. In fact if I ask this question then what this really means is that I am looking for a way to increase my perspective that I can understand with the perspective that I already have. Asking ‘how’ means that I want to understand how to increase my perspective using the limited perspective (i.e. the map) that I am starting off from because any answer you give me will automatically be understood using ‘the limited way of understanding the world that is my usual everyday rational mind’. There is no way to get around this – if I can understand something then this means that it makes sense within the terms of my current map, and so I am never going to go beyond my map. Asking closed questions (questions that require a specific answer) re-affirms the validity of my habitual way of understanding the world, and so there is obviously no way in which this can ever lead to an increase in perspective (or ‘an increase in consciousness’, which is the same thing).


The only way to increase perspective is not by active ‘doing’, but by allowing the situation to be exactly the way it already is. So rather than ‘muscling in’ in a heavy-handed way and trying to control the situation  – whatever that situation might be – I remain sensitive to what is going on without doing what I normally do, which is automatically (and insensitively) trying to gain some sort of advantage. Even if I do nothing apart from mental reacting to the situation I find myself in, this too is keeping in control of what is going on because I am insisting on having my say. I am insisting on interpreting things in my way – the way that suits me. This is a way of staying in control because I am controlling the way I see the world so that I don’t have to see things in a way that I don’t like. As soon as I ease up on reacting, or trying to put my own slant on the proceedings then my understanding straight-away starts to develop in an unusual direction and this ‘unusual direction’ is due to the fact that I am allowing myself an extra bit of perspective on matters – I am allowing myself perspective that I would normally be struggling to suppress by staying in control.


Another way of explaining this point is to say that our perspective increases when we pay attention to whatever is making us feel bad. We tend to think that mental pain such as fear, anxiety or sadness causes us to lose perspective and get trapped as a result in a smaller world but really it is our reaction to mental pain that causes loss of perspective. Actually, losing perspective is something we do ‘secretly on purpose’ in order to escape from whatever it is that is troubling us – even though having very little perspective is thoroughly rotten in an oppressively cramped, dismally predictable, wretchedly unfree and claustrophobic sort of a way we choose (without really knowing what we are doing) this self-created prison rather than facing whatever it is that we are afraid to face. This is a good thing to understand for the reason that if we understand that loss of perspective is due to pain-avoidance then we know what the key to increasing perspective is purely and simply to pay careful attention to whatever it is that is causing us pain.


This tends to sound awfully morbid and unhealthy – we naturally assume that the way to go is to concentrate on the positive and the uplifting and try hard not to be preoccupied with all the rotten old negative stuff. It seems positively reprehensible to pay attention to feeling bad when there are so many wonderful – or potentially wonderful – sides to life. Why focus on misery as a way to increase perspective when we could gaze on the splendour of the stars, or immerse ourselves in the beauty of nature, or listen to glorious music? Gazing at the stars, going for a walk in the country, and listening to music can of course on occasion miraculously increase our sense of perspective on life but this does not mean that we can use them as ‘methods’. If we could then every time we felt bad which could just do one of these things and straightaway we would feel wonderful but the point is that it is just plain impossible to increase perspective as a way of escaping pain. I can’t use such a sublime thing as perspective for petty personal reasons – if my motivation is simply personal gain then the stark ‘lack of perspective’ inherent in this motivation will ensure that my attempt to increase my perspective comes to nothing. The same is true for creativity – if I try to tap into creativity in order to deliberately benefit myself in some way it just won’t work. The motivation behind the attempt to be creative is itself uncreative – personal gain (or pain-avoidance, which is the same thing) is always uncreative because its agenda is always fixed in advance. In fact there is nothing as profoundly uncreative as the motivation of greed-for-personal-benefit or fear-of-personal-loss. Nothing helpful can ever come from either greed or fear – fear and greed are states of mind that derive from a fundamental ‘lack of perspective’ and so any action that comes about as a result of this closed (or uncreative) type of motivation is bound simply to indefinitely perpetuate that lack of perspective. Greed cannot be used to escape greed any more than fear can be used to escape fear!


One reason we give for not paying attention to painful feelings or thoughts is that it puts us in danger of becoming obsessively fixated on our own misery. But this isn’t really true at all because what causes us to become fixated (or ‘stuck’) is the fact that we are fighting against these feelings or thoughts. When we find ourselves with an inner state that is unhappy or fearful or painful in any way we automatically resist that state – we struggle to change it to a state that is easier to bear, in other words. This tactic is perfectly understandable but it is also the worst thing that we could possibly do because fighting against my inner state means that I am negatively attached to it, and if I am attached to it clearly it is going to stay with me. Paying attention to my inner state is not at all the same as fighting against it, or complaining about it. Paying attention is, on the contrary, a fundamentally non-aggressive sort of a thing and for this reason it dissolves the existing attachment rather than creating additional attachment. Actually there is absolutely no way to aggressively or violently dissolve attachment because aggression and violence are themselves prime manifestations of attachment. The only way to dissolve attachment is by peaceful means and a peaceful approach basically involves remaining open to whatever the state is, without reacting, without ‘doing anything about it’. The temptation is of course to either ‘do something about the painful state of mind’ or to ‘ignore it’. Ignoring your state of mind is aggressive just as distracting yourself from your state of mind is aggressive and so ignoring and self-distracting create attachment just as much as fighting or complaining do.


The way Krishnamurti explains this is to say that we always bring our own agenda to the situation, and it is this agenda that ensures that we get stuck. Therefore, if I am feeling bad in any way I don’t accurately perceive what this bad feeling is about, and I don’t accurately perceive what it feels like to feel like this. What I do perceive is what the situation feels like from the point of view of a person who can’t drop his agenda, and what this means is that I am only getting a ‘distorted’ picture of things. Obviously, anything I do on the basis of this distortion is bound simply to make things worse by translating this distortion into reality. The distortion is a distortion because it is a misrepresentative or ‘one-sided’ view of things  – basically it is how things look to me when I have lost all perspective and any reaction that I make faithfully ‘echoes’ my original lack of perspective and perpetuates it indefinitely.


So what is the distorting agenda that we unnecessarily bring with us into difficult situations, and which guarantees that we get hopelessly stuck in the misery of counterproductive or ‘self-defeating’ behaviour? One way to answer this question is to say that the agenda always has to do with acting as if something matters very much indeed (or matters ‘absolutely’) when actually it doesn’t very matter at all. We can make this clear by giving a slightly silly example: suppose I have mislaid my special platinum pen that was given to me as a first prize in some sort of writing competition. This annoys me and I cannot rest until I find it, even though I could get by equally well using a biro, of which there are many on my desk. In this situation what happens is that I get upset and frustrated and do not get on with the work that I have to do and the reason I have such a hard time of it is because I have insisted on finding the pen that I had lost. No other pen will do.  The ‘distorting influence’ here is the allocation of a huge amount of importance to something that isn’t in reality as important as we say it is. The reason finding my special pen is so important to me – so important to me that I waste a whole morning looking for it and getting in thoroughly bad form in the process of not finding it – is because I have said that it is important. I have set my heart on having it, and so I ‘have to’ have it, but it was me who freely decided to insist on having it in the first place so there isn’t really a ‘have to’ at all. Or to put it another way – finding the pen is only important because I have made it important (i.e. it only matters because I have said that it does).


The ‘unnecessary’ nature of the agenda, along with all the unnecessary trouble it causes for us, can be easily seen in the case of the special platinum pen but what exactly is the agenda that causes us to get stuck in miserable, self-frustrating states of mind – states of mind that are characterized by what we might call ‘futile or counterproductive struggling’? In the case of these miserable states of mind, which are commonly referred as ‘bad moods’, ‘negative emotions’ and ‘neuroticism’, the agenda is that a particular type of mental pain should not be felt. This tends to sound utterly ridiculous because we think that of course it matters that mental pain, or physical pain for that matter, should not be felt by us. Physical pain usually means that there is some sort threat to our bodily integrity and therefore because it makes sense to avoid threats to our bodily integrity, it also makes sense to avoid physical pain if we can. Mental pain, however, is a different kettle of fish because it does not signify a threat to our ‘mental health’ that needs be avoided at all costs – on the contrary, if we avoid mental pain then this avoidance itself becomes a threat to our mental health.  What ‘mental pain’ actually comes down to is a type of awareness that for some reason we find threatening and that we are utterly determined not to feel, without knowing (or even caring) why it is that we are so determined not to feel it.


Strangely enough, this sort of reaction, the reaction where we automatically fight against certain possibilities of awareness without knowing or caring why we are so dead set against them is inherent in the very nature of the everyday self which – when it comes right down to it – has its allegiance to repeating or reiterating the patterns of the past, whether or not these patterns are useful, or even make sense at all. The reason that the conditioned (i.e. habitual) self is able to successfully do this lies in its indefatigable ability to validate its own patterns of thinking and behaviour to itself, no matter how absurdly counterproductive they might be!


The way that the conditioned self does this is by looking at things only in a particular narrow way, which means making sure that it does not look at things in any other way. It is for this reason that ‘increasing perspective’ is actually the very last thing that the conditioned self wants to do! A good example of what we mean when we say this is provided by anger – if I get angry because you have taken my parking space then the only reason that I am able to get so self-righteously angry is because I believe that the parking space was mine not yours. I have set my heart on having it and then you come along and take it from me under my very nose, so to speak. This makes me feel very bad and I blame you for this bad feeling, but actually the only reason I feel so bad is because I have said to myself that the parking space is rightfully mine, end of story.


If I didn’t insist on taking this position I wouldn’t feel the intense upsurge of righteous anger that I do feel, but rather than seeing that I am ‘doing it all myself’ (by refusing to look at things any other way) I say that my mental pain is your fault, and so my anger justifies itself, over and over again. An increase in perspective would mean that I would lose all justification, and so the mechanism of anger is one in which the possibility of me looking at things in any other way other than the anger-producing one is effectively prevented. I am ‘permanently validated’, in other words, and this gimmick of being ‘permanently validated’ is what being ‘the conditioned self’ is all about. We are always justifying our position to ourselves, even though this position is at all times perfectly arbitrary, perfectly gratuitous!


If we were to become ‘aware of ourselves’ (i.e. accurately perceive what we are actually doing) this act of observation would therefore increase our perspective on what is going on, and this increase in perspective would de-validate us! This feels bad because we are deeply invested in ‘being right’, but even though it feels bad, it is profoundly freeing at the same time because we are now free from the onerous task of always having to be propping up an untenable position, a position that is ultimately unworkable because it is arbitrary, because it is ‘gratuitous’. Gaining perspective hurts, in other words, because gaining perspective shines awareness on mechanical processes that (as P.D. Ouspensky says) no longer function in the light. And yet this ‘pain’ – even though we do not see it at the time – is really nothing other than the joyful dawning of our dawning freedom…


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