There’s no such thing as ‘helpful thinking’ as far as working with neurosis is concerned. There is absolutely no such thing as ‘a way of thinking that can help untangle us from neurotic patterns of thinking and behaving’. This is like saying that there’s ‘no such thing as useful thinking’ when it comes to telling the truth – if we have to think about it then we’re avoiding the truth, not telling it! Neurosis may be defined as the avoidance or attempted avoidance of pain that is legitimately ours (which is to say, pain that actually belongs to us). ‘Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering’, says Jung – it’s what we do instead of suffering. The reason neurosis is recognized as a problem is of course because as time goes on it has a way of becoming more and more painful itself, until it actually reaches the point where it is more painful than the suffering we were originally avoiding! This brings us to the nub of our argument – there is no such thing as useful or helpful thinking when it comes to neurotic patterns of pain avoidance (we may say) because thought itself is a form of pain-avoidance. Thought is therefore not the least bit of good when it comes to not avoiding our legitimate pain!
It sounds wrong to say that thought is itself a form of pain-avoidance – can’t thinking be used to solve our problems after all, and isn’t solving problems a way of meeting them head-on instead of running away from them? Isn’t solving problems ‘doing something about it’? Isn’t that a good thing? This is always a good source of confusion – we naturally feel that being proactive and tackling our problems before they can get the better of us is the healthy thing to do, the optimal thing to do, but this is simply not the case when it comes to legitimate pain. If legitimate pain is pain that actually belongs to us then solving this pain – so that it is no longer painful – is simply another form of avoidance. It might be ‘pro-active avoidance’, but its avoidance all the same. Suppose I feel ashamed because I have done wrong to someone – is this pain that I should try to avoid? Or suppose I am grief-stricken because someone dear to me has died – is there a ‘right way’ to think about my loss to make the suffering I am going through more manageable? Is it by any stretch of the imagination ‘mentally healthy’ if I do find a way to rationalize either my behaviour in the first example or my loss in the second? Very clearly it is not in the least bit ‘healthy’, although we are course unlikely to see this so clearly at the time…
It sounds wrong to say that there is no such thing as helpful thinking when it comes to working with mental or emotional pain. Our whole emphasis – as a culture – is on trying to find the right way to think. Our whole emphasis is on managing emotions, managing stress, managing anxiety, and ‘managing’ means thinking about it. ‘Managing’ is all about skills and methods and tools and strategies and so on and all of this is thought. It’s nothing else but thinking. How can there be no such thing as helpful thinking? This amounts to heresy in this control-based culture of ours. But suppose that our problem is that the mind won’t stop thinking? Suppose that the thinking mind is on over-drive, that it is thinking about things too much? Are we to believe that there is some special kind of thinking that we can engage in that will calm the mind and bring a halt to the over-thinking? Are we to believe that by thinking even more than we already are doing we can bring order to this frantic mind of ours? Are we really to believe that thinking can in some mysterious way cure itself?
It doesn’t too much reflection on the matter for us to realize that there is something suspect about this assumption, something not-quite-right about this belief. Whatever thoughts we have when we are in an agitated frame of mind are themselves going to be of an ‘agitated nature’. Is it possible for an agitated mind to think a non-agitated thought? Is it possible for a fearful mind to produce a thought that is not fearful, or for an angry mind to engage in thinking that is not angry? Our thoughts are always going to be expressions of the state of mind (or state of consciousness) from which they arose; they certainly can’t be used to somehow ‘reach back’ and change the disturbed state of mind that gave rise to them. That is looking at things backwards. That would be a clear case of the tail wagging the dog!
What is needed – if there is to be any clarity – is for there to be actual awareness of the situation. Awareness is the helpful thing, not some specially indicated type of thinking. For me to start thinking about what the right type of thinking would be for the situation I find myself in would simply be compounding my confusion – this is just stirring things up even more. It is as if there is a corrupt police department and I am handing over the process of sorting out the problem to this very same department! Thought cannot cure thought – as professor of theoretical physics David Bohm says, the error in thought is a systematic one, which means that when we try to analyze the problem and then fix it, this very same error gets perpetuated and magnified. Our ‘blind spot’ – which is the blind spot (or entropy) inherent in all thinking – can only ever get bigger and darker than ever when we try to use thought to correct itself.
The confusion is only going to start settling when we can very clearly see that there is ‘no such thing as helpful thinking’ when it comes to freeing ourselves from the mess that was caused by our own thinking. Just as soon as we can see that there is no way for us to correct or fix the painful state of mind that we are in as a result of thinking about it then everything will slowly but surely start to settle down. And contrary-wise – if we don’t have this very clear understanding then nothing we do is going to help us. If we can’t see that there is no such thing as helpful thinking then it is guaranteed that everything we do is only ever going to compound our suffering. It is as clear-cut as this.
We can’t exit a mental state on purpose – we might very badly want to, but there is simply no way that we can do so. This is a very straightforward point to understand – there’s nothing fancy or intellectual about it at all – and yet in another way it is not so straightforward at all because we are so immensely unwilling to see it. There is no inherent ‘technical difficulty’ in grasping the point – a child could do so – but where there is a difficulty is in our willingness to entertain this possibility, our willingness to look at it. We could see it in a flash if we weren’t so resolutely opposed to seeing it but the whole point is that we are ‘resolutely opposed’ to seeing any such thing. We’d rather tie ourselves up in knots than see it – we do tie ourselves up in knots in preference to seeing this beautifully simple principle. We do this the whole the time, in fact – we do it on a regular basis. Tying ourselves up in knots in order to avoid mental or emotional pain (i.e. neurosis) is a characteristic human behaviour!
This immensely stubborn refusal to see that it is perfectly and sublimely impossible for us to change our mental state on purpose, either by our modern rational cleverness or by good old-fashioned forcing, is (of course) an attempt to help ourselves. By refusing to see that we can’t exit a painful mental state on purpose are essentially trying to help ourselves but the irony is that this infinitely obstinate refusal of ours to see something very simple is the cause of very great suffering – our attempt to help ourselves actually back-fires and brings huge suffering and misery down on us, and the more suffering and misery we’re in the more stubborn we get with regard to seeing that we can’t actually escape it. The whole thing is a trap, in other words. It’s an irreversible process – it just keeps on getting worse. We have started off going down this road that promises relief but actually delivers misery, and once we have committed ourselves to going in this direction it become progressively harder to question our original ‘choice’ (not that it was ever what we might call an actual conscious ‘choice’, of course, since the moment in question in all probability came and went far too fast for us to actually be aware of it).
Actually, it is the automatic, purely-mechanical attempt to ‘help ourselves’ that keeps us in the painful mental state that we wish to escape from. ‘What we resist, persists’, as Jung says. All of this – of course – makes a lot of sense. How can the automatic fear-driven reflex of wanting to fight against the pain, of trying to push it away or run away from it be expected to genuinely help us? This isn’t really a controversial point. We all know that the reflex attempt to fight or escape can’t help us really – the only reason we buy into it so very quickly is because we are afraid. Going with our innate wisdom exposes us to this fear, whereas ‘automatically going along with the comforting lie’ saves us from it – temporarily, at least! But even though buying into the reflex (and the comforting lie that goes with it) saves us (temporarily) from seeing that ‘we can’t escape from where we actually are’ it doesn’t save us from the pain of the neurotic torment that we are plunged into as a result of our automatic resistance to ‘what is’. Going along with the pain-avoidance reflex doesn’t save us from neurotic pain, it creates it.
‘Neurotic torment’ doesn’t necessarily have to seem like torment, not at first, anyway. It may seem just like normal, everyday life. Normal everyday life is a form of reality avoidance, after all – it’s a comfort-zone’. The comfort-zone of normal everyday has two components to it, we might say – one is the ‘comfort’ component (which we like, obviously) and the other is ‘boredom / frustration / despair’. All neurotic escapes start out with comfort, obviously – escaping from what we fear is by definition comfort and so when we automatically resist the reality that we don’t like, that we are afraid of, the first thing we feel is comfort. This ‘comfort’ is comfort because it is exactly what we wanted – it is like sweet honey to us and this honey is the lure that the neurotic trap is baited with. The sweetness of the relief from pain or fear is the ‘reinforcing mechanism’ for the behaviour; or as we could also say, it is the element in the mix that causes us to become addicted to the pain-avoidance routine.
The snag is that the place we’ve escaped to isn’t as great as it initially looks – it isn’t actually great at all. It looked very good to us in the first instance because it represented ‘escape’ but if we had looked into the matter any deeper (which we didn’t, and don’t) then we’d see that we have been sold a dud. It is a ‘dud reality’ because it is completely sterile, completely lacking in any creative possibilities. Saying that the place which we have rashly escaped to is ‘completely lacking in any creative possibilities’ is just another way of saying that we can’t actually live there; there’s nothing there for us in the comfort zone – it’s like a bare prison cell. We can ‘hide out’ there, we can ‘pass the time’ there, but we can’t do any actual living there and that is why we have said that the other side of ‘comfort’ is ‘boredom / frustration / despair’.
Every time we automatically escape from a reality that we don’t want to be in we enter this cycle of ‘relief followed by boredom and despair’ and this unvarying cycle is what we have been referring to as ‘neurotic torment’. It is tormenting to be going around and around in circles, without ever getting anywhere new. There is never anything else other than this same cycle over and over again and nothing is ever going to change. And what’s more, just as long as we’re in ‘escape mode’ it is only ever going to get worse because (as we have already pointed out) the more ‘rebound pain’ we incur as a result of our automatic avoidance the more strongly the ‘reflex to escape’ kicks in. We try harder and harder to escape and the resultant ‘rebound pain’ increases proportionately…
If on the other hand we were to go with our ‘innate wisdom’ rather than ‘the automatic reflex to escape’ then we wouldn’t be drawing the endless horrors of neurotic torment upon ourselves. Innate wisdom doesn’t do this kind of thing – only unconsciousness does! If we were to be aware of what we are doing when we try to exit a painful mental state then we wouldn’t invest in the project so much, we wouldn’t place so much hope in it. We’d still be caught up in the reflex (because that’s the nature of reflexes) but the difference would be that we wouldn’t be ‘buying into it’ so much. What helps us, therefore (really helps us that is, rather than just ‘pretending to help us’) is to stay conscious of what’s going on – staying conscious of what’s going on simply means is that we don’t ‘hand over’ our awareness to the mechanical reflex. We don’t give away our responsibility to ‘the machine of avoidance’ which is our fear-driven thinking.
As we have said, it is fear that causes us to buy into the comforting lie that ‘the automatic escape reflex will help us’ – we’re actually believing something that is clearly dumb, clearly nonsensical but our fear pushes us into believing it because there is comfort there. Believing the comforting lie is the ‘easy option’. What helps therefore is to notice ourselves doing this – we pay gentle non-judgemental attention to ourselves ‘buying into the lie’ and as a result of this gentle non-judgemental awareness we see that the lie is a lie. And once we see that the lie is a lie then we can’t buy into it any more – not to the extent that we once did anyway. We will continue to have the tendency to go with the reflex, and ‘hope that it will save us’, but alongside this habitual / mechanical side of our nature there will be something else, something new in the mix – there will be the ally of our own ‘innate wisdom’, which fear was previously causing us to ignore…