Thought’s ‘cover story’ (i.e. its ‘excuse for being there’) is – obviously enough – that it is actually useful! That’s how thought gets to make such a major claim on our attention, by claiming to be of actual utility. ‘Think me, I’m useful!’ the thought says, and we – gullible as ever – go right ahead and think it. We fall for this claim every time, like citizens who can’t help voting for an idiot leader…
Some thoughts really are useful of course but the interesting thing is to try to work out the ratio of ‘genuinely useful thinking’ to ‘useless’ or ‘space-filling’ thinking. This is the same as talking – sometimes we talk because we actually have something to say, at other times we might talk simply to fill an empty space. Is it even possible to work out how much of our day-to-day thinking is genuinely useful rather than being purely redundant? It might be argued of course that thinking doesn’t have to be ‘genuinely useful’ (or ‘genuinely meaningful’) – it could after all simply be comforting to us.
This could indeed be true – no doubt thought very often is comforting to us – but just because something is comforting doesn’t mean that it is good for us though. From a psychological point of view the exact opposite is always true – ‘comfort’ leads to addiction/dependency and addiction/dependency robs us of our autonomy, and without our autonomy what are we? Our biggest problem is that we prefer what is comfortable to what is true and so arguing that ‘pointless thoughts’ are okay because they are comforting doesn’t really hold any water! We are simply ‘validating the status quo’, which is pretty much what we always do, come rain or shine. Being committed to validating the status quo (no matter what that status quo might be) is however no way to live.
Again, we might ask exactly what the problem is with this business of ‘validating the status quo’ – this sort of thing is after all very highly regarded in some quarters; there are lots of people who think that validating the status quo is pretty much our moral duty (and that not to do so is an act of heinous immorality). We can answer this perfectly legitimate question (and what questions are not legitimate?) by arguing that they are two great tendencies in life – one is ‘conservatism’ (which equals ‘risk-avoidance’) whilst the other is ‘rebelling against the norms’ and pushing ahead into new and uncharted territory. We either ‘hold onto the past’ or risk ‘letting go of the past’, in other words. We either consolidate our supposed gains or we look for a new challenge. It’s not that we’re saying here that we ‘should’ be one way rather than the other, we are simply making an observation. If there were some ‘authority’ saying that we should either be the one way or the other then listening to this authority, wherever it comes from, would constitute a loss of our autonomy and – as we have said – our autonomy is all we’ve got. Lose that we lose everything!
Using ‘have to’ or ‘should’ or ‘ought’ as leverage to change our thinking or behaviour is always a sorry joke – it’s a sorry joke because it only ever digs us deeper into the hole that we’re in. It only ever adds to our suffering, and why would we want to do that? From a psychological point of view (rather than a ‘conventional morality point of view’) the only thing we can’t do without is our autonomy and this brings us face-to-face with an intractable paradox because there is no way to ‘leverage’ ourselves to regain our autonomy once we have lost it. We can’t say we ‘have to be autonomous’ because that ‘have to’ is a loss of autonomy in itself. That’s like saying that we ‘have to be free’, when ‘have to’ is itself the very absence of freedom. Submitting to authority (which includes the authority of our own ideas or theories or beliefs) will never free us from the ills that afflict us. No ‘authority’ is ever going to save us – ‘Where there is authority there is no freedom’, as the graffiti on the wall says…
So to come back to our argument, we can say that there are these two tendencies or motivations in our lives, one being the conservative motivation and the other being the exploratory motivation and the key observation here is that the former type of motivation always leads to suffering. It can’t not lead to suffering because the movement of life itself is forwards and ‘into the new’ (rather than ‘back into the past’). The ‘holding on’ type of motivation is resistance to life therefore. There is no one saying that we shouldn’t resist life or that it’s wrong to resist life; that would be ridiculous – resisting life is very natural tendency and we all do it! All we are doing is observing that ‘resisting life inevitably causes suffering’, which is of course perfectly obvious. Holding onto the old and fearing the new is clearly never going to do us any good – it’s never going to do us any good because we’re thwarting the process of growth in ourselves. We’re refusing to grow out of fear…
Our next observation, which is perhaps not so obvious, is that thinking is itself resistance. All thinking is resistance, without exception – there is no such thing as ‘thinking which helps us to let go of the old’! There is no such thing as helpful thinking (from a psychological point of view) – from purely practical standpoint they can be but from a psychological standpoint there can never be. This may not be immediately obviously, but it is nevertheless abundantly clear once we reflect on it – thinking operates by saying ‘what things are’ (or ‘what things should be’) and what is this but resistance? Thought doesn’t ever allow things to ‘be what they actually are’; that is what consciousness does, not thought. Thought is a tool for fixing problems not allowing them to be there! Thought (we might say) is by its very nature aggressive whilst consciousness is not; consciousness relates as to what is whilst thought relates to ‘what we say reality is’, or ‘what we say reality should be’.
Coming back to what we were saying earlier therefore, it can very clearly seen that our constant, space-filling thinking isn’t useful for the point of view of reducing the level of suffering that we going through – our habit of non-stop thinking doesn’t ‘save us from suffering’ (is it implicitly claims to) it actually creates it. There are two fundamentally conflicting ways of looking at this however, not just the one. If our orientation is life is such that we want security above all (and want therefore to ‘stick with the known’) then thinking can indeed be said to be ‘useful’ to us. It’s ‘useful’ in terms of the short-sighted goal of ‘increasing our spurious sense of security in the world’. In this very provisional sense of the word thought is (at least temporarily) ‘saving us from insecurity’. From a wider perspective however thought is not saving us from anything – if we take the bigger view of what’s going on we can see that whilst thought might be helping us with regard to to the goal of obtaining a temporary sense of security, it is doing this at the cost of creating great suffering in the future. Depending upon whether our orientation is towards the short-term benefit of perceived-if-not-actual security, or towards our ‘greater good’ (which inescapably involves relating honestly to ontological insecurity) thought is either ‘useful’ or the exact opposite of ‘useful’, therefore.
The key point here – the point that we keep on reiterating – is that we are perfectly free either to be in ‘conservative’ or ‘exploratory’ mode. These are the two possible approaches to life, after all – one, as we have said, is ‘holding on’ and the other is ‘letting go’; one is ‘closing down our horizons’ and the other is ‘opening them up’. Not only are we perfectly free to be in either mode it is also the case that we can’t deliberately switch from one mode to another. There is absolutely no choice here in other words, even though it naturally seems to us that there is or should be. It’s certainly true that when I am in conservative mode I can act as if I’m interested in or committed to ‘opening my horizons’ but the bottom line is that I’m not – I’m just playing at it. And why wouldn’t I throw myself into this role – isn’t it a very attractive and appealing one? Who wants to know that they are ‘hiding from life’, after all?
What are we talking about here is what Chogyam Trungpa calls spiritual materialism, which is where we ‘throw ourselves into the spiritual way of life’ and we ‘do all the spiritual things’ whilst behind the scenes it is the ego that is very much in charge, which makes the whole thing a sham. The ego never wants change – change would be the end of it so of course this isn’t what it really wants. As Chogyam Trungpa says, it wants to make a lovely cosy nest or playground for itself that it never has to come out of! What’s actually happening when I’m in this ‘disguised conservative mode’, is that I am seriously investing in hiding from the awareness that I don’t want to change, which is of course a painful awareness to face up to. That’s like saying that we don’t want to be free – we don’t but we certainly aren’t going to admit to it!
For the most part however the conservative mode doesn’t need to be disguised since its usual tactic is to glorify ‘staying the same’ or ‘not wanting to change’ on the grounds that the way we are is actually ‘the right way’ and all other ways are ‘wrong ways’. This is of course this is of course how most of us are – we’re locked into one ‘equilibrium-world’ or another for the sake of security. What else is religion after all if not the situation where our way of seeing things (surprise, surprise) is ‘right’ and all other ways are said to be ‘wrong’? This is the oldest dodge in the book. When we are in the ‘conservative mode’, then, thinking – or rather ‘the right type of thinking’ – is not just ‘helpful’ but absolutely obligatory, and from the point of view of blindly upholding whatever belief structure it is that we are tied into this logic makes undeniable sense! If however we were somehow to catch a glimpse of the ‘bigger picture’ – which as we have said is not something that we can do on purpose, by any kind of clever trick – then we would see that thinking (any type of thinking) is most emphatically not helpful from the point of view of ‘saving ourselves from future suffering’. We’re thinking ourselves into a hole, not out of it! This ‘future suffering’, as we have said, is always going to be lying in wait for us because of the way in which we are ‘holding on’ when life itself is a ‘letting go’. This is simply a restatement of the principle in Buddhism and Vedanta that ‘says attachment causes suffering’.
‘Holding on’ – when it is our fundamental orientation in life – stores up suffering (we might say) because  it’s not possible to hold on to what we are so trying so desperately to hold onto and  because what we are trying so desperately to hold onto doesn’t exist. [And clearly, these two reasons actually come down to pretty much the same thing!] Life is ‘an unfolding of the new’ not a fixed form to cherish or guard jealously; the corollary of this statement is therefore that when we do ‘hold on’ to life what we holding onto isn’t life. It’s something else – it is just some random token that we are sworn to protect and protecting this ‘token’ means (as we might imagine) never questioning it. This is why, when we are in conservative mode, the greatest virtue – as we all know – is ‘never questioning’. Validating the status quo is of course all about never questioning – that’s the agreement we make and we’re free to make it. We’re perfectly free to make it but at the same time we shouldn’t expect this agreement of ours to do us any good!
Art: Phlegm, on beautifulbizarre.net