Being Alive To Difficulty

In Chapter 71 of the Tao Te Ching we read the following:

It is by being alive to difficulty that one can avoid it. The sage meets with no difficulty. It is because he is alive to it that he meets with no difficulty.

When we are not alive (or awake) to difficulties then it is of course a very different matter! When we are not awake to the difficulties that come our way then we automatically try to push them away, full of nameless fear at their approach. When we’re not alive to difficulties then these difficulties take on a particular oppressive character to us; as everyone knows, when we’re afraid of something and try to run away rather than steadily facing it then whatever it is that we’re running away from has hugely more power over us. The fears then become fully-fledged terrors. The oppressive nature of what we are trying to avoid is not an intrinsic property of the thing itself however but simply a reflection of our own avoidant attitude. We’re assuming that the difficulty is something terrible – the fact that we are afraid to look it in the face is the manifestation of our attitude, and when we perceive that difficulty or problem as being our actual ‘nemesis’, so to speak, then as we have said what we are deludedly perceiving here is nothing other than our attitude reflected back at us.


When we’re not awake then anything that comes along as a difficulty or problem that needs to be solved simply reflects back at us our own reluctance to wake up. We don’t want to wake up. Sleep is sweet, as Gurdjieff says, whilst waking up is very bitter. We don’t recognize that we are ‘reluctant to wake up’ of course because when we’re asleep we always see everything backwards. We don’t recognize anything for what it is – if we did then we’d be awake. Saying that we’re not awake is another way of saying that that we’re ‘closed down’ and being ‘closed down’ simply means that we only ever perceive the meanings that we ourselves have projected upon the world. We live in a closed world therefore – a world that is made up of our own unacknowledged or unrecognized projections. According to Jung:

Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face. In the last analysis, therefore, they lead to an autoerotic or autistic condition in which one dreams a world whose reality remains forever unattainable…

We live therefore in a personalized or tailor-made ‘private’ world that is made up of our own unconscious (or unexamined) attitude being reflected right back at us, as if it actually existed in the ‘objective world’. When we are in this shut-down state then the real world is hidden from us by ‘the wall of the imagination’, as Gurdjieff says here:

Man is immersed in dreams… He lives in sleep… He is a machine. He cannot stop the flow of his thoughts, he cannot control his imagination, his emotions, his attention… He does not see the real world. The real world is hidden from him by the wall of imagination.

Our ‘reluctance to wake up’ always translates into aggression. This reluctance is aggression. When difficulties come along then as we have said we automatically try to push them away and the force of this pushing is the tangible manifestation of the degree to which we do not wish to wake up! We don’t recognize what we’re pushing away because recognizing things for what they are is not what we want to do – we wish very much to not recognize them, our entire effort is very much directed towards not being aware of what is going on. ‘Not being aware of what is going on’ is the game that we’re playing; that’s the whole point of what we’re doing…


So because we don’t recognize our own aggression we automatically personalize everything – the difficulties or challenges that are coming our way get personalized as an attack on us (just as someone who disagrees with what we’re saying will be seen as attacking us when we are unconsciously identified with our position). The world gets split into two halves, two possibilities – either it is for us or against us! Difficulties take on an oppressive, persecutory nature for us and because they have taken on this nature we fight back at them all the more. We push them away all the more. This of course confirms our original aggressive attitude – fighting against challenges confirms them as being something that need to be fought against. Aggression creates enemies, in other words.


Aggression on our part that we aren’t aware of manifests as a hostile environment that we have to fight against therefore, and when we do have this distorted perception our automatic attitude of aggression is validated and this creates a self-reinforcing circle of illusion that we get helplessly caught up in. We get caught up in it precisely because we don’t recognize our role in it – we don’t recognize that it is our own belligerence, our own hostility that is hemming us in on all sides. Rather than question our fundamental aggression we assume it as universal principle, a basic rule of existence. It’s a dog eat dog world, we say, unaware that we are at the same time both ‘the dog that eats’ and ‘the dog that gets eaten’. As Wei Wu Wei says in Why Lazarus Laughed

When you give a shilling to a beggar – do you realise that you are giving it to yourself?


When you help a lame dog over a stile – do you realise that you yourself are being helped?


When you kick a man when he is down – do you realise that you are kicking yourself?


Give him another kick – if you deserve it!

Our reluctance to recognize our own projections is the same thing as ‘our reluctance to wake up’. To recognize our projections for what they are is to wake up. We could also say therefore that our reluctance to waking up is the same thing as our reluctance to seeing that we are asleep; needless to say, we don’t see or experience ourselves as being ‘asleep’ in daily life – we would, on the contrary, swear blind that we are perfectly conscious, thank you very much. If challenged on this point we would insist – most vehemently – that we are awake and that we do not live – therefore – in closed world that has been created by the simple expedient of ‘ignoring anything that does not match our expectations or assumptions’. Such vehemence is of course entirely characteristic of the unconscious or ‘shut-down’ state of being. We’re vehement (or aggressive) because we’re in a state of conflict with the truth!


We ‘close down’ (or ‘shut off’) by refusing to acknowledge any order of being other than the one we already know about. This is the trick to closing down – this is how we do it. As soon as we do this we straightaway fall asleep – the removal of any possibility of anything genuinely new ever happening is the definition of being shut down. We’re shut down to life itself, since life is always new. The removal of the possibility of anything genuinely new ever happening turns reality into a game and when we play a game without knowing that we are playing it we are ‘asleep’. All we ever do in this state is to recycle old patterns over and over again – that’s all we ever can do!


Even though we have shut down, and do not recognize any order of being other than the one we already know about, this does not of course mean that reality as a whole does not in some way ‘impinge’ upon us. This is – needless to say – inherent in the nature of reality. Reality, being real, cannot be ignored with impunity! So in very simple terms, what this means is that there is always going to be something to ‘rock the boat’, even though it goes against what we want to see happening, even though we have made this unquestionable rule that ‘the boat must never be rocked’.


This way of expressing things makes it clear just how ‘brittle’ our situation is – we have (implicitly) said that the only world there is is the world that we know and are familiar with. We have put all our money on this; without realizing that this is what we have done, we have ‘made a bet’ that this is the case. But evidence is always coming up showing that what we have taken to be true isn’t true, that the order of being that we know and are familiar with isn’t the only one, and so we have to fight against this evidence without seeing it as ‘evidence’. We have to do our utmost to ‘stabilize our boat’ and this ‘stabilization process’ means referring to the evidence that shows we have placed a bet on the wrong horse as ‘errors’ that need to be corrected. Instead of seeing that we are ‘wrong’, therefore, we make reality wrong.


‘Making reality wrong’ is a very brittle business, however. It’s a wretched business. We have placed all our well-being in the one basket and that basket is the basket of reality being wrong rather than us. We have made a rule saying that the boat mustn’t ever be rocked, that it is very bad indeed if the basket is rocked, yet the stability of the boat depends entirely upon our half-baked assumptions about reality being true. The stability of our bat depends entirely upon there being no order of being other than the one we know and are so deeply familiar with. Our sense of well-being in the world is thus always going to be under serious threat.


A sage is one who does not put all his eggs in the basket of ‘him being right and the universe being wrong’. A sage is one who doesn’t put any eggs in that basket – only a fool would do that! A sage is one who doesn’t mind his (or her) boat being rocked, in other words. Whether we live life in a brittle, aggressive way or in a peaceful and secure way depends on how we look at things, therefore. If I say that my way of understanding the world is the right way and that no other way exists then I am creating a world of brittleness for myself and a world of brittleness is a world of suffering. There are always going to be cracks appearing and I am (as a result) forever having to try to paper them over. Life very quickly comes down to this futile endeavour of ‘papering over the cracks’. There are difficulties and problems everywhere. This is what life is like when we are asleep, when we are closed down to reality itself. We engaged in a gruelling and fruitless ‘fight against the truth’, even though we are quite incapable of seeing this.


But we don’t of course have to make this rule that ‘my way of understanding the universe is the only way’ (or that ‘my way of being in the world is the only way’). If we don’t make this rule, if we don’t put all our eggs in this basket, then every time our boat gets rocked it isn’t bad news. Each time my boat gets rocked this means that I am learning something new and if I am ‘learning something new’ then this means that I am finding out that the universe is a bigger, deeper and more mysterious place than I previously thought it was. What could be a better thing to learn than this? What could be more exciting and thrilling than this? Of course, if I have put all my eggs in the basket of ‘the universe being what I say it is’ then the discovery that the world is a bigger than I thought it was isn’t going to be exciting or thrilling at all. In this case it’s not going to be the most wonderful discovery there ever could be – on the contrary, this discovery is going to manifest to me as ‘the most terrifying thing there ever could be’…



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