‘Assertion Mode’ Versus ‘Reflection Mode’

When we are painfully caught up in neurotic distress it is very helpful to see that there are two distinctly different modes of awareness, which we can call assertion and reflection. The difference is that while one mode will free us from neurotic torment, the other will make the problem worse. We can explain these two modes very easily. In the case of assertion I am saying ‘This is true’, which is being specific, committed, and closed. In the case of reflection I am not saying anything, but my attitude is asking ‘What is true?’ Reflection is unspecific and open because I am not looking for any particular answer. Each of these two modes of awareness might be said to be linked to a different sense of ‘self’: in the assertion mode it is the purposeful self, which Krishnamurti calls the ‘self-image’, and in the reflection mode it is the spontaneous self, which we can call the ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ self.


The spontaneous self is easy to explain (in one way at least) because it is who we really are; here there is the free expression of our true nature. We don’t have to think about what we are doing or saying – it just comes out of us. The self-image, on the other hand, is the known self, the self that we deliberately project for the benefit of ‘an audience’ (which includes ourselves). Everything the self-image does and says is ‘calculated for effect’ – even if we don’t realize that this is the case. This is the self that we are conditioned to believe in and defend, and it is at the end of the day no more than an artificial construct. A curious and very troublesome property of this ‘image of ourselves’ is that we get caught up in it and take it very seriously indeed as if the well-being (or ‘integrity’) of the self-image were the most important thing in the world


We can explain this idea by saying that it is a bit like a position (or opinion) that we start defending in a conversation even though it doesn’t matter that much to us one way of another. At first we don’t really care if we are ‘right’ or not (our involvement is ‘playful’), but after a while a process sets in which means that we start to get invested in this position; from this point onwards it all begins to get very serious and ‘out of hand’. When this happens, I get caught up in all sorts of problems and difficulties that I didn’t really need to involve myself in at all. The effort (and subsequent suffering) involved is unnecessary because I am defending an unreal thing. I am defending something that only matters because I have said that it matters and I am getting so caught up in it I am forgetting that ‘it only matters because I say it does’.


We can in fact define neurosis in general as the situation where I am defending a false sense of self. The consequences of defending this ‘false self’ (or self-image’) are that all our efforts are in vain since even if we win we lose because it is not us but the false self that benefits. What is good for the false self is not good for anyone because the false self isn’t real, and so when we promote and defend the false self we have effectively become our own enemy.


If I want to find out which mode I am in, a good question to ask myself is therefore “What self am I serving?” If I am acting for profit (i.e. in order to benefit myself in any way) then it is the self-image that is being served. This is always the case when the underlying motivation is to obtain profit, or avoid loss. The two triggers of attraction and aversion always relate to the self-image (the managed or controlled self) because it is only this self which stands to gain or lose. Essentially, anything that helps to prop up (or support) the self-image is ‘GAIN’ and anything that threatens to show it up (i.e. damage it’s integrity or standing) is ‘LOSS’. The True Self, which is who we really are, has no fear of being exposed or damaged, and no hope of being vindicated or supported. It is what it is, and it needs no ‘spin-doctoring.’  Because it isn’t a pretence it doesn’t need to be propped up.


A good way to explain this is in terms of ‘the truth versus the lie’. The thing about a lie is that it can only survive if the truth is successfully covered up. If I tell a lie then I am invested in that lie, I am committed to maintaining it – I always have to be defending it or attacking other points of view (which comes to the same thing). The lie always needs propping up because it cannot stand on its own; I have to actively promote it because without my intervention it will be exposed for what it is. The truth, however, needs no propping up – it is called ‘the truth’ precisely because it stands up on its own, without any outside help.


The point here is that I do not need to assert that such and such is true; if I feel the need to assert the truth then that means that I have lost the truth, I have become separated from the truth! It means that I am now in fact defending a lie. This is the reason why the purposeful self can never truly find peace of mind, and why anxiety is never far away. From this we can see why assertion is not the way to find freedom from anxiety since if I am asserting then this is because deep down I suspect that what I am asserting is not really true at all. It doesn’t matter how vigorously I try to prop up my positive assertion – in fact the more energy I put into it the more I feed the anxiety. Asserting the positive only emphases the negative!


If I notice myself maintaining or defending some position (whatever that position may be), then I know for sure that I am acting from the basis of the self-image, the false self. Or we could also say, when I notice myself defending a position, then this means that I don’t really believe it to be true myself!  Seeing this lack of honesty, however, is itself an honest act – which means that it is an act which the self-image is incapable of. The self-image isn’t interested in seeing the truth, it is only interested in promoting what it wants to be true, what it wants to be the case.


Seeing that I am defending (or asserting) straightaway gives the game away because as soon as I see that my position needs defending, then I know it is not true, and so I catch myself and don’t get caught up in the futile attempt to persuade myself that it is. I don’t get caught up in the defending because I immediately spot what I’m defending for what it is. So we can therefore say that seeing that I have to defend the false self weakens the false self since the truth is the one thing it cannot take. If assertion mode is where I promote and perpetuate the false self, then reflection mode is where I allow myself to see that this idea of myself is not who I really am at all.


This business of ‘seeing myself defending’ is clearly a very healthy and helpful process – when I see the falseness of what I am defending then I will no longer invest in it, I will stop putting my money on it because I know that it will not give me anything in return. This process means that I will gradually stop identifying with the false self, and this allows me to come back to being who I really am, which is the self that doesn’t have to be asserted or defined. The journey of dis-identifying with the false self – which is based on a whole load of stuff that I don’t even believe in – is the journey of psychological growth. Normally we see growth as the process in which we build up the image of who we think we are and so it can be seen from what we are saying here that genuine growth isn’t like this at all – genuine growth is where I see through who I thought I was, not where I keep on having to defend and prop up this false image of myself…


It is important to understand that what we are talking about here is ‘noticing what mode of awareness we are in’ – not ‘changing the mode that we are in’. The reason for this is simple: if I try to change myself from being in the assertion mode to being in the reflection mode, this is in itself an act of assertion and so it cannot work. All that happens is that I get confused; I get confused between where I actually am, and where I want to be. As a consequence I get tied up in knots – always trying to solve my problem with the very thing that is causing the problem. I will be trying to control myself to stop controlling myself, trying to force myself to be free. This takes us back to our definition of neurosis because the self that I am trying to free is not who I really am; it is a fiction dependent on a constant diet of spin doctoring, so how can it ever be ‘free’?


What we are saying, then, is that we cannot change modes on purpose – all we can do is see what mode we are in. I cannot assert that I am in the reflection mode, or that I intend to be in the reflection mode because that is what I want to be true. What I ‘want to be true’ is a position that I have invested in, it is a lie that I need to maintain. The only truth is ‘what is’, not what I ‘want to be’.


Actually, I don’t need to change anything on purpose because the moment I notice that I am in assertion mode I am straightaway in reflection mode!

The moment I sincerely ask myself ‘what master am I serving’ then I am asking from the standpoint of the True Self because only the True Self is interested in the truth.

The false self cannot ever sincerely ask this question because it has a fundamental resistance to hearing the answer; assertion is all about not asking open questions – the principle of the false self is ‘keep moving because if we stand still for a moment we might hear something we don’t like’. The false self is pursued by a thousand demons, yet in reality its problems all stem from itself and its determination to not hear the truth; if it stood still for a moment it would learn that it doesn’t actually exist, and this in itself is no problem.


Asking myself “What master am I serving?” is not the same thing as ‘assessing my situation’. This is another mistake that we keep making. Judging is not reflecting because when I am judging I am providing my own answers. When I evaluate whether something is good or bad what I really mean is “Is it good or bad according to my likes and dislikes?” The point is, it is me who gets to say what is good or bad – I am in control, I am holding the reins. Of course, I cannot allow myself to see how I am ‘fixing’ the process of evaluation or I wouldn’t be able to say that it is objective. Therefore, I avoid seeing how I am secretly getting my own way by assuming that my likes and dislikes are objectively valid, i.e. that my way of looking at the world is the right way.


Finally, it must be stressed that we are not saying that reflection is good and assertion is bad (which would be a judgement, and therefore an assertion). Assertion is only a problem when we are too afraid not to assert. If I can stop and reflect from time to time then assertion is not a problem, and purposefulness finds its proper place within a context of ongoing questioning. When assertion and reflection exist together, then my purposeful behaviour is not ‘blind’ – it is not driven by fear (i.e. denial). When there is a balance between the two modes my activity does not stand in the way of learning and so I do not get stuck in static (or cyclic) behaviour patterns.

When I See That I’m Asserting Then I’m Reflecting

We have said that having an awareness that there are two mode of awareness, and being able to see which mode we are in, frees us up from neurotic conflict, which is where we try to make something be true that isn’t true. The cure is not to try to make that state of affairs not be so, but simply to see that we are trying to make something be true that isn’t true. In other words, the cure is being able to see when we are in ‘assertion mode’.