Paying Attention With The Whole Of Your Body

A good way to come out of the uncomfortably cramped and over-regulated little ‘office-space’ inside our heads is to use the whole body as a sense-organ, rather than just listening narrowly ‘through the prescribed channels’, so to speak.

 

Normally we attend mainly to the senses of vision and hearing, smell and taste, and on occasion to bodily feelings of either pleasure or pain, comfort or discomfort. But these sensory channels are – almost always – routed through the head, through the rational mind. Because this sensory input is routed through the ‘central processing unit’ which is the rational mind we always do the same thing with it: we process it, we categorize it, we evaluate it, we compare it with our memories, with our expectations, with some kind of taken-for-granted ‘framework of interpretation’.

 

Via this rule-based business of processing we establish a relationship to the information that we are receiving so that we either like it or dislike it, and then having established this relationship we try to control what happens next on this basis. The ‘relationship’ in question is all about us being in control. Evaluating, measuring, categorizing, analyzing, comparing and so on is all typical run-of-the-mill ‘head-type’ stuff – the type of stuff that goes on automatically (and pretty much incessantly) in the ‘central processing unit’ which is the rational mind.

 

This processing operation of the rational mind is useful in specific instances, but it is not useful when it is running the whole time, running without ever taking a break. When everything we experience is being routed through the central processing unit of the thinking mind then this is very far from being useful – on the contrary, this then becomes something that very significantly detracts from our quality of life. After all, what is left of life after it has been filtered through the rational mind? The actual taste or flavour of life is then lost and all we get instead is a whole load of dry mental evaluations – mental evaluations that are coupled with automatic reaction-pathways of one sort or another. Instead of enjoying life, we end up thinking about it (or automatically reacting to it).

 

We might assume that automatically evaluating and reacting to life is life (since we don’t know any different) but it isn’t! Really this is keeping life at arm’s length, keeping it at a safe distance. Because we’re always in control (or trying to be in control, which comes down to the same thing) there is always a gap between us and life and this ‘gap’ equals the rational (or controlling) mind…

 

The degree to which I think about life is the degree to which I am separate from it, isolated from it, fragmented from it. My thinking about life is a gap I can never bridge just so long as I keep on thinking, just so long as I keep on comparing and evaluating and analyzing and planning.

 

What happens when the processing mind never disengages is that we think about life instead of actually living it, which isn’t the same thing at all. As we have said, thinking is good for certain things – it is good for solving specific problems – but since life as a whole is not a problem, or a puzzle to be solved, when we think about it the whole time we have missed the point! When the machine of the mind is left running permanently then what happens is that life is turned into a kind of ‘administrative problem’ – something to be sorted through and put into the appropriate boxes. It’s all just a dry mechanical process. Its accountancy…

 

The only thing the mind knows how to do is sort stuff: it goes through its automatic procedures, its protocols, its routines, its mechanical operations. When we see stuff, hear stuff, taste stuff, feel stuff the CPU of the mind – restless as ever, unwilling to stay still as ever – causes us to evaluate what we see, hear, feel and taste. It causes us to run innumerable comparisons. And yet this kind of business is only useful when a specific job is being done – otherwise, it is all just a waste of time and energy!

 

This processing business is a lot worse than merely being ‘a waste of time and energy’ – it is a senseless mechanical process by which the beauty and profundity of ‘unprocessed reality’ is being systematically degraded on an ongoing basis, turned into yet more empty mental chatter, turned into a pointless time-consuming exercise in accountancy…

 

The head compares and evaluates, evaluates and compares – this is what it does. This is all that it can do. And yet if there is no specific job to be done then what is the point in all this activity? If reality is already there, all around me, then what on earth is the point in me constantly commenting on it, trying to ‘do things’ with it as if it were some sort of puzzle to be worked out? What is the point in me constantly trying to improve it or fix it?

 

Comparing and evaluating is all the head can do, just as a tin opener is really only any good for opening tins. When I have opened the tin then I put down the tin opener, I have no further use for it, but the tin-opener which is the thinking mind never gets put down. It is kept running the whole time! In this way the whole world gets turned into a tin of pineapple chunks or peach slices…

 

When the head is kept running all the time it just turns into a useless racket – a humming, buzzing, clattering noise that is always going on somewhere in the background, and which detracts in a major way from our enjoyment and appreciation of life. It uses up energy and soaks up our precious attention and completely shatters the stillness that is all around us with the useless rotten racket it is making the whole time, like an empty-headed fool who never stops yakking day and night. The more empty-headed the fool the more he has to say, and the more energy he puts into saying it!

 

The mechanical mind causes us to be forever attending to what it thinks is important, and never to what is genuinely meaningful, and as a result our quality of life is savagely curtailed, viciously truncated. We don’t on the whole notice this curtailment, this truncation, but that is because we simply ‘don’t know any better’. We have got used to it – we think it’s normal. The mind and its mechanical carry on is all that I know.

 

So we just go on paying attention to what the mechanical mind wants us to pay attention to, which is basically the same old thing, the same old thing, the same old thing, repeated over and over again. What else can a machine do? We are so helplessly captivated by the senseless, automatic ‘repetition of the old’ that we almost always miss out on the beauty of ‘the new’, which is there all around us if only we could see it…

 

The helpful thing about paying attention with the whole body is therefore that this breaks us out of the habit of evaluating and comparing everything we experience – it bypasses the usual channels, so to speak. It takes ‘the processing mind’ out of the equation. The exercise works best if carried out in the open air where there is likely to be more chance of the wind or the sun being felt on the body. It is as if I am listening with the whole of my body, rather than just my ears.

 

What I do for this exercise is to sit or lie outside with my eyes shut for about twenty minutes or so, in a natural environment if possible, and I pay attention to that environment with my whole body. If there is a sensation of any sort of breeze or touch of the air on my skin this is very helpful, and if I can feel the sun or a sensation of either hot or cold this also helps a lot. It is as we have said as if I am using my entire body as a sense organ, as if I am listening with my whole body rather than just narrowly paying attention, with my judging mind, to what I hear and see. I am simply ‘being there’, rather than ‘being there as an information processor’…

 

There will of course still be sounds but for the twenty minutes that I am sitting or lying I just ‘allow those sounds to be there’, just as I allow any sensations on (or in) my body to be there, without bothering to analyze them or make sense of them in any way. It is the central processing unit of the mind that analyzes and makes sense of things, and for this exercise the central processing unit of the mind is allowed to rest, is allowed a holiday, is allowed to go off duty…

 

So any sounds, like any other perceptions, are just allowed to be there. They are not singled out for processing, they are not picked out for individual attention, they are all just allowed to become part of the overall sense impression. All my perceptions are simply allowed to be part of a unified whole without any compartmentalization, without drawing any boundaries around this feeling or that feeling, this sensation or that sensation. I notice what it feels like to be paying attention in this way, but I don’t make any effort to do anything with what I am experiencing. It’s just ‘what’s happening right now’…

 

If a train of thought appears and starts to kidnap my attention – as trains of thought always do! – then I pay attention to this process happening. I notice the way in which the thoughts greedily grab hold of my attention, I notice the ‘narrowing’ that takes place when this happens, and then I gently come back to the wide-open unified stream of sensations that the thoughts are trying to take me away from. I gently come back to the peaceful experience of ‘being in my body’ rather than ‘being in my head’ – which is never peaceful, never spacious.

 

The kidnapping process whereby I get sucked up into my thinking and then promptly imprisoned in claustrophobically narrow office-space of the processing mind only works when I don’t notice myself being kidnapped, it only works when I don’t notice being taken away from what was happening before, and so all I need to do is see it happening. Then when I see it happening I bring my attention back into the totality of the ‘whole body’ experience, which as we have said has no compartments, no divisions, in it.

 

The whole-body experience has a quality to it which is alive and vivid and at the same time very peaceful, and this is a quality which is totally different from the experience of being trapped in my head, which is dull, sterile, mechanical and unsettling in its nature rather than being peaceful. Once I learn to see this essential difference then it is much easier for me to notice being kidnapped away into the dreary tiresome colourless anxiety-provoking world of my thoughts. It is like noticing the sun momentarily going behind a cloud.

 

The ‘whole-body’ experience is very much not part of the mental inventory – it does not belong in the dusty bureaucratic filing system of the central processing unit. It is not a thought but a reality! This is a much wider and more spacious reality than the world of my thoughts and because it is so much bigger and wider any thoughts that arise will in time naturally dissolve back into the vastly more expansive, ‘all-accepting’ realm of unprocessed awareness.

 

Unprocessed awareness is the natural state of affairs – it comes before everything else and so it itself can never be lost. Unprocessed awareness is the ‘original consciousness’ that was there before I started processing stuff, before I started thinking about things, analyzing and comparing things, and this original consciousness can never be disturbed or spoiled or contaminated. It can only ever be temporarily covered up or obscured…

 

Unprocessed awareness is the priceless gift I am always throwing away! Or we could also say that it is the priceless gift which I am always parcelling up with my thoughts, with my evaluations, and then filing away somewhere in the dusty recesses of my over-officious bureaucratic rational mind!

 

Unprocessed awareness is the untouched reality of the present moment as it unfolds. This unfolding moment is always unique – it does not exist in relation to something else, it is not constructed (or validated) in comparison to something. It does not have to be ‘fitted in’ to some scheme of things, some assumed framework of thinking. It stands alone – it has nothing to do with anything that we have ever thought before and this is what makes it real. It is not part of our thinking.

 

Coming back into unprocessed awareness is a movement from what we thought we knew into what we realize we don’t know – it is a movement, therefore, from the static enclosed prison of the categorizing mind into the open-ended freedom of actual reality…

 

 

 

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Hooked On Controlling

Mindfulness – we might say – is where we aren’t fighting with ourselves, managing ourselves, controlling ourselves, repressing (or ‘soothing’) ourselves the whole time. It isn’t quite right to say this though because when we practice mindfulness we don’t try to stop ourselves from fighting ourselves, controlling ourselves, repressing or soothing ourselves – if it was the case that we were trying to stop ourselves from doing all this then we’d still be controlling ourselves!

 

And yet the other side of the coin is that when we really are trying to control ourselves, manage ourselves, et cetera, then all of our focus is on the goal of ‘being in control’, the goal of ‘successfully managing ourselves’, and whenever our attention is wholly upon this goal – or upon any goal – we not being mindful, we are not being aware. When our eye is ‘on the goal’ then it’s all about ‘how great it will be if the goal is attained’ or ‘how terrible it will be if it isn’t attained’ and this is the very antithesis of being mindful, being aware!

 

Mindfulness is so very often confused with ‘soothing the mind’ (or ‘quietening our thoughts’) but this then is merely another form of goal-orientated behaviour. When we’re engaged in attempted ‘self-quietening’ then we are not actually being aware at all because we are – as usual – fixated upon the two extremes of ‘getting it right’ and ‘getting it wrong’! To successfully soothe or quieten our minds equals ‘getting it right’ and not to do so equals ‘getting it wrong’; we’re busy controlling in other words, and when we’re busy controlling then there is never any time for awareness. There’s no time for life itself, when it comes down to it – ‘life is something that will happen when we successfully control, when we get to the end of our control sequence’, or so we think! First we have to ‘tick all the boxes’, in other words, and then we can live…

 

It’s not that we think this consciously – is just a kind of a thing we are automatically assuming without ever realising what it is that we have automatically assumed. We imagine that when everything is properly managed, when we get ‘all our ducks in a row’, then we will be better able to let go of our controlling and then ‘kick back and enjoy life’. We imagine that we’ll finally be able to ‘chill out and let our hair down’… We’re assuming, in other words, that ‘controlling/managing’ is somehow a good preparation for ‘letting go’, which is clearly not the case at all. Controlling no more prepares us for ‘letting go of control’ than taking heroin twice a day prepares us for giving up the heroin at some future date!

 

Quietening our minds isn’t a good preparation for being mindful therefore; it’s just another form of controlling and controlling is a slippery slope to yet more controlling. It’s certainly not a pathway to giving up controlling! And yet if we deliberately try to stop managing our own thinking then this too is ‘managing’, this too is ‘controlling’. So how do we get out of this trap? How do we let things happen naturally? How do we get back into the flow? The key is not falling for the trick that our mind is always playing on us, which is getting us to believe that when we control successfully, then we will somehow be free.

 

This really is the ‘big illusion’, the illusion that keeps us ‘hooked on controlling’. Controlling is an unfree state of mind – it’s unfree because we are constantly tied up by the need to make sure that the good outcome happens rather than the bad outcome. This doesn’t leave us any space (or ‘freedom’) to do anything else, or to be ‘aware’ of anything else. The goal (i.e. the ‘good outcome’) represents freedom for us and that’s why we chase it as avidly as we do! We are the greyhounds and the mechanical hare is the goal which represents our release from the mechanical (or ‘unfree’) situation that we are unhappily trapped in. The goal is unconsciously associated with ‘the end of all our problems’, in other words, which is clearly ‘wishful thinking’ on an epic scale!

 

To actually see the absurdity of this is to be free from the power of the illusion, therefore. This simply means ‘seeing things clearly’, or ‘seeing things for what they are’ – our belief is that if we control tightly enough, then through this feat of controlling we will eventually become free, even though controlling (i.e. being constantly subject to the need to control) is the very antithesis of ‘being free’. I’m doing the very thing that prevents me from ever being free, yet I imagine this by investing in it enough (and ‘enough’ here means 100%) then everything is somehow going to work out for me. I imagine, in other words, that the payoff for my dedication, the payoff for my investment, will be the prize of ‘freedom’.

 

Practicing mindfulness means that we are aware of our mechanical nature (i.e., our constantly controlling or managing or striving) without fighting against it. It’s one thing to have a momentary awareness of the mechanical forces that are controlling us and to immediately try to fight against them, and quite another to be aware, and yet not fight. We are living the unconscious (or mechanical) life, and yet we are at the same time aware in it. We’re living our run-of-the mill everyday life, as who we actually are, in accordance with the way that we actually are, but we’re doing it consciously, with great sensitivity and without lying to ourselves or turning a blind eye to anything. And the ‘key ingredient’ here is that we no longer have this flat unconscious belief that our mechanical behaviour is one day going to ‘pay off’ for us! There is a world of difference between being 100% committed to the mechanical way of life (without even knowing that we are) and ‘going through the motions’ of mechanical existence whilst no longer being 100% invested in the logic of that type of existence.

 

Normally – as we have said – we have total belief in the efficacy of purposeful or controlling activity to deliver the outcome that we want. Even if we aren’t particularly confident about our own ability to control, we still unquestioningly believe that controlling is the right road to go down, that ‘the instrument of thought’ and the purposeful activity that comes out of it can deliver us the outcome that we want. Even when we are anxious, and have a deep-seated doubt in our own ability to control effectively, and get things to turn out the way we want them to, we are still no closer to ‘doubting the doubt’, which is to say, doubting our unexamined belief that purposeful or controlling activity is the right tool for the job no matter what that job might be. I might be rubbish as a controller, which will I believe will have very bad consequences for me, yet I still don’t doubt that ‘controlling is the way to go’. I don’t doubt that ‘controlling is the way to freedom’. I only doubt myself.

 

This belief in the power of thought/control is pretty much absolute in everyday life and this is what keeps us unconscious (which is to say, ‘completely under the power of illusionary appearances’). To see with perfect, unstrained clarity that what is most important – which is to say, stillness or ‘inner connectedness’ – can never be attained through thinking or through purposeful activity completely changes things therefore. We are no longer ‘putting all our money on the wrong horse’, which is what is keeping us in the trap of the thinking mind. By pure habit we will of course still be putting a lot of money on that horse, but no longer all of it and that slight difference makes all the difference in the world! That in itself completely changes the dynamic of what’s going on – a little bit of light has entered the picture and nothing will ever be the same again…

 

Our normal way of being in the world is one in which we are constantly trying to achieve by purposefulness’. To be operating on the basis of the thinking/conceptualising mind is to be contingent constantly striving’, constantly trying to get things to be the right way’. That’s how the thinking conceptualising mind functions, that the way that it has to think to function. Thinking ‘strives’ just as a wheel rolls, just as the pendulum swings, just as an escalator escalates! Certainly it is true that some things need to be controlled, but the most important thing of all – as we have just said – can’t be arrived at via control or via purposeful doing, and this is stillness. We might wonder what is so great about stillness (which is obviously something that isn’t particularly valued in our society!) and the answer is simply that it is through stillness that we connect with who we really are. How important is that? This doesn’t mean that we have to be passive or withdrawn or disengaged – it just means that we aren’t constantly clutching at (or striving for) something the whole time. We’re not striving to attain the whole time, and this isn’t a mark of weakness or indifference! We can act all the more effectively when we are not constantly clutching or straining or striving – the action is much more spontaneous, much more fluid, much more ‘appropriate to the moment’ when we are not driven by ‘attachment’.

 

We can’t manipulate stillness, we can’t avail of it as part of our ‘overall strategy’ or ‘design’, we can’t make a goal of it any more than we can make goal of freedom. Particular goals are worth may be worth strategising for striving for, but life itself isn’t! Not only is life itself something that we can’t strain for or attain by skilful actions) it’s actually the case that we miss it every time when this is our approach, and when we are operating on the basis of the thinking mind then this – as we have just said – is inevitably going to be our approach. Thought can only ever grasp!

 

When we’re living life (or rather trying to live life!) on the basis of thought (or on the basis of control, which is the same thing) then we’re constantly ‘missing the mark’, we are constantly in a state of frustration, and this is why the Buddha states in his First Noble Truth that conditioned existence is dukkha, or ‘suffering/frustration’. Of course living on the basis of constant striving (or living on the basis of constantly ‘trying to attain’) is going to result in suffering and frustration – if the most important thing of all cannot be attained by striving, by controlling, by ‘managing’, then we’re actually working against ourselves the whole time, even though we think that we’re doing something to ‘help ourselves’…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coping Strategies Weaken Us

We talk about ‘tolerating discomfort or ‘coping with stress’ or ‘managing emotions’ very easily indeed in the field of mental health – terms like this roll off our tongues with the very greatest of ease. We’re positively in our element when talking about stuff like this. It all sounds so easy. But what exactly does ‘coping with difficulty’ involve however and how – in strictly practical terms – do we go about it? What is the correct way to go about ‘tolerating discomfort’? Just how do I ‘manage my emotions’? That’s what we’re all trying to find out – that’s where the ‘smart money’ is…

 

This is where it all gets very interesting and very ‘counter-intuitive’. We tend to think that there is some method here that we can learn, a method or technique which we can get highly skilled at in time. ‘Tools’ and ‘skills’ and ‘strategies’ are buzz-words in therapy – we think that they can be the answer to everything! This is not at all the case however and we can easily explain why. If there was some sort of method or ‘thing that we can do’ then presumably using it (as some kind of helpful ‘tool’, as we like to say) would make us feel less uncomfortable, less distressed. If this were the case however then we’d be escaping the discomfort, not getting better at tolerating it! And if the method in question doesn’t cause us to feel any better then why would we do it? Why would we bother to use it in the first place? The problem is that anything we do that actually reduces our level of discomfort or pain is addictive; we won’t be able to help ourselves from doing it every time we feel bad, in other words. It will become a urge, a compulsion, an ‘unfree sort of thing’. The problem with this is of course that any ways that we might find of escaping from pain or discomfort don’t really serve us. They don’t really serve us because every time we avoid pain on the short-term this means that we get it back even worse on the long term! We only need to observe ourselves carefully in our day-to-day lives in order to see that this is true.

 

Deep down, we already know this – it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that our whole lives are spent learning this particular lesson, although whether we actually learn it or not is another matter! We avoid – as is perfectly natural – our legitimate difficulties only to find, later on, that these difficulties are revisited upon us in an even more terrible form than before. Or as we could also say (if we wanted to put it in more general terms) we avoid insecurity and uncertainty in life and create a type of existence for ourselves where all life’s questions come with nice simple (i.e. black-and-white) answers. We want ‘rules’, we want ‘right and wrong’, in other words. We want to make life simple for ourselves by avoiding the central existential challenge of ‘not knowing what to do about our difficulties’  but – again – we create a new form of suffering as a result of our evasion – we create what is called neurotic suffering. Neurotic suffering is ‘the pain that comes when we don’t want to have any pain’. It is, to paraphrase Steve Hagen, ‘the insoluble problem we always meet up with when we don’t want to have any problems’…

 

We can see from this that ‘learning to tolerate the discomfort that arises as a result of neuroticism’ cannot itself be ‘a procedure or simplification’; which is to say, it cannot itself be conveniently made into ‘a matter of right and wrong’. The art of being able to tolerate difficulty has nothing to do with following rules! ‘Following rules’ is an evasion. Methods – by definition – are always a matter of following rules and so straightaway we can see that this just isn’t going to work (although in practice we don’t tend to see it because that’s not really what we want to see).

 

So the question that we want to ask now is of course, “If ‘distress tolerance’ (or ‘the capacity to tolerate discomfort/pain’) isn’t a method then what is it? What is it and how do we do it?” Even by asking this question we are going wrong however. It is a characteristic of the technologically-orientated culture that we live in that we imagine that the capacity to bear pain or endure discomfort must be something ‘outside of us’, i.e. that it must be something we ’do’. And yet how can the capacity to endure difficulty be something ‘outside’ of us, something we ‘do’?

 

Clearly our way of looking at things is distorted here. The capacity to tolerate difficulty is inside us, rather than being some tool or accessory that we carry around with us, rather than being some sort of trick or procedure that we have learned to roll out when necessary. Tools weaken us when it’s mental health we talking about – they weaken us because we put all the emphasis on developing strategies and learning new methods rather than developing ourselves. Our tools become more and more high-powered, more and more time and energy consuming, but we ourselves become more and more enfeebled, more and more dependent upon our instruments or tools, more reliant upon external protective factors.

 

This tendency to become weaker and more dependent is – as we have said – absolutely characteristic of our current way of life. We can say – almost with complete assurance – that human beings have never been less autonomous than they are now. ‘Autonomy’ and ‘mental health’ are two ways of talking about the same thing and so we may also make the statement that throughout our long history we have never been less mentally well! ‘Health’ and ‘Whole’ are words that come from a common linguistic root and – very clearly – ‘Whole’ means that we are complete in ourselves, it means that we don’t require a whole heap of external assistive factors (or ‘accessories’) in order for us to feel okay about ourselves.

 

It is our ‘modern illusion’ that having lots of tools (both of the physical and psychological variety) empowers us and for this reason we dedicate all of our resources to acquiring many tools as we can, unaware that as we do this we weaken ourselves more and more. ‘Weakening ourselves’ – in psychological terms – means that we become ‘less and less ourselves’. By making our supposing well-being more and more dependent upon external factors we are allowing ourselves to be increasingly defined by these external factors and this is the point that we seem to be all but incapable of understanding. By expressing things in this way we have made it possible to clarify what we were saying earlier when we made the point that ‘the capacity to tolerate difficulty or pain is something that is in us, not something that we learn to ‘do’. What we really should have said is that ‘the capacity to tolerate difficulty or pain IS us!

 

That capacity is actually ‘who we are’ – we ourselves are ‘the magic ingredient’ that we have searching for. When we are truly ourselves, in other words, then we will find that this ‘capacity’ actually has no limits. There is no limit to the degree of difficulty that we are able to work with – it’s just that we have to get rid of the illusions we hold about ourselves first, and that that is not something that we can learn on a ten day training course! The very notion of ‘being trained to reconnect with our true selves’ is palpably crazy – how can taking on stuff from the outside (i.e. ‘conforming to external dictates’) help us in any way to connect with our true selves? How can that come from the outside? Conforming to external pressures, external demands, external requirements has the exact opposite effect, and that’s where we’re going wrong in the first place.

 

Being able to tolerate difficult situations without succumbing either to the urge to break and run, or fight madly (and counterproductively) for all we’re worth, turns out to be a far more profound matter than we had ever imagined, therefore. Finding new tools, finding new coping strategies is a trivial thing; finding out who we truly are – on the other hand – is the biggest thing ever there ever could be! What could be bigger than this? What could be more significant or more important or more meaningful than this? The only way we are ever going to honestly meet the challenge of life is to meet it as we actually are, not through surrogates or ‘generic versions of ourselves’, not through tricks that we have learned from other people who themselves are not meeting life ‘head on’. Anything other than ‘meeting life head on’ (which is to say, without any safety nets, without any defences, without any ‘personality armour’) is an evasion and – as we have already said– any evasion that we may make is inevitably going to cost us dear later on.

 

The fact that we are so very keen on finding ‘coping strategies’, the fact that we are so committed to developing our ‘distress tolerance-techniques’, shows us something very important therefore. This emphasis shows that our commitment is not to reconnecting with our true nature. More than this, it shows that our commitment lies in exactly the opposite direction, which is not finding out! Difficulties, when they come along, do have some saving grace (albeit a saving grace that is usually very well hidden). This ‘saving grace’  – so to speak – is that through going through the difficulty, unendurable as it may seem at the time, can allow us in time to become more truly who we are. We lose some of the dross (or ‘falseness’), we let go of some of the ‘rubbish’.

 

But the other side of the coin is that when we protect ourselves from the difficulties that are coming our way by utilising all our defences, by utilising all our ‘evidence-based coping strategies’ we are at the same time hanging onto all of this rubbish. We’re actually protecting it. We’re holding on tight to it, as if it were the dross (i.e. our ‘false ideas’) that were the truly valuable thing here. And the truly astonishing thing is that this was our agenda all along – our aim was always ‘to avoid having to let go of the rubbish’. Our unacknowledged aim was always to stay asleep, in other words…

 

 

 

 

 

The Uneven Mind

Resistance is the single most important idea that we need to grasp if we are to properly (i.e. not intellectually) understand anxiety. Even if we disregard everything else, all the type of more-or-less useless stuff we always get told in anxiety management classes, if we were to understand this much that would be enough. It is our automatic resistance that causes anxiety and once we drop that resistance there is no way that we could ever suffer from anxiety. That would not be possible. Admittedly, this is not exactly what you might call a ‘quick fix’ – resistance is the ‘habit of a lifetime’ and it isn’t something we can dispense with anytime soon, but all the same it is the only thing we truly need to understand if we want to know what anxiety is all about.

 

What is more, resistance is actually a very simple idea – a PhD is not needed to understand it. As we have said, it’s not an intellectual type of an understanding at all but a ‘practical’ one. The only point that we need to make is that it takes (as we have just said) a huge amount of persistent and patient practice before we can find that we are able to drop our habit of resistance, and it is of course this that tends to put us off. As we have said, this is a ‘slow but sure’ approach, not a quick fix that wears off after a month or two. There’s no handy ‘method’ (or ‘system’) learning how to resist less in everyday life, and this is disconcerting, but the ‘plus’ side of the deal is that there is absolutely nothing in life that it is more helpful to learn! ‘Distress tolerance’ techniques are nonsense in comparison (naturally they are since techniques are just another form of resistance, just like everything else that comes out of the thinking mind) So what exactly is resistance, and how do we go about dropping it? There’s certainly no ‘technique’ for dropping it anyway, that’s for sure!

 

Resistance means that we are in one place, and wishing we were in another. For example, I might be in McDonalds, about to tuck into a quarter-pounder with cheese when I remember that the burgers in Burger King are really much nicer. So there I am in McDonalds, wishing I where in Burger King.  The fact is that I am not in Burger King , but because of my resistance neither am I wholeheartedly in McDonalds – I am there, but at the same time I am dissatisfied with where I am and so in a very real sense I am not there. You could say that I am in a sort of limbo because I am not getting the benefit of being where I am, and I am certainly not getting the benefit of being where I am not, because I’m not there! Needless to say, this business of being ‘reluctant to be where I am’ spoils things for me.  If I were a small child, you would probably say that I am in a bit of a sulk, but because I am a fully-grown adult we will say that I am exhibiting ‘resistance’. As we shall see, it is not quite the same thing as a good old-fashioned sulk because it tends to be a lot subtler, but it’s the same sort of thing.

 

Now, this is a bit of an over-simplistic example and so we need to take it further. When discussing resistance we are not so much talking about resisting our physical location but rather resisting our mental location, i.e. resisting ‘where we are in our heads’. So, I am feeling sad and wishing that I was not sad, or angry and wishing that I was not angry, or embarrassed and wishing that I was not embarrassed. Generally speaking, I am feeling bad and wishing that I was not feeling bad.

WHEN MY MIND IS UNEVEN

It is hard to see what is wrong with this – who wants to feel bad, after all? The little word ‘want’ is in fact the key to the whole matter because when it comes right down to it it’s not about wanting, it’s about what is. We tend to be preoccupied with ‘where we want to be’, and dismissive about where we actually are. We see ‘where we aren’t’ as having great value, and ‘where we are’ as having none. This means that my mind is uneven, and unevenness always leads to resistance.

 

Our problem (the unevenness) comes from our deep-rooted belief in the idea that there are RIGHT places to be and WRONG places to be. Resistance comes about because we want to avoid the wrong place and reach the right place. Again, it’s hard to see what the harm is in this, but actually it causes us no end of suffering – by resisting what is we make life far more difficult for ourselves than it has to be. A little bit of thought is all that is needed to spot the glitch. Ninjutsu master Hatsumi Soke has said: “There is no right way or wrong way, only a place from where to start.”  When we find ourselves in what we take to be a wrong place, we turn our backs on that place, we write it off. Like the guy in McDonalds who wishes he were in Burger King, we end up in limbo – neither in one place nor the other. What has happened is that we have severed our connection with reality so that there is nothing that can help us.  This is ‘cutting off my nose to spite my face’.

 

In order to start, we have to have a place to start from, and that place has to be a real place – not just a sort of ‘if only’ bubble floating over our heads.  When we really fall into a hole (when things really get bad) we write off where are, we say that it is a ‘wrong place’ or a ‘wrong way to be’, and this attitude condemns to get nowhere. This is like the joke where a lost motorist stops a local man to ask directions for a certain town. “Oh no” says the fellow, “You don’t want to start from here…”

The point of the joke is obvious – the local man is being no help to the motorist at all because the motorist is where he is, he isn’t at ‘the right place to start’. He is where he is – he can’t help being ‘where he is’!

GETTING ON WITH THE JOB

Another way to explain resistance is by saying that it is what happens when I am given a job to do that I do not like. Because I don’t really want to do the job my heart isn’t in it at all, and so the time seems to drag on forever. I don’t get any good feeling from what I am doing, because I am not actually doing anything! I am just going through the motions, reluctantly, whilst my mind is elsewhere. If, on the other hand, I had put my heart in the job the time would have flown, and I would have got a genuine feeling of satisfaction out of what I had done, no matter what the result. Because I know that I have not ‘copped out’, I have peace of mind.

 

Putting my heart in a job doesn’t mean fixing my thoughts on the ultimate goal and willing myself to reach it, it means being totally in whatever I am doing right now. Fixating on a goal means that I just want to get the job out of the way. If I am worried about whether I will succeed or fail, then that isn’t being wholehearted – being wholehearted about something means unreservedly accepting where I am, and unreservedly accepting the consequences of being where I am. Being wholehearted about doing the job that is given to you is also the same thing as being ‘even-minded’.

LOSING HEART

What does being ‘wholehearted about the job’ mean when applied to anxiety? It is easy to get confused here. When I am anxious I am running away from the ‘work’ of being where I am and it is this that is creating the anxiety. The job that I have been given is not to ‘fix’ anxiety or ‘fight’ anxiety or ‘escape’ from anxiety. The job is to be anxious if I am anxious, and not have my eyes fixated upon the goal of ‘not being anxious’. The job is to not resist anxiety, in other words.  Instead of chasing reality-as-I-would-like-it-to-be (which is unreality) I deal with reality as it is.

 

If the guy in McDonalds is half-hearted about being where he is, then I (as an anxiety-sufferer) must be ‘one tenth-hearted about being where I am. Or ‘one hundredth-hearted’. In an out and out panic attack the truth of the matter is that my heart is simply not in it at all! My resistance is at a maximum – I just don’t want to be here. Where I am is the wrong place to be, and I want out. And yet, that is where I am, and what greater authority can there be than reality itself? If I am there, then how can it be the wrong place to be? It has to be right, because where else could I be?

 

When I have no resistance to being where I am, then there is no obstacle anywhere, because the truth is that the only obstacle was in my mind. With no resistance there is no obstacle anywhere, ever. This is a totally unimpeded situation – it is complete peace of mind, it is the complete absence of anxiety. This does not mean that life is never difficult; it just means that when problems come along, I don’t have a problem with that.

 

Imagine that you have a beast of burden to bear your pain for you, to carry your suffering, and that this beast of burden can carry any weight without complaining or faltering. It can take on any job that comes along. This beast of burden is your ‘spirit’; in other words, it is the inner strength that is available to everyone when they draw upon it. The problem is that we have trained ourselves (very thoroughly and persistently) to believe that we are weak, when in reality we are not. By always trying to avoid situations that we think are going to be too difficult for us we have in fact trained ourselves to believe in our own assumed weakness, and so this weakness has become real. This is a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, which is something that we all do, all of the time – we identify (or ‘project’) limits, and then proceed to act as if these limits were real.

 

As a result of this we end up living out our lives within the confines of mental limits – neurotic limits that have no existence outside of our own minds. As Richard Bach says: “Argue hard enough for your limitations and, sure enough, they become yours”. Basically, we have ended up developing a strong faith in our own weakness rather than developing faith in our strength. The way that we have developed the curse of having ‘faith in our weakness’ is through resistance: what got us in this mess is our automatic and unreflective avoidance of situations that we don’t like. Resistance and ‘faith in one’s own weakness’ go hand in hand – the first leads to the second and the second leads to the first. Because we always try to avoid situations that we think are the ‘wrong places to start from’ we never discover that no place is the ‘wrong place to start from’.

TO NOTICE RESISTANCE IS TO UNDO RESISTANCE

Now it is important to stress that we can’t just drop a life-long habit of resistance just like that. It is not possible to just ‘drop’ a powerful habit in a week or in a month or even in a year. I cannot develop faith in my own strength overnight, and neither can I start by ‘slaying the biggest dragon’. If a panic attack comes along then my resistance will be automatic, it will just happen. I will try not to resist, but then I am ‘resisting resistance’.  I am turning my habit of resistance against itself, and so I am actually strengthening my habit of resistance. The only way to learn to drop resistance is by watching how we react to small things. A situation comes along that makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable and I notice how I start to react. ‘Noticing’ is the first basic act of dropping resistance – it is the start of a revolution (an inner revolution) because normally we never notice resistance. We just resist, and that is it. From then on, from the very moment we start reacting, it is all just automatic. There is no freedom at all, no possibility of getting off the merry-go-round of anxiety.

 

Being able to quietly notice things about how I am reacting is the beginning of freedom; in fact it is freedom – a very profound freedom. In order to escape slavery, we must first see that we are slaves, and then see how it is that we are slaves. Being a slave to resistance (being a slave to our own conditioned weakness) is not the same as being a slave to some external force because I cannot fight it. What we are slaves to is our own thinking, our own reasoning minds, and as soon as I fight (or do anything deliberate at all) I feed that thinking, I feed that reasoning mind. By ‘reacting to my reacting’ I reinforce the very thing that is keeping me prisoner.

THE ‘WILD HORSE’ OF THE MIND

A good way to explain the practice of becoming aware of resistance is by saying that it is like dealing with a wild horse that is easily spooked by anything that comes along. If I have such a horse then that either means that I have to make sure nothing comes along to upset the horse, or I have to find a way of taking the wildness out of it. The first method (the lazy man’s method!) is obviously no good because there is always going to be something unexpected to come along and so it is the second method that is needed.

 

The thing is, it is no good walking the horse down the road and waiting for a fire engine to go by with its sirens screaming to start getting the wildness out of the horse. The horse will bolt – it will lose its head completely and that will be that. There will be no talking to it. So what I do is get the horse used to little disturbances. If I keep this up the time will come when small things will no longer spook the horse. It will not gallop off down the road with froth coming out of its mouth and its eyes rolling and me clinging on for dear life to its back. So then I can work with slightly bigger disturbances, and get the horse used to them. Eventually, by a process of degrees, the horse will lose it’s ‘wildness’ altogether and nothing will spook it.  This means that the horse will become very useful to me because I will be able to go where I want. Before, when the horse was wild, I couldn’t use it and so I had no way of getting about. I was totally restricted. Now, I can go far and wide, as I please – I have the gift of freedom.

 

Now it is very important to note that the analogy of the ‘wild horse’ cannot be taken too far. We spoke of ‘taking the wildness out of the horse’ rather than saying ‘training the horse’ and this is because we have a great tendency to think that we can train our minds not to be anxious. It is training that has got us into the mess we are in now – there is no such thing as ‘good training’ – all training weakens us, all training creates ‘faith in our own weakness’. Actually, training is resistance. If I was to try to train my mind then I would reward myself for good thoughts (or good reactions) and punish myself for bad thoughts (or bad reactions). This creates a belief in a RIGHT WAY and a WRONG WAY, which is the root of our troubles. Training creates an uneven mind, and an uneven mind is a mind that never has any peace – it always has to manipulate, it always has to resist.

 

I take the wildness out of my mind by noticing it, not by controlling it, not by ‘managing’ it (and what a truly horrible world ‘managing’ is in this context!!). As we have said, the basic act of freedom is to quietly notice how we react to stuff. All reacting is resistance, but noticing that I am reacting is not resistance, because I am being where I am. After all, if I’m noticing it, I must be there! Resistance, as we know, means not being there, and so when I start to notice my resistance that is the first thing that is not resistance. From this humble beginning, everything else follows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Can’t Escape On Purpose

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

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.

NEGATIVE BELIEFS

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 [1] believing in them or [2] 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.

 

 

 

 

Self-Reflection

When we’re in mental pain, this pain – as we experience it – has a very precise relationship to our way of understanding ‘who we are’. To put this even more clearly, the pain that we are experiencing doesn’t just have ‘a precise relationship’ to our way of understanding who we are, it is a faithful reflection of that understanding. What this means is that any idea that we have of escaping the pain, or solving the problem that it poses to us, is no more than a momentarily comforting fantasy. It’s no more than a comforting fantasy but it’s also our sole preoccupation – it consumes us.

 

We could also put this in a simpler way and say that ‘our thinking about the pain that we’re in is itself the pain’, which is a curious thing to contemplate. The more pain we are in the more we think about this pain, which straightaway creates a trap that there doesn’t seem to be any way out of. This is ‘the trap of resistance’ – the more it hurts the more we resist and the more we resist the more it hurts. The more we turn our face away from our pain, the more the pain grows and we have to put ever-more effort into ignoring it, or running away from it. In a simplistic way we might say that our course of action in this case is clear, and that all we need to do is to take note of our error and then correct it. If turning away from our pain causes this pain to grow, then the answer must be to turn towards it instead.

 

We are underestimating the subtlety of the trap however if this is what we think. What we fail to see is that any sort of ‘deliberate stance’ that we take with regard to our inner pain equals ‘turning our face away’. What’s the motivation behind the manoeuvre to ‘turn to face the pain’, after all? If we are manoeuvring then there must be a motivation behind it, there must be something that is being aimed at, and what possible aim could it be other than escaping ‘from the pain’, after all? Why else do we do anything? If we sincerely wish to accept the pain that we are in then we wouldn’t be manoeuvring at all – there would be no need for it. If we were truly sincere and wished to unconditionally embrace the pain that we are in then we would also embrace the ‘extra pain’ that we are in as a result of turning our face away from the original pain. There would be no scheming, no manoeuvring.There would be no need for anything like that.

 

This is an old point, a point that has been made many times. When we try to accept pain or face pain then this is only in order to escape that same pain – is a ‘clever ploy,’ in other words. It’s a clever ploy to do something that is actually quite impossible to do because we can no more ‘face pain on purpose’ than we can successfully avoid or escape it! If we are trying to escape the pain then that is because we’re thinking about it and if we trying to face it then this is also because we’re thinking about it. It’s the thinking that constitutes the trap, not the particular type of thinking that we are engaged in. It’s not as if there is such a thing as ‘the right type of thinking’ that will enable us to escape from the trap! No thinking is the right thinking.

 

Thinking is itself a trap because it always involves us in self-reflection. Thinking is self-reflection – thinking always traps us in our own assumptions. As we said at the beginning of this discussion it’s not just that our mental pain has a very precise relationship to our way of understanding who we are, it is actually a faithful reflection of that understanding. By reacting in any way to the reflection, we solidify it, we confirm it as being true. The pain of our situation is the pain of our predicament in thinking that ‘this sufferer  is who we are’. If we were to move any distance at all from this fixed position of self-identification then the pain that we are in would immediately change and lose its utterly oppressive nature – it only has that utterly oppressive nature because we think that we are that ‘self’, because we think that we are that ‘sufferer’. The pain that I am afflicted with is the shadow of the ‘self-delusion’ that I am caught up in. I am ‘identifying with the sufferer’;  i am identifying with my manoeuvring, with my scheming and calculating, with my endless ‘thinking’.

 

The reflection of ourselves that we see and react to as a result of our thinking is a very precarious and transitory type of thing therefore. It’s only there because of our thinking – when we think we solidify it, we confirm it as ‘the only possible reality’. We are potentially very free indeed therefore – we could ‘float freely in any direction’, so to speak, but not if we solidify the picture we have of ourselves and our situation by thinking about it, or reacting to our thoughts about it. As we have said, we are the pain and the pain is us. The specific sense of identity which is conditioned by my reactions to the pain (or my resistance to the pain) gives rise to the pain. I am my pain and my pain is me, and so the idea of ‘escape’ from it is a complete non-starter. If I am constructing myself in terms of my absolute need to escape from the pain then how can I ever go beyond this pain?

 

If I try to escape or turn away from the pain then this turning away reaffirms the concrete sense of myself that I am identifying with, and if I try instead to turn towards the pain (which I may come to see as ‘the smarter move’) then this too reaffirms the concrete sense of self. Who is it that is either ‘turning away’ or ‘turning towards’, after all? Or purposeful action reaffirms the reality of the one who is striving to enact these purposes, just as all thought reaffirms the reality of the one who is having the thought, and this is the nature of the trap that we are caught in. It doesn’t matter how much I twist and turn with my clever thinking and my goal-orientated actions, all I’m doing is digging myself deeper into the hole.

 

We can’t try to ‘do nothing’ or ‘think nothing’ either – ‘freezing’ isn’t the answer. Who is the one who has to ‘do nothing’ or ‘think nothing’, after all? If we tried to ‘do nothing’ then we would identify with the one who is trying to do it; if we try to ‘have no thoughts’ then we would be identifying with the proposed ‘non-thinker’! The trap is that we are ‘identified’ with a particular idea of ourselves; a particular idea of ourselves that has been created by our thinking (by our resistance, in other words). All of our thinking, all of our purposeful activity, comes from this particular idea of who we are and so how are these plans and strategies ever going to work? Any method (any method whatsoever) that we are presented with is always going to be used by this ‘idea of myself’ to perpetuate itself and so how is this going to help matters any? How is any method or strategy ever going to genuinely help us, rather than proving to be just another level of the trap for us to get caught in?

 

We keep on talking about ‘skills’ and ‘tools’ in the world of mental health care – but who do we imagine is going to use the skills, use the tools? Who is it really in aid of? All of this effort and technology is in the service of the mind-created self (which is to say, ‘the conditioned identity’) not in aid of who we truly are. We have no allegiance to ‘who we truly are’. We know nothing about our true unconditioned nature; we don’t even have any curiosity – we think we know everything already. All strategies, all cleverness belongs to the conditioned identity – consciousness (which is our true nature) has no need of such tricks however. The conditioned identity relies on controlling because that’s how it comes into being, because that’s how it is maintained and perpetuated, but consciousness has nothing whatsoever to do with control. If it has something to do with anything, it is honesty, which is somehow the one thing we tend to overlook in our overly-technical approach to mental healthcare. When honesty comes into the picture (instead of controlling) then the phenomenon of ‘self-reflection’ comes to an end and the door to the trap suddenly swings open…

 

 

 

 

Looking For Freedom Outside Ourselves

It isn’t just that who we are (or the way that we are) is in itself ‘good enough’, and so on this account we don’t need to be constantly striving to ‘better ourselves’ or ‘improve ourselves’ (and be constantly recriminating against ourselves if we can’t do so) but rather that who we are (or the way that we are) is our only possible means of liberation, our only possible way to freedom and happiness! We need look no further than the way we actually are – right at this very moment, in other words.

 

The chances are of course that most of us would immediately dismiss this bold assertion as being utterly nonsensical. How could anything be that easy? How could ‘being the crappy old way that we already are’ be enough to release us from our suffering? If nothing else, we would probably say, this will prove to be a recipe for total self-indulgent laziness. Another thing that we might say is that we know lots of people who already think that they are ‘fine just the way they are’ and that this complacent attitude of theirs hasn’t done them any good at all. People who think that they are great the way they are generally jerks, after all!

 

The first thing that we could say about these objections is that ‘accepting ourselves’ is not an easy thing at all – it’s actually the hardest thing we could ever do. Climbing Mount Everest is easy in comparison! The second thing we could point out is that people we might know who seem to think that they’re perfectly fine just the way that they are – and consequently make no effort at all to change – aren’t accepting themselves at all. They might seem to be but what’s really happening is that they have some kind of image of themselves which seems acceptable (or even pretty wonderful!) but which is completely illusory, completely unreal. They aren’t accepting themselves at all therefore – they’re accepting their illusion of ‘who they would like to believe they are’ and obviously this can’t be beneficial to anyone.

 

We usually don’t come anywhere close to seeing ourselves as we really are, never mind ‘accepting ourselves’. We have a concept about ourselves, an idea or image of who we are, and we relate to this instead. There is therefore a ‘gap’ between ‘us as we actually are’ and ‘us as we perceive ourselves to be’ and this gap tends to grow bigger and bigger with time. In this ‘image-based’ world of ours we ‘grow into the false idea of ourselves’ because that’s what we are presented with – we are given an identity that matches the type of world we happen to find ourselves in. This is convenient for sure when it comes to operating within that world, but still isn’t who we are. We have ‘convenience’ instead of truth, therefore, but convenience only goes so far.

 

Another aspect of this process is that we become more and more separated from the painfully ‘underdeveloped’ aspect of ourselves as a result of social adaptation and this separation grows bigger with time because the pain associated with that neglected part of ourselves can only ever grow as long as it remains neglected. In the consensus reality we get rewarded (or validated) for developing in line with what society requires from us, and disincentivized from developing our true nature, which has consequences that are beneficial from the point of view of society but profoundly ‘non-beneficial’ from the point of view of the individual. The pressure to adapt to the social world is the same thing as the pressure to turn our backs on our core nature and this systematic neglect causes pain that we don’t want to look at. It’s painful to see what we have done, in other words, and our keenness to run away from this pain means that the gap between us as we are and us as we’d like to imagine we are just keeps on getting bigger. The rejection of the pain that stems from betraying our true nature forces us and more into the societal world because this is the only place we’re going to obtain validation for the false ‘image of who we are’.

 

We might naively think that it’s a fairly straightforward thing to ‘accept ourselves’ but nothing could be further from the truth. If we could find it within ourselves to ‘be ourselves as we actually are’ then we have already – just in this humble act – done something completely tremendous. Our instinct is to go completely the other way and strain to achieve some ideal, some idea we have (or society has) about how we should be. Our instinct is always to do the very opposite of ‘just being ourselves’ and this is because we fundamentally believe that there is no good at all to come from ‘just being ourselves’. As we are (we believe) we are ‘unredeemed’; we are ‘awaiting salvation’. We might not know that this is what we believe but we believe it all the same – our ‘orientation’ is pointing fundamentally away from ourselves, and this is true for almost all of us. It’s the prescribed way to be…

 

What we are saying here is therefore that – on a subconscious level – we don’t believe that there is any great value in us being the way that we actually are. The way that we actually are doesn’t have any possibilities in it; it is disregarded, dismissed without even the slightest consideration. Our personal reality ‘as it is’ is dismissed as being intrinsically worthless (even though we don’t see ourselves doing this) and we are constantly ‘reaching out’ to somewhere else where we think the advantage must be. Everything worthwhile – we imagine – lies in ‘the realm of what is yet to be achieved’ (i.e. ‘the realm of improvement’) and this keeps us in a constant state of anticipation. Either we are hopefully anticipating the result that we want or we’re anxiously anticipating the result that we don’t want. We’re always ‘directed externally’ – our attention is always on whatever advantages or disadvantages might come from the outside.

 

This brings to mind Jung’s often-repeated quote ‘Who looks outside dreams; who looks within awakes’. Our ‘dream-state’ is to be hypnotised by the false perception that ‘how we are in ourselves’ can be either improved or disimproved by events occurring on the outside of us (or – as we could also say – by the erroneous belief that the possibility for change lies outside of how we actually are, within the domain of control). We all want to be happy and lead fulfilling lives and we imagine that this can be achieved by successfully controlling things – and by things we include ourselves. We might not be foolish enough to think that we can buy a happier or more meaningful state of existence but we do nevertheless have this deep-seated belief that if we try hard enough in the right way we can improve ourselves to become the sort of person we’d like to be. Essentially – as we have said – we straining towards some sort of mental image, and we imagine that this projected ‘image’ can actually become a reality for us. We’re looking for salvation ‘outside of ourselves’. We’re looking for freedom outside ourselves…

 

Isn’t ‘looking outside of ourselves’ what self-help books and online seminars are all about, after all? Isn’t this what therapy is all about? If I go to therapy then in most cases what happens is that I’m presented with a certain set of ideas and theories and techniques that I can use – with the support of the therapist – to improve my situation, to make it less painfully conflicted or blocked than it was before. That’s why I’m going to therapy, after all. This idea makes plenty of sense – it makes complete sense to us in fact. Whether it ‘makes sense’ to us or not makes no difference however because what we are trying to do is completely absurd! It is completely absurd because our orientation is all back-to-front – it is (as we have been saying) orientated away from ourselves and towards the ‘realm of improvement’. It’s quite natural that we should be orientated in this way – our state of being is a painful one after all, and the nature of pain is that it makes us want to move away from it!

 

It’s perfectly natural that we should be orientated away from pain (away from the way that we actually are) and towards the possibility of escaping this pain, but for this to be somehow seen as a legitimate therapeutic modality, for this orientation be actively encouraged by those whose job is it is to be of help to people who have suffering from ongoing emotional or psychological pain is something of an irony. No one should tell us or imply to us that we ought to ‘stay with the pain’, but at the same time it is not our job as mental healthcare workers to encourage people suffering from mental pain to try to escape from it, via whatever so-called ‘legitimate methods’ it is that we are supplying them with. If we do this then we are simply adding ‘delusion on top of delusion’; if we do this then we are adding a whole new level of neurotic avoidance to the mix – a ‘legitimised’ or ‘officially-correct’ or ‘societally-sanctioned’ form of avoidance…

 

The trouble is that we are being aggressive  either way – if I say to someone that they should ‘sit with the pain’ (because that’s the right or helpful thing to do) then this is pure counter-productive aggression on my part, and if I go the other route and say that it is their responsibility to do ‘X, Y, and Z’ and thereby work constructively with their difficulties so as to improve their situation this is still ‘pure counter-productive aggression’! I’m being violent either way, and ‘violence’ (i.e. ‘trying to force things to be the way we want them to be’) always adds to the underlying suffering rather than lessening it in any way. The root of the dilemma that we are in (both both as ‘the therapist’ and ‘the sufferer’) is therefore that we’re ‘hung up on making the right choice’. No matter what choice we go with we’re still trying to wrestle with the situation and change it from being the way that it actually is – either we try to making ourselves stay with the pain, or try to make ourselves get away from the pain. Either way we are at loggerheads with ourselves, either way we are having an argument with reality! Aggression always comes out of thought – if we are being aggressive or controlling with reality then this is always because we are ‘thinking about it’; it’s because we are trying to work out what ‘the right answer’ to our situation is. If this is what we doing then we will be doing it forever; we’ll be ‘doing it forever’ because if we’re trying to find out what the right answer is then this means that were stuck in our heads, stuck in our thinking, and thinking is never more than a crowbar which we are using to try to change things.

 

It’s so very hard for us to see this! If we could see it then straightaway we’d laugh at the utter absurdity of what we trying to do! We’re trying to use the ‘crowbar of thought’ to change the way reality is. We trying to use the crowbar of thought to change ‘the way things are right now’ to be ‘some other way’, and yet what is ‘thinking’ other than coming up with a particular way of describing the world to ourselves and then acting on the basis of that description? When we try to change ourselves (or control ourselves) we first have to describe (or ‘model’) ourselves, therefore. This, as we all know, works very with some things – technical understanding gives rise to the possibility of controlling what we understand – but we can’t turn this trick  on ourselves because (counter-intuitively, in this rational culture of ours) we cannot gain a ‘technical understanding of ourselves’!  We are in some way that we completely fail to see ‘our own blind-spot’; as Alan Watts says – the eye cannot see itself, the tooth cannot bite itself and the tongue cannot taste itself.

 

Nobody can control their own state of mind because controlling would only work if we first had a complete understanding (obtained from some kind of theoretical external viewpoint) of ourselves – which is something that we believe to be totally possible since we aren’t able to see the limitations of thought or the logical mind. The problem is this however – if it were possible for us to ‘completely understand ourselves’ from some external (or ‘abstract’) theoretical viewpoint then ‘who we are’ would be no more than a logical extension of that external, abstract viewpoint. This is what creates the blind-spot because who we really are – which is neither ‘external’ nor ‘theoretical’ nor ‘abstract’ – has now been left out of our calculations. ‘Who we really are’ has been forgotten about in the course of the rational game we are playing – the rational game we are playing and can’t help playing!

 

What we can’t see is that ‘what’s happening is just what’s happening!’ What could be simpler than this? This is actually too simple for us – we have to add the complication (or the ‘twist’) of thinking about it. We have to ask ourselves ‘what the right answer is’, or ‘what the right way to look at things is’, and this confuses us. This confuses us right from the word ‘go’ because it implies that there is such a thing as ‘the right answer’ or ‘the right way to look at things’ and that’s just plain nonsense. What’s happening is just what’s happening – our descriptions or deliberations aren’t necessary! When we try to shove thought in there, in order to gain some kind of advantage or foothold, all we gain is ongoing confusion and paralysis.

 

When we ask what the right way to be with ourselves is therefore what we are doing is adding another level of complication, another level of neurotic avoidance. We are banjaxing ourselves just as soon as we ask this question because we are approaching everything from the point of view of the thinking mind and, as we have just pointed out, this has the immediate and distinctly unhelpful effect of placing us ‘outside of ourselves’.  We’re stuck in some kind of disconnected (or ‘alienated’) abstract mental space. We are ‘on the outside looking in’, and who doesn’t know what this feels like? This is ‘neurotic hell’ in a nutshell, and everyone knows what neurotic hell is like…

 

The way the world is is the way the world is and the way we are is the way we are…  It’s as simple as that. If someone waves hello at us then they’re waving hello, if a dog barks then a dog barks, if a gust of wind blows your hat off then a gust of wind blows your hat off. If we’re happy then we’re happy and if we’re sad then we’re sad! This isn’t ‘fatalism’ or anything ridiculous like that (fatalism is just an artificial mind-created attitude, after all) – it’s just ‘being in the moment’ and the moment is only place we can be. There is no choice there; there’s no ‘right or wrong way’ in it! Instead of choice, there’s actual freedom. It’s a mark of our own colossal stupidity if we think that there is ‘a right way and a wrong way’ to be in the present moment!

 

At the very core of all our confusion is therefore this very profound inability that we have to understand what freedom is. We’re clueless about freedom, even though we keep on talking about it. We’ve got the wrong idea about it entirely. We have – very foolishly – confused freedom with ‘choice’ and ‘choice’ – as we have said – is just ‘thought trying to shoehorn its way into the picture’. It’s ‘the thin end of the wedge’. Choice after all can only exist between ‘known alternatives’; it can only be found within the realm of the rational mind. so if we can never really know ‘what’s going on’ (because the unfolding present moment is always fundamentally unknowable) then how can we ‘choose’? What kind of foolishness is this? What is this great ‘hang-up’ about control that we have anyway other than ‘the neurotic refusal to live life unless we can first ‘know’ it’??!

 

Bizarrely, we imagine that freedom is something that exists within thought, within the closed and artificial domain of the thinking mind, whilst the truth of the matter is that freedom only exists where there is no thought. Freedom is freedom from thought; freedom is freedom from ‘known alternatives’…

 

Art: Eduardo Martinez, taken from creativebloom.com