There exist certain situations from which it is impossible to escape on purpose – these situations are traps because the harder we try to extricate ourselves the more tightly we get caught up in them. There are many examples of this sort of thing that we could look at. One would be the situation where I am trying to ‘act cool’ when something happens to embarrass me. I say or do something completely stupid in front of a whole crowd of people. Now if I don’t mind being shown up in this way then there is no problem but because I am ‘putting up a front’ then I most definitely am going to mind making a fool of myself. I am going to mind big time!
This is where the trap comes in because the more I try to distance myself from the embarrassing incident by saying “It doesn’t matter” the more obvious it will be to everyone that it does matter. The more effort I put into trying to convince myself and others that it isn’t important, the more important I make it. After all, if it really doesn’t matter to me then why does it matter to me so much to say that it doesn’t matter? If it really isn’t important to me then why is it so important that it isn’t important?
Another example of this sort of thing would be where I discover that I am prejudiced towards somebody. Maybe they belong to a different race than me, or a different sexual orientation, or a different social status. Now if I am happy being prejudiced then there is no problem (at least, not as far as I am concerned!), but if I don’t want to be prejudiced, then I am in trouble because it is totally impossible to be unprejudiced on purpose. Why this should be is easy to understand: being prejudiced means that I treat someone (or something) in a special way. Now, either I am positively prejudiced or negatively prejudiced – these are the two possibilities. Either I ‘approve’ or ‘disapprove’. Therefore, if I discover to my horror that I am negatively biased towards you, and I try to ‘correct’ this attitude by being positively biased instead, I straightaway demonstrate to everyone that I am prejudiced, because I am treating you in a special way! The fact is that I cannot treat you in a ‘non-special’ way on purpose because if I my attitude is ‘on purpose’, then obviously there is an issue there.
There is a very important principle behind these two examples. There is absolutely no way that I can make something not matter to me on purpose: if I say “I don’t need to take a position on that” then I have proved myself a liar just as soon as I open my mouth because deliberately not taking a position is a position. If something genuinely doesn’t matter to me then I have no position with regard to it, but I do not get to have ‘no position’ as a result of a deliberate act. If it matters, then it matters, and no amount of twisting and turning will get me out of it! This is an important principle to understand because it applies to all of the ‘negative’ mental states that we are prone to getting trapped in.
Anxiety is a classic example of this: if I am worried by something then trying to be ‘not worried’ by taking a different position towards the source of my anxiety is simply not going to work. Contrary to popular belief, there is no ‘new improved’ viewpoint that I can take, no ‘new improved’ way of thinking about my situation that is going to make me feel better. After all, if I am worried enough about the source of anxiety to be looking for new ‘non-anxious’ ways of looking at the problem, all I am doing is re-affirming the thing that I am worried about as something worth being anxious about! The fact of the matter is that the only reason I am adopting this new viewpoint that ‘everything is okay really’ is because I actually think that ‘everything is not okay’. So the whole enterprise of trying to find a new, more ‘rational’ and less anxiety-making way of looking at the world is based on fear, which is hardly a good basis to start off on. In a nutshell, the more determinedly I assert to myself that “I am not worried” the more worried I must be to be making the statement in the first place. What this means, in plain language, is that we cannot escape from anxiety on purpose.
Another example of the principle has to do with self-esteem. It is common practice to try to ‘cure’ low self-esteem by making self-affirming statements. So every morning I look in the mirror and say in a loud confident voice, “I am going to be a success” or “I am a good person!” or something like that. The problem with this ought to be obvious by now – if the only reason I am affirming that I am a good person is because I secretly (or not-so-secretly suspect that I am a bad person, then exactly how much is my positive self-affirming statement worth? Obviously, if I am standing there telling myself that everything is fine, then everything is not fine and I would be a hell of a lot better off acknowledging this fact in an honest way. Okay, so I will have to feel bad then but at least the bad feeling will be out in the open and not hidden under a layer of self-deception.
Of course, it is also possible to take a more sophisticated approach to correcting my low self-esteem, and instead of flatly contradicting my beliefs about my inadequacy as a person, I can try to be reasonable about it. I might say to myself “Well, it is true that I make mistakes and do stupid things, but then so does everybody else too – no one is perfect”. Now this statement is of course perfectly true, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how true or how logical the argument is because the only reason I am saying it is to escape from the pain of my negative beliefs. My negative beliefs may be irrational and distorted and all the rest of it, but that doesn’t mean I can just dismiss them with a wave of my hand. The beliefs may be ‘untrue’ (or ‘illusory’), but what is true is that I do have such beliefs, and I cannot just walk away from them as if I don’t. The attachment to the negative thoughts is there, and I cannot get rid of this attachment just because I don’t want it to be there.
The fact of the matter is that I cannot escape from a belief system on purpose, and this applies to any belief system whatsoever. All I can do is honestly see that I am having negative (or distorted) thoughts, without either  believing in them or  struggling against them. I am not free to escape my beliefs any time I want, but I am free to see what these beliefs are, and I am free to taste the pain that they bring me.
MENTAL STATES ARE CHOICELESS
Somehow, I think that I can pick and choice how I feel about myself, in the same way that I can pick an orange cream out of a box of Black Magic chocolates. I assume that just because I don’t like feeling bad about myself I can decide instead to feel good about myself, but the truth is that I have no such freedom. What I don’t seem to understand (or don’t seem to want to understand) is that my mental state is ‘choiceless’. I am not in control of my feelings – I cannot choose to be happy, or choose to be loving, or choose to be unselfish, or non-anxious, or non-angry or non self-hating.
A moment’s reflection will show that the principle which we have been looking at applies across the board to all negative emotions. All such unhappy ego-states are the result of a refusal to honestly accept pain – they are the result of a deep-seated belief that I can choose what we want ‘the truth’ to be, that I can arrange things so that they will be convenient to me. Because I am insisting so single-mindedly on having things my own way (which inevitably means ‘a way in which there is no pain’) I am stuck in the position of looking for a way out that doesn’t exist. Another way of putting it is to say that I am ‘stuck in denial’ and it is my unexamined belief that I can escape from where I am that constitutes the denial.
This can be a hard thing to understand because we always look at it backwards. Thinking that we can escape on purpose seems like such a positive thing that we want to encourage it. It seems like a healthy attitude. In reality, though, what this attitude means is that I never move on because I am afraid to be where I actually am. Psychologically speaking, the attempt to escape from ‘the way which things are’ is not positive at all, and the belief that it is actually possible to do this is a deadly trap which causes us to waste a huge amount of time trying to do something that just isn’t possible.
CONSCIOUS AND UNCONSCIOUS SUFFERING
Insight into the fact that I am attempting to do an impossible thing is a tremendously liberating thing. Suppose I am caught up in a sulk, or self-pity, or some other similarly miserable state of mind. If I have insight into what is actually going on with me, this is a totally different state of affairs to when I am in a sulk, but unconscious of what is actually going on. The difference is the difference between conscious and unconscious suffering. When I am unconsciously suffering, I am just blindly reacting against the pain, I am stuck in the automatic attempt to escape from the reality of my situation, and this ‘reflex reaction’ is not helping me at all, but only making me feel worse. When I am consciously suffering, I am still automatically struggling to escape from my situation, but the difference is that I can see perfectly well that I am caught up in the futile struggle to escape. I can see myself automatically reacting – I can see what is going on.
It is important to emphasize that this does not mean that I try to stop myself automatically reacting. That would be an attempt to escape from the reality of my futile reacting, and that would be quite futile as well. That would be ‘reacting against my reacting’. The point is not to change what is happening, but to see what is happening. Therefore, I see that my attempt to escape is futile, and I also see that any attempt to escape from my escaping would also be futile. What we are talking about here is ‘the perception of impossibility’, which, despite sounding terrible, is actually a great break-through. It is at this point that I stop being stuck.
Blind or automatic reacting equals ‘being stuck’ but seeing that you are blindly or automatically reacting is never the same thing as being stuck. I might be blindly struggling, but if I can see that I am blindly struggling, then my eyes must be open! The principle here is simple – if I can see that I am unconsciously suffering, then this awareness in itself equals conscious suffering. We’re seeing – very clearly – that our position is untenable (and that there is therefore ‘no escape’) and that (paradoxically) frees us from this position – this position that we had for so very long been trapped in because we mistakenly thought that there were possibilities in it…
Art: Trapped, by Mila K.