Being The Compassionate Witness Of Our Own Lives

The most helpful thing we can do for ourselves – and in the long run the only ‘helpful thing’ we can do for ourselves – is to be the compassionate witness of our own lives.


This doesn’t tend to come easily however. Normally we try to be the ‘fixer’ or ‘improver’ of our own lives and when this doesn’t work, when this doesn’t bear fruit, we turn into the blamer, the critic, the judge of our own lives. These are the only two possibilities we know, generally speaking. Either we try to improve or fix ourselves, and believe that we can do so (if we try hard enough) or we are condemnatory to ourselves for not being able to fix ourselves, for not being able to improve ourselves as we are clearly supposed to. Either we are busy putting ‘positive moral pressure’ on ourselves to change, or we’re busy putting ‘negative moral pressure’ on ourselves for not changing. Either we’re ‘encouraging’, or we’re  ‘punishing’…


There is a third possibility however – one that does not involve pressure, either of the positive or negative variety. One thing that is very hard for us to see is that any sort of pressure is non-therapeutic, non-helpful when it comes to mental health. ‘Pressure’ means aggression when it comes down to it – it means ‘the application of force’. I want things to be different to the way they are and I am going to use methods and strategies to ensure that the change I want to see comes about.  This goal-orientated approach is fine when we are effecting change in the outside world, but it is entirely counterproductive when we apply it to the inner world of our thoughts and feelings. The outside world is very different from the ‘inside world in this respect’. Whilst in the external world skill and force can make helpful changes (for example when chopping wood or building a house) it is absolutely impossible to find peace and happiness through either skill or forceful effort. We ought to see this clearly perhaps, but somehow we just don’t.


All we need to do is to reflect on the matter a while – how can the exercise of force ever be expected to bring about inner peace? How can I pressurize myself to be ‘at peace’? Obviously I can pressurize myself to be at peace but equally obviously this is never ever going to work! This is like ‘forcing myself to be free’ – if I am being forced to do anything then this is the opposite to being free. It’s like having a rule that says ‘There must be no rules.’ Really what we’re talking about here is a self-contradiction that – when we’re under enough pressure – we can’t see to be a self-contradiction. Because we can’t see the contradiction, because we can’t see the paradox in what we’re trying to do, we keep on banging our head against a brick wall and all we ever get for our efforts is a very sore head…


Equally, we can very easily see (if we reflect on the matter for a moment or two) that there is no way to bring about inner peace by cleverness, by artifice. Cleverness just means coercing things to go the way we want them to go and whilst this – again – generally works just fine in the outside world it doesn’t work for the inner world of our thoughts and feelings. If I have managed to obtain some sort of peace of mind via cleverness, via cunning or artifice, then the one thing we can be 100% sure of is that this so-called ‘peace of mind’ isn’t the genuine article. It’s going to give way at some point or other and peace of mind that gives way when it is pushed too far isn’t peace of mind at all – it’s just a comforting delusion that we have temporarily bought for ourselves. Peace that is brought about by cleverness isn’t peace at all – really, it’s just ‘trouble in disguise’. It’s mental suffering waiting to happen. ‘Manufactured peace’ is actually mental suffering waiting to be unleashed on me when the time is right. So what we’re saying here is that peace which I bring about by my own efforts or my own cleverness is actually the very opposite of peace – it’s ‘phoney peace’ (or ‘make-believe well-being’) that has to be maintained and coaxed along in case it collapses on us.


When we talk about ‘cracking up’ or ‘having a mental breakdown’ this is what we are talking about. We’re talking about having our comfort zone collapse or disintegrate on us. We’re talking about the illusion of peace and well-being that we have invested so much time and effort in falling to pieces all around us. We’re talking about the cracks in the structure we had cobbled together getting bigger and bigger, wider and wider, until eventually it starts to look as if everything is going to fall down them. Sometimes we might even have dreams of cracks appearing in our house, or we might develop anxiety about ‘things going wrong’ or ‘things falling apart’. What we’re really frightened of is our comfort zone failing us, and what we are calling ‘our comfort zone’ is simply the mind-created version of peace or well-being that we have put in place of the real thing. So it’s not just that comfort zones always bring anxiety, our comfort zones ARE anxiety. These are two different words for the same thing!


Our comfort zones (which is to say, the illusion of mental health and well-being that we have bought into with the aid of society) were created in the first place by ‘fixing’ and when they start to go wrong (as they always do in the end) what we find ourselves doing is trying to fix them. “How do I fix my failing comfort zone?” I ask. Only I don’t phrase it exactly like this because I don’t see what I am trying to fix as a ‘comfort zone’. I see it as my life, or perhaps ‘who I am’. When we gain a bit of insight into what’s going on however we see that the idea of ‘fixing’ our failing comfort zones is ridiculous – ‘fixing’ didn’t work in the first place (because it never could) and so now I’m trying to ‘fix my fixing’ in the forlorn hope that repeating the mistake will somehow makes things better… And then – when my fixing of my fixing starts to come undone at the seams – presumably I am going have to start fixing my fixing of my fixing, and so on and so forth. This is what Carl Jung called the via erratum, the ‘way of error’.


The way of error is when we start to think that we can bring about our own mental well-being by our own efforts. Essentially, it is when we think we can successfully hoist ourselves up in the air by our own shoe-laces! It is when we think we can get ourselves out of the hole our thinking got us into by using that very same thinking. (And as Einstein is often quoted as having said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”) From a psychological perspective, we could say that ‘when we neurotically try to avoid the pain cause by own neurosis we make an even worse neurosis.’  We are attempting to avoid the fruit of our own avoidance, and at the same time allowing ourselves to hope that this secondary avoidance is somehow going to work where the first avoidance didn’t! Yet another way of explaining ‘the way of error’ is to say that it is when we keep on having to tell new and ever more inventive lies to get out of the trouble that was caused by the first lie. Clearly this road – if followed – is not going to take us to a good place…


Jung contrasted the via erratum with the via veritas, the ‘way of truth’. If we think about our last definition of the via erratum as ‘a lie that keeps on multiplying and growing new heads’ this makes a lot of sense. No cleverness is needed, no forcing or no coercion. All that is required is that we refrain covering it up, and let the truth come to light (as it is going to anyway). So we see our avoidances for what they are, instead of avoiding seeing them for what they are, which is what we usually do. We own up to the lie, instead of telling a new one! We can also talk about the via veritas in terms of being the fearless yet non-judgemental witness of our own lives. Being the compassionate witness of our own lives means not avoiding seeing what is going on – whatever is going on, we see it. Our normal approach – as we have said – is to straightaway try to ‘fix’ or ‘improve’ what is going on. We can’t bear to be with ourselves and so what we do is to leap straight into ‘fixing mode’ (or ‘avoiding mode’). ‘Fixing’ and ‘avoiding’ are the very same thing when it comes down to it – both come out of the very same motivation, which is fear. Being the compassionate witness of ourselves is the only thing that isn’t driven by fear. This is the only way of relating to ourselves that isn’t fundamentally aggressive. As Pema Chodron says:

The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.

Pema Chodron talks a lot about cultivating the virtue of fearlessness, which is completely different from aggression – aggression being nothing other than the active aspect of fear. Our normal approach to ourselves when we are experiencing a lot of mental suffering – as we started off by saying – is to either try to fix ourselves, or to recriminate viciously against ourselves when we find that we can’t do this. It is very easy to see why self-recrimination isn’t going to help our mental health, but it isn’t so easy to see why striving to change or improve ourselves isn’t a helpful thing. Yet both ‘striving to fix or better myself’ and ‘blaming myself for not succeeding at what was never going to be possible in the first place’ are branches from the very same tree. It’s the same thing, the same impulse in both cases – it is ‘self-aggression’.


Once we start to see our self-aggression, and compassionately understand it for what it is, then it straightaway starts to melt. The self-aggression straightaway starts to lose its punch, its power, its ‘viciousness’.  Aggression only works under cover of ‘darkness’ (or ‘unconsciousness’) – once we bring the light of gentle, non-judgemental awareness to self-aggression then everything starts to change. Things soften up; the iron cage that is enclosing us so tightly and so painfully starts to ease up slightly and we find that we can breathe again. A bit of space comes back to us; space in which we can simply ‘be’. This life-giving change doesn’t come about as a result of ‘doing’ however – it doesn’t happen because we followed prescribed steps or used methods to make it happen. It happens by itself, quite naturally, no force needed, just as a muddy puddle clears all by itself when we stop stirring it about with a stick…






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