The Spectre Of Anxiety

Anxiety occurs as a result of the thinking mind projecting limits on everything and the thinking mind always projects limits on everything!

 

This is what thinking is of course, thinking is that process whereby we impose limits or boundaries on the world – if we didn’t do this then there wouldn’t be anything to think about! This it’s only when we have partitioned something off within boundaries or limits that we can think about it; it’s only when we have defined something that we can think about it, in other words.

 

No imposed boundaries means no thinking therefore, and thinking is how we gain purchase on the world; it is how we orientate ourselves in such a way that we can make ‘rational decisions’ as to ‘what to do next’. When there are no ‘defined things’ – and therefore no defined outcomes or goals – then it has to be the case that we are not able to make any rational decisions at all. This brings us back to the first point that we made, which is that anxiety occurs purely as a result of the limits which the thinking mind projects on everything. Clearly, if the possibility of making logical decisions exists, then so too does the possibility of making the wrong decision! The polarity of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is inherent in the idea of a decision, after all – whoever heard of a decision without the possibility of right versus wrong?

 

What we’re really talking about here is control and control is all about right versus wrong. Control is ‘getting the right thing to happen rather than the wrong thing’! There’s a psychological component to this, of course – the psychological component in question being that it feels good when we are able to bring about the right outcome and not-good when we can’t. There’s a feeling of security and self validation when we get the right thing to happen, and the converse is of course also true when we can’t.

 

Moving one stage further into ‘the psychology of control’, we can say that what happens with all of us is that we get habituated to the feeling of ‘being in control’ (or ‘being inherently able to control’) and we derive an important sense of well-being from it. The sense of being in control’ is the same thing as what Albert Bandura has called ‘perceived self-efficacy’ and perceived self-efficacy is generally seen as a very healthy thing – it is seen as ‘a thing we all need to have’. To consider perceived self-efficacy (or the sense of ‘having the ability to be in control’) as a healthy – or indeed, essential – part of our psychological make-up is seriously deluded however! The reason we can say that it is a delusion to see PSE as being ‘mentally healthy’ is because PSE (or the sense of ‘having the ability to be in control’) is, at root, the very same thing as anxiety.

 

A sense of being control may not feel like anxiety, but that’s because it’s latent anxiety. It’s anxiety that hasn’t yet been manifested. Perceived self-efficacy is ‘anxiety waiting to happen’ and the reason we can say this is because – ultimately – it is no more than a comforting illusion! At times, we will indeed be able to get things to happen the way we want them to, but this does not mean that we will always be able to do so. It doesn’t mean that we are guaranteed to be able to do so – it doesn’t mean that we can ‘bank on the fact’, which is exactly what we do do, every day of our lives.

 

Perceived self-efficacy is, when it comes down to it, nothing more than ‘an expectation’, and – what’s more – it’s an unwarranted expectation and so going around basing our sense of well-being on an unwarranted expectation is not in any way a manifestation of mental health! This isn’t a sign of good mental health – no matter what anyone may tell us – but rather it’s ‘an accident waiting to happen’. It’s not mentally health we’re talking about here but ‘us setting ourselves up for a fall’!

 

When we use this illusionary (although comforting) sense of ‘being in control of what’s going on’ in order to build up some sort of a concept of ourselves, some sort of an idea or image of ourselves, then we doing ourselves no favours at all, therefore. What we are actually doing is that we paving the way for the creation of a concept of ourselves that is based on the suspicion or fear that we – in some fundamental way – aren’t able to can control effectively. This is – we might say – the ‘anxious’ self-image, and whilst the ‘confident’ side of the self- illusion is one that is acceptable to us, and highly approved by everyone, the other side of the illusion is one that is correspondingly unacceptable to us, just as it is unacceptable to society as a whole. We promote the one type of illusion, and try to ‘cure’ the other, therefore!

 

This attitude of ours is of course quite laughable. What kind of a thing is it where we – in all seriousness – value one aspect of an illusion whilst regarding the other, complimentary aspect of the same illusion as a regrettable error that needs to be fixed? The fact that we, as a culture, take this approach says an awful lot about us, and what it says is not in the least bit complimentary! Our problem is that we have somehow been railroaded into thinking that the only possible way that we have of deriving a feeling of ‘well-being’ about ourselves is through our assumed ability to control successfully, when this is not in the least bit true. Well-being does not come from the ability to control!

 

Suppose we weren’t able to build our sense of ourselves on our ‘perceived self-efficacy’, on a spurious or illusionary sense of ‘being in control’? What would happen then? How would that work? This turns out to be a very interesting question indeed and it leads us to consider the possibility of an entirely different way of being in the world. Instead of deriving our sense of identity from our assumed ability to control effectively, we could make the experiment of seeing what it feels like when we aren’t trying to be in control the whole time, which is the same thing as ‘making the experiment of seeing what it feels like when we are free from ‘the ever-present need to control’.

 

This isn’t necessarily as easy as it might first sound, of course. Once we get caught up in this business of deriving our sense of identity from our belief in our ability to control effectively (which is easy to do) then we find ourselves in the situation where we need to keep on controlling in order to retain this sense of identity. This is the classic ‘lobster pot’ scenario, therefore – it’s easy to get in, but very hard to get out again. It’s a classic ‘Hotel California’ scenario – we swan in with the greatest of ease and then the next thing is that we stuck there forever! This being the case, then, we had better hope that we like the furnishings in our room because if we don’t then that’s really going to be just too bad! If we don’t like the furnishings then unfortunately we’re just going to have to get used to them…

 

This really is an exquisitely subtle trap – once I have constructed my sense of identity, my ‘sense of who I am’, in relation to my perceived ability to control, then no matter what I do I’m not going to be able to extricate me myself from this sense of identity. I’m not going to be able to extricate myself since whatever I do, it is always going to be ‘just more controlling’. Or if we put this in terms of thinking (which comes at exactly the same thing) then we can see very clearly that if my sense of identity is derived from my thinking, then no matter what I do I’m never going to be able to escape this thought-created identity. I’m never going to be able to escape this thought-created identity because whatever I deliberately (or ‘purposefully’) do, I do on the basis of my thinking. I can’t escape my thinking with my thinking, in other words.

 

Not constructing ourselves on the basis of our presumed ability to control (or on the basis of thought, which comes to the same thing) requires a subtlety that we do not ordinarily possess. Thought and purposeful action are the same thing – the latter being ‘the extension into the world’ of the former – and as we become adults (and get embroiled in the adult world) we very quickly learn to put all our money on thinking, all our money on controlling. This is ‘the sickness we become infected with’, so to speak. We learn to construct ourselves on the basis of our presumed ability to control, and since our ‘presumed ability to control’ comes entirely out of our thinking, entirely out of our thoughts about the world and ourselves, all we are doing, as ‘rationally-minded adults’, is setting ourselves up for anxiety.

 

The way out of the pernicious trap that we have created for ourselves by our unwise reliance on ‘thought as the basis for our sense of well-being in the world’ is for us to start exploring the subtle aspects of ourselves, the subtle aspects of what it means to be in the world, and this comes down to voluntarily experiencing our vulnerability (which is of course the true state of affairs). The socially approved and validated illusion is that we are ‘effective controllers’ (which necessarily means that we are not vulnerable, since the whole point of being ‘effective controllers’ is that by succeeding at this we shall not be vulnerable), and it is, as we have said, precisely because this ‘invulnerable status’ of ours is an illusion that we have set ourselves up to be anxious. It is the out-and-out lie that we tell ourselves about ourselves ‘being in control’, and the fact that we have based our sense of identity on this lie, that creates the menacing spectre of anxiety, and so all that is needed is for us to cease to rely on this pernicious illusion!

 

Something curious happens when we do this, when we withdraw our belief in the illusion of this thing called ‘perceived self-efficacy’, and that is that we find that we aren’t defining ourselves at all. When we don’t base our sense of who we are on the belief that ‘we are in control’ (or on the belief that we need to have this ‘essential ability’ to control) then we aren’t actually constructing any sense of identity at all! We don’t aptly need a sense of having this ‘defined identity’ when we not being governed by the ever-present need to control; we don’t actually need to say ‘who we are’ in this rigid, humourless, rule-based way. The reason for this is very simple – just as soon as we stop projecting limits on the world (which – as we have said – is what thinking is) then at the same time we discover that we are no longer projecting limits (or boundaries) on who we are. When we stop imposing limits or boundaries on our actual nature then we are free – we ‘free from definitions’ on the one hand, and we’re ‘free from anxiety’ on the other hand, since it was only being defined in this way that was causing us to be anxious in the first place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When We Accept Ourselves We Are Free

When we completely accept ourselves as we actually are (in a conscious way rather than an unconscious ‘taking-ourselves-for-granted’ type of a way) then we become free.

 

It’s not quite right to say this of course – we don’t become free, we discover that we were always free, as the mystics never tire of telling us. We learn of our freedom, which we were previously too obtuse (or too ‘crude’, too ‘crass’ in our perceptions) to see.

 

This is of course counter to conventional thinking, which states that we can only become free by engaging in ‘special types of activity’, special types of goal-orientated activity. Engaging in GO activity is of course very antithesis of ‘acceptance’ and so what this means is that our conventional approach to things is the antithesis of the ‘subtle’ approach that we are talking about here.

 

The ‘subtle approach’ is too subtle! It’s far too subtle for us to get. In the normal run of things, we couldn’t get it in a month of Sundays! We couldn’t get it in a year of Sundays – assuming that we had that long available to us. We are forever looking in the wrong direction; we are forever looking in the direction that thought tells us to look in, which is the direction of ‘improvement’ on the one hand and ‘disimprovement’ on the other. That’s all thought cares about after all; that’s all it can care about – either ‘getting close to the goal’ or ‘getting further away from the goal’. It cares positively one way, and negatively the other. It likes one and dislikes the other. It would be silly of us to expect otherwise since thought – by its very nature – can only ever concern itself with ‘abstract ideals’. We only need to reflect on this for a moment or two to see that this has to be true – how could thought ever possibly concern itself with something that is not an ‘abstract ideal’?

 

Appreciating things what they are in their essence is not the thinking mind’s job! The TM’s brief is to deal with the practicalities, the particularities, the technicalities of life. It’s not built to function as a philosopher – it’s not designed for ‘looking into the ultimate essence of things’. Where’s the practicality in that, anyway? The answer, as we all know, is that there is no practicality in this – there is no practicality in philosophy, no practicality in taking an interest in the ultimate nature of things. On the other hand, if we take no interest in the ultimate nature of things, if we devote ourselves entirely to the practicalities of life, and go helplessly along with the TM like some kind of camp follower, then before long life becomes unbearable. Life becomes intolerably arid when we make ourselves oblivious to the ultimate nature or essence of things.

 

This is – of course – the nature of the dilemma that we find ourselves in: either we take an interest in how things actually are in themselves (which we are averse to since we have absolutely no idea where this will take us and we don’t want to risk it) or we roundly ignore that side of things and concern ourselves wholly with the practical/technical side of life, which means that we will get stuck in the rational purposeful version of life, which is a version that suffers from the profound disadvantage of being completely arid, completely sterile. Our ‘resolution’ to this dilemma is to opt for the rational simulation of life and then use a kind of ‘trick’ in order to ameliorate the suffering that comes with this option. The trick in question is simply that we keep repeatedly utilising the rational-purposeful mechanism in order to distract ourselves from the present reality of our situation.

 

We don’t pay wholehearted attention to the present moment therefore, but rather we look ahead to some ‘improvement’ that is going to be made. This is our ‘gimmick’ in a nutshell. This is what ‘goals’ or ‘purposes’ are, needless to say – they are ‘improvements to our present situation’! When we think ahead about the improvement that is to come, then straightaway we feel better. Of course we feel better – why wouldn’t we? All we need to do in order to distract ourselves is therefore to think of some improvement that can be made and this in itself will usually make us feel better! The next thing to do is to work out some strategy to bring the improvement in question about, and then work away at implementing the strategy. The motivation to do this comes – of course – from the good feeling that is going to come our way when we successfully bring about the improvement. The euphoria we feel as a result of simply thinking about the improvement is merely a small loan or down-payment taken on the strength of the future improvement coming to pass, so how much better will the actual realisation of our goal causes to feel? The prospect of this satisfaction-to-come is more than enough to motivate us to engage enthusiastically in the strategy.

 

This isn’t to say that strategies of goals are always ‘gimmicks’ to help us avoid the aridity of the present moment, when that so-called- ‘present moment’ exists solely in the rational simulation of life, but rather that it is possible for us to use goals and strategies in this way, for us to use purposefulness in this way. The more legitimate the goal, the better it is for ‘exploiting’ as a way of living in the future rather than the present, when the present (or rather the ‘simulation of the present’) is not a place that we want to be in! So when we talk about ‘being interested in the ultimate essence or nature of things’, this is just another way of talking about ‘unconditionally accepting ourselves as we actually are’. First off, we could observe that this is going to be no benefit to us in purely practical terms since, as we have already said, taking an interest in things as they actually are in themselves doesn’t necessarily help us when it comes to engaging in whatever tasks it is that we are supposed to be focusing on. This is why when employees practice meditation at work this isn’t necessarily good for the corporation they work for since they are very likely to realize that the work in question is meaningless, if not actually detrimental to all concerned! But before we even get to ‘see ourselves as we actually are’ what we going to see is of course ‘ourselves as we are represented within the terms of the rational simulation’, which is another way of saying that the first thing we’ll see is our ‘idea’ or ‘image’ of ourselves, which may or may not be to our liking. Because the ‘mental idea of our self’ exists solely within the remit of the rational simulation (i.e. within the domain of the rational mind) it is always subject to judgement from that mind, be that judgement positive or be it negative. So although we hear a lot of talk about ‘accepting ourselves’ and ‘not judging ourselves’ this can only happen when we know are no longer operating from within the rational simulation (i.e. when we are observing things from outside the rational domain) and this is easier said than done!

 

When we are operating in the rational mode then there is absolutely no question of us ‘not judging ourselves’, there is absolutely no possibility of us ‘accepting ourselves’, and it is crucially important for us to understand this! All we can ever do (in this case) is ‘judge ourselves’, either positively or negatively, and then ‘react to ourselves’ accordingly! We are simply not free to ‘accept ourselves’ therefore and it would be absurd for us to try to force ourselves to do so! There is no freedom in ‘forcing’ after all, and if there is no freedom then there can be no ‘acceptance’. The freedom we do have however is the freedom to see that we have no freedom, the freedom to see the truth, which is that all we can do is ‘judge ourselves either positively and negatively and mechanically react accordingly’. This is the difference between ‘being conscious’ and ‘being unconscious’ in a nutshell – when we see that we have zero freedom to ‘not judge’ or ‘not react mechanically’ then we are conscious, and when we do not see this (which is most of the time if not all) then we are unconscious.

 

Spelling this out this allows us to see something very interesting – it allows us to see that we can actually ‘accept’ ourselves completely being completely non-accepting, that we can wholeheartedly accept the fact that we are completely judgemental and intolerant! ‘Acceptance’ as a subtler thing than we tend to think it is, as we have already said – it has nothing to do with ‘like and dislike’, ‘approval and disapproval’ and – as a result – it has nothing to do with any choices that we might make. This last point is something that we usually have the greatest difficulty in understanding; we persist in imagining that ‘acceptance’ is something that can come about by choice when nothing could be further from the truth. ‘Choosing’ runs on bias – there’s nothing else it could run on after all. There is nothing else it could run on because if we didn’t have some sort of bias there then how we know what to choose? Unless we have some kind of ‘like and dislike’ to draw upon to aid us in our decision then how could we possibly make a choice? Choice is a mechanical kind of thing after all – it’s something we do via the rational or thinking mind. We could of course object to this and say that we are making a decision on the basis of knowledge, not on the basis of subjective preference. We could say that we are choosing a particular option because it is the ‘right’ option to choose not because ‘we like it’. This argument doesn’t hold water however – how did we obtain our so-called knowledge other than by the exercise of bias, other than by the exercise of inherent prejudice? Whatever way of looking at the world we have, we must have ‘bought into it’ at some stage and the reason we ‘bought into it’ was because of our bias towards doing so, our predisposition to doing so. Ultimately, we always choose how we see the world, we can’t (in other words) claim the unquestionable right to see things a particular way!

 

When we say that we choose a particular option because ‘it is the right one, not because we like it’, then we are obviously ignoring the fact that we ‘like’ the right option more than the wrong one! The two concepts of ‘right’ and ‘the act of passing judgement’ can’t be separated and ‘the act of passing judgement’ – no matter what we may believe to the contrary – always comes out of ‘like and dislike’, always comes out of ‘bias’. If I say that something is right then this simply means that I have judged it to be so. Unconditional acceptance, therefore, has nothing to do with any choices that we might make, or any preferences that we might have on the matter. ‘Acceptance’ has absolutely nothing to do with bias and for this reason it has absolutely nothing to do with the thinking mind (since the thinking mind is nothing else than a collection of biases)

 

Just to repeat our key point here – acceptance is at far more profound thing than we always think it is! Acceptance comes out of consciousness, not the thinking mind, which is always superficial. When I see that I don’t have the freedom ‘not to judge’, or ‘not to react’ (to go back to our earlier point) then I am accepting that I have no freedom. This – as we have said – is not a choice. ‘Accepting’, in this more profound sense of the word means ‘seeing the truth of something’ and seeing the truth of something is never a choice. It is quite choiceless, as Krishnamurti says. If seeing were a choice then we would be in control of what it what is true or not, which would clearly be absurd! Seeing isn’t something that can ever happen on the basis of our biases, our preferences, our prejudices; if it did then it wouldn’t be seeing that we are talking about but rather ‘the automatic projection of our own conditioned viewpoints onto the world’. What we would be talking about, in other words, is the perfectly ubiquitous state of unconsciousness and so to use the word ‘seeing’ in this connection would be  completely inappropriate.

 

If we come back to our original statement now we will find that we are in a much better position to appreciate what is meant by it. When we accept ourselves as we actually are going then this means that we are not trying to change ourselves, not trying to control ourselves, and it is because we are not trying to change or control ourselves that we are free! In our normal (rational) mode of being we are always trying to control/change ourselves – we can never stop controlling (or trying to control). As we have said, everything that exists within the ‘rational domain (or, as we have also called it, the ‘rational simulation of life’) has to be controlled – the possibility of not being controlled doesn’t (and can’t) exist within this context. This is a ‘controlled’ (or ‘defined’) reality – unless something is a hundred percent defined it can’t exist in this realm; unless something is completely regulated then it can’t be accommodated within the ‘mind-created virtual reality’, and this is just another way of saying nothing can happen within the domain of the rational mind without it being judged, one way or another. The rational mind IS judging, after all!

 

We are inclined to say that we are ‘accepting ourselves’ when what we really mean is that we have judged ourselves in favourable way, but this (needless to say) doesn’t count because it is an unconscious sort of a thing, completely unlike the  conscious acceptance which we are talking about in this discussion. As we have just said, conscious acceptance has nothing to do with like or dislike, approval or disapproval, right or wrong. Crucially, seeing ourselves in an unbiased way is the same thing as ‘not identifying with the regulated or controlled mental image which is the self-concept’. When we are identified with the self-concept – this arbitrary construct of the mind – then there can never be any freedom for us. Freedom is not possible for the self-concept, as we can very clearly see when we aren’t 100% identified with it! When we are identified with the self-concept (when we look at the world exclusively ‘through its eyes’, so to speak) then this is the very last thing that we going to see. More than ‘the very last thing’, it’s actually the thing we shall never see.

 

Not seeing that freedom is an impossibility for us, we are going to put all of our efforts and ingenuity into ‘striving to be free’, which is what ‘trying to improve our situation’ really comes down to. The possibility of ‘improving our situation,’ is – as we have said – the outcome that the thinking mind keeps tempting us with. When we fall for this temptation (as we always do fall!) then this is the very same thing as what we have called ‘identifying with the self-concept’ and this utterly ubiquitous business of ‘identifying with the self-concept’ is – as we have just pointed out – the precise thing that absolutely guarantees we shall never be free…

 

 

Image: Street Art Phuket Town

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fundamental Impatience

The more ‘psychologically unconscious’ we are, the more impatient we are, generally speaking. This is the infallible ‘rule-of-thumb’! We are impatient – very obviously – because we think someone (or something) is standing in the way of ‘the good thing happening’. We are ‘psychologically unconscious,’ therefore, because we are living entirely within the territory of the thinking mind. We are living entirely within the territory of the thinking mind because we think that ‘the good thing’ is somewhere in the future, rather than now.

 

It is of course true that ‘now’ could be a very painful and unwelcome time but it still ‘the good thing’ – so speak – because it’s the only thing that’s real. It’s the only place anything can ever be, so it has to be ‘the good thing’! There’s nowhere else it could be.The future isn’t real, it’s only an idea and if we are ‘waiting for our idea to become real’ then we will be waiting forever. We’ll be waiting forever because ideas never do become real, no matter what we might think to the contrary. If we start off playing ‘the waiting game’ – i.e. waiting for ‘the good thing’ to happen in the future because we don’t think that it’s in the present – then we will be playing this game forever. We can’t pick and choose when it comes to being open to reality – if we are going to be open then we are going to have to be open to everything. When we play the waiting game then in effect we’re ‘waiting for life to happen’ and that’s an exercise in self-deception; we always have to ‘start now’ – there is no other time to start. “The present may not always be beautiful but it is always beautiful to be present.” says Robert Earl Burton.

 

‘Living entirely within the territory of the thinking mind’ is like jumping onto a moving walkway or travelator. We jump on because we want to get where we’re going quicker (obviously enough) and this is exactly what the thinking mind always tells us – it tells us that if we want to ‘get where we going’ (i.e. ‘achieve our goal’) then we better ‘jump on board’ the travelator. If we want to achieve our goal then we need its help, in other words! The invisible problem here however is that we’ve been suckered without knowing it – we’ve been suckered into ‘waiting for life to happen when the conditions are right’. This sort of ‘conditionality’ is a very big problem because (as we know) conditions are never right! They are never ‘right’ as far as the thinking mind is concerned, anyway…

 

The root of the problem (as we keep saying) is that we are living entirely within the territory of the thinking mind– the thinking mind is a very useful tool for very many things but when we let it ‘take over completely’ then it replaces life with its idea of it, its model of it, its theory of it. Instead of relating to the world as it actually is we relate to our concept of it, our mental representation of it. This might sound rather far-fetched and hard to swallow but it is – nevertheless – what almost always happens. It’s ‘a given’ that this will happen. We are in no position to notice the ‘replacement of the real by the image of the real’ because we are so very used to it. We have listened to thought’s story of ‘what reality is’ for so long that we no longer know that it is only a story. We eat the menu every day of our lives thinking that it is the meal.

 

We started off this discussion by saying that the more ‘psychologically unconscious’ we are, the more impatient we are. Unconsciousness manifests itself in terms of impatience, in other words. We can expand on this statement however and say that impatience comes in a number of ‘different forms’. It could come in a pleasurable form, for example – impatience could be (in a manner of speaking) when we ‘can’t wait’ for the good thing to happen but the anticipation (in this case) is enjoyable rather than frustrating. We definitely know that we’re going to get the good thing so although we are in a great hurry to skip ahead in time and get to where we’re going, this is still an enjoyable type of ‘not being able to wait’.

 

The ‘mirror image’ of enjoyable anticipation is fearful or anxious anticipation. Either we are anticipating a bad outcome and we are living in dread of it, or we are fearful that the good outcome that we want to happen isn’t going to happen, so we living in dread of that outcome. We have a ‘relationship’ with our own mental projection of what we think is going to happen and in this case this ‘relationship’ is causing us to experience dysphoria rather than euphoria. When we are ‘living entirely within the territory of the thinking mind’ then we are always going to be either facing into ‘the right outcome’ or facing into ‘the wrong outcome’. Only those two possibilities exist in the territory of the thinking mind and so this means that we are always going to be experiencing either ‘the unrelenting pressure to obtain the right outcome’, or the equally unrelenting pressure to avoid the wrong one. We’re ‘under pressure’ no matter what…

 

This ‘poverty of possibilities’ is the very thing that gives rise to ‘the fundamental impatience’ that we have been talking about; the pressure to obtain the right outcome and avoid the wrong one is a very impatient, very intolerant kind of thing – there’s no slack to be had here! What we are looking at here is a rule and rules are characterised by the fact that they have no space in them. No possibility is tolerated in other words other than the possibility of ‘achieving the specified outcome’. No other possibility is valued and that single-mindedness is what makes the rule into a rule. What’s more, if we place ourselves somewhere on the timeline that exists between ‘where I am now’ and the specified endpoint which is ‘where I want to be’ (or rather, ‘where the rule tells me that I have to be’) then we can very easily see that the rule doesn’t value ‘me as I am right now’, but will only value me when I get to be the way that the rule says I should be.

 

My only possible ‘validation’ therefore (when I am living within the territory of the thinking mind) occurs when I am successfully moving towards the specified endpoint. That’s the only way I can get to feel good about myself, in other words. The one thing I can never get to feel good about (when I’m listening to the thinking mind, that is!) is me being ‘where I am’ (or ‘how I am’) when that has nothing to do with the goal, when that has nothing to do with the ‘final outcome’. As we have already said, the rule doesn’t value anything apart from its own specified objective; it doesn’t allow any space for anything other than its own specified objective. Nothing else exists as far as the thinking mind is concerned – nothing else has any value (or any interest). Anything else is merely ‘an error that needs to be eliminated’ and that automatically includes us if we aren’t the way the thinking mind says we should be (or if we aren’t excused by the fact that we are progressing successfully in the direction that it wants us to go in).

 

Everything we’ve been talking about is of course deeply familiar within the context of everyday human life! We all know what it feels like to be intolerant and impatient within the context of our day-to-day lives and we all know what it feels like to be subjected to this type of ‘heartless or mechanical intolerance’ either from ourselves, or from other people. We all know what it’s like to be completely invalidated either by our own minds or by the minds of other people! When we come across intolerance and judgementalism then what we are encountering is this default state of being that we have called ‘psychological unconsciousness’ and psychological unconsciousness is – as we have said – the inevitable result of being entirely subsumed within the territory of the thinking mind.

 

When we have been subsumed entirely within the territory of the TM then as we have said we don’t know that we have. We don’t know that we have because we have nothing else to go on! Thought has replaced reality with its own version of it, its own picture or image of it, and we have no way of detecting the substitution because thought doesn’t provide us with a way, and what thought doesn’t provide us with we just don’t have! We have checked into the Hotel California and we can’t check out; we don’t even try to check out most of the time because we don’t know we’re in it. Or to put this another way, we don’t know that we are in the Hotel California because for us it is the whole world! We don’t see it for what it is at all…

 

We do have one way of knowing what’s happening to us however and that is by paying attention to our own impatience, our own hurry ‘to be somewhere else’. Our true nature isn’t impatient or intolerant or judgemental and so if we notice ourselves being this way (and don’t automatically make excuses for ourselves about it) then we have a very clear way of seeing that we are being ‘operated by the system of thought’ rather than the situation being the other way round. We can straightway see that ‘the tail is wagging the dog’, so to speak. What we have here is a very straightforward way of seeing when we being ‘untrue to ourselves’, in other words, and this type of ‘honesty with ourselves’ is how we ‘do something’ about our situation. That’s ‘our work’.

 

We could also say that the ‘work’ here is to ‘establish a relationship with the truth of what’s going on’, rather than ‘only ever relating to our own mental projections’). This isn’t a controlling thing – we don’t have to judge or blame ourselves for being false or inauthentic, and neither do we have to come up with some clever ‘plan’ or ‘method’ for fixing ourselves. When we do notice that we are judging or blaming ourselves (or trying to fix ourselves) then straightaway we know that we are being driven or controlled by the thinking mind (which should be a servant rather than our boss) and so this is a helpful thing. We’re being ‘tipped off’! Straightaway we see that the tail is wagging the dog and seeing this is how we start to redress the ‘balance of power’, so to speak. ‘The seeing is the doing’, as Krishnamurti says. When we do notice ourselves judging or blaming or trying to fix or correct  ourselves then this is actually a good thing not a bad thing, therefore – we are being tipped off as to our true situation and this is something we need to know about. Our own self-judging, self-blaming, and self-recrimination thus becomes ‘a blessing rather than a curse’, and seeing this softens our attitude to it….

 

 

 

 

Dropping Aggression

All we know is aggression but because we don’t see our aggression for what it actually is, we just we just see it as the normal way of being in the world. We don’t have any other modality of existence, we don’t know of any other modality…

 

‘Aggression’ means ‘trying to get things to be the way we want them to be’; on a deeper level, it means ‘imposing our own way of seeing things on the world without acknowledging that we are doing so’.

 

This sort of basic aggression is invisible, therefore – it forms the backdrop for everything, it’s the baseline for everything we do. It’s the baseline we work off. Any attempt to say to tell us that we are fundamentally aggressive, that we live in an aggression-based way world, will be met with honest incomprehension. Nobody will know what we talking about.

 

To not be aggressive is the ultimate ‘radical action’ therefore, even though it isn’t an action, strictly speaking. There’s nothing more radical, nothing more revolutionary, than ‘non-aggression’. Non-aggression changes everything, whilst aggression (even though the whole point of it is to make changes) changes nothing. Nonaggression freezer; aggression locks us into the very situation that we are fighting against.

 

This is illustrated by the Buddhist story of Prince Five-weapons, as related by Joseph Campbell. The Prince in the story adept in the use of five weapons, as the name of the story implies, but when he encounters the forest ogre known as ‘Sticky-hair’ he quickly discovers that none of them are any use to him. Everything sticks to this ogre (his name is Sticky-hair for a reason) including his two feet and his two fists, when he uses them as weapons. When both arms and legs are firmly stuck to the ogre’s hair, he uses his head as a last resort and then this get stuck too. He’s stuck to the ogre in five places!

 

Prince Five-weapons then has the insight that whatever he does to fight the ogre is always going to be turned against him, and the results of this insight is that he has a change of attitude that allowed him to practice non-aggression instead of aggression, and this transforms the situation in that his own aggression is no longer being turned against him. In modern psychotherapy parlance non-aggression is sometimes called ‘radical acceptance’ – we are no longer seeking to change the situation, either overtly or covertly, but instead we are wholeheartedly surrendering to it. We are assenting to it one hundred per cent, with no reservations; we are surrendering to it peacefully, with an open heart, not as a tactic, nor as an act of despair. This interpretation doesn’t entirely seem to tally with the last part of the story because in the story Prince Five-weapons tells the ogre Sticky-hair that the reason he isn’t afraid (which Sticky-hair is understandably worried about) is because he has an ultimate weapon in his belly – a thunderbolt which will tear the demon to pieces. This is no ordinary weapon however: in Tibetan Buddhism a thunderbolt means the Vajra (or Dorje) which is a battle club made of diamond. This diamond club sumbolizes ‘immutable wisdom’ or the power of enlightenment to see through illusion. According to Barbara O’Brien writing in thoughtco.com:

The term vajra is a Sanskrit word that is usually defined as “diamond” or “thunderbolt.” It also defines a kind of battle club that achieved its name through its reputation for hardness and invincibility. The vajra has special significance in Tibetan Buddhism, and the word is adopted as a label for the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism, one of the three major forms of Buddhism. The visual icon of the vajra club, along with the bell (ghanta), form a principal symbol of the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet.

 

A diamond is spotlessly pure and indestructible. The Sanskrit word means “unbreakable or impregnable, being durable and eternal”. As such, the word vajra sometimes signifies the lighting-bolt power of enlightenment and the absolute, indestructible reality of shunyata, “emptiness.”

In terms of the symbolism of Tibetan Buddhism we can say therefore that the thunderbolt weapon is not ‘aggressive’ in nature. It sounds odd to say that a tremendous weapon like this is not aggressive but the truth doesn’t threaten anything, and it doesn’t try to change anything. The only thing that is threatened by the Vajra weapon is illusion, and illusion isn’t there in the first place! The difficulty we have is in seeing how not wanting to change anything’ can result in the situation being totally transformed. In the case of demon Sticky-hair, we would be very much inclined to say that Prince was actually defeated, since he could not overcome his opponent by force of arms. What self-respecting ogre is going to be put off by us not fighting it, by us not opposing it with every means at our disposal? In the real world – surely – the ogre is going to walk all over us. The ogre is going to eat us for breakfast. Isn’t that the way that things work in this world? If we are aggressive enough then we will be triumphant whilst the weak and the timid and the inoffensive will have to put up with being eaten…

 

The ogre in the story is essentially ‘an inner demon’ however and to not be aggressive towards our own inner demons (but to unconditionally allow them to be what they are, and see them for what they are) is not cowardice (or ‘giving in’) but the ultimate act of courage. Who wants to come face to face with their inner demons after all? No one wishes to get intimately acquainted with their inner demons, and so what we do instead (by ‘default’, so to speak) is to deny their existence and thereby allow them to possess us. As Jung says, very few of us have the courage to own up to the darkness that is within us, and as a result this darkness is rejected (or ‘split off’) and becomes an autonomous agent that gets to walk the streets unchallenged, free to work evil in the world.

 

Non-aggression doesn’t just radically transform our relationship with the demon(s) that possess us (by making that relationship conscious rather than unconscious), it radically transforms our understanding of ourselves and the world. It radically transforms everything, in other words! The essence of aggression, as we have already said, is that it is ‘us imposing our own way of seeing things in the world without knowing that we are doing so’. Because we are imposing our own viewpoint on the world without knowing that we are doing so we are very effectively trapped it; we are trapped in a viewpoint that we do not know to be a viewpoint and this is what our ‘unconscious aggression’ does to us. It backfires on us in a big way, in the biggest possible way, and we never know it. We are the ‘prisoners of our own device’; we have checked in but we can’t check out…

 

Why are we so very quick to be always imposing a framework on the world, we might wonder? What is it that causes us to do to do this? Why do we always have to contextualize everything within an artificial context? The best way to answer this question is simply to say that it is due to our ‘insecurity’ – we are insecure and so we impose our own familiar way of seeing things on the world. We are insecure and so we project our ‘automatically assumed framework’ on the world, and so we only see things within the terms of this framework, this context. When we impose our old familiar way of looking at things on the world that makes us feel secure – it gives us a feeling of ‘being in control’, a sense that we are ‘playing a game that we know about’. When we project the same old predictable ‘framework of meaning’ onto the world then that makes us feel secure – nothing is ever going to radically surprise us because we are always going to be ‘explaining the new in terms of the old’.

 

We are protecting ourselves against the new (or the unknown), in other words – we are maintaining our own narrow way of understanding the world and this is aggression pure and simple. We’re not allowing things to be what they actually are, but instead we are covertly forcing them to be that way that we unconsciously want them to be. We’re doing this without admitting that we are doing this – we’re saying that ‘we aren’t doing anything’! We’re imposing our own brand of order, our own brand of ‘commonsense’ on the world. We do this by squeezing the whole universe through our narrow concepts, through our narrow ideas, through our narrow mental categories. If something doesn’t fit our unexamined expectations then we don’t give it the time of day. There is therefore an all-out war going on – there’s a war going on between the meaning we want, and everything that disagrees with this meaning, anything that undermines our preferred way of seeing things.

 

This is ‘fundamental aggression’ – this is the aggression we engaging in every single day of our lives without ever knowing that we are. This is the ‘invisible aggression’ that we are engaging in every second of every day of our lives, just about. This is the fundamental aggression that forms the very basis of our lives – it’s our baseline and so we never look at it. We never question it or remark on it. We don’t understand that there is any other way of being in the world – to us anything else simply means ‘defeat’ or ‘losing’.

 

And yet as we have been saying, all this visible aggression rebounds on us; it backfires on us with a vengeance. It’s not benefitting us at all really; quite the reverse is true – we’re ‘shooting ourselves in the foot; we’re ‘scoring an own-goal’.  We’re ‘self-harming’, so to speak – we’re self-sabotaging in a big way. We’re limiting ourselves cruelly and pointlessly without owning up to the fact that we are – we are putting ourselves into an airless sterile conceptual box and stubbornly pretending that the box is the whole world. We are suppressing our innate curiosity about what the world would be like if we left it alone and didn’t impose our own private meaning on it. We’re far too afraid, far too insecure to see what would happen if we did that. We can’t even allow ourselves to see that this is a possibility! That’s what aggression is therefore – it’s simply ‘fear in disguise’.

 

When we talk about ‘trying to get things to be the way we want them’ to be this is what we’re talking about – this is control in a nutshell. This isn’t to say that there is anything wrong or unhealthy about control because clearly control has a vital part to play in life. We can’t just let ‘everything go to hell’! Control has a very specific domain of applicability however, which is to say, it’s good for some things but not for everything! When we have to control everything then – as we all know – this is profoundly unhealthy. We never apply this principle to the question of ‘how we perceive the world’ however; if we did then we’d see that ‘controlling the way that we see or understand the world without admitting to ourselves that we are doing so’ is the most ‘unhealthy’ thing there is? What could be unhealthier than ‘limiting ourselves for no other reason’? What could be unhealthier than ‘limiting ourselves because we’re afraid and don’t want to see that we’re afraid’? We can say that ‘non-aggression is the ultimately revolutionary act’ therefore because it marks the ending of this pointless limitation…

 

Image – Golden Vajra at Swayambhunath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

 

 

 

Getting Off The Conveyor Belt

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Counterproductivity

The main difficulty with anxiety is that we generally try to solve it in ways that make the problem worse; we use exactly same approach that was responsible for generating the anxiety in the first place. The idea that there are some ways of tackling a problem that only make the problem worse is quite familiar to us and we can give a few common-place examples of what we might call ‘counterproductive problem-solving’ to illustrate the point.

 

[1]   Screaming at a crying child to make it stop crying.  This is something that most parents would know about!  If I as a parent am stressed out and feel that I can’t take any more, the strongest impulse is to yell at the child to shut up. Experience shows that this usually only upsets the child more, and so it cries more. It is a method of curing the problem that makes the problem worse – like trying to put out a fire by throwing petrol on it.  The same principle also holds true for grown-ups too of course: if you are upset and I shout at you to “stop worrying”, this is only going to upset you more.  Trying to solve the so-called problem of ‘you feeling pressurized’ by putting pressure on you not to feel pressurized is classic counterproductivity.

 

[2] Trying to solve embarrassment by ‘acting normal’.   This again is something that we can all relate to.  Suppose that I find myself in a social situation and I am acutely embarrassed for some reason. Being embarrassed means that I feel that everyone can see what an idiot I am; in addition to this, having everyone see that I am embarrassed is itself highly embarrassing! My knee-jerk reaction to finding myself in this situation is to make a tremendous effort to appear perfectly normal and at ease. This is counterproductive because it is my self-consciousness, and my preoccupation with what everyone else is thinking about me, that has made me anxious in the first place, yet here am I now focussing even more on ‘how I look’, and ‘how other people see me’.  To be at ease is to have no worries, and yet here am being very worried about the fact that I am worried. Obviously, the state of being ‘unworried’ (which is how I want to be) cannot be achieved by worrying (which is what I am doing). The more I try to correct the situation, the worse it gets – I am going about things in completely the wrong way.

 

[3]    Being ‘non-suspicious’.  A similar example would be trying ‘not to look suspicious’. Suppose that I am passing through customs and it suddenly occurs to me that I ought to look nonchalant and not at all suspicious. This is an absurdly foolish course of action because, as everyone knows, nothing looks as suspicious as someone who is trying not to look suspicious!  A person who had nothing to hide would not give a damn whether they looked suspicious or not, and therefore all I have done is to demonstrate that I must have something to hide, which is exactly what I did not want to do…

 

[4] Over-preparing for an exam.  This is a fairly familiar example of counterproductivity:  most people get anxious about exams and the tendency is for us to try to placate the anxiety by making every effort possible to minimize the chances of doing badly. If taken too, far, this natural reaction (which is really, as we have said, an attempt to get rid of the anxiety by ensuring that the thing we are anxious about could never happen) has the reverse effect – it makes us do worse not better. If I stay up half the night revising and trying to figure out what the exam questions might be, and leave home extra early to make sure that I don’t miss the bus, the chances are that by the time I sit down to actually take the exam I will be in a terrible state. Basically, I will be putting far too much pressure on myself to do well, and as a result my performance will suffer. This is similar to over-rehearsing for an interview – if I go over what I think is going to happen two hundred times, then when it happens in reality I am going to be a burnt-out wreck!

FIGHTING FEAR

The above examples are easy enough to understand, but the way in which our reaction to anxiety is also counterproductive is possibly a little bit harder to see. Example 4 actually touches upon this: the point was that by making the goal of ‘doing well’ so important to us we actually sabotage our chances. Whenever stuff gets that important, it gets impossible, because the consequence of failure becomes so frightening to us that we seize up.  There is a phrase “failure is not an option”.  This is supposed to resonate with confidence and iron-determination, but in fact, if one listens to it with a ‘psychological ear,’ it is not hard to detect the undertones of desperation. The hidden message of bravado is fear; in fact bravado is nothing else but unacknowledged fear – what we are talking about here is ‘denial’ since failure is always an option whether one admits it or not. And if I say that ‘failure is not an option,’ and subsequently this refused option comes to pass, then what sort of situation am I in now? Inflexibility is not a strength, on the contrary, it is setting oneself up for disaster.

 

The root of anxiety is refused fear, or, to put it another way, ‘fear of fear’. Straightforward fear itself is not the same as anxiety, anxiety is when we try to problem-solve fear by trying to make sure that the fear-provoking situation can never happen. I make it very, very important that fear should not happen, and so, unwittingly, I have made fear into a far worse problem than it would have otherwise been. When anxiety comes, we try to problem-solve that too, not seeing that the anxiety stems from problem-solving fear in the first place. So, I am experiencing anxiety and my automatic reaction is to avoid the anxiety, to deal with it, to push it away, to neutralize it. I want help doing this, if possible. Ideally, I would like a powerful high-tech weapon to zap the anxiety with and blast it out of existence. I may expect this weapon to come in the form of pharmaceutical drugs, or possibly high-powered therapy of some sort. Maybe somebody could hypnotize it away, or analyze it away!  What I don’t see is that all of this is reinforcing the anxiety-generating idea that a certain possibility has to be avoided at all costs. If I invest so heavily in defending myself, then obvious the enemy that I am defending myself against must be truly terrible. And yet, the enemy is ‘me trying to defend myself’ – it is my defensive manoeuvres (otherwise known as ‘avoidance’) that constitute the actual problem, and so if I go on to instigate even more frantic measures to ensure that the feared eventuality never happens, I have actually created yet another level to my nightmare. I have taken it to a new level.

 

This is a phenomenon known as ‘positive feed-back’ – what this basically means is that ‘the worse it gets, the worse it gets.’   In other words, I notice myself deviating from the track that I am on, and so I correct. However, if my so-called ‘correction’ is actually counter-productive, then things start to go badly wrong, because my ‘correction’ causes me to deviate even more from normality, which causes me to panic and correct even more drastically, which causes even more deviation, which in turn makes me correct even more drastically than I did the last time…!   Positive feedback is the mechanism behind the ‘anxiety spiral’ which leads to a full-blown panic attack. Worry feeds off worry, anxiety feeds off anxiety.

LETTING GO OF THE THINKING THAT CREATES ANXIETY

So far we have illustrated the idea of counterproductivity and we have gone on from there to apply the concept to anxiety.  The reason anxiety is so hard to shift, we have said, is that we tend to apply our old, counterproductive thinking to it. This is easy to point out, but much harder to do anything about for the simple reason that when we get anxious or stressed we automatically resort to ‘reflex’ behaviour. For example, if a poisonous snake lunges to bite my hand, I pull back without stopping to think. This is the right thing to do under these circumstances – if I hung around to consider all the possibilities then I would get bitten for sure. This is a case where a deeply engrained habit (or reflex) can save my life! Anxiety is different, though, because it is my habit of reacting automatically that creates the anxiety.  In this case, the poisonous snake is my ‘tendency to avoid,’ and therefore automatic avoidance is like trying to put out a fire by throwing petrol on it.

 

Panic makes us go back to old ways of dealing with problems – it constricts our sense of freedom, it reduces the ‘spaciousness’ of the present moment so that we feel that we have no time to examine what is going on. Instead of looking at what is actually happening, we react – and this is our downfall.  To get from the place where anxiety is a problem, to the place where anxiety is not a problem is done by dropping our old thinking. Albert Einstein has said that “You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created that problem” and anxiety is a bit like this. We need to look at things in a new way. This sounds perfectly straightforward, but there is one unnoticed little snag which trips us up, and that snag is that we cannot manufacture the new way of thinking out of the old way. Anything we manufacture out of the old thinking is also the old thinking, because there is an unbroken thread of logic which connects everything. It is this thread of logic which holds us back.

DROPPING AGENDAS

The way we break the thread is to stop having expectations about the future. The key is to stay in the ‘here and now’ and allow things to unfold as they do, without us attempting to second-guess them. Normally we are orientated securely in our thinking, and we think we know what sort of things are likely to happen next, in any situation. We have preferences over what is going to happen next, we are not ‘even-minded’ about it all; in other words, we always have an agenda. Our agendas are constructed upon our old way of thinking, and for this reason the old way of thinking gets carried forward into the future – our thinking goes ahead of us! There is only one way to drop our agendas and that is to stay in the present moment: the future is made up of our thoughts and expectations; the past is likewise made up of thinking and memories. It is all connected with the same thread, and so it is all the same structure, the same pattern.  Right at the heart of everything, though, is the reality of ‘here and now’, which is a totally different kettle of fish because we don’t construct it with our thinking. The here and now isn’t a memory, and it isn’t an expectation. It isn’t an idea at all, it is the actual reality. All we need to do to drop the pattern of our thinking is to come back to where we are right now.

WHEN TO LET GO

This is not to say that having an agenda is bad news, and that we would be better off without them. On the contrary, there are times when it is helpful to have an agenda (as shown by the example of the striking snake); at other times it is not. It all comes down to knowing when it is helpful to have an agenda, and when it is helpful to drop it. This, needless to say, is not always easy to see. We can, however, take a few more examples to make the general idea a bit clearer. For instance, if I need to get to work at a specific time, and I don’t have my own transport, then the agenda of ‘catching a bus’ is a very useful one. Therefore, I look up the time of the buses in the time-table and I plan to leave the house in time to be at the bus stop when the bus I need passes by. But suppose I am late for some reason, and I see the bus pulling off down the road? Well, in this case it is useful to drop my agenda to catch the bus. This sounds very simple, but what tends to happen in practise is that I don’t drop my agenda. Even though it is an impossibility, I am still attached to the idea of being on that bus. This is where counterproductivity can come in: trying to catch a bus when it is travelling at speed is counterproductive, since I am liable to suffer an unpleasant accident of some sort. Even if I don’t physically try to get on the bus, being mentally attached to the idea of the bus is still highly counterproductive because that is going to put me in a bad mood, and therefore the inconvenience of being late for work will be compounded by the fact that I am in a foul humour!

 

Another example that we can use is the example of ‘appearing normal’. In everyday social situations it is useful to have the agenda of ‘appearing normal’ – in fact this agenda is usually unconscious because we do it automatically.  There are rules governing social interactions and in order to interact effectively we need to observe these rules. If I go into the supermarket wearing only my underwear and barking like a dog I am probably going to get taken away by the police and therefore I will not be able to shop effectively. But suppose that, due to circumstances beyond my control, I find myself unable to behave normally. Perhaps I have been overcome by grief and I am crying uncontrollably, or perhaps I am feeling very anxious and I cannot talk to people. In cases like this it is helpful to drop my agenda to appear normal. After all, it is ridiculous for us to try to have our emotions under control all the time – we are not robots! To try to insist on looking normal at such times is counterproductive because the extra pressure that we are putting on ourselves will make us feel worse than ever.

 

The problem is that when we get anxious we hold on very tightly to our counterproductive belief, and because of this we are less likely than we would otherwise be to see that the belief is not helpful.  Instead of seeing that our agenda is only relatively important, we think that it is absolutely important. The option of ‘dropping the agenda’ is completely forgotten about, and our actions become compulsive. We insist upon the impossible, which is asking for trouble!

YOU CANNOT MAKE A GOAL OF ‘NOT BEING ANXIOUS’…

There is an unexpected principle which comes up here, and that is the principle which says ‘you cannot make a goal of not being anxious’. You can want to be ‘not anxious.’  You can attend an anxiety management course, and maybe one day you will not see anxiety as an issue any more. But what you can’t do is get from position <A> of ‘being anxious’ to position <B> of ‘not being anxious’ by will-power and determination. It is not possible to become ‘non-anxious’ on purpose…

 

This statement tends to seem quite outrageous – it threatens a deep-down belief that we all have, a belief in our own problem-solving ability, our own cleverness. A lot of the self-help literature that is commonly available promotes the message that we can transform ourselves by the power of our own minds, by self-affirmation and positive thinking, and so on. The idea is that we can escape anxiety, if only we tried in the right way – in a logical, positive way that some highly-qualified expert is now going to tell us about. The implication is that if you are anxious or depressed, it’s because you aren’t really trying, and yet the problem in anxiety is that we try too hard. Anxiety-sufferers aren’t people with no will-power, quite the opposite tends to be true.

EQUANIMITY

It is not hard to see the flaw in the ‘positivist’ argument.  ‘Not being anxious’ is the state of mind where you don’t care whether you are anxious or not. It doesn’t matter to you.  It is not an issue, it is completely irrelevant. That is what ‘not being anxious’ means – that you don’t have an issue with stuff. It doesn’t mean that you have an issue with something or other, but you have cleverly manipulated the situation so that it doesn’t seem to stress you out as much as it used to do. That isn’t freedom from anxiety – that is denial!  Freedom from anxiety is much, much simpler than that: freedom from anxiety is when you don’t have defend yourself because it doesn’t occur to you that there is anything there to defend yourself against! There is no longer a battle going on. Another way to explain it is to say that ‘not being anxious’ is the state of equanimity, of not caring. The idea that I can arrive at such a state deliberately is totally absurd. It is the classic example of counterproductivity – I am trying to be in the state of not trying, I am making a goal out of not being goal-orientated, I am hungry to be not hungry. Basically, it matters very much to me that stuff should not matter. What all of this actually comes down to is the supremely counterproductive endeavour of ‘trying to be spontaneous on purpose’.

RADICAL ANXIETY MANAGEMENT

What we have just done is to draw attention to a paradoxical element within the theory of what we shall provisionally call ‘radical anxiety management’ (although the phrase ‘anxiety management’ is not a helpful term when it comes down to it because it implies control and trying to control anxiety is like trying to put out a fire by adding lots of petrol). ‘Paradoxical’ means that there is something very confusing there, something we can’t make sense of within our existing way of thinking. This forces us to either [1] drop our old way of thinking, or [2] invest heavily in ignoring the paradox.  If I want to ignore, then instead of radical anxiety management, I go for trivial anxiety management, which is where I get to keep my old pattern in a somewhat modified form.  I adjust it, but I don’t scrap it. In trivial anxiety management there are no paradoxes to challenge me, there are just a set of instructions which I have to follow.

 

The awkward paradoxical element in the rationale behind radical anxiety management which seems to mess everything up isn’t actually a bad thing at all, it only looks like a bad thing because we don’t want to let go of the security of our thinking. We want to have a nice, dependable structure to hold on to when things get tough; we want a formula that is guaranteed to get us through anything that life might throw at us. The trouble is, there is no such thing! There is no way to second-guess life. Rather than face up to this truth, what we do is to ignore the fact that our model no longer works (that our theory no longer holds good), and press ahead anyway. Our behaviour is ‘ignore-ant’ because it is based on ignoring facts that we don’t want to see, and this is of course what we have just been talking about in the section on ‘counterproductivity’.

 

The only way not to carry on getting bogged down in endless counterproductivity is to obtain insight into the paradox. Obtaining insight is something only I can do, or only you can do; no one can do it for us, and no one can tell us how to do it. Insight can’t be obtained through instruction or through copying – on the contrary, it arises spontaneously, unpredictably. The answer to challenge of the paradox is simple; what the paradox is doing is to throw back responsibility onto the person confronting the paradox. I cannot hand over responsibility to a formula, or a theory, or a procedure, or a skill, or an expert or helper, I have to let go of all these supports and do it myself! Autonomy means being independent, it means not being reliant upon a crutch of any kind. Anxiety, on the other hand, might be characterized as being a dissatisfied state of mind where one is constantly craving an impossible dream of security; it is a ‘clinging’ mentality – I am continuously looking for something solid to grasp hold of, something beyond myself. A straight-forward, non-paradoxical (i.e. self-consistent) treatment rationale is just the sort of thing I am looking for: if you as a therapist present me with a sure-fire method I will cling to it as hard as I can, and therefore you will actually be encouraging the clinging (or anxious) side of me. And anyway, as we have said, there are no ‘sure-fire’ methods!

SECURITY VERSUS FREEDOM

What sounds like terrible news to start with (there is no such thing as security) turns out to be a liberation. A toddler will be terrified to be left on its own, away from the reassuring presence of its parents, but when the apron-strings have been cut there is a whole new world of freedom out there, just waiting to be discovered. When we do not let go of our need for security, we become stunted by dependency – trapped in the prison of our ‘secure place’.  Increasing autonomy is simply another way of talking about personal growth, and saying that there is no method or procedure to help us gain autonomy is the same as saying that we cannot grow on purpose, because the type of change takes place as a result of purpose is not growth, but adaptation, and adaptation (as Gregory Bateson has said) is just another name for dependency. We do not grow through positive thinking, but only through dropping our old patterns of thinking and this ‘outgrowing’ is a spontaneous process, rather than a willed process. It happens, like happiness or peace of mind, despite our efforts in this direction and not because of them!

 

To sum up, anxiety occurs as a result of us trying to find a security for ourselves that isn’t there. Another way of putting this is to say that anxiety is our automatic, unreflective rejection of a profound type of freedom, a freedom that we can’t avoid because it is intrinsic to our nature. We unconsciously want to hold on tight to an over-simplified or ‘black and white’ version of the world, a limited and defined version of world that we see in terms of ‘security’ but which does not exist outside of our imaginations. And if it were it to exist, it would be no more than a prison, a fundamental lack of freedom – an absolute obstacle to any change or psychological growth. To see that the security which we instinctively crave is impossible and that it wouldn’t do us any good even if we could achieve it is the essential first step towards freedom from anxiety. Everything else follows on from this key insight. When we realize that there is nothing to cling onto, then we will naturally stop putting so much effort into clinging, and the less effort we put into clinging the less anxious we will be. Anxiety is nothing other than clinging to something we can’t have, after all. We can’t have what we’re clinging onto (or rather attempting to cling onto) because it simply doesn’t exist…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Machine Self

The biggest thing that we don’t know, but would benefit immensely from knowing, is that we are constantly turning ourselves into machines, for all the world as if there was some great advantage to be had in this! We turn into machines out of laziness and fear of responsibility on the one hand, and as a result of the unrelenting pressure of society on the other hand, which wants us to become machines. Society wants us to become machines because it – needless to say – is itself a machine. Society is a machine and it needs us to become machines too.

 

A handy definition of a machine – in this context – is to say that a machine is something that always does everything for a reason. Alan Watts says that a person who always does everything for a purpose is a ‘vulture’, which is nicely put, but we could just as well say that such a person is ‘a machine’. When we put ourselves in the position of doing everything for a purpose’ we demean ourselves – worse than just demean, we lose ourselves. The mechanical world is a world in which consciousness is completely lost, like water soaking into blotting paper. Consciousness has nothing to do with purposes, and purposes have nothing to do with consciousness. Consciousness is another realm entirely, and purposes have no meaning here – they carry no weight.

 

‘Purposes’ are always smaller than we are, and so if we live for the sake of these purposes we become no bigger than they are. We become petty, in other words. We may say that the purposes in question are serving us of course, but this is simply not true! We serve our purposes, rather than vice versa. The boot is on the other foot.

 

This ought to be obvious – generally when we have a purpose or goal we say to ourselves (or think to ourselves) that we have to do such and such, or that we ought to do such and such. This is us being ruled by our purposes; if we could say ‘I can do such and such but I don’t have to’ then that would be entirely different but all too often we can’t say this (or even if we do say it, or do believe it) it isn’t  actually true. We just prefer to see things this way; we prefer not to uncover the true nature of our situation.

 

Often – very often in fact – when we succeed in obtaining a goal we feel good because the ‘pressure’ to obtain is gone and we feel great relief because of this. We have been a ‘successful slave’. The curious thing is that we actually see this pressure (which we can’t shake off until we’ve ‘done the thing that we’re supposed to do’) as being the very same thing as our own true motivation. We say that we are ‘motivated’! It might be ‘motivation,’ but it’s not ours however!

 

Whenever we feel that we are not doing well enough, that we not ‘making the grade’, that we have ‘failed’, that we have let ourselves (or someone else) down, then this is because of this external (or extrinsic) motivation. We are being ‘bullied from the inside’, to put it bluntly and this relentless bully, this heartless ‘inner critic’, isn’t our own true motivation. It has nothing to do with us whatsoever – it’s a ‘foreign introject’. Genuine motivation isn’t like this – genuine motivation isn’t a tyrant, isn’t a bully, isn’t relentlessly punishing if we don’t manage to do whatever it is that we are ‘supposed to have done’.

 

Our own true motivation never makes us feel bad in this way; it inspires us rather than forces us to engage in the task. It’s based on curiosity and playfulness rather than ‘crude non-negotiable need’. Everyone talks about ‘satisfying our needs’ but needs for machines, not human beings. ‘Pressure is for tires’, as they say. Needs are unfree – they are rules that we have to obey. ‘Needs’ are the stick that beats us up and down the garden path, and the rewarding feeling that we get when we meet them is due more to the relief from the pain of the need as anything else. The cessation of all-pervading, all-conditioning pain equals pleasure.

 

True motivation (which is intrinsic not extrinsic) isn’t all about ‘goals’ or ‘end results’. That’s ‘machine talk’! True motivation is about the process, not the end results. It isn’t about ‘end-gaming’, it isn’t about ‘ticking the box’ so that we can feel better and then move on to the next task. It’s not driven by goals, but by the genuine heartfelt interest we feel in engaging in whatever process it is that we are engaging in. We’re doing it simply ‘because we doing it’, not because we hope to get something out of it. We aren’t being ‘vultures’, we’re being human beings. Who wants to go around being a greedy old vulture, after all?

 

It remains true of course that in some respects we are machines, inasmuch as we are generally subject to certain hardwired rules or needs. That is in our biology, that’s part of being living organisms – if we are hungry then we have to eat, and there’s no getting away from this. There are also ‘psychological needs’ like ‘the need to be accepted by the people around us’ (or ‘the need to belong’) and these needs also have their place. We don’t need to let them rule our lives, or determine everything about us, but we can acknowledge that they are there, and give them due respect on this basis. We have a ‘machine-like’ aspect, but we are also tremendously more than that. We can be ‘machine’ and ‘not machine’ at the same time, and that is the whole art of living consciously!

 

The ‘Great Tendency’ is however (as we have said) for the Machine Self to take over and become the whole of who we are. The Machine Self is a jealous god and it tolerates no other influences – if it can, it will devour us whole every day. It does devour us whole every day! This is Rumi’s ‘lower self’ – the fearsome dragon which must never be woken up. If it gets woken up it will gobble us up in a flash and then extrinsic motivation will be the only type of motivation there is and everything will become about obtaining goals, following rules and ‘doing things for a purpose’. Life will become a mere mechanical routine. As a result of falling into the mechanical mode of being we become alienated from our own humanity and it’s not just ‘easy’ for this to happen – it’s what almost always does happen. It’s a foregone conclusion. This is what society will unfailingly do to us, if we just stand by and let it. We’re willing participants in the process. We ‘do it to ourselves’, we are complicit in the conspiracy without knowing that we are. That’s what society is, after all – it’s an unconscious thing; it’s ‘us doing all of this to ourselves’. We are all busy doing this thing to ourselves; busy turning ourselves into machines without any free (or unconditioned) consciousness, for all the world as if this were ‘a good thing’….

 

Being reduced to the level of our purposes and our thoughts is as we have said a demeaning kind of a thing – it strips us of what is best of us, leaving nothing behind but a mechanical husk. Our purposes (or thoughts) end up defining our whole lives, defining who we are, and yet they have nothing to do with us really – they are trivial things, superficial things, meaningless things. Our purposes would mean something if they served our true being, if they served who we really are, but they don’t. Who we really are has been lost in all this unceasing mechanical ‘busy-ness’, which always claims to be serving some so-called ‘higher purpose’, but which doesn’t. We’re caught up in an endless circular game that has no ‘purpose’ outside of itself. It is its own goal.

 

There is no ‘higher purpose’ to the mechanical life, to ‘life as a machine’ – there is only ‘busy-ness for the sake of busy-ness’, pointless busy-ness which leads on to nothing more than yet more pointless busy-ness. We’re kept so busy with all the purposeful doing that we never get the chance to see what we have lost through it, which is our true (non-mechanical) nature. We’ve have become alienated from this nature, and so would no longer recognize it even if we came across it. We think that our well-being is something to strive for mechanically, something that needs to be obtained or won but it isn’t. It’s there already, and can only be discovered when we STOP striving and grasping all the time…