The Simplest Things

The simplest things are the hardest to speak of. When we’re talking about ‘approaches’ that we take in therapy or ‘models’ that we have in psychology we have no trouble in finding things to say – we find it very easy indeed to come out with all sorts of highfalutin jargon! In no time at all we evolve a whole jargon-heavy language, full of catch-phrases and buzz-words. Yet we’re not really saying anything really – we’re prattling. We’re intoxicating ourselves with our own spurious cleverness. If we were actually saying something real then it would be a lot harder and we wouldn’t be able to use other peoples’ catch phrases, tawdry generic language that we have ‘taken off the shelf’. That wouldn’t cut the mustard…


The reason we love models and approaches, catch-phrases and buzz-words so much is of course because it gives us an angle. We’re desperate for an angle! We’re stuck without one; we feel that we absolutely do need one. Without an angle, what are we going to do? How are we going to proceed? It’s seems natural and perfectly reasonable that we should be looking for an angle because we’re coming at things from the point of view of the rational mind and this is just another way of saying that ‘we’re coming at things from the POV of wanting to change or control what is going on’. If the person I am working with is depressed then I am looking for a way of getting them to be not depressed; if they are thinking in an anxious or self-recriminatory way then I am going to be trying to change this anxious or self-critical way of thinking, and so on. That’s pretty much my brief as a therapist, after all!


We need ‘an angle’ because our intention is somehow to manipulate the situation and manipulation or control is simply not possible without an angle. Control and manipulation are second nature to us; more than second nature, it very often seems as if this is the only nature we know. Control seems like the answer to everything when we are in mental pain and if you try to say that it isn’t people aren’t going to take any heed of you. We don’t want to suffer, obviously, and neither do we like to see others suffer but this doesn’t mean that trying to manipulate what is going on as soon as things start getting painful is a good thing to do! Far from being ‘the answer to everything’, control is actually the root cause of our woes. It only takes a little wisdom to see this. Even a little wisdom is generally beyond us however – we have bucket-loads of technical means in our culture but no wisdom! Or if we do have wisdom (because it’s out there somewhere) it is rarely to be found in our experts. Expertise doesn’t require wisdom – wisdom comes out of the broader view and – generally speaking – we just aren’t interested in ‘broadness’ or ‘width’ of vision.


The thing about control is that it always distances us from whatever it is that we are attempting to get the better of. When we bring in control this always puts us at odds with the world, it always introduces a very troublesome glitch into the system, which is odd because the whole point of control is that it is supposed to benefit us, not jinx us! The reason control always puts us at odds with the world (and not the world but ourselves) is because it disconnects us – it necessarily disconnects us (and no one can reasonably argue that it doesn’t!) because control can only ever be instigated as a result of our theories about the world, our abstract models of the world. So first we represent the world to ourselves in terms of a handful of spindly abstract concepts and then the next thing is that we charge ahead on this basis and interact with the world as if our abstract model wasn’t an abstract model at all but an infallible guide to what’s really going on out there! This isn’t a genuine interaction at all therefore but rather it’s a type of hamfisted bullying that is taking place on the basis of this bizarre misrepresentation – a type of bizarre misrepresentation that exists in our heads but nowhere else.


‘Control’ has its rightful domain of applicability but this is not the psychological domain! It has its rightful applicability within the realm of the ‘non-complex’ – if I have to put up a fence or build a shed or dig a hole in the ground that is of the right size and depth then this is where control is needed. If I am surgeon performing a laparotomy then this is also a case where very precise control is required, if the patient is to stand any chance at all of surviving! In all such cases we can come up with a formal theory that holds water and then apply it to ‘the real world’ but when it comes to psychological matters we cannot come up with any convenient theory or model. No theory has ever been found that has allowed effective psychological control to be exerted or applied, regardless of what the text books might say. Changes may be effected alright, but only at the cost of a ‘rebound’ that wipes out any advantage we might think we have gained. The reason no model (no model which ever yielded useful results) has ever been found is because the psyche isn’t a machine. The psyche (i.e. who we are) isn’t a machine and if it isn’t a machine (i.e. if it doesn’t obey the dictates of linear or predictable logic) then there is no way that we can ever possibly model it…


How could we ever think that how we are could be something we could understand, just as we understand the internal combustion engine or a printed circuit board? The thinking mind always assumes everything to be understandable (i.e. amenable to being represented in its own non-complex terms) because if it doesn’t do this then it would be cutting the ground away from under its own feet. Unless the thinking mind assumes a universe that is fundamentally understandable in terms of logic then it is making itself redundant, it is doing itself out of a job. It only works if everything is understandable – if we had a situation where parts of the universe were understandable but these parts were embedded in a deeper reality which is itself not understandable then this would mean that nothing was understandable, not really. If a thing is to make sense to the thinking mind then the whole universe, from top to bottom, has to make sense. Otherwise its position is lost. We can’t see it, but the thinking mind’s ultimate agenda is always to ‘hang in there’ and avoid the fate of being made redundant and for this reason it will never admit (it never can admit) that the world or the universe isn’t just some kind of machine, and that we aren’t – in our turn – just complicated units of biological machinery, even though this puts us in an utterly preposterous position. And there is no more preposterous position than the one we find ourselves in when we claim to understand something profound about ourselves on the basis of the so-called ‘science’ of psychology’.


The truth of the matter – which we are very keen indeed to deny (for no batter reason than our inability to see through the malign influence of the runaway rational mind, which cannot bear to be knocked off its pedestal – is that the universe is infinitely complex, just as we are, being as we are part and parcel of that universe. This is no disaster, this is no defeat, this is no terrible thing – it just means that we have to put up with the thinking mind no longer being ‘top dog’, no longer ‘ruling the roost’. It wasn’t doing a very good job anyway! As a result of seeing things clearly (which is something we have been steadfastly resisting at every turn) we have to ‘put up with’ no longer living in a world which is basically an exercise in accountancy, where we have to spend all our time trying to make sure that every single thing can be neatly accounted for. Instead, we have to live in a world which in its essential nature is more like a poem or a work of art than a neat row of numbers in a ledger (or on a spreadsheet). This is the hardship that we have to endure if we can bring ourselves to come around to dispensing with the dubious services of the rational intellect and accepting the actual non-logical nature of reality…


When we live in a world of poetry then cleverness is no good to us! As Rumi writes:

No better love than love with no object.

No more satisfying work than work with no purpose.

If you could give up tricks and cleverness,

that would be the cleverest trick!

This whole drive to be clever, to argue mysteries away, to systematize our understanding of the world, is simply us trying to make our concepts and models relevant when they’ aren’t. We’re trying to force everything to fit our conceptual slots because – since we’re coming at the world from the basis of the thinking mind – everything has to be about these slots. The bottom line is that we’re always struggling to make the rational faculty relevant when it isn’t. When we’re dealing with infinite complexity (i.e. infinite inter-connectedness) then any attempt to systematize just traps us in delusion – the only way not to be trapped in delusion is not to try to make sense of things! Even though it may sound contradictory to say it, when we’re dealing with great complexity, simplicity is what’s needed. Simplicity works because it resonates without trying – if something is simple enough then it is whole, and if it is whole then it resonates with everything else that is whole. By not trying to say too much we say it all!


This is why the sparse verses of the Tao Te Ching work so much better than all the weighty tomes of Western philosophy. It is as if in the West our response to the surpassing complexity of life is to complicate things as much as we can. We go down the wrong road – we go down the road of hyperrationality. We throw a whole mess of technical jargon at the problem, we invent a whole new kind of ‘speak’ that creates the illusion that we ‘know what we’re doing’. This technical language owes its existence to one thing and one thing only – the premise that it can actually enable us to do something about to help alleviate the mental pain and distress that our clients are suffering from. If the people we are dealing with are anxious then the language validates itself on the basis of its ability to ameliorate anxiety; if they are suffering from depression then the terminology gains prestige from its promise to banish effectively the shadow of depression from our clients’ lives, and so on. What else could excuse this ungainly mass of specialized terminology, which is quite lacking in aesthetic or poetic virtue in itself?


Traditionally however, all of our psychological situations have been addressed by something else entirely – by wisdom rather than cleverness. Wisdom has an entirely different character to cleverness – it doesn’t seek to create its own highly specialized vocabulary, for a start! Wisdom can express itself in the simplest of terms; it can express itself in language that can be understood by children, in fact. That’s how we know that it’s honest – this is where its power comes from, not in its ability to impress, intimidate, dazzle or intimidate people. If we come across some common human situation like anxiety and we respond to it by pulling a lot of neologisms out of our hat then all we have succeeded at is in alienating the sufferer from his or her own experience; in Ivan Illich’s words, cosmopolitan medical civilization takes the experience of being unwell (or in pain) out of our hands and makes it into the property of the mental health professionals. Only they have the power to say what our situation is, and to know what to do about it, and their language is both controlling and jinxed.  [As we have already said, ‘Controlling’ and ‘jinxed’ go together when it comes to mental health!]


Anxiety (to to use this one example) isn’t what the medical authorities say it is, however. It isn’t something that needs to be understood in terms of some frame of reference that doesn’t belong to us, and which we are actually excluded from understanding because we haven’t had the appropriate training or education. If I am suffering from anxiety then ‘what it is’ is necessarily my own subjective experience of it; there’s nothing else it could be – anxiety isn’t something that exists ‘in the abstract’! It isn’t at all what you –with your technical terminology – frame it as being…Anxiety is actually a very simple thing – anyone who has ever suffered from anxiety knows what it is. Anxiety is the experience of anxiety and this is where the ‘answer’ (so to speak) lies – not in someone else’s complicated theories of it! Anxiety is not at all a technical matter, in other words – it can’t be transposed into some other (highly arcane) sphere, it can’t be converted into some riddle or problem to be solved.


The ‘answer’ – if we may continue to use that word – lies exactly in our subjective experience of what’s going on, not in some abstract, mind-moderated formulation or theory of it. In the simplest of terms, where we are when we’re suffering from anxiety is a very difficult place to be and the ‘answer’ is simply for us to be able to be there without feeling that we need to escape, without constantly feeling that we need to ‘press the eject button’. This could easily become a type of a theory but it isn’t – it’s an intuitive understanding of the situation we’re in. Furthermore, it is our understanding and not one else’s. What makes anxiety different from the everyday ‘non-anxious’ experience of being in the world is simply that in the non-anxious state of mind we somehow have the ability to avoid the existential challenge that lies in the present moment and so – because we always have the option of escaping – we don’t get anxious, even though anxiety is latent in our situation. We are constantly escaping without knowing that we are escaping (because not knowing that we are escaping is an essential part of the escaping) and so we perceive ourselves as not being anxious. Anxiety – in this case – can be linked with the failure of the mechanism which facilitates our imaginary escaping from the demand that ‘being present’ places upon us! Or to put this another way, it is because we can no longer flee reality with impunity that we are feeling anxious…


Anxiety – we might therefore say – is where we keep on trying to flee (or ‘solve the problem’) but can’t and this is where the suffering comes in. We trying to do something that we can’t do. Our comfort zones have failed us and so we now have to deal with the difficulty of being present in our own life without any of the usual convenient escape routes. The drug of escaping (and not being present in our own lives) is no longer available to us and so now we’re going ‘cold-turkey’ – anxiety is as simple as this. How then can the clever talk of some accredited clinical expert help us if this is the case? It is more than likely that their role of ‘clinical expert’ represents nothing more than their escape from being present in the reality of their own life – there are no experts when it comes to the question of ‘how to live life’, after all! No one can be an expert at being their own true self…..


There is no jargon for being present. There are no models, no theories. This is not something that someone else can advise us on  – just as Walt Whitman says in his poem Song of Myself that no one can ‘walk that road’ for us, so too must it be the case that no one can ‘be present’ for us. Being present in the actual reality of our own lives is the simplest thing there is, yet no one can describe it, nor tell us how to ‘do’ it….







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