The Hell of Pure Purposefulness

Ours is a purposeful culture, and this inevitably brings a whole raft of  neurotic mental health ‘conditions’ in its wake, which we then attempt to solve in a purposeful manner! The irony is lost on us, however.

 

Purposefulness is clearly a healthy part of life; no one is suggesting that we should abandon all purposeful behaviour, but – on the other hand – when purposefulness eclipses all else it becomes an evil, it becomes ‘a mental health hazard’. We only have to reflect on this for a moment to see that it is true – imagine what life would go like if we had to be purposeful all the time. What a nightmare this would be! The whole of life becomes one big grinding chore that never ends… This is not life but a cruel parody of it; the ultimate joke is being played on us and it is not a nice joke…

 

Alan Watts explains this point in terms of dancing, and the question of ‘who leads the dance’. If one partner leads all the time then the dance would be a very sterile affair – it would hardly deserve being called ‘a dance’ at all! It would be more like ‘having a conversation with oneself’. If both partners lead the dance to an equal extent however then the interaction immediately becomes creative, it immediately becomes a genuine dialogue.

 

In the same way, when purposefulness is overvalued in the culture then there is no ‘dance’ going on, merely the humourless and obsessive pursuit of goals. Life itself becomes devalued in this case because life (or ‘nature’) just become something that is supposed to ‘submit to our will’. What we forget, in this case, is that it isn’t ‘all about us’, that life isn’t just a matter of us ‘exerting our will’, or ‘conceiving a goal and then doing our level best to achieve it’.

 

When everything becomes about goals, and overcoming whatever obstacles might be standing in the way of us achieving them, then life becomes frighteningly sterile. ‘It takes two to tango’, as the saying has it, and control is always a one-way street – it’s a ‘top-down’ kind of a thing. When purposefulness is overvalued then – obviously – the only thing that matters to us is control, and how effective we are at it, and this is the recipe for neurotic suffering, not mental health.

 

When I am focussed entirely on ‘the attaining of my goals’ then I am stuck in ‘a relationship with myself’ – there’s nothing there else left to have a relationship with, after all! When life becomes all about purposefulness then there is just ‘me having a relationship with myself’ and the relationship between ‘me and myself’ isn’t actually a relationship at all (just as a dance between me and a purely passive partner isn’t really a dance at all). The most important element – the relationship with ‘the other’ – has been lost. There no longer is an ‘other’ in this case, and this is always the case with control. We only have to think about abusive relationships.

 

‘Overvaluing purposefulness’ is a bad road to go down, therefore. It’s a bad road to go down because we lose our relationship with reality and all that’s left is me playing a game with myself; all that’s left is me ‘relating’ to my own projections. One projection is called ‘winning’ and I think that this is a good thing, the other projection is called ‘losing’ and that is a bad thing. Actually, both are the very same thing – both are only my projections and my attempt to obtain the positive projection is every bit as sterile (or futile) is my attempt to avoid the negative projection.

 

When I think that life (or nature) is merely some kind of passive thing to be moulded as I see fit, to be controlled or manipulated as it suits me, then I am heading for disaster. On the ‘macro-‘ scale (which is to say, on the scale of the environment within which we live) then we all know what this disaster looks like. At this particular point in time at the beginning of the twenty-first century we are all becoming very aware indeed of the negative consequences of having a ‘one-way relationship’ with nature, a relationship in which we get to ‘call all the shots’.

 

The same disaster for faces us on the ‘micro-’ (or individual) scale of things too. When I treat the dance between me and life as if it’s only what I want that matters, then sooner or later I back myself into a sterile corner. My life becomes meaningless and pointless. If I keep on ‘leading’ and never show any sensitivity to what life, or my own ‘unconscious’, wants (if we may put it like this), then life will refuse to help me when I need it to. My own spontaneous nature will refuse to step in and help me when I finally realise that I need it to because ‘I have run out of answers’. It is at this point in time that I will truly become acquainted with this spiritual wasteland that we call ‘neurotic suffering’.

 

The assumption that we are making is that if we get to be ‘totally in control’, if we get to be ‘calling all the shots’, if we get to be ‘securing the outcomes we want’, etc, then this will of course be a very good thing. That’s our assumption but it couldn’t further from the truth, for the reasons that we have just given. What’s missing from this picture (as we have said) is a relationship with anything outside of us – in order for there to be a relationship there has to be something ‘coming back the other way’, so to speak, and that’s precisely what’s not happening…

 

Something else is needed and that ‘something else’ might be called ‘listening’, or ‘sensitivity,’ or ‘intuitiveness’, or something like that, but the thing about this is that we can’t do ‘listening’ or ‘sensitivity’ or ‘intuitiveness’ on purpose! If we did do it on purpose then that would mean that we knew in advance what we were listening or intuiting for, or what we were being sensitive to, and the whole point is that we don’t know. We can’t know and that is precisely the point. What we’re talking about is an entirely different ‘modality of being in the world’ therefore, and it doesn’t happen to be a modality we know very much (if anything) about in this rational-purposeful culture of ours. That is after all the very element that we’ve forgotten about in our great, all-consuming hurry to be ‘in control’…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Confirming Our Biases

There’s this thing we do called ‘living’ only it isn’t living – it’s ‘bias confirmation’, which is actually a travesty of living. How do we get away with this travesty, then? How do we wangle it so that we get to believe that we are living when all we’re really doing is repeatedly confirming our sterile preconceptions?

 

Living is living and we shouldn’t be able to ‘make of it what we want’ (or ‘have our patented version of it’). We shouldn’t be able to live a ‘tame version’ of life that hasn’t got any actual existential challenge in it and yet still be able to get away scot-free! It would be a clever cheat if we could do this for sure, but since when has ‘cheating’ ever produced a good result? Can we really ‘cheat life’ and get away with it?

 

We go through the motions, we do the things that ‘pass for living’ (at least as far as we’re concerned, anyway) but there’s something missing. There is something not there that should be there! What’s missing is any kind of challenge to our mental categories, anything that might disagree with our pre-existing way of looking at things. What’s missing is reality, in other words….

 

It’s as if we read a book cover to cover, with interest, whilst being entertained throughout, only it’s the type of book that can be completely understood within the terms of the concepts which we already have. We don’t have to stretch our concepts in the least, let alone dispense with them entirely. Needless to say, there are lots and lots of books like this! The bestseller list is made up of books like this. But if we can read a book without it in any way changing the way that we have seen the world then that doesn’t really say much for the book. What we looking at here is ‘a non-event disguised as an event’. Nothing really happened during our reading of the book because nothing about us has changed – we’re exactly the same afterwards as we were before! We have received no information because information (in the proper, technical sense of the word) is always that which contradicts our assumptions. Information is ‘that which changes us’; or as cybernetics pioneer Gregory Bateson puts it, it is ‘the difference that makes a difference‘.

 

The very same is true for ‘living’ in general – if none of our (so-called) living calls upon us to change the way we have of understanding the world then what we’re talking about here isn’t actually life but something disguised as life. There are no new events occurring here, there no actual information content to what is going on – there is merely a ‘continuum’ that is made up of the same event stretched out indefinitely so that it seems like the whole of life. Yet this ‘one event’ that keeps on being rehashed and recycled, isn’t actually an ‘event’ at all because an event can only be an event if it gives way to something else, if gives way to something new. Otherwise we have eliminated all genuine change from the picture and replaced it with superficial change (which is ‘formulaic change’, i.e. ‘the same old thing revamped in some sort of a way’).

 

It is perfectly possible to read a book and enjoy it, or watch a film and be highly entertained, and yet for this not to be an ‘event’ in the strong sense of the word that we are using (rather than using the word event in the ‘weak’ sense, in which it signifies nothing more than a type of an echo). It’s also perfectly possible to live life without anything ever really happening – naturally this is possible, that’s just normal, that’s just the way we usually do it. But the question is, what happens to our ‘real’ life in this case? What happens in other words to the life that we would be living, if we hadn’t somehow fallen asleep at the wheel? What happens to the life we don’t live?

 

This turns out to be a very good question, a question that is well worth asking, even if the answer is hard to come by. Is there – we might wonder – anything that could wake us up to what’s really going on with us with our perennial obsessive ‘bias confirmation’? Is there perhaps some kind of sign that we could look out for to show us that we’ve gone wrong? Is there any way that we could cottoned on to the fact that something important has gone missing? Do you really want to know anyway? It is this last question that is – perhaps – the most significant. No doubt we could suss onto the fact that something is amiss but the evidence is pretty overwhelming that we don’t particularly want to. We are otherwise engaged’; we’re busy doing other things – ‘bias confirmation’-type things…

 

Somehow this business that we have called ‘bias confirmation’ not only substitutes itself very effectively for life, it also puts a kind of spin on things which makes us very disinclined indeed to ‘look outside of the box’. Getting hooked on bias confirmation very effectively ‘switches our curiosity off’, we could say. It switches it off as if it were a light switch – all our curiosity about the world vanishes and all we care about instead is ‘getting our biases validated’, getting our data-processing prejudices confirmed. Of all the ‘switch-arounds’ that there ever could possibly be in terms of our way of being in the world, this is the greatest therefore. This is a ‘one hundred and eighty degree turn’.

 

‘Bias confirmation’ simply means that we are busy proving that our view of the world is the right one – it is nothing more and nothing less than this. This innocent-sounding term ‘bias confirmation’ covers more than we might think it does – it accounts for the whole of our thinking process since almost of what we do in day-to-day life is based on thought. Everything purposeful that we do is based on thought after all and how often do we do stuff that isn’t purposeful, that isn’t goal orientated?

 

The ‘thinking process’ (whether we like to see it like this or not) is purely based on the principle of ‘jumping to conclusions’ – thought can never escape the assumptions that it is founded upon and so course it’s always jumping to conclusions. Thought always jumps to the conclusion that it was right in the assumptions that it has made! More technically speaking, we may say that thought operates in a self-referential way, which is undeniable. Thought operates by comparing all incoming data with the mental categories that already exist in our heads, and so this whole business of thinking is example of business of bias confirmation. Every day of our lives we confirm our own unexamined mental constructs with our thinking; we confirm them over and over again and we never get tired of doing so.

 

It’s not just thought-based perception that is based on the principle of bias confirmation but also thought-based action – we don’t see the setting and achieving of goals as bias confirmation but what else could it be? Being ‘focused on goals’ and ‘learning to see the world in a radically new way’ do not exactly go hand-in-hand. We all think that obtaining our goals (or ‘getting what we want’) is what life is all about but this is plainly ridiculous – ‘obtaining our goals’ (or ‘getting what we want’) is how we prove to ourselves (without admitting that this is what we doing) that our way of looking at the world is the right way. It isn’t though because reality isn’t ever going to agree with our biased way of looking at it! Reality isn’t going to match our bias because reality – unlike the thinking mind – isn’t biased. Reality equals ‘no bias’.

 

Our idea (or ‘version’) of living is based on us spending all of our time proving to ourselves over and over again that reality is something that it isn’t. The reason we have to keep on proving the point to ourselves over and over again (or trying to prove it) is precisely because what we’re trying to say is true isn’t true. If it were then there would be no need for this business of ‘bias confirmation’, obviously. What we’re doing isn’t living at all therefore – it’s actually denial, and when we are in denial we are not living.  On the contrary, we are engaged in an ‘inverted version of living’; we’re actually rejecting life because life (by its very nature) doesn’t agree with our biases…

 

 

 

 

Art: jornalagora.info/street-art-graffiti-wallpaper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Rational Disconnect

Self-affirmations are part of every ‘mental health tool-kit’ it seems, and yet there is nothing even remotely ‘mentally healthy’ about dutifully repeating self-affirmations. It is actually odd that we should accept this supposedly helpful practice so very uncritically – where the hell does this idea come from anyway, and where is the proof that it actually works?

 

For some reason the whole area of mental health seems to be one in which we take to heart advice with practically zero critical appraisal. We’re very gullible when it comes to the question of what will or will not help our mental health, which – when we come to think of it – probably isn’t so surprising. We’re very keen to be helped after all, and we’re not so keen to learn about potential ‘flies in the healing ointment’. There are a number of ways in which we could try to show why self affirmation isn’t a legitimate means of helping ourselves. One way is to point out that every affirmation we could ever possibly make is merely ‘a thought’ and no thought is ever true. Thoughts are simply thoughts – they are abstract mental evaluations or statements that we make about the world, and as such they ought not to be confused with the actual reality that they are referring to. It is the fact that we are always confusing our abstract mental labels and evaluation with the reality which they are referring to that causes our neurotic suffering in the first place, so ‘more of the same’ is hardly going to help matters! Yet more thinking isn’t really going to be the helpful thing because it was thinking that got us into the mess we’re in in the first place. The head can’t be used to cure the head, so to speak…

 

Although we are unlikely to stop and see things this way, when we engage in self-affirmations all we are doing is ‘telling ourselves what we would like to believe’ and this straightway makes the whole endeavour very suspect! Isn’t that what we do all the time anyway, in one way or another? Aren’t we always trying to validate ourselves with our thinking and our talking? The only time we’re not doing this – generally speaking – is when we are criticising ourselves or blaming ourselves or ‘putting ourselves down’ with our thinking and this too is a form of ‘validation’, even though we certainly don’t see it as such. Self-criticism and ‘self-blaming’ is negative validation and negative validation is still validation, despite the fact that it makes us feel bad instead of good.

 

We’re not very good at seeing this in our Western culture – we’re not very good at seeing that ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ are the two sides of the very same coin. That’s what the familiar yin-yang symbol is showing us – we are all familiar with this symbol but unfortunately we’re not so familiar with the philosophy behind it. The message of the yin-yang symbol is that if we push positive far enough then it will become negative! ‘At the moment of victory defeat is born’, as the ancient Chinese saying has it. We think we’re pretty smart in the West but our thinking isn’t subtle enough to appreciate this point, which is ‘the principle of the identity of the opposites’; very evidently, we simply ‘don’t get it’, no matter how sophisticated we might imagine ourselves to be. We insist on treating the opposites as if they weren’t mutually dependent, as if we can have ‘more of the one without by the same token having more of the other’.

 

If I keep telling myself (and others) that ‘everything is going to be okay’ this is a positive message for sure but – alt the same time – it straightaway spells a negative message on the unstated level. If I truly believe that everything is going to be okay then I wouldn’t have to keep on saying it, I wouldn’t have to be so extremely insistent on it! “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” as the well-known line from Hamlet goes. If I keep on loudly protesting my innocence this unfailingly makes me sound guilty. Or – to give another example – if I keep on assuring you that you can trust me, then this very clearly sends the opposite message to the one I want to get across. No one goes around telling people that they are trustworthy unless they aren’t!

 

Positive affirmations are exactly the same as this, therefore – we’re ‘protesting too much’ and this over-egging of the pudding ought to make us suspicious. It actually does make us suspicious on an unconscious level, and so we are then obliged to do our best to cover up our doubts by being louder and more insistent than ever with our positive self-affirmations! This is the trouble with all so-called ‘positive thinking’, it actually has the very opposite effect to the one we want  and so what happens then is that we actually get caught up in a struggle that won’t ever end. We have unwittingly created a counter-current (or counterforce) to the one we are actively trying to promote and so we then become locked into the very grim business of ‘fighting against the negative’. We get locked into ‘trying to control what we never should have started trying to control’. We get caught up in a fight that we can’t win and what’s so ‘mentally healthy’ about this?

 

‘Promoting the positive’ is the very same thing as ‘fighting against the negative’ – it’s just odd that we find it so extremely hard to gain this insight. Our whole culture is working against us however, so perhaps it isn’t so odd after all that we can’t see a way out of the neurotic mess that we have created. ‘Promoting the positive’ or ‘affirming the positive’ is a recipe for suffering plain and simple. It’s a guaranteed recipe for suffering – it works every time! If we wanted more suffering then we’d be delighted – we’d be very pleased with the results of our efforts, but the whole point is that we don’t like suffering, needless to say! That’s actually what we’re trying to escape from in the first place, of course.

 

What we need to understand is that our overly-rational culture is not good for our mental health, and it certainly isn’t qualified to be telling us how to go about obtaining it for ourselves! Mental health is not some kind of defined goal to be reached via our logical thinking, by our technology, by our rational strategies. To go about things this way is always to incur suffering. We try to be clever about it but that isn’t that just isn’t going to work. We’re trying to obtain good mental health by manipulating, by controlling, by ‘fixing’, and that’s like ‘trying to put out a fire with gasoline’. We can’t successfully use the thinking mind as a tool when it comes to mental health because thinking is always about ‘chasing the positive and resisting the negative’ and this kind of thing (which in the East is called attachment) is the very root of our problem not the cure. Attachment can’t cure attachment. Control (which arises from ‘like versus dislike’) is the cause of our suffering and when we engage in positive affirmations we are trying to control – it’s as simple as that.

 

Of course we’re trying to control – we’re trying to obtain a particular outcome (the ‘positive’ one) and that’s control! So if attempted control doesn’t work – but only in fact makes matters worse) then what’s the alternative? What else can we do? It turns out that there is only one alternative to control and that is to be ‘interested in things as they actually are’ (rather than being obsessively fixated on positive outcomes’). This doesn’t take cleverness or techniques, but simply sincerity, or as we might also say, honest and courageous self-observation. It’s the truth sets us free, not cleverness, not our ability to manipulate the situation. Instead of self-affirmation (which as we have said is an attempt to manipulate) we practice something much gentler and much more powerful. We give ourselves the permission to be the way that we actually are, which is not a form of manipulation, which is not a form of cleverness.

 

This ‘permission-giving’ isn’t a ‘rational–purposeful’ kind of thing of course – it’s ‘a letting go’ not a ‘holding on’, not a ‘clinging to some mental technique’ type of thing. If it was merely a rational-purposeful thing then we could turn it into a strategy, and that would make it into just another form of self-affirmation. We would just be repeating another ‘meaningless mantra’ to ourselves in the case – we would be changing the formula slightly but that’s all that will have changed. What we’re talking about is the type of thing that comes from the heart and not the head and the problem here is that we’ve pretty much forgotten about our hearts (due no doubt to the relentless pressure to be clever and competitive that we’re all under). We got a bit of a ‘disconnect’ going on in the heart department unfortunately and we can’t really gloss over that fact, no matter how much we’d like to. This is just something that we have to face – the problem isn’t in our DNA or in some ‘error’ in our own personal psychology, it’s in this bizarre disconnected and competitive way of life that we have invented for ourselves…

 

Our Western culture is a heartless one due to our bizarre and unpleasant emphasis on consumerism and it is also a soulless one (as Jung has said) because of the way we insist on putting rationality on a pedestal. Once we see this however then we are half-way there because we won’t be looking for answers any more from either the disconnected rational mind or our cold-hearted, insincere techno-consumerist society. All we have to do is honestly reconnect with ourselves, which means not trying to control or manage ourselves the whole time in the way that the so-called ‘experts’ say that we should…

 

 

Art – Ben Frost – Store In A Dark Place (Mickey on Prozac), 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At The Heart of Anxiety

At the heart of anxiety there are two conflicting things, two conflicting beliefs. One belief is that we absolutely have to be ‘in control’ in order to live well and the other is that we aren’t actually able to be in control in the way that we believe we have to be.

 

It can be seen therefore that both of these ingredients are necessary in order there to be anxiety – either one on its own would not be enough. Moreover, we can also say that out of these two conflicting beliefs, one is essentially true, and the other essentially false, and this is somewhat unexpected perhaps since we don’t generally like to say that there is any truth in anxiety! We prefer to see it as being without any basis in reality. We prefer to see it as being wholly ‘irrational’, as the phrase goes.

 

The ‘untrue belief’ is – obviously enough – that we have to be in control in order for life to be in any way OK for us, whilst the unshakeable suspicion that we have that we actually aren’t able to be in control in the way that we think we need to be is indeed founded upon a perfectly true (if unwanted) insight. It is 100% true that ‘being in control’ – when it comes right down to it – is not something that we can safely rely on!

 

‘Control’ is essentially an illusion, albeit a comforting one. In our day-to-day living there are lots of things that we can be in control of, and regularly are of control of (all of our deliberate actions are instances of control, after all) but this is – as a rule – only the case in the smaller aspects of life. We can and do exert control over lots and lots of trivial (or relatively trivial) issues in life – such as what brand of toothpaste to buy in the supermarket, or what T-shirt to put on in the morning, but with the big stuff (for example the question of whether we are still going to be alive in a week’s time) we have to admit that the notion of control is essentially meaningless.

 

With regard to something as basic as our own state of mind during the course of the next few minutes we would have to admit that we aren’t in control. Who – apart from some self-deluding ‘positive thinker’ perhaps – can claim to be in control of their own state of mind? Life itself is inherently ‘insecure’, in other words and wisdom – as Alan Watt says – lies in honestly relating to this inherent uncertainty rather than fooling ourselves that we are (or ought to be) in control’.

 

It is however very easy indeed to be lulled into the false security of thinking that we are in control or that we could be in control if we were clever enough or determined enough. To fall into this lazy way of thinking about things is the easiest thing in the world – unless you happen to be suffering from anxiety, that is! It is true that when anxiety sets in we tend to lose all our confidence in our ability to control the small things in life satisfactorily, and – in one sense – this perception of ours isn’t true because these are things we have been doing all our lives. It’s the big things that we can’t rely on more than the everyday small things. The reason for this skewed perception of ours is however undoubtedly because we have been working so hard to repress or deny any awareness of the inherent uncertainty relating to the big picture in life, with the result that this insecurity comes out in the realm of ‘small things’ instead. It gets ‘displaced’ to where it doesn’t rightfully belong…

 

This is always the way – if we deny something in one place then it simply pops up on another! If we deny or repress our insecurity with respect to the ‘Big Picture’ then it pops up in the ‘Small Picture’ which is made up of the details of our everyday lives. And the point here is that we do repress the awareness of our insecurity with respect to the Big Picture – it’s not just that we ‘repress our awareness of our insecurity in relation to the Big Picture’, we repress awareness of the Big Picture full stop. We simply don’t think about it, or if we do think about it then this is a very rare thing. If we allow ourselves to be aware of the Big Picture then that’s precisely when our insecurity strikes us, after all! Alan Watts says somewhere that a philosopher is a kind of a ‘professional village idiot’ whose job it is to gawp in wonder at the most commonplace things in life, the kind of things that the rest of us are much too sophisticated to take any notice of. It’s not just a philosopher’s job to be a professional village idiot and gawp at the world however – it’s all of our jobs really! We were born to be philosophers of this type and as children, this is what we were.

 

To put this very simply, if we aren’t gawping in wonder at this world of ours and there’s something amiss! Our basic situation isn’t something that we can afford to be blasé or sophisticated about – it really isn’t. What is our basic situation after all? We can’t actually explain what our basic situation is, we can’t even begin to articulate it – this business of ‘existing’ that we take so much for granted (and who doesn’t take it for granted?) is an unanswerable riddle and anyone who claims to know the answer to this riddle simply talking out of their hat! We have various formulaic answers or stock responses to the question of course but they are only there for the sake of stopping people from asking questions; they certainly are there for the sake of providing a meaningful answer! We might think that we know all the answers (as most adults do) and walk around with all of our child-like questioning ‘laid to rest’ but all we have done in this case is to delude ourselves. All we have done in this case is to delude ourselves in the way that practically every human being always does delude themselves. We have accepted a convenient so-called ‘answer’ for the sake of ‘shutting down the questioning process’.

 

That is one way of dealing with the problem of ‘the riddle of existence’. In conventional religion this is very often what happens – we tell ourselves that it is ‘God’s will’ (or that ‘God made it that way’) then we are able to put the mystery of existence to the back of our minds and become blasé about it. We never think to ourselves that perhaps it isn’t God’s will that we become complacent and dull in our attitude to life! Surely God has got nothing against us existing in a state of wonder, after all! It’s only us who have an aversion to that. In modern times we are inclined to use science for this purpose and imagine that science has ‘answered all the big questions’. ‘Science has replaced religion’, as they say. To think that science has got rid of the perplexing riddle of ‘why there was something instead of nothing’ is ridiculous though – science is about asking deep questions it is true, but it is not and never was about providing concrete answers to enable us to stop questioning, which is what we want to do! The most common way of dealing with the problem of life’s inherent and irreducible ‘mysteriousness’ is however simply too busy ourselves with the ‘everyday mundane tasks’ of our lives and never think beyond them. This is what almost all of us do – we ‘concern ourselves unceasingly with the trivial’! We completely forget to ask ‘deep questions’, in other words; we forget to be the natural philosophers that we are and as a result we become ‘somnambulists’, we become ‘sleepwalkers’ shuffling towards disaster.

 

There is absolutely no doubt that almost all of us go around being profoundly ‘incurious about the Big Picture’, so to speak. It is perhaps not sufficient merely to say this – we go around completely oblivious to it! As far as we are concerned there is no Big Picture, there is only what is in our heads at the time, and what is in our heads at the time is unfailingly trivial, is unfailingly superficial. We live in a superficial world, after all! Every day we are bombarded with superficial messages; on all sides we are constantly being invited to absorb ourselves in trivial concerns. That’s just the type of world we live in; that’s just the type of world we have created for ourselves. We live in the type of world that coerces us to be constantly preoccupied with trivialities and this emphasis on the small at the expense of the big’ is hardly going to help our mental health any! This obsession with the Small Picture is actually distorting the nature of what it means to be a human being. We’ve turned into shoppers and nothing else!

 

We run from the Big Picture of what it means to be in this world out of our fear, out of our existential insecurity, because deep down we know that there is no answer to this question. This is forever ‘left open’ – no one can ever tell us what life is all about (although plenty will try). One thing that we do know for sure however is that there is no such thing as ‘investing 100% in running away from what we fear’ without what we fear reappearing somewhere else in disguised form. Any psychotherapist can tell us that! For this reason therefore, we might expect to see ‘mental health issues’ arising when we close ourselves off from reality ‘as it actually is in itself’, and retreat into our private narcissistic bubbles as our superficial society encourages to. Of course we would expect to see problems arising in this case! When we sleep all the time then we will have bad dreams, when we sleep all the time then our sleep will be a disturbed one.

 

If we reflect on matters in this way then this will bring us face-to-face with another with riddle, and that is the question of why more of us aren’t suffering from anxiety, or from some other sort of neurotic disturbance. How do some of us ‘get away with it’, so to speak? How is it that some of us seem to be able to exist quite happily within the sterile confines of our ‘private reality bubbles’ and yet not be ‘disturbed in our sleep’? Even when this seems to be the case however, the strategy of ‘submersing ourselves in the trivial’ is not exactly the best plan we could ever come up with – being wholly consumed by things that don’t really matter to us (except insofar as they allow us to safely distract ourselves from ever seeing beyond them) is in itself a state of profound suffering! And if we do find that anxiety is knocking on our door, then what helps is not treating this as a manifestation of pathology (as society says it is), but seeing it as an invitation to open our doors and widen our experience of what it means to be in this world. In the end everything depends upon our attitude – it’s not ‘what we do’ or ‘how we think about things’ that matters but whether we trust (or are at all interested in) what we do not and cannot know, or whether we see it as a threat…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Can’t ‘Do’ Change

We can’t ‘do’ change – that’s an absolute impossibility! ‘Change that we do’ is always purely for the sake of shoring up our sense of identity and ‘shoring up our sense of identity’ is not change. It’s ‘entrenchment’, it’s ‘digging in deeper’, obviously…

 

Any ‘change’ (so-called) that I might myself enact is merely ‘me asserting myself’, in other words. I’m trying to ‘get things to happen the way I want them to happen’ and this is never going to involve any sort of genuine change. That’s just controlling. Genuine change can only happen when I give up trying to be in control – controlling means ‘holding on to my basic assumptions’, after all, and holding onto my basic assumptions is never going to get me anywhere different! The instinct or urge not to let go almost always predominates – even when something in us wants to let go and ‘give up the constant controlling’ there is almost always another, stronger part that doesn’t.

 

We are aware that change will come if we do relinquish control, the only thing being that we automatically assume that this will be change of the unwanted type, and so in this case it seems much better than to us that we should be ‘stuck’ rather than letting things actually get worse. We feel that we are on the edge – potentially – of some kind of catastrophic change, and this is therefore what keeps us locked into our frozen (or ‘defensive’) posture. Things are not good but we know that they can quickly get a lot worse if we let go of whatever control we have, and so it’s ‘stalemate’.

 

Our perception in this regard – however strong – is in error however. From a psychological point of view it is always ‘staying the same’ that is the most painful thing. Or we could equally well say that it is ‘trying to stay the same when we know that – ultimately – this is not going to be possible’ that is the most painful thing. We are fighting against something bigger than us in this case, and we’re also fighting against our own awareness into the bargain, and what could be a more uncomfortable situation than this? Who would want to be locked into this position?

 

What genuinely helps is not any type of effort that we might make; as we have already said,  any sort of effort that we make is only the fixed identity asserting (or trying to assert) itself and the aim of the fixed identity asserting itself is always to resist change, the aim is always to keep things the same. It’s consolidation it’s all about, not radical change. The fixed or static identity is a conservative force; the static identity is only the static identity because it resists change, after all! Even more to the point, the ‘stalemate’ defensive position that we were just talking about actually IS the static identity – the two are the very same thing, they simply can’t be separated!

 

 

This is – needless to say – a very different way of looking at identity to the one which we usually have. To our everyday way of understanding things, our identity is the most important part of us – it’s ‘who we are’ and so of course it’s the most part important part of us! This is a misapprehension however; it is something that we automatically accept as being ‘obviously true’, even though we could very easily see that it isn’t so ‘obviously true’ at all if we were to actually look into it. The ‘static identity’ as a defensive posture; it’s what happens when we hold on’ to ourselves, when we hold onto the status quo. When we truly relax then – as we can easily notice if we took the trouble – we can see that we are not this fixed, unyielding sense of identity at all. We’re not a ‘fixed thing’ (and why we want to be) – we are a fluid process, and what’s so hard to understand about this? There are no fixed things in nature, only fluid processes, so why should we imagine that we are any different?

 

When we relax (and stop holding on so tightly to ourselves) then we come ‘back to ourselves’, we ‘relax back into ourselves,’ so to speak. Only the funny thing here is that we are not just relaxing into ourselves, also relaxing out of ourselves. When we are stressed or very focused on something then the world narrows down until it is no bigger than what is stressing us or what we are focusing on. No one is going to argue about this! But alongside this narrowing or shrinking of our subjective world there is also a corresponding narrowing and shrinking of our sense of ourselves – the two shrinkages go together, naturally enough. When more perspective comes into the picture then we can see that the world is a bigger place than we thought it was and we can see that we are more than we thought we were too…

 

The problem is however that we are so very used to our more ‘clenched’ or defensive modality of being in the world that we actually think that this is who we are. Alan Watts says that in normal everyday sensors identity is actually nothing more than a knot of ‘chronic tension’ that we assume to be us. If the ‘knot of chronic tension’ were all of a sudden to go away then this would feel very strange to us – even though it would be a great relief at the same time, much as it is a relief when a cramped muscle finally eases up! The idea of letting go of his knot never occurs to us however and, in fact, it’s not just that letting go of the knot never occurs to (as a idea of something that might perhaps be beneficial) but rather that we go the opposite way entirely – we nurture and take care of the knot (or of the ‘fixed identity’) as if this were the only thing that matters in life.

 

‘Taking care of something’ is usually a good thing but in this case our ‘care-taking’ is working against us since we are supporting the very state of affairs that is causing us pain. We are sabotaging the health or well-being of the greater part of ourselves for the sake of the ‘well-being’ of the knot of tension that we have short-sightedly identified with. Really, therefore, we are caught up in a dilemma that we can’t actually see. We can’t ‘have it both ways’, but we want to! What we want is to be identified with the fixed identity (so that we can use it to serve as the centre of our world, to serve as ‘an unquestionable reference point’) but at the same time not to have to put up with the pain that comes from this fixed sense of identity. When the Buddha stated in his First Noble Truth that ‘existence is suffering’ it was the conditioned existence of the fixed identity he was referring to.

 

Our dilemma is that we are caught up in a blatant self-contradiction – we want good mental health and the cessation of all neurotic symptomology (of course) but we also want to hang tightly onto the cause of all that neurotic suffering. We don’t see this self-contradiction at all and this is why we are so very caught up in it. Instead, we are always searching for this ‘mythological creature’ – the mythological creature which is ‘the happiness and fulfilment of the static sense of identity’. We are searching high and low for this strange mythological beast – we are absolutely convinced that it must be out there somewhere so we never tire of searching for it, we never tire of inventing strategies to catch it.

 

As it happens, the fact that the fixed sense of self can never find the happiness and peace that it is searching for is in one way helpful to it – it is ‘helpful’ because it is this searching that keeps the game going. Deep down there is no dilemma; deep-down there is no ‘self-contradiction’ at all because our allegiance is – for the most part – ‘all the one way’ – our allegiance is to the fixed identity and its continuation, no matter what the price. Ultimately, this is a problem for us because the fixed sense of identity (this knot of chronic tension) doesn’t exist ‘in its own right’. Obviously knot of tension doesn’t exist ‘in its own right’ – it’s only knot of tension, after all! The fixed or static sense of identity has the same type of existence is that of a wrinkle in a tablecloth – it’s there in one way because we can see it but it’s not there in another, profounder way. If it was a bump in a carpet instead of a wrinkle in a tablecloth that we were talking about we could even trip over it and hurt ourselves! The wrinkle or bump still doesn’t actually ‘exist’ however because if we were pull it taut then there would be no trace left of it.

 

We get around the problem of ‘the static sense of identity not having any actual existence in itself’ by keeping ourselves forever preoccupied trying to find a ‘peace of mind’ that we can never attain; by keeping ourselves busy hunting for a happiness or sense of completion that will never be ours. This is ‘the paradox of happiness‘ – we can never be happy until we stop looking for happiness! Looking at this another way, we could also say that the paradox of happiness is that the happiness of the one who yearns and strives after happiness, is actually comprised of the absence of that ‘yearner’, that ‘striver’…

 

This ‘solution’ of ours does not change the fact that our commitment to the fixed identity is also our commitment to suffering. When we succeed in perpetuating the fixed identity we are also succeeding in perpetuating the root cause of our suffering, and so this doesn’t really help us any! We’re only clinging onto pain, after all, no matter what strategy we try. The emotional and mental pain that we are struggling against only ever grows as we struggle against it. Why wouldn’t it – it feeds on our resistance, after all! Sometimes – perhaps a lot of the time – there might be no visible sign of this pain, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t ‘stacked up somewhere’, waiting to manifest itself. If we imagine that we have successfully fought against the pain and gotten rid of it then this only makes matters worse – by ‘fighting successfully against the pain’ we have only affirmed the reality of ‘the winner of the game of pain-avoidance’, which is the static identity that has caused the pain in the first place. By ‘fixing the problem’ we have only reaffirmed the existence of ‘the fixer’, who was the original cause of the problem that needed to be fixed…

 

When the suffering that is inherent in our situation becomes too much for us then – naturally – this brings us to the point where we can clearly see the need for some major change and this is of course a crucially important insight on our part. The problem arises however when we try to bring about this change ourselves, as a result of the effort of will, as a result of our own cleverness or determination. This of course means that we have automatically turned our situation into ‘a problem that needs to be fixed’, and this – as we have just said – means that we going around in circles.

 

We can’t ‘change things on purpose’ as we started out this discussion by saying. We can’t ‘do’ change – change can’t occur as a result of our ‘purposeful output’. We can change things ‘on the outside’ – I can organise things this way or that way, I can put up a shelf on the wall I could not put it up, I can mow the lawn or not mow the lawn, there is scope for all sorts of purposeful activity, but this shouldn’t confuse us into thinking that we can change ourselves to. When the static identity tries to change the situation all it is really doing is imposing its own ideas of what that change should be, and the static identity’s ‘ideas about what the change should be’ are itself. The static identity is its set of ideas. The identity is trying to assert (or promote) itself but this just isn’t change! That’s not change at all, it’s just ‘the same old story’…

 

 

It is extraordinarily helpful to understand this. Normally we very strongly feel that we should be doing something to get ourselves out of the situation we are in and so if we can’t (which we won’t be able to in any real way) then we blame ourselves and feel guilty about it. We have already ‘failed’ – or so it seems – to be feeling so bad in the first place, and then we have ‘failed again’ by not being able to do something about this situation. All that responsibility (which is actually ‘false responsibility’) is weighing heavily on us and it’s turning into guilt and self-recrimination because we can’t fix the problem when we are convinced that this is what we should be doing. What helps us in this situation is to see that we aren’t this not of tension, that we aren’t this fixed sense of identity. We can’t get rid of a knot of tension by ‘making it into a problem’ and fighting against it, after all! Blind aggression isn’t really going to help us here…

 

 

 

Image: Great Buddha of Kamakura, taken from gaiijinpot.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mental Health Isn’t About Control

Mental health can’t ever be the result of some kind of ‘high-tech’ intervention, much as we love high-tech interventions! Mental health can’t ever be the outcome of any technological intervention, for the simple reason that technology is an extension of the thinking mind and mental health essentially involves freedom from the thinking mind!

 

We can’t be mentally well unless we are disentangled in our essence from thoughts, ideas, beliefs, concepts, etc,  and there is no way in which this ‘disentangled’ state of mind can never come about as a result of any thought-based process. Blood cannot wash away blood, as the Zen saying has it. The more we think the more tangled up we get and there is no way around this; deliberately trying to untangle ourselves from the tangles that have been created by thought is not a ‘winning strategy’! Actually, as far as freeing consciousness from the conditioning effects of thought goes, there are no winning strategies…

 

The very idea of there being such a thing as a ‘successful strategy’ for freeing consciousness from the entanglements of thought is hugely ridiculous, although whilst we are in the grip of thought we can’t actually see this. It’s hugely ridiculous because of the polarity of success/failure is in itself a prime indication that we have been thoroughly conditioned by thought. Only thought believes in the polarity of success versus failure. Thought only knows one thing and that is control and control means the polarity of right versus wrong. Only when control is abandoned can we go beyond this absurdly narrow way of seeing the world.

 

For the most part of course, it’s not as if we give any thought at all to the question of freeing our consciousness from the insidious entanglements of our ideas, beliefs and concepts. It’s not merely that we don’t see mental health as being synonymous with ‘freedom from thought’, or ‘freedom from our own limiting mental constructs’, the actual suggestion of such a thing would itself be profoundly meaningless to us. It wouldn’t register at all in any way; we simply don’t see having ‘freedom from our thoughts’ as being a ‘healthy’ thing. If our thoughts were of a self-critical or anxious nature then we would of course want to be free from them; otherwise however we just don’t see any problem. Our thoughts – we might say – are part and parcel of who we are. Thinking is a reassuringly normal activity, whereas ‘an increase in mental silence’ might turn out to be rather uncomfortable. More than just uncomfortable, inner silence can often be downright frightening. We want our thinking to be running away in the background just as we might want the radio or TV to be left on in the background, so we don’t have to suffer too much from the unnerving silence.

 

The reason profound inner silence is liable to be uncomfortable or frightening is simply because our thoughts provide us with a kind of ‘validating context’ – we comfort ourselves with our thinking, in other words. The fact that we feel the need to ‘self-comfort’ in this way isn’t a sign of mental health therefore – far from it! If we have to create ‘a cocoon of self-validation’ for ourselves then this is because we are not ‘right’ the way we are, and so we’re try to ‘make ourselves right’ with our constant self-talk. This clearly isn’t what we would call ‘healthy’ because we are enabling ourselves to carry on indefinitely in this unhappy situation. The truth is that we would feel a lot better if we could actually ‘drop’ our current restrictive sense of identity and go beyond that safe-but-stale ‘comfort zone’ that we have created for ourselves.

 

The problem is that we tend to understand mental health in terms of what makes us more comfortable or functional in our current mode of being, rather than in terms of what can challenge us to move beyond this safe but sterile modality. This is not a good policy, needless to say; if we could actually see what we were doing then we would know straightaway that our strategy can only ever cause us more suffering in the long run, but we don’t see it – we’re just doing what everyone else is doing after all and so naturally we don’t feel the need to look any further. What we doing, with our ‘self validation’ is perfectly normal, so why should we ever question it? Why would we even bother to become aware of it? What is healthy is of course to become free from the need that we have to be constantly validated (either by ourselves or by others), which means ‘dropping’ the oh-so-familiar sense of who we are and what our lives are (supposedly) all about.

 

Our familiar sense of ‘who we are’ is created by the thinking mind, and this in itself ought to warn us to expect trouble ahead. A construct has to be maintained after all, and this is a full-time job. A construct needs to be continually validated; it needs to be continually validated for the simple reason that it isn’t who we really are. How could a construct (or an idea) possibly be ‘who we are’ after all? For the conditioned or thought-created identity ‘mental health’ or ‘mental well-being’ means that we are able to keep on validating our idea of ourselves without any alarming problems popping up. We’re ‘seeing everything backwards’, in other words. We’re seeing mental health in terms of ‘repairing the small sense of self’ rather than ‘growing into a larger sense of self’ (which is, as Jung says, the only way we can ever move beyond neurotic suffering). It clear therefore that our conventional approach to mental health (which equals as we have just said ‘repairing as best we can the ‘small sense of self’) is actually working against us. We’re doing ourselves a grave disservice; rather than growing, we’re ‘shoring up our defences’ against the unknown. We’re getting more and more entrenched in our habitual (constrictive) pattern of being.

 

This is where the ‘technology’ point that we made earlier comes in – high-tech responses, strategies, clever manipulations of all sorts can be used when we are trying to repair or shore-up our existing (mind-created) sense of identity, but they are of course counter-productive when it comes to growing beyond this limiting sense of identity. ‘Control’ is always about self maintenance; it has no other function. We can either get ‘better at control’ therefore (which is purely defensive) or we can get better of letting go of our controlling, which is of course the ‘healthy’ or ‘non-neurotic’ thing to do! Control only ever brings about the need for more control; it ties us into a task that can never be satisfactorily resolved since our true well-being lies in ‘taking the risk’ and growing as a result. We ‘take the risk’ simply by going beyond thought, by going beyond control.

 

Freedom from thought doesn’t mean that we never think anything, or that we go around in a state of profound inner silence all the time, it just means that we aren’t depended upon our thoughts in order to foster a (false) sense of well-being for ourselves. To think is one thing – to be addicted to the thinking process in order in order to feel secure is entirely another! When I am not dependent upon my thoughts then (and only then) can I have a healthy relationship with them – when I need my thoughts in order to feel okay about myself (or to fend off uncomfortable feelings) then this is an unhealthy collusion – it’s ‘a co-dependent situation’. Thought is more of a drug than anything else in this case, as Eckhart Tolle says; it’s an addiction we cannot break.

 

It could be said that we in the technologically-advanced nations are abusing our cleverness – we’re definitely abusing our cleverness if we think mental health falls within the remit of science and technology. All of our fancy talk of ‘evidence-based therapies’ is simply so much hogwash! There is no such thing as ‘a science of mental health’ and there never can be. There is no way for us to ‘control ourselves to be mentally healthy’. Mental health isn’t that type of thing and we really ought to be able to see that. The thought that we can develop a high-powered ‘technology of mental health care’ is of course immensely comforting to us; at the same time as being immensely comforting to us it also however the very height of folly on our part! He who is clever is foolish, as Gurdjieff says. Never was our lack of psychological insight more obvious than in our collective approach to mental healthcare. There is such a thing as ‘a strategy for holding on’, or ‘a strategy for postponing the inevitable’, but who ever heard of ‘a strategy for letting go’?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going Beyond The Recipe

The thing about meditation that we don’t see at first – if indeed we ever do – is that it is not procedural in nature. We are not following some protocol or procedure in other words, even though it very much seems as if we are. We’re actually doing something entirely different.

 

‘Observing our thoughts’ isn’t a procedure, for example – if it was then we would be using a framework created by thought in order to observe thought and this just isn’t going to work! All that is going happen in this case is that we going to tie ourselves up very complicated knots. It’s going to tie us up in very complicated knots every time…

 

A ‘procedure’ is a process that the thinking mind is in charge of and whilst this is perfectly fine and unproblematic in very many cases, it’s not fine when it comes to meditation.  Procedures don’t work in the case of meditation because meditation is essentially about becoming free from the framework of thought. If meditation didn’t free us from our thoughts then it wouldn’t be meditation, it would be just like any other purposeful activity that we might engage in.

 

‘Purposeful activity’ and ‘meditation’ are two very different things – they are worlds apart. We can visualise purposeful activity as being that situation where the everyday thinking mind is sitting in the driving seat and is busy ‘driving the car’. Our ideas (or models of reality) dictate everything in this case. Our ideas are behind everything we do and so clearly we can never go beyond them! If we have an idea about meditation and we try to accord with this idea then we simply getting tangled up with our thoughts even more. We are worse off, not better off as a result!

 

As Krishnamurti says, meditation is ‘a movement into the unknown’. That’s what makes it meditation – we can’t have any ideas about how we are to do what we’re doing, or what should happen when we ‘do it right’ because then we will be jinxing ourselves right from the start. We would be ‘coming back to square one’ every single time in this case; we would be coming back to our thoughts about ourselves and the world every single time, and that’s exactly where we started off from. We’re always stuck to our thoughts about ourselves and the world!

 

So although we start off practising meditation by following some sort of ‘basic recipe’ (i.e. ‘paying attention to the breath’ or ‘observing our thoughts’) this is only the ‘diving board’ from which we are to launch ourselves into the unknown. If we cling tightly to that diving board then we will never launch ourselves anywhere! In this case we are ‘attached to the procedure’, which is the same thing as being attached to anything else when it comes down to it. We’re just ‘attached’ and that’s it. We’re stuck to our thoughts. We have to somehow let go of our automatic attempt to ‘stay in control’ of the process. If we can’t do this then how will we ever be free? If we can’t do this then we will always be ‘stuck to ideas about ourselves and the world’. If we can’t do this then we’ll always be ‘stuck to the known’, one way or another.

 

The process of becoming unstuck from our thoughts isn’t something that we can be control of, therefore. It’s not something we can regulate, or achieve by the simple precedent of ‘following rules’ in the same way that we can do so many other things in life. If I follow the recipe for scones accurately enough then I can be sure of getting the result I want, I can be sure of ending up with a batch of perfectly edible scones. Not so with meditation, however – meditation can never be the result of ‘following the recipe accurately’ (for the simple reason that all recipes are provided by the thinking mind). Thought cannot free us from thought, as we have already said.

 

Even with scones (or with any other type of cooking) there has to be some kind of ‘letting go’, some kind of ‘free-flow’, if what we end up with is not to be mediocre, indifferent, or average. When we get really good at what we are doing then we don’t have to hold onto the recipe so obsessively and as a result what we doing becomes more of an art than a science or technology. What we’re baking or cooking then goes beyond the mediocre, beyond the average, and we can’t say how this has happened. We can’t tell anyone else ‘what we did’ anymore than we can tell ourselves ‘what we did’ and this is precisely because what we are doing is an art, and not some mere technological procedure that we’re running through.

 

Bruce Lee said the same thing towards the end of his life – when asked by a student if he would teach his particular form of martial arts to him Bruce Lee replied that he couldn’t because it wasn’t a system and if there is no system then there can be no way to teach it. Only systems can be taught and Bruce Lee no longer adhered to any system.  The same is true for everything when we persist with it – if we keep at what we’re doing then we eventually go beyond the recipe, and we can’t for the life of us say how we do it!

 

With relation to meditation, this is very much the case – in meditation we are learning to go beyond the limitations and restrictions of the thinking mind and – in one way – this is the biggest challenge that we could ever possibly face in life. This is the ‘ultimate challenge’. In another way however we could equally well say that this process is perfectly natural – it is most natural thing in the world, which is of course why it doesn’t need to be controlled…