When we think “How do I be in the world?” this jinxes us. As soon as we have this thought (or any variant of it) we are jinxed – we’re jinxed and we can’t back-track out of it again, no matter how clever we might get, no matter what tricks we might try. Once we start trying to solve this problem we can’t ever stop, in other words.
As soon as we think “How do I be in the world?” or “What is the right way to live life?” we are overthinking it. This is a simple enough point to make (it’s the simplest point anyone could ever make, actually) but it also doesn’t happen to be a point that we want to hear! It doesn’t make any sense to us, and even if it did make sense we wouldn’t how make use of it. We’ve already gone down the slippery slope and there’s nothing that we can (deliberately) do to get out of the trap. Deliberation is the trap, after all!
The reason we are so averse to hearing this message, or any variant of it, is because we are convinced on a very deep level that there is a right way to think about things, that there is a right way to ‘approach life’. This is so obvious to us that we don’t even need to go around saying it. The fact that we have never actually hit upon this ‘right way’ doesn’t seem to discourage us with regard to this belief in the slightest! We’re convinced that there must be a rational (or thought-based) way to approach life, so we keep on doggedly looking for it…
This is the snag in a nutshell – that we believe that there must be some special angle that we can cleverly utilize, some special ‘Get-out-of-jail-free’ card that we can play. It makes so much sense to us that we should be able to find the right angle, the right approach. Our whole way of life is based on this unspoken assumption; our very ‘modality of existence’ is founded upon this premise. Our ‘modality of existing in this world’ is based on thought and thought – by its very nature – is always looking for answers, always looking for solutions.
Of course, ‘looking for answers’ or ‘looking for solutions’ sounds like a very good thing to us – it sounds like an admirable attitude to have. It sounds right and proper, and the fact that it sounds right and proper shows us something important about ourselves – it shows us that we have become divorced from reality itself. The point is that reality itself is neither right nor wrong, neither this nor that, and yet – when we are in the grip of thought – we go around assuming that everything must be either one way or the other. Because we see the world in this polar (or ‘split’) way we are constantly analysing and controlling; analysing / controlling has, in other words, become ‘our way of being in the world’.
The whole world has to fit into our categories of good/bad, right/wrong, valuable/not valuable therefore and this is an absolutely crazy situation. How can we do this to the world? Why would we want to? What is possessing us? And if we do this to the world then this means that we are also doing it to ourselves; we’re going to try to fit ourselves into these categories as well – we’re going to be either good or bad, right or wrong, valuable or not valuable and this is equally crazy. The world has nothing to do with our absurd categories and neither do we, and yet we’re making our sense of well-being dependent upon how well be are doing at the task of trying to make everything (and ourselves) be the way we think it should be (whether this ‘way’ is absurd or not).
All angles – without exception – do this to the world and so if we’re coming at everything from an angle (as we almost always are) then we are imposing this false duality both on ourselves and the world. That’s what ‘angles’ do – they split the world into ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; that’s the whole point of an angle, after all. So one the one hand we feel that we are going to gain the advantage by ‘having an angle on things’ but on the other hand this cleverness of ours rebounds on us in a way that is not to our advantage at all! Our classifications end up classifying us, just as Carlos Castaneda says. The tool of thought very neatly ‘turns the tables on us’ and we end up being on the receiving end of the stick and catching a whack in the head rather than dishing one out, as we had intended to.
This doesn’t (as we have already pointed out) means that we don’t ever need to have an angle. That isn’t the point at all. It’s not that we never ever need an angle but rather that we don’t need to be ‘looking for the right angle’ on a nonstop basis. Specific situations arise in which we do need an angle (problems arise which do need a solution) but then once the matter has been dealt with one way or another the need is no longer there. Life itself is not ‘a problem to be solved’, in other words, even though we generally end up treating it as such. We end up treating life as if it were a problem to be solved because this is how thought works. This is what thought always does – thought always treats everything as a problem!
Thought always treats everything as a problem because that’s just the kind of phenomenon it is – it has to fit everything into boxes of its own making when stuff just doesn’t come ‘in boxes’, when life doesn’t come in boxes. More than this however, life becomes a serious problem to us when we have identified with thought and the products of thought. Life (very much) becomes a problem to me when I identify with the idea of myself that the thinking mind furnishes me with. The problem is really with life of course but with ourselves. The problem is with me, not the world! This is of course a classic example of how the conditioned mind always perceives the truth backwards – I say that the problem is with you, or with the world in general, but really the problem is in me.
The problem that we always need to be fixing (or trying to fix) when we have identified ourselves with thought (and the image of ourselves that thought provides us with) is that we’re always placing certain demands on life; we’re always wanting things to work out for us in a particular way, in our words. We have very serious ‘preferences’ – not just with regard to the way things work out for us, but with regard to what we unconsciously require reality to be. Being identified with thought means that we’re always seeing reality in a very narrow and stilted fashion – to us, this is what reality actually is and so we don’t see ourselves as imposing our own arbitrary brand of order onto the world around us.
The ‘problem’ that we’re trying to fix with our thinking is how to get reality to be the way we think it ought to be, therefore. We’re trying to twist things to be the way we assume they should be and we’re doing this without having the slightest awareness that this is what we’re doing, and this means that we’re locked into a never-ending series of problems, not just the one, because things are never going to inherently be the way that we unconsciously assume that they should be. This is an ongoing problem that we’re never going to solve because we’re looking at it all wrong – as we have said, the problem isn’t out there in the world but in ourselves and we’re never looking at ourselves. We’re only ever looking outwards at the problems that we ourselves have unwittingly projected onto the world. The problem isn’t that the universe doesn’t play ball, the problem is the fact that we are constantly trying to impose our absurdly narrow and stilted viewpoint onto it!
Trying to impose our own brand of order onto the world but not seeing that this is what we are doing (because we genuinely do think that this is the way reality should be) is the very essence of what is meant by the word ‘aggression’. This is aggression in a nutshell. When I aggressively try to correct a problem that I wrongly see as existing out there in the world (and all fixing, all correcting is ultimately aggression) then what I’m really doing is fighting against myself. I’m creating the problem and then I’m trying very seriously, very humourlessly to find the solution as if it wasn’t me who created the need for a solution in the first place. I’m fighting myself but I haven’t a clue that this is what I’m doing. I think that the ‘problem’ is out there, but actually it’s my own aggression (or my own ‘unconsciousness’) that’s the problem…
This is why any amount of thinking about ‘how to be in the world’ is ‘overthinking’! Thinking is good (sometimes) for small tasks, but not for the ‘big task’ (so to speak) of how to be yourself, or how to be in the world. Thought is no good for existential questions, in other words, only down-to-earth practicalities. Thinking is generally appropriate for practical matters but it most certainly has no applicability at all to any challenges of what we might call an ‘existential’ nature! Within this context, thought is simply unwarranted and painfully counterproductive aggression. We assume certain things to be true (without of course ever properly examining them) and then we automatically start trying to control the world on the basis of these unconsciously-made assumptions of ours. We automatically start trying to fix everything on the basis of ‘how we think it should be’. This is what ‘unconscious living’ is all about – it’s all about conflict, it’s all about us projecting our assumptions on everything without seeing that this is what we’re doing.
When we’re living this way (i.e. on the basis of thought) then we never see beyond the conflict, we never see beyond the struggle. Our own assumed reality is the only reality we know, the only one we have any awareness of, and so all we ever know of life is this constant fighting, this constant struggling. The only world we ever know is this unhappy ‘battleground’, this ‘conflict-zone’ of us unconsciously trying to impose our own patented form of order on everything (and everyone) we encounter. When the struggle seems to be going our way (which it never really is of course because our patented brand of order is an artificial construct that couldn’t survive a second on its own) we experience pleasure and satisfaction and feel that all is well with the world, and when we see that things aren’t going our way then we experience the reverse of this – we experience pain and frustration, anguish and demoralization and so on – and we feel that things are fundamentally not right with the world.
Another way of putting this is to say that when we’re in the conditioned or unconscious mode of existing in the world then we never see beyond ‘good and bad’, ‘right and wrong’, ‘like and dislike’. No other reality exists for us. No reality other than this false ‘polar’ one exists – we actually incapable (when we’re in the conditioned modality) of understanding how there could be any other way of looking at things than the dualist or polar viewpoint that is provided for us by the thinking mind. We completely fail to see that this duality is our own projection that we’re imposing on the world, and as a result we never ever see beyond the ongoing struggle or conflict that is us. By thinking at all (when it comes to this question of ‘how to be in the world’) we isolate ourselves from reality as it is in itself, which is infinitely serene, infinitely profound, infinitely harmonious. As the Buddhist teachings say, ‘the nature of all phenomena is perfectly tranquil’. The world we create for ourselves with our aggression however is not serene, not profound, not harmonious. It is – on the contrary – both utterly shallow and irredeemably conflicted. And just so long as we remain helplessly identified with the tool of thought, as we have already said, this is the only reality we are ever going to know…