Getting Off The Conveyor Belt

How do we start to be mindful, how do we get started being mindful for the first time when the practice of mindfulness (whatever that might be) is not something with which we are culturally familiar? Even the intellectual understanding of what is called ‘mindfulness’ is rather elusive; never mind actually putting it into practice. The great difficulty is that we keep thinking of it as a task, as something to ‘do’. We always think of everything as a task, and this is because we are always operating out of our thinking mind; we’re always seeing everything as a problem, in other words! As soon as we start thinking in this way then we automatically tense up in preparation for the act of ‘achieving some outcome or other’. We might not know what the outcome or result is supposed to be, because we are not familiar with it, but we tense up anyway in expectation of having to do something.We can’t help thinking that we have to ‘do something’, and this puts us under pressure…

 

This ‘tensing up’ is a habitual sort of thing – we are always doing it, it is the main thing we have to do in life, or so it tends to seem. We have to tense up in preparation for doing something, in preparation for ‘making something happen’… Life appears to be a series of problems or challenges, one after another after another, sometimes with hardly any break between, or even perhaps no break between them. If this is so (if life is a never-ending series of problems with scarcely any break between them) then what this means is that life itself is interpreted as a problem – and this is not an unusual situation. In everyday language this situation – where life itself becomes the problem – is known as generalized anxiety.Because we see life as ‘a problem to be fixed’, we become vulnerable to deep-seated doubts about our ability to do whatever it is that we are supposed to do (even though we don’t really know what this is).

 

The more we identify with the thinking mind the more we see everything as a problem because this is the only way the thinking mind can relate to things! It’s a ‘problem-solving machine’ and so that’s what it does. The rational mind is a machine for fixing problems and if we identify with it then that’ll turn us into a machine too!  We will become more and more mechanical, more and more rigid in our thinking, more and more ‘brittle’ with regard to surprising or unwanted outcomes. More and more of us are suffering from anxiety disorders in recent times for the simple reason that our technologically-orientated culture compels us to ‘identify with the thinking mind’. Our rational-technological culture forces us into a position of automatic congruence with the mind-created image of ‘who we are’ and this ‘confusion of identity’ can only ever lead to anxiety, in the long run…

 

Saying that we tend to relate to life itself as a ‘task’, as something we have to ‘do’, is the same as saying that we habitually tense up (mentally, and sometimes also physically) when we are confronted with any challenge at all. We tense up because we have to change something from the way it is into some other way. We have to take personal responsibility for doing this. If I do have some sort of physical task, such as lifting up a heavy weight, then of course this makes sense. Similarly, if I have to work out something, solve some problem or other, tensing up mentally (which is to say, concentrating) makes perfect sense. But tensing up in the fact of life itself, as if life itself were a heavy weight to be lifted, or a problem to be solved, takes us into the realm of anxiety.

 

When we are anxious it is this chronic unrelieved ‘tensing up’ that causes us all the distress, all the suffering. We don’t see this however because we think that it is whatever problems or  issues we are faced with at the time that are the source or origin of our distress, and so we try to solve them as quickly as we can so that we can be free from it. This only makes matters worse however because trying to get rid of all issues the minute they arise exacerbates the underlying chronic unrelieved tension, and it is this chronic unrelieved tension that is the true author of our suffering. Try to solve innumerable tasks and issues just drives the tension up a notch. The logic behind the attempt to eradicate all problems is of course that when they are all gotten rid of we will at last be able to relax, but experience shows that this never ever happens. There are always more issues piling up for us to attend to – life is a never-ending conveyer belt of problems and issues and tasks and jobs and ‘general responsibilities’.

 

We never obtain that longed-for relief as a result of frantically solving problems, sorting out tasks and attending to issues or responsibilities because the real source of the pressure isn’t in these problems, tasks, issues and responsibilities but in my ‘attitude’, so to speak. My ‘attitude’ is one of high-alertness, of maximum vigilance and tension. But we can’t say that this attitude, this constant unremitting underlying state of inner tension is ‘the problem’ because saying this simply adds more fuel to the fire. If we treat the constant unremitting underlying tension as the problem that need to be fixed or solved or otherwise dealt with then this just makes us tense up even more, in readiness to deal with the problem. Trying to do something about this inner tension only causes me to tense up all the more, and so if I was ‘feeling the pinch’ before I will be feeling it twice as much, three times as much, a hundred times as much. The more I try to do something about the tension the tenser I get and the tenser I get the more I feel that I have to do something about the situation! I’m caught on the treadmill of runaway thinking and I don’t know how to get off…

 

The reason we find ourselves in this trap is because we don’t have any other possibility of relating to difficulties other than trying to fix or solve them (or if we can’t do this, wishing or hoping that we could fix of solve them). This ‘lack of any other possible modality of relating’ is after all what lies behind the anxiety in the first place. All we know is the modality of ‘trying to change the way things are’ (or – failing this – of wanting or wishing to change the way things are, and feeling that we ought to change them even if we can’t, even if it is a practical impossibility for us to change anything). This is the modality of doing.

 

The possibility that we are missing when we are anxious is the modality of being. The possibility that doesn’t seem to be available to us (that we are in effect blind to) in anxiety is the possibility of being the way that we are rather than changing (or rather constantly trying to change) the way that we are. There is a reason for us being blind to this possibility. After all, in anxiety all we are is ‘straining’ or ‘striving’ or ‘trying’. Everything that we are is caught up within this constant massive effort that we are making. Everything that we are is subsumed within this habitual or automatic constant attempt to change things, or fix things, or escape from things. This is the essence of the situation – being subsumed in this way in ‘doing mode’ so that straining and more straining is all that we know. We are reduced to this – if straining or tensing up inside doesn’t work then the only option that is left open to us is the option of straining and tensing even more.

 

This chronic inner straining or tension is very much like a muscular cramp or spasm – once the cramping ‘takes hold’ then there is nothing we can do to avert the process. We just have to wait for it to ease up in its own time, acutely painful though it may be. Obviously if I ‘tense up’ against the cramp in any way this only exacerbates the underlying situation. The same is true for the mental cramp of generalized anxiety – anything I do to try to make it go away only adds to it. Even telling myself not to be anxious makes me more anxious – after all, telling myself not to be anxious, trying to ‘talk away the anxiety’, is me tensing up against the anxiety. Since the anxiety is nothing more than chronic ‘tensing up’ anyway, how can this possibly help? Even wishing that I wasn’t anxious is a form of tensing up – it is a form of resistance, and any resistance to anxiety always exacerbates that anxiety.

 

So what we need to learn is how to refrain from tensing up. What we need to learn is how to not resist the fact of our anxiety – which is itself nothing more than a huge mass of chronic automatic resistance. Our automatic reaction is of course to try to deliberately refrain from tensing up, to deliberately – by act of will – try not to resist. Needless to say this doesn’t work because anything I do deliberately is resistance, anything I do on purpose, as an act of will, is ‘tensing up’. I can’t do ‘not doing’. I can’t deliberately get out of ‘doing mode’. I can’t ‘not do’ on purpose because ‘on purpose’ means straining and tensing and striving and trying and wanting and hoping. So what is the answer? How do I get back from ‘doing’ to ‘being’?

 

The first step is not to try to stop trying, to not resist our own resisting. Instead of trying not to try, of trying to stop trying not to try, and so on (which is of course a road that never comes to an end) I give myself permission to be whatever way it is that I am just for five minutes. This is a small beginning but it is also a realistic one because this is always a possibility – I give myself permission to be whatever way I actually am just for this short space of time. Any longer would be asking too much. Any longer (in the beginning, anyway) would translate into ‘pressure to perform’, pressure to be a certain way, and that would be counterproductive. We don’t want to turn meditation into yet another task…

 

After giving myself permission to be the way I am for five minutes I can then begin to be mindful of the way that I am (whatever way that is). So I sit there (or lie there), close my eyes if I can and gently start to notice what is going on for me. The chances are that I will notice myself being tense, that I will notice myself automatically straining to change myself, or to change my situation. This is like noticing that my muscles are locked into a spasm or cramp. Noticing this inner underlying chronic tension is synonymous with feeling the pain of that tension – just as noticing a physical cramp is synonymous with feeling the pain of that cramp. At this point I remind myself – if necessary – that I have given myself permission to be whatever way I am and ‘the way that I am’ is ‘being tense’. So just for the next five minutes I can allow that tension to be there, having given it permission to be there, and also having given permission of the pain of the tension to be there.

 

Allowing myself to be tense means gently noticing that I am tense – I bring my attention to the pain of the tension and give that pain permission to be there, just for a few minutes. This is like touching something very gently with my finger – I touch it but I don’t try to push or apply pressure. I am just acknowledging that whatever I am touching is there, just by ‘tipping off’ it very gently with the outstretched tip of my finger. In the same way when I notice my underlying inner tenseness I just bring my attention (which is to say, my awareness) to it very gently, acknowledging that it is there without trying to change it in any way. This is a very gentle and undemanding exercise, but it is also highly significant because it is the beginning of what we have forgotten how to do – it is the beginning of ‘being mindful’, the beginning of the practice mindfulness. We’re learning something very challenging; we’re learning how to stop always treating life as ‘a task’, or as ‘a problem that needs to be solved’. We’re learning how to get off the non-terminating conveyor belt of the thinking mind….

 

 

 

 

 

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