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…

 

 

 

 

 

Working With Anxiety

There is no such thing as a ‘technical fix for anxiety’. There can be on the short term, to be sure, but only at the price of ‘aggravating the original problem and causing it to rebound onus even more painfully in the future’. The so-called ‘technical fix’ isn’t any kind of ‘fix’ at all therefore, it’s only a postponement.

 

The only thing that can really help with anxiety is gaining perspective, and a gain in perspective doesn’t come about as a result of any technical procedure or methodology that we might engage in! Technical procedures only ever reduce our perspective; the ‘problem-solving approach’ only ever reduces our perspective. The reason for this is nothing if not obvious – by going all-out to ‘fix’ a problem we automatically reaffirm the importance, the centrality, the validity of that problem! We ‘narrow things down’…

 

Anxiety – we might say – is where problems or issues get ‘blown up out of all proportion’. This might seem like a rather childishly simplistic or ‘non-technical’ way of talking about anxiety (i.e. it may not sound fancy enough for us) but it is all the same an excellent, down-to-earth definition of what it means to be anxious. Things bother us that really oughtn’t to bother us, and not only did they ‘bother’ us and completely disturb our peace of mind, they put us through the ringer. This is no small inconvenience we’re talking about here –  if anything that comes into our head is liable to get blown up out of all proportion (and as a result cause us maximum distress) then life very quickly becomes all but impossible. We run into a brick wall.

 

Saying that things get ‘blown up out of all proportion when we are anxious’ is of course just another way of saying that anxiety comes out of our ‘lack of perspective’. Who could possibly argue with this? And what this means – as we have said – is that they cannot be any such thing as a ‘technical fix’. This ought to be obvious to us but somehow it isn’t – in this excessively rational world of ours we fondly imagine that ‘technical fixes’ are the answer to everything. We fondly imagine that control is the answer to everything, so that if only we can get good enough at controlling (and have the right strategies at hand) then all our problems will be at an end.

 

When we try to solve something then as we have said this automatically reaffirms whatever problem it is that we are trying to solve as being important, as having the status of ‘needing to be solved’. The issue in question undergoes a shift and becomes ‘absolutely important’ rather than instead of just ‘relatively important’, which is its true status. Fixing immediately narrows our focus, narrows our sense of perspective, and so the anxiety around the issue in question gets aggravated rather than lessened and there is no way that this cannot be the case! This is always, always, always what happens when we try to control.

 

When we try to fix (or solve) anxiety then we doing the most unhelpful thing we could ever possibly do! Straightaway we are losing perspective – straightaway anxiety is becoming a bigger and bigger issue, straightaway everything is becoming very ‘black-and-white’, which is another way of saying that they are only two possibilities for us – either we ‘fix’ the anxiety (which is that ‘good outcome’) so we fail to fix it (which is the ‘bad outcome’). Black and white thinking lies at the very heart of anxiety, at the very heart of neurosis. Black-and-white thinking actually IS anxiety!

 

The only thing that helps to ‘loosen the knot of anxiety’ is perspective, and there’s no technical fix for this, as we keep saying. They can’t be a technical fix for the increasing of perspective for the reasons that we have just gone into. The very idea that there could a technical way of increasing perspective is utterly absurd, utterly ridiculous. Perspective is what we get when we aren’t trying to control. We’d have to be suffering from a chronic lack of perspective not to see this! What this term ‘perspective’ means is that we’re not being hemmed in by any biases or prejudices; it means that we have lots of possible different ways of seeing or relating to the world, and as soon as we start thinking in terms of ‘defined outcomes’ and ‘specified ways of obtaining these outcomes’ (i.e. strategies’) then we end up with only the one way of seeing things. We end up with only the one way of seeing the world and this is the ‘black-and-white way’, the polar viewpoint which says there is either ‘winning’ or ‘losing’, ‘getting it right’ or ‘getting it wrong’.

 

This view of things (which equals ‘the fixing view’ or ‘the controlling view’) is the very epitome of an unfree state of mind, even though we can’t generally see it as such. We don’t see this black-and-white state of mind as being ‘unfree’ (and therefore ‘suffering-producing’) because we are so hypnotised by the prospect of the so-called ‘positive outcome’. We think that if we obtain the positive outcome then everything will be OK. We think that if we can just ‘tick this box’ then we will finally be free, then we will finally be at peace. This is completely and utterly untrue however – this belief is actually what is stopping us from being free, stopping us from being peace. What’s stopping us from being free is our black and white way of seeing the world, and straining after a defined outcome (or goal’) is not going to take us out of our black-and-white thinking! Straining to obtain the goal is only going to aggravate the problem yet further, as we keep saying.

 

When we try to ‘solve anxiety’ what we really trying to do, unbeknownst to ourselves, is ‘solve life’ and the reason we say this is because ‘life’ (or ‘reality’) is a state of unconditional open-endedness, which is to say, it is ‘the unbounded state in which there are an infinite number of possibilities, none of which have been decided upon yet’. Trying to ‘solve life’ isn’t a good road that to go down, obviously enough – it isn’t a good idea to treat life as ‘a problem that needs to be solved’! ‘Solving life’ means ‘narrowing it down to manageable proportions’; it means restricting it so that there aren’t so many different possibilities in it any more. ‘Solving’ life means closing it down, in other words, and this is what we are constantly trying to do with all our black-and-white thinking, with all our busy-busy goal-orientated activity.

 

When we reduce life down to ‘only the one possibility’ what we’re actually doing is turning it into something that isn’t life. This is our solution to life’s existential challenge – to hide away in our beliefs, our routines, our narrow way of interacting with the world. This solution – as any psychotherapist will tell you – is no solution at all when it comes down to it; it is no solution at all because instead of actually helping ourselves we are creating extra problems! By ‘running away from openness’ we are actually creating problems that aren’t really there; we are ‘reducing our perspective as a means of making things better for us’ and yet this lack of perspective – as we have said – is the root cause of all our neurosis, the root cause of all our anxiety and existential dread. Closing down life (i.e. ignoring it, or ‘living it only on our terms’!) creates all our problems rather than solving them.

 

This discussion is all very well, but what we really want to know is how to go about regaining the perspective that we have lost. What can we do to help ourselves when ‘straining for outcomes’ isn’t the answer? The very first thing that we need to know – and understand very clearly – is that ‘methods’ and ‘strategies’ and ‘procedures’ aren’t going to be of any help at all. This is a tremendous thing to understand – we are all so very convinced that controlling is the answer to everything that it takes an awful lot to shake this monumental belief! When we do see this then it naturally happens that we stop investing so very much in control, and this eases our anxiety straightaway. A precious bit of perspective comes back into the picture, like a ray of sunshine falling in a dark cave. We’ve come back to ourselves a bit.

 

It is the unexamined belief in the power of controlling to fix all our problems that fuels our anxiety – trying to control is ‘adding petrol to the fire in the misguided attempt to put it out’. When our absolute unquestioned allegiance to (or investment in) control as ‘the way to go’ has had a dent put in it then our ‘mechanical reacting’ no longer has the vicious force in it that it used to have. There’s still plenty of force there, there’s still plenty of momentum, but is not the same – the ‘dark spell’ that kept us trapped in this business of ‘blind mechanical reacting’ is now been broken and as a result things can only get better. What helps anxiety is not to compulsively try to fix it (or fix the particular problems that we are worried about) but to ‘practice staying in the present moment’ and this is not a strategy.

 

There is a ‘simple rule of thumb’ that we can apply here. There are (we might say) only two things that can be going on with us at any point in time – either there is ‘trying to control’ or there is ‘staying in the present moment’. When we ‘try to control’ then we are reaching out for defined goals, defined outcomes, and this is reducing our perspective on things and creating black-and-white (i.e. compulsive) thinking. Our attempts to control engenders anxiety in other words and this is the ‘basic equation’ that we need to remember – “the attempt to control equals anxiety”. There is no controlling involved in staying in the present moment – the present moment has already been obtained, after all! It’s already there! All we need to do is ‘notice what’s happening, no matter what is happening’ and there is no controlling in this. This is called ‘being in the world’ and this no controlling involved in ‘being in the world’! This is the very thing that we keep forgetting. We forget that we don’t need to do anything in order just to ‘be’ and as a result we get caught in the trap of trying to control our own reality.

 

Anxiety – we might say – arises out of unconsciousness. By ‘unconsciousness’ we mean ‘investing everything in controlling, and thereby turning our backs on the present moment’. Controlling may take us into the future, or it may take us back into the past, but it will never bring it into the present moment! Being conscious, on the other hand, means that we aren’t forever trying to stay in control. ‘Control’ and ‘consciousness’ exist in inverse proportion, therefore, and this is just another way of saying that consciousness is the same thing as perspective. This doesn’t mean that we can’t ever control, or that it somehow ‘wrong’ to seek to control, it just means that we don’t try to control what doesn’t need to be controlled. It means that we don’t try to solve life itself. We are controlling out of awareness, in other words, rather than out of blind reflexive compulsion. We control when it is helpful to do so and we ‘let go’ when it isn’t helpful and we are able to do this because we have a bit of perspective on things. Without perspective the inevitable result is that we try to control all the time; we try to control all the time because we have forgotten that we don’t actually need to! We are ‘slaves to the need to control’ and the need isn’t a real one – it comes out of lack of perspective, lack of awareness. We live in a world where everything is controlling in other words, and this is because we have lost sight of any other world.

 

It might seem rather ‘over-simplistic’ or ‘inadequate’ to talk about the answer to anxiety being something as nebulous as ‘staying in the present moment’. When we are suffering from anxiety it definitely doesn’t sound concrete enough (or technical enough) to be of any use! No one is telling us things that we need to do, steps that we ought to take. We have not been handed any method or strategy which we can place our trust in. But if someone did give us some concrete method or strategy then they wouldn’t be helping us, they would merely be adding to our suffering, as if there wasn’t enough of it there already.

 

Our usual approach is to narrow down the field of possibilities until only two possible outcomes exist; we ‘narrow things down’ until it seems to us that only the two possible outcomes exist – ‘succeed’ or ‘fail’, ‘win’ or ‘lose’. All that’s left for us then is to hope that we get the right rather than wrong! Neither of these outcomes are ‘real things’ however – they are simply ‘ideas’, they are ‘over-simplified mental projections of an imaginary future’. Out of our complete lack of perspective we have personalised life into only two things  – ‘fixing the problem’ and ‘not fixing it’, ‘getting it right’ and  ‘getting it wrong’. If we had our precious perspective back again however we would immediately see that life has got nothing whatsoever to do with fixing problems, we would see that it has nothing to do with ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

 

The only real thing there ever could be is the ‘wide-open field of undecided possibilities’ that is the present moment. There’s nothing over-simplistic or inadequate about this therefore – what IS over-simplistic is our regular approach to life, which is to try to reduce it into a set of abstract polarities, such as yes and no, win or lose, right and wrong. Staying in the present moment means disengaging from our thinking therefore and this isn’t a strategy because if it were then we would be engaging with our thinking rather than disengaging! When we disengage from our thinking we come back into the world where there is no right and no wrong, no need to control, no need to ‘automatically fix’, and this is a world which isn’t ruled by anxiety. This is the world that exists outside of our thinking.

 

 

 

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…

 

 

 

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.