Whenever we’re doing something for a reason we’re not ‘in reality’ – we’re not in reality because we’re not in the present moment and there’s no reality other than the present moment. We can only be in reality if we let go of all the ideas that we might have of what we are doing and why so if we’re here for some reason or other then quite simply we are not actually here, we’re not actually ‘present’. We’re in our heads – we’re ‘there for a reason’ and this means that we’re not there. We’re not really anywhere – we’re absent rather than present. Doing stuff for a reason ensures that we’re not in the present moment…
And yet we’re always doing stuff for a reason – we’re doing it because of this, we’re doing it because of that, we’re doing it because of whatever. Even when we think we’re doing something for no reason that chances are that we still have an agenda there somewhere or other. We might be unconscious of this agenda but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. Lots and lots of our activity occurs as a result of unconscious motivation – most of it in fact – so not being able to see what our reason is, not having any awareness of it – doesn’t mean anything. Truly spontaneous behaviour is rare in adults – everything has become contaminated with some kind of agenda, some kind of calculation, some kind of rational validation.
To let go of all our agendas – both of the conscious and unconscious variety – is the hardest thing there is. In one way it could be argued that dropping our agendas is easy since we don’t actually have to ‘do’ anything – all that is needed is for us to stop doing something (i.e. all we need to ‘do’ is stop holding on). This ‘not doing’ turns out to be much more difficult that we might have thought however. It’s a very curious thing because we always think that the challenge in life is to fulfil our agendas, not let go of them. That’s what we’re always being told, that’s the kind of message that we have been brought up on. The basic assumption in our culture is that when we successfully realize our goals then we will be happy. Everything then will be OK – all problems will then disappear.
The message we are always given is that goal-attainment equals the ultimate fulfilment, the ultimate satisfaction, in other words. It means everything to us. But this just isn’t true – the only thing that brings joy and peace is letting go, not holding on. Holding on only ever brings misery – we hold on out of greed, out of fear, out of insecurity and this is never going bring anything but suffering. Holding on we do by reflex – letting go, on the other hand, has to be a conscious thing. It is an expression of being present in the situation, not being absent! ‘Letting go’ is the challenge; ‘letting go’ is the challenge because it is the one thing we don’t want to do. As Eckhart Tolle says, everything hinges upon our relationship with the reality of the present moment. If our attitude is that we are refusing to surrender to the present moment, just as it is, then it is as if we are fighting with life itself. It isn’t just ‘as if’ – we are fighting with life itself and this the most gruelling and thankless task there is. There’s nothing more futile than this; fighting with life is the ultimate ‘fruitless endeavour’ – the only fruit we are ever going to pick from this tree is the fruit of suffering!
When we refuse to surrender to the reality of the present moment (and this ‘surrendering is a profoundly courageous rather than a cowardly act) then what this means is that we are trying to live life on our terms and we don’t even know what these terms are! We don’t know what the terms which we are trying to hold life to are because we‘ve never examined them, because we’ve never really looked at them. If we had looked at these terms of ours we would no longer be clinging so stubbornly to them – we would have dropped them immediately because they are so ridiculous! This is the whole thing about ‘holding onto our agendas’ – we hold onto them alright but we never look at why we are holding onto them so tightly or what exactly the expectations are that we are imposing on life. This is because ‘holding on’ (as we have said) always happens out of fear and when we are doing something out of fear we do not want to examine what we are doing and why. We just ‘do it’ – the reflex is triggered and we just go along with it. Fear is all about going along with automatic reflexes – to act on fear is to hand over responsibility to a set of mechanical responses. To act on fear is to become mechanical, in other words. When we are obeying fear then we are moving away from being aware – awareness moves towards looking at what is going on whilst fear runs in the other direction!
Another way of putting this is to say that when we are afraid and we go along with this fear, then we are handing over our autonomy to rules. We are giving away our power to some external authority. We trust that the rules (or the ‘external authority’) will save us and – at the same time – we make sure never to look at the rule (or the behaviour) too closely. Naturally we don’t want to look at the rules (or behaviour) too closely because if we did then we would be running the risk of seeing that what we have placed our trust in is never in a million years going to help us! To examine the rules or behaviours or reflexes that we have handed over our autonomy to is to run the risk of losing our faith in them (since they don’t by their very nature ‘stand up to scrutiny’) and then what would we do? We’d be thrown back on our own resources again; we’d have to face up to the difficulty all by ourselves, without some handy formula that is supposedly going to save us…
This is why no one can ever tell us what to do in order to ‘beat anxiety’, or in order to ‘overcome fear’. If they do then we will straightaway cling to the instructions (or rules) that they have given us; we will hold on tightly to the formula that we have been given and holding on tightly to some formula, to some reassuring ‘external authority’, means that we are running away from fear not up facing it. So how is this supposed to help us? How is running away from what we are afraid of going to free us from fear? We are desperate to give away our power, our autonomy in the matter and at the same time we are expecting this to save us from the fear or from the anxiety. Our anxiety is a symptom of our refusal to relate directly to whatever is frightening us (it is a symptom of our attempted running away, in other words) so how can someone trying to help us in our ‘running away’ ever be expected to help us? When we try to give someone methods to deal with fear or anxiety all we are doing is colluding with them in their efforts to run away in the opposite direction of the source of the fear and so this isn’t helpful at all. ‘Methods’ are always an abdication of autonomy; ‘methods’ mean becoming more not less mechanical.
How can we possibly hope to become free from fear or anxiety by moving in the direction of becoming more mechanical? The root cause of anxiety is our fear of being present in the situation whilst being mechanical means moving even further away from the reality of the present moment, so utilizing methods and skills and ‘tools’ to deal with anxiety isn’t any sort of a cure at all – it’s a symptom. It’s a symptom of our very great reluctance to surrender to the present moment. It’s a symptom of our (unexamined) refusal to live life on life’s terms. What helps isn’t to invest in methods of dealing or ‘coping’ with life’s difficulties – what helps is to be present with these difficulties. Being present with the difficulty – whatever that difficulty might be – is the only thing that helps. Anything else is an attempted escape from something that can’t be escaped from!
‘Being present’ means not running away and so of course this is the only thing that is actually going to help us. The big challenge is however – as we have said – that no one can tell us how to be present with ourselves. There’s no set of rules we can follow. There’s no method for it – there’s no method for ‘being there without a reason’. If there was a method then there would be a reason, the reason being that it suits us to be there without a reason, and this itself constitutes a reason. This itself constitutes an agenda and so we have ‘an agenda for dropping our agenda’. This simply shows that ‘being present’ can never come out of the head, out of the thinking mind. Everything that comes out of the thinking mind comes with an agenda – there is no way that the thinking, purposeful mind can ever do anything without having a purpose in mind. The problem is therefore that we do everything out of our heads – we’re a ‘heady’ culture! We even try to ‘assent to life’ with our heads. The thinking mind – like some sort of terrible interfering busybody – wants to be involved in everything…
Much of what passes for mindfulness comes down to this glitched business of us trying to assent to life with our heads (which means ‘trying to assent to life for a reason’). Because we are so very used to seeing ourselves to seeing ourselves as ‘this mind’ (and we are brought up to see ourselves this very limited way) we simply don’t know any other way to be. The sense of ourselves as a ‘rounded and irrational whole’ rather than a type of ‘disembodied sharp-edged intellect’ is a stranger to us. It’s as if we live in a big house and never come out of the cramped and cluttered little room we use as an office. We don’t know ‘our Father’s house’ in all its spaciousness. Assenting to life is very clearly something that comes out of the Whole of us, not just a meagre part of us (i.e. not just the narrow rational intellect). Being here without a reason comes out of our heart, not our head! This is at the same time both an involuntary (or spontaneous) act of deep assent from the heart and a profoundly liberating insight – the insight being that there never was any possibility of us not being in the reality of our own lives.