We are so very easily swayed by the mind. It is as if the thinking mind need do no more than merely look at us and we are swayed – we are swayed by the thinking mind just as seaweed is swayed by powerful ocean currents, just as the treetops are swayed by a strong wind. Who we believe ourselves to be and what we believe ourselves to be capable of is determined by this mind. The thinking mind tells us something and we believe it and there is no gap or interval between the two things. These two things have been collapsed into ‘just the one thing’ which is not a healthy state of affairs. It’s not a healthy state of affairs because there is no freedom for us in this situation. We’re ‘prisoners of the mind’.
What would be helpful therefore would be if we could open up a gap between these two things – this gap would mean the difference between being controlled by the thinking mind and not being controlled by it. It would mean the difference between ‘being free’ and ‘not being free’, as psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, Viktor Frankl says in this well-known quote:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
To open up such a gap is not such a straightforward thing as it might on the face of it seem however. We can grasp the idea, but to put it into practice is another matter entirely.
If I have a thought which triggers me in some way and then I have the thought that ‘I ought to allow a gap’ then there is of course no gap. First there is the original thought, and then there is the thought which follows on from this which says ‘I should allow a gap’ – this is no good at all however because the thought ‘I should allow gap’ is not a gap. It’s just another thought, so nothing has changed. One thought follows immediately in the wake of another and so we are no closer to a gap than we ever were!
If I have a ‘triggering thought’ and I respond to this thought up by using a method or strategy to alter or prevent the reaction (which is the principle that CBT is based on) then this is no good either because methods and strategies are created by thought and this means that they are thought. Methods and strategies follow logic and thought is nothing but logic. Thought is logic through and through. Or, as we could also say, both methods and strategies have an ‘aim’ or a ‘goal’ and all aims/goals are created by thought. There is no such thing as ‘a goal that was not created by thought’, after all!
Opening up a gap between two thoughts (or between one thought and our reaction to that thought) isn’t as straightforward as all that, therefore. It’s not as straightforward ‘as we might think’! There are two ways to talk about this lack of straightforwardness. One is to say that logic can’t be used to create a gap because there are no gaps, no discontinuities in logic. That’s the whole point of logic – that it is an unbroken continuum, that one thing always follows on from the other. The other way of talking about ‘the lack of straightforwardness’ is to say that forcing or controlling can’t be used to create a gap because the whole point of forcing is to close gaps, not open them. When we force or control we are closing the gap between ‘what we want to happen’ and ‘what does happen’, between ‘our will’ and ‘the fruition of this will’, between what we have in mind (i.e. our ‘goal’) and the actualization of this goal.
So just to repeat what we have said so far, our freedom lies not in thinking but in the gap between our thoughts (or in the gap between ‘stimulus’ and ‘reaction’) and this gap cannot be forced or brought about by design. ‘The controlling part of us’ is no good at all here therefore and yet the controlling part of us – which is called ‘the thinking mind’ – is almost always the only part we know. In therapy we talk about developing resilience for learning patience but this is something the mind can never do – the mind can only ever struggle and scheme to bring about the fruition of its agenda, the realisation of its goals. If the mind’s goal is to be ‘patient’ then it struggles to bring this about – in an inpatient way!
We can’t understand any way of going about things other than this, other than ‘having a goal’ and then ‘struggling to make it happen’. That’s our god – we place willed action on a pedestal. Who we truly are in ourselves doesn’t depend on control and manipulation however – who we are in ourselves doesn’t need anything ‘from outside of itself’ so it doesn’t need to pin all its hopes on this thing that we call ‘successful controlling’. When we are in touch with our true nature we know on a very deep level that our well-being doesn’t require the attaining of any external advantage! To believe otherwise is to be a slave.
We can relate this to the Buddhist virtue of equanimity. Equanimity means ‘it’s OK happen things happen the way we want them to and it’s also OK if they don’t’. In the West we value controlling, and the knowledge-base and skills or methods that facilitate controlling. As we just said, we put willed or purposeful action on a pedestal. The reason we do this however is because – on an unconscious level – we link our well-being or happiness with ‘successful controlling’. This is our ‘core assumption’ in the West – we somehow imagine that ‘being’ comes from ‘successful doing’! Our whole way of life is based on this ‘never-examined but deeply held’ core belief. We go through agonies because of it.
This assumption is entirely false however – as we would see if we were to reflect on it for a moment. ‘Being’ and ‘doing’ are two completely different things – our being is completely independent of our doing. ‘Who we are’ has nothing to do with our ability to successfully control – that’s the Western myth, that’s why saying that someone is ‘a loser’ is such an insult, such a put down. There is in reality no such thing as ‘being a winner’ or ‘being a loser’ – there is only ‘being a human being’ and this is something that is beyond winning and losing. Being ‘who we truly are’ is beyond winning and losing. The awareness of this absolute independence of being from doing is ‘the gap’ that we are cultivating through the practice of mindfulness.