Increasing Perspective


What is perspective? Most people would probably answer that perspective has something to do with ‘seeing things from more than just one angle’ – of being able to get the true picture, i.e. not just a one-sided or narrow view of what we are looking at. There is also the implication of not being too ‘up close’ to our problem, perspective means being able to pull back so that we do not get trapped by one way of looking at what is going on. This means that perspective is basically a way of talking about freedom, we might say ‘freedom of perception.’ When I have freedom of perception I can look at an object in lots of different ways, and when I add up all these different viewpoints I get an ‘all-round’ view.  Once I have an all-round view, I am not so likely to jump to conclusions about my situation. I am not so likely to subscribe to a distorted view of reality, and therefore I will be able to act more effectively. If I have a problem, I will be able to see that problem (and my own part in it) that much more clearly.


There is a story about four men and an elephant that is sometimes used to illustrate this idea.  The story goes like this: Four men bump into an elephant one day, in the dark. None of them has ever heard of an elephant before, and they are all very interested in the strange creature that they have encountered. They have a meeting to try to come to some basic agreement about what sort of beast they have discovered. The first man bumped into the side of the elephant and he says that the elephant is a bit like a wall. The second man met the trunk and so he says that an elephant is rather like a giant snake. The third man came across an ear and he thinks that an elephant is just like a huge fan. The forth man found a leg and so he says that an elephant is like nothing so much as a massive tree trunk. All four are right, given the perspective they were operating from, and yet at the same time none of them are right, because they each try to use their limited perspective to explain the whole thing.  Complete perspective in this case would be to examine the elephant from every single side, and then take all the different aspects into account to see what they add up to.


If I jump to the (understandable) conclusion that an elephant is best pictured as a ‘wall-like creature’, and then proceed to interact with all the elephants I ever meet on the basis of this premature and incomplete understanding, then all my future dealing with elephants are going to fraught with difficulties. This is because I will not actually be interacting with an elephant, but only with my idea of an elephant – which is not at all the same thing! For this reason my actions will backfire on me – unexpected problems will keep coming up that I am quite unable to understand, and which, naturally enough, I never will be able to understand just as long as I stick to my one-sided theory (or ‘model’) of elephants.


This example is of course rather over-simplified and not entirely plausible either, but we can apply it to real-life situations all the same.  Everyone of us interacts with the world on the basis of an incomplete or premature understanding. That is to say, every single person has a model for what is going on.  It is a fact that models, without exception, are always incomplete; there is inevitably going to be a difference between reality and our idea of it – no one can get around that. If this wasn’t so then life could never surprise us, and it always does, sooner or later; that is how we learn stuff – through being surprised!  The trouble is, of course, that there is a part of us which doesn’t like surprises very much, and this is why we have a natural tendency to want to have a theory that ‘explains everything’.  Another way to put this would be to say that we really want to believe that our map matches the territory exactly, and that there is nothing significant that we have left out, lurking in the twilight zone somewhere. Once we believe that we have a map that matches reality in every detail, then we are able to do what we really want to do, i.e. hand over responsibility to it. Life is under control, I say to myself, I have it licked!  There is a big danger here, though: when we completely identify with our map of reality we can’t actually tell the difference between the idea and the truth any more. Our thoughts become the word, they become all there is – we never go beyond them any more. This is ‘loss of perspective,’ big time. When we think we know it all, we are no longer capable of learning and growing; as a result, life has lost its flavour – it becomes a technicality, a job, a foregone conclusion one way or the other.


Usually when we hear of someone who thinks they know it all, we think that they must be big-headed or arrogant. There is however, another, more common, reason for us jumping to the unwarranted conclusion that we know it all, and that reason is fear! This might seem like a bit of an odd suggestion, but let us consider it a bit further. When I am frightened I feel that I can’t afford to hang around in the ‘scared place,’ I have to do something fast to get out of there. Now, there is no way that I can hit upon a plan and put that plan into action without jumping to the conclusion that I know what is happening – I need a map in order to act, and once I start acting there is no time to question whether that map was right in the first place. I cannot afford, at that stage, to question my basic assumptions; at least, I don’t feel as if I can. As long as I am doing something ‘definite’  about my situation I feel a bit more secure and the last thing I want to do is consider the possibility that my action is based on an inaccurate representation of reality, and therefore useless, or even worse-than-useless. I’d rather carry on acting, and feeling secure in acting – ignorance is bliss, as they say! This sort of unquestioning action is mechanical in nature, it is unconscious and automatic.


Fear comes in many guises – it might be that we really want (or need) something, in which case the fear is the fear of not getting it, the fear of not having our needs met.  Generally speaking, fear occurs because of the awareness of uncertainty, or ‘lack of security,’ and the behaviour it tends to inspire is action that is geared towards increasing our sense of security and control. It is my need for control (i.e. my insecurity) that makes me want a theory that explains everything.


If my theory explains (and therefore predicts) everything, then the possibility of ‘total control’ is only one step away. Total control is our dream – it equals ‘total security’. Or so we think. Total control means that we can have everything ‘our own way,’ and who does not want this?  This is what we tend to think of when we hear the word freedom – we think of ‘the freedom to have everything the way we want it…’  Put another way, we think of the freedom to have whatever we want. Great…..  Fantastic…… But is this really freedom? What if our underlying understanding is incomplete? What if we’ve missed out something important out in our haste to feel that we have things ‘under control’?  If all maps are incomplete, as we have said that they are, then the ‘freedom to have things the way we want them to be’ actually means ‘the freedom to escape reality,’ or ‘the freedom to live in an imaginary place’.  What we are dreaming of is the freedom to live in a world which exactly matches our incomplete idea of it, which sounds a bit strange, to say the least. Even if we could have this so-called ‘freedom’ to be in a place where reality cannot reach us, would that turn out to be as great as we think, or would it not turn out to be some kind of ghastly nightmare?  After all, if I am not in reality, then just where the hell am I?


There is another question I could ask. If I am not in a real place, then perhaps I am not being my real self either. And when I am not being my true self, then just who am I being? When I am completely identified with my map of myself, I am not being myself, but only my false idea of myself. In other words, I am putting on a show, or an act. True happiness, it is said, comes about through discovering who one really is, being true to oneself.  “If only I could just be myself…” I say.  “Just act naturally, be yourself…” advise my friends (in the fond belief that they are saying something helpful).  But how do I go about discovering my true self? ‘Being myself’ sounds so simple, yet everything I do seems to take me further away from it; the more I try to control myself to be myself (or, more accurately, what I think ‘myself’ should be) the more wrong I seem to go.  This is the very root of the problem – my inability to be myself through trying is the very thing which stands in the way of my happiness. ‘Trying’ means that I act purposefully on the basis of my ideas, and because my idea about who I am is not who I am, trying only makes me more artificial.


Just like there is a feeling of security in having a 100% reliable map of reality, so too there is security in ‘knowing who I am’.  Society itself provides us with well-defined roles and identities: I am a father, a patient, an income tax accountant, a Hell’s Angel, a free-mason, a communist, an alcoholic, a sports-fan, etc. I also have a nationality: I am German, or Irish, or Japanese! All of these descriptions provide security and predictability, the only problem being that they are not really who I am at all. Okay, so I can take on these roles, but they do not define me – there is always more to me than just a father or or just a patient.  Someone may point at me and say “so, you are English…” and then think that this says something important about me, but it doesn’t.  It leaves an awful lot out! Because our roles are not the whole truth about us, this is a guaranteed recipe for trouble. There is a conflict going on between my map and the reality which it is trying to explain.


As we have said, there is always a strong tendency for us to identify with our descriptions of reality and take them to be 100% reliable. When we are under any kind of stress we do this, and then the actions that we take on the basis of our narrow view of ourselves becomes increasingly ‘at odds’ with who we really are, which has the effect of making the original problem even worse.  A lot of the distress involved in ‘mental illness’ arises out of this mismatch between idea and reality: we are trying to fulfil some idea of who we are; we are provided with a set of assumptions about ‘who we are,’ and then we try to live up to them. Therapy, we might think, ought to allow us to play out our roles and games without any conflict or ‘role-stress’. But this conflict cannot be eliminated, and, even if it could, that in itself would be a disaster – we would be truly lost then, with no helpful pain to remind us that we have lost our authenticity somewhere along the line.


When I identify with a fixed idea of ‘who I am,’ then I lose vital perspective, and this loss of perspective causes inflexibility, the inability to grow and change as a person. Identification provides a feeling of security; identification gives us something to grab hold of – a solid, non-ambiguous structure to rely on in times of trouble. The disadvantages, as we have said, are that I lose contact with my true self, and with the true nature of the ‘troublesome’ situation that I find myself in. This means that the conflict is actually perpetuated, and exacerbated, despite the illusory feeling that we are dong something positive.  This basic idea, that we reduce our own perspective deliberately (yet without really knowing what we are doing) in order to cope with stress, gives us a good way of looking at all neurotic states of mind. Phobias, depression, anxiety, obsessions, compulsions – all of these come down to ‘loss of perspective’. We are not just talking about the more unusual extremes of neurotic disturbance either – everyday neuroticism involves exactly the same principle, and so do the common negative emotions such as anger, jealousy, bitterness, self-pity, sulking, and so on. In all of these emotional states we experience a collapse of perspective which makes it impossible to see anything that can help us get out of the mood that we are in.  We can take a few examples:

[1]    ANGER    When I am angry I focus on stuff that makes me angry, and lose awareness of all the things that don’t help me in justifying myself in my anger. I see only one side of the story!

[2]   JEALOUSY    When I am jealous all the information I receive seems to support my idea that my partner is betraying me – there is no such thing as an ‘innocent explanation’. All the other explanations are simply unbelievable to me, I am no longer able to keep a balanced outlook.

[3]    SULKING   When I am sulking or bitter, everything I see serves to remind me of the wrong that has been done to me. I make myself into the centre of the universe and as a result I cannot get beyond this ‘poor me’ story even though there might be things happening around me that are fun and exciting.


Perspective means ‘freedom of perception’, and so the loss of perspective means being trapped in just the one way of seeing things.  I am not free to move from one viewpoint to another; I am restricted; am in a hole and I can’t climb out.  Normally, the viewpoints listed above such as anger, jealousy, etc, still exist, but so do all of the others, too. The difference is that I don’t dally with them – they hold no special attraction to them, and so I move on effortlessly. Nothing is excluded from my view of the world, and it is precisely this lack of exclusion that makes it a free-flowing situation; once I want to (consciously or unconsciously) block out certain ways of seeing the world, then the fluidity and freedom is lost. Therefore, the answer to being stuck in a negative mood or a neurotic, obsessive state of mind, might be said to be to increase perspective. When someone tells me this my most likely response will be to say “Fine, but how do I do this? How do I increase my perspective?”


This sounds like a helpful question to ask, but actually it isn’t all. In fact if I ask this question then what this really means is that I am looking for a way to increase my perspective that I can understand with the perspective that I already have. Asking ‘how’ means that I want to understand how to increase my perspective using the limited perspective (i.e. the map) that I am starting off from because any answer you give me will automatically be understood using ‘the limited way of understanding the world that is my usual everyday rational mind’. There is no way to get around this – if I can understand something then this means that it makes sense within the terms of my current map, and so I am never going to go beyond my map. Asking closed questions (questions that require a specific answer) re-affirms the validity of my habitual way of understanding the world, and so there is obviously no way in which this can ever lead to an increase in perspective (or ‘an increase in consciousness’, which is the same thing).


The only way to increase perspective is not by active ‘doing’, but by allowing the situation to be exactly the way it already is. So rather than ‘muscling in’ in a heavy-handed way and trying to control the situation  – whatever that situation might be – I remain sensitive to what is going on without doing what I normally do, which is automatically (and insensitively) trying to gain some sort of advantage. Even if I do nothing apart from mental reacting to the situation I find myself in, this too is keeping in control of what is going on because I am insisting on having my say. I am insisting on interpreting things in my way – the way that suits me. This is a way of staying in control because I am controlling the way I see the world so that I don’t have to see things in a way that I don’t like. As soon as I ease up on reacting, or trying to put my own slant on the proceedings then my understanding straight-away starts to develop in an unusual direction and this ‘unusual direction’ is due to the fact that I am allowing myself an extra bit of perspective on matters – I am allowing myself perspective that I would normally be struggling to suppress by staying in control.


Another way of explaining this point is to say that our perspective increases when we pay attention to whatever is making us feel bad. We tend to think that mental pain such as fear, anxiety or sadness causes us to lose perspective and get trapped as a result in a smaller world but really it is our reaction to mental pain that causes loss of perspective. Actually, losing perspective is something we do ‘secretly on purpose’ in order to escape from whatever it is that is troubling us – even though having very little perspective is thoroughly rotten in an oppressively cramped, dismally predictable, wretchedly unfree and claustrophobic sort of a way we choose (without really knowing what we are doing) this self-created prison rather than facing whatever it is that we are afraid to face. This is a good thing to understand for the reason that if we understand that loss of perspective is due to pain-avoidance then we know what the key to increasing perspective is purely and simply to pay careful attention to whatever it is that is causing us pain.


This tends to sound awfully morbid and unhealthy – we naturally assume that the way to go is to concentrate on the positive and the uplifting and try hard not to be preoccupied with all the rotten old negative stuff. It seems positively reprehensible to pay attention to feeling bad when there are so many wonderful – or potentially wonderful – sides to life. Why focus on misery as a way to increase perspective when we could gaze on the splendour of the stars, or immerse ourselves in the beauty of nature, or listen to glorious music? Gazing at the stars, going for a walk in the country, and listening to music can of course on occasion miraculously increase our sense of perspective on life but this does not mean that we can use them as ‘methods’. If we could then every time we felt bad which could just do one of these things and straightaway we would feel wonderful but the point is that it is just plain impossible to increase perspective as a way of escaping pain. I can’t use such a sublime thing as perspective for petty personal reasons – if my motivation is simply personal gain then the stark ‘lack of perspective’ inherent in this motivation will ensure that my attempt to increase my perspective comes to nothing. The same is true for creativity – if I try to tap into creativity in order to deliberately benefit myself in some way it just won’t work. The motivation behind the attempt to be creative is itself uncreative – personal gain (or pain-avoidance, which is the same thing) is always uncreative because its agenda is always fixed in advance. In fact there is nothing as profoundly uncreative as the motivation of greed-for-personal-benefit or fear-of-personal-loss. Nothing helpful can ever come from either greed or fear – fear and greed are states of mind that derive from a fundamental ‘lack of perspective’ and so any action that comes about as a result of this closed (or uncreative) type of motivation is bound simply to indefinitely perpetuate that lack of perspective. Greed cannot be used to escape greed any more than fear can be used to escape fear!


One reason we give for not paying attention to painful feelings or thoughts is that it puts us in danger of becoming obsessively fixated on our own misery. But this isn’t really true at all because what causes us to become fixated (or ‘stuck’) is the fact that we are fighting against these feelings or thoughts. When we find ourselves with an inner state that is unhappy or fearful or painful in any way we automatically resist that state – we struggle to change it to a state that is easier to bear, in other words. This tactic is perfectly understandable but it is also the worst thing that we could possibly do because fighting against my inner state means that I am negatively attached to it, and if I am attached to it clearly it is going to stay with me. Paying attention to my inner state is not at all the same as fighting against it, or complaining about it. Paying attention is, on the contrary, a fundamentally non-aggressive sort of a thing and for this reason it dissolves the existing attachment rather than creating additional attachment. Actually there is absolutely no way to aggressively or violently dissolve attachment because aggression and violence are themselves prime manifestations of attachment. The only way to dissolve attachment is by peaceful means and a peaceful approach basically involves remaining open to whatever the state is, without reacting, without ‘doing anything about it’. The temptation is of course to either ‘do something about the painful state of mind’ or to ‘ignore it’. Ignoring your state of mind is aggressive just as distracting yourself from your state of mind is aggressive and so ignoring and self-distracting create attachment just as much as fighting or complaining do.


The way Krishnamurti explains this is to say that we always bring our own agenda to the situation, and it is this agenda that ensures that we get stuck. Therefore, if I am feeling bad in any way I don’t accurately perceive what this bad feeling is about, and I don’t accurately perceive what it feels like to feel like this. What I do perceive is what the situation feels like from the point of view of a person who can’t drop his agenda, and what this means is that I am only getting a ‘distorted’ picture of things. Obviously, anything I do on the basis of this distortion is bound simply to make things worse by translating this distortion into reality. The distortion is a distortion because it is a misrepresentative or ‘one-sided’ view of things  – basically it is how things look to me when I have lost all perspective and any reaction that I make faithfully ‘echoes’ my original lack of perspective and perpetuates it indefinitely.


So what is the distorting agenda that we unnecessarily bring with us into difficult situations, and which guarantees that we get hopelessly stuck in the misery of counterproductive or ‘self-defeating’ behaviour? One way to answer this question is to say that the agenda always has to do with acting as if something matters very much indeed (or matters ‘absolutely’) when actually it doesn’t very matter at all. We can make this clear by giving a slightly silly example: suppose I have mislaid my special platinum pen that was given to me as a first prize in some sort of writing competition. This annoys me and I cannot rest until I find it, even though I could get by equally well using a biro, of which there are many on my desk. In this situation what happens is that I get upset and frustrated and do not get on with the work that I have to do and the reason I have such a hard time of it is because I have insisted on finding the pen that I had lost. No other pen will do.  The ‘distorting influence’ here is the allocation of a huge amount of importance to something that isn’t in reality as important as we say it is. The reason finding my special pen is so important to me – so important to me that I waste a whole morning looking for it and getting in thoroughly bad form in the process of not finding it – is because I have said that it is important. I have set my heart on having it, and so I ‘have to’ have it, but it was me who freely decided to insist on having it in the first place so there isn’t really a ‘have to’ at all. Or to put it another way – finding the pen is only important because I have made it important (i.e. it only matters because I have said that it does).


The ‘unnecessary’ nature of the agenda, along with all the unnecessary trouble it causes for us, can be easily seen in the case of the special platinum pen but what exactly is the agenda that causes us to get stuck in miserable, self-frustrating states of mind – states of mind that are characterized by what we might call ‘futile or counterproductive struggling’? In the case of these miserable states of mind, which are commonly referred as ‘bad moods’, ‘negative emotions’ and ‘neuroticism’, the agenda is that a particular type of mental pain should not be felt. This tends to sound utterly ridiculous because we think that of course it matters that mental pain, or physical pain for that matter, should not be felt by us. Physical pain usually means that there is some sort threat to our bodily integrity and therefore because it makes sense to avoid threats to our bodily integrity, it also makes sense to avoid physical pain if we can. Mental pain, however, is a different kettle of fish because it does not signify a threat to our ‘mental health’ that needs be avoided at all costs – on the contrary, if we avoid mental pain then this avoidance itself becomes a threat to our mental health.  What ‘mental pain’ actually comes down to is a type of awareness that for some reason we find threatening and that we are utterly determined not to feel, without knowing (or even caring) why it is that we are so determined not to feel it.


Strangely enough, this sort of reaction, the reaction where we automatically fight against certain possibilities of awareness without knowing or caring why we are so dead set against them is inherent in the very nature of the everyday self which – when it comes right down to it – has its allegiance to repeating or reiterating the patterns of the past, whether or not these patterns are useful, or even make sense at all. The reason that the conditioned (i.e. habitual) self is able to successfully do this lies in its indefatigable ability to validate its own patterns of thinking and behaviour to itself, no matter how absurdly counterproductive they might be!


The way that the conditioned self does this is by looking at things only in a particular narrow way, which means making sure that it does not look at things in any other way. It is for this reason that ‘increasing perspective’ is actually the very last thing that the conditioned self wants to do! A good example of what we mean when we say this is provided by anger – if I get angry because you have taken my parking space then the only reason that I am able to get so self-righteously angry is because I believe that the parking space was mine not yours. I have set my heart on having it and then you come along and take it from me under my very nose, so to speak. This makes me feel very bad and I blame you for this bad feeling, but actually the only reason I feel so bad is because I have said to myself that the parking space is rightfully mine, end of story.


If I didn’t insist on taking this position I wouldn’t feel the intense upsurge of righteous anger that I do feel, but rather than seeing that I am ‘doing it all myself’ (by refusing to look at things any other way) I say that my mental pain is your fault, and so my anger justifies itself, over and over again. An increase in perspective would mean that I would lose all justification, and so the mechanism of anger is one in which the possibility of me looking at things in any other way other than the anger-producing one is effectively prevented. I am ‘permanently validated’, in other words, and this gimmick of being ‘permanently validated’ is what being ‘the conditioned self’ is all about. We are always justifying our position to ourselves, even though this position is at all times perfectly arbitrary, perfectly gratuitous!


If we were to become ‘aware of ourselves’ (i.e. accurately perceive what we are actually doing) this act of observation would therefore increase our perspective on what is going on, and this increase in perspective would de-validate us! This feels bad because we are deeply invested in ‘being right’, but even though it feels bad, it is profoundly freeing at the same time because we are now free from the onerous task of always having to be propping up an untenable position, a position that is ultimately unworkable because it is arbitrary, because it is ‘gratuitous’. Gaining perspective hurts, in other words, because gaining perspective shines awareness on mechanical processes that (as P.D. Ouspensky says) no longer function in the light. And yet this ‘pain’ – even though we do not see it at the time – is really nothing other than the joyful dawning of our dawning freedom…


Image taken from:







The System of Belief


There is a hope that we all carry around with us, a hope that we never quite give up on, and that is the hope that – one day – we will actually ‘get things to work out the way we want them to’. Admittedly, this doesn’t seem to want to happen for us, but nevertheless we remain convinced that it will happen one day! Or that could happen. And even if I have grown cynical, and have now believe that ‘things will never work out’, I hold on all the more to the belief that the universe ought to play ball with me, that it is sheer perversity that it doesn’t. As a result of this, I get stuck in ‘angry mode’ or ‘frustrated mode’ or ‘complaining mode’, or ‘feeling sorry for myself mode,’ or some other variation on this theme.



What is basically happening in all these cases is that I am taking it completely for granted that the universe ought to conform to my beliefs about it. In other words, I have certain unexamined (or unconscious) assumptions about ‘the way things should be’ and every time life fails to happen the way I think it should happen (every time it refuses to play ball with me) then I go into some well-rehearsed variant of ‘non-acceptance’. Now it is a well-known fact that the universe doesn’t really care if I accept it or not – it just carries on as usual, regardless of my hurt feelings. As a result I end up spending an awful lot of my time getting upset and unhappy on behalf of these ill thought-out beliefs and assumptions. More often than not, I have a terrible time because of them.



I tend to see the fault for all this in the wrong place. Either I see the fault in other people or in life in general for letting me down (for being so rude as to not fit in with my expectations), or I see the fault in myself, for not being able win out over difficult circumstances. In the first case I project the blame outwards and I get angry because life doesn’t play ball with me, and in the second case I project the blame inwards and despise myself for being a loser because I am not able to force life to play ball with me. Either way it all comes down to blame – either I blame the world or I blame myself.



Both of these two reactions are equally absurd. The idea that the universe ought to fit in with my expectations of it is completely without foundation, and the idea that it ought to be possible for me to force the universe to do what I want it to do is also completely without foundation. Both of these two assumptions are laughably absurd, and yet I end up giving myself (and maybe other people as well) pure hell on their behalf. What is needed to cure this ridiculous situation is insight into the impossible nature of what I am trying so hard to achieve. Insight into reality is the infallible cure – in the absence of insight I will keep on struggling forever, oblivious to the absurdity of my efforts.




Another possibility that we have not so far looked at is the possibility that I will simply worry about things not going the way I think they ought to. I may sometimes get angry or frustrated, and I may develop low self-esteem, but primarily I am caught up in the particular type of mental agony that we know as anxiety. Anxiety is no different from any other variant of ‘blind non-acceptance’ – it is every bit as useless and every bit as absurd, and we spend an awful lot of time caught up in it, just as with all the other types of non-acceptance.



What is happening in anxiety is that I have certain unexamined beliefs concerning what I think is a ‘good’ outcome and what I think is a ‘bad’ outcome, and I end up going through hell on behalf of these beliefs. However, if you actually tell me that my beliefs are not worth feeling bad over then I tend to get rather insulted. Either that or I start to think that you are simply talking nonsense. This reaction of ‘feeling insulted’ or of being ‘automatically dismissive’ deserves our attention because it shows us something that we don’t usually realize – it shows us that we are for some reason identified with our beliefs, our assumptions. If I am identified with my beliefs then this simply means that they are important to me for some reason that I do not allow myself to know about – it means that I will protect them no matter what, for ‘no good reason’. I will go through torment on their behalf, and I certainly won’t want to question them and ask myself just how valid they really are, in any objective sense.




This uncritical attachment to our beliefs is no small matter – on the contrary, it lies right at the root of all our sorrows, and so it is seriously worth focussing on. The question is – What do we get out of our beliefs? Why are they so important to us? There are a number of ways in which we could try to answer this question. One way is to say that our beliefs are what hold our world together, and we instinctively know that if we start questioning our beliefs, then the whole thing is likely to unravel. We automatically assume (without ever thinking it through) that this would be an awful catastrophe – a disaster of the worst possible kind.



Normally, we naively think that we believe things because they are true, but if we stopped to consider the matter then we would of course start to smell a rat. After all – the whole thing about having a belief is that I want for it to be true and if I want so badly for it to be true, then how can I be sure that there is not some sort of self-deception going on? How can I trust myself, given the fact that – when it comes right down to it – I am not exactly an impartial judge in this matter?




Actually, the only way that I can ever be able to see the truth is when I do not come to the scene ‘already prejudiced’. I can only see the truth when I don’t care what that truth is – when I am impartial. The ‘believing’ frame of mind however is partial; it is partial because I secretly want to believe whatever it is that I do believe. The whole business of ‘believing stuff’ relies entirely on the fact that I am not willing to question myself – if I have a belief then this automatically means that I am not open to the possibility that the belief may not be true. In other words, a belief is a closed frame of mind. Needless to say, when I am possessed by some sort of belief or conviction about something I don’t go around thinking to myself “I have a closed mind.” If I acknowledged that I am only able to be convinced about something because I am in a closed frame of mind, then this would immediately throw a very large amount of doubt on the value or trustworthiness of the particular belief or conviction.




A belief only gets to have credibility because of the fact that we assume that we do not in fact have a closed mind. This is like a judge who comes to a trial having already made up his mind that the defendant is as guilty as hell, but who pretends both to himself and everyone else that he is willing to be open-minded about things. To be a judge, he has to appear to others to be fair-minded and impartial even if he has already made up his mind. He also has to appear fair-minded to himself – otherwise he is not going to feel very good about himself. In exactly the same way when I have a belief I have to entertain the comforting illusion that the belief is not just some arbitrary or prejudicial conviction, but a fair and even-minded assessment of the truth. I have to do this in order to benefit from the nice cozy reassuring and secure feeling that the belief gives me.



In conclusion, we can say that the reason that my beliefs and assumptions are so important to me that I would rather go through hell than examine or question them, is because they provide me with a very special sort of security that I seriously do not want to give up. This is the crucial point – the fixed pattern of my thinking is important to me in an unacknowledged way. It is important to me not because it is objectively useful, or objectively correct, but because it fulfils my unacknowledged need for psychological security.




We can also explain the feeling of security that I get in terms of personal validation – I get to feel good about myself, I get to be convinced that I am right, that I don’t have to question myself. This business goes a lot deeper than it might sound because the ‘freedom not to question myself’ really comes down to the ‘freedom to believe whatever the hell I want to believe’, and this in turn comes down to the ‘freedom to escape reality’.



Why would we want to escape reality? One answer is to say that the universal reason for wanting to escape reality is FEAR, which therefore means that our very serious desire for the security of our beliefs is the same thing as our very serious desire to escape our fear – whatever that fear might be about. The desire to hold on is the same thing as the ‘fear of letting go’, and what we hold on to is our belief system. Basically, our beliefs are our comfort blankets – they are what we rely on to make us feel safe.



This means that our system of belief and the purposeful activity that arises out of it, both have their root in fear. Beliefs are ‘the known’, and purposeful activity (which includes rational or directed thought) is the validation of the known. Our ‘purposes’ – which is to say our goals – become all-important to us and this has the automatic effect of reinforcing the invisible assumptions that they are based upon. This means that our goals aren’t important to us for the sake that we say they are important, but rather they are important because they reinforce our underlying system of belief. To put this another way, our goals are important to us because they give us a sense of meaning about what we are doing, and when we are ‘busy’ we feel automatically validated – we don’t have to question ourselves. This is ‘the comfort zone of goal-orientated behaviour’.



The validation of the known means that we are able to convince ourselves that ‘what we take to be true’ is the same thing as ‘the truth as it is in itself’, but this is never the case. The truth as it is in itself is always bigger and more expansive than myself, whereas the truth as I see it is the same size as myself – in fact it is the exact same thing as ‘myself’. The ‘known’ is no more than a projection of my own unexamined or unquestioned prejudices, and this bundle of accidentally acquired and unquestioned prejudices is what I call ‘me’.




This sounds like a strange thing to say, but when we reflect on the matter we can see that inasmuch as my thoughts and my beliefs and my conditioned perceptions represent ‘the known’, and inasmuch as I know myself through my thoughts and beliefs and conditioned perceptions, then it is splitting hairs to say that there is any difference between ‘the truth as I see it’ and the self which sees this truth. The self which sees the truth in the way that it unconsciously wants to see the truth is the self which sees its own beliefs as being true, and this self is necessarily part of its own belief system.



The conditioned truth and the conditioned self which sees this conditioned truth as being genuinely (i.e. unconditionally) true are one and the same thing. It couldn’t really be otherwise since the conditioned truth of ‘who I am’ has to be compatible the conditioned world which that conditioned self exists in. It is all ‘cut from the same cloth’ and there is no discontinuity anywhere within that cloth – there is no discontinuity between my ideas and the self that has the ideas.




All this is simply another way of saying that my underlying belief-system produces my idea of ‘who I am’. This means that my idea of who I am and my belief system are one and the same thing. I am my beliefs, or – rather, my beliefs are me. The whole thing is all one seamless unit, and that seamless unit is both the creation of my thinking, and the thinking itself. Furthermore, the whole kit and caboodle is only real (or valid) with respect to itself, which means that – ultimately – it is not real at all. After all, if a belief is merely an arbitrary description of reality that I have decided to go along with because it (secretly) suits me to go along with it, then where is the ‘reality’ in this?



Beliefs are like labels: I can easily label you as a criminal and then proceed to act as if my label actually means something (as if it reflects reality and not my hidden bias) but the very ease with which I can slap a label you on means the label tells me nothing. Beliefs, opinions and labels in general are ten a penny – I can easily come up with one to suit my own unacknowledged needs, and this means that they contain no genuine information at all – they are my own mental projections, and that is all. In other words –


If I can see things any way I want, then what I end up seeing (or believing) as a result of this wanting means nothing at all.




If anything can be true (when it suits me for it to be true), then the word ‘true’ loses its meaning. Yet despite the fact that our beliefs about the world and ourselves are ‘facile’ (i.e. to easily obtained to mean anything), the fact remains that it matters very much that they should appear meaningful and valid. This is the reason that we are all so touchy and defensive about our core beliefs, particularly those beliefs that have a direct bearing on the most central and all-important belief of all, which is the belief-structure that Krishnamurti calls ‘the self-image’. The reason an insult (any insult) stings us so deeply is because it touches upon our innermost insecurity – the insecurity we have about ourselves. There are many buried questions such as “Who am I really?”, “Am I all that I say I am?”, “What does my life actually amount to?” And so on.



The way we cover up or compensate for this insecurity is by the self-image, which has the overt function of providing definite positive picture of my identity. Of course, as we have said earlier, any definite positive statement always involves a tacit recognition of the contrary state of affairs, which is to say, when I say loudly that I am a worthy person, this message contains the implication that I am in fact completely worthless. I try to send out the message that “I am a winner” but – inadvertently – I send out the message of my hidden insecurity, my unacknowledged suspicion that I am a ‘loser’.




As Professor Carse has said, the motivation which we have to be successful in life is a direct measure of how little we already believe this to be true. If I am putting myself out to ‘be someone’ then this is because I secretly know that actually I am not what I want to prove myself to be. I suspect myself to be ‘nobody’. If I did not secretly suspect myself to be a loser, then I wouldn’t be trying so hard to be a winner.


In relation to beliefs, we can reformulate the above to say that if I cling to a positive belief about myself (in order to offset my feeling of insecurity), then what I am inadvertently doing is sending a negative message to myself. I am casting doubt upon myself by the very act of proclaiming myself. It is for this reason that the self-image is as often negative as it is positive – actually positive and negative are inextricable, and if we buy into the former we make ourselves the legitimate prey of the latter. This being the case, it is no wonder that the self-image is as vulnerable to insults as it is. The self-image is always vulnerable to insults, just as a belief is always vulnerable to the equal and opposite ‘counter-belief’.


The belief system (and the self-image) can therefore be seen as an attempt to cure a problem – the only thing is, it actually creates the problem that it sets out to cure. As we have suggested, the function of my system belief is purely to provide security. The perceived problem has to do with my feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability, and the solution that I come up with is the definite viewpoint of my belief structure, which automatically provides me with the possibility of controlling in accordance with ‘how I think things should be’. The definite view of the world is how I fight against the feeling of uncertainty, and the feeling of being in control is how I fight against the feeling of being vulnerable. My fixed understanding of the world along with my attempt to control what is happening on the basis of this fixed understanding are the two prongs of my defence system.




Once I start down the road of ‘fighting against existential insecurity’ I am committed to the struggle, and this means being to committed to maintaining and defending my system of belief (and my self-image) no matter what. It doesn’t matter if the thing I am defending is actually worth defending or not – that is not the issue. In any case, I cannot ever allow myself to question that because ‘not questioning’ is where I get my sense of existential security from. I can’t question whether what I am defending is worth defending and so I am locked into defending it right to the bitter end…


The tragic aspect of this struggle is twofold –


[1] It is a struggle which I can never ever win.


[2] I can never allow myself to question what I am actually doing (which means that I cannot allow myself to see that my struggle is doomed to failure right from the start).


The combination of these two aspects is what creates the basic human situation of suffering and frustration. Aspect 1 is not something that we can do anything about – ultimately, we can never succeed in the struggle to defend our belief system because it is our attempt to defend it that creates the very problem that it is trying to defend against. We can succeed temporarily, but only at the price of an inevitable future setback. Winning creates losing – losing is the other side of the coin to winning, and once we set the coin spinning we get caught into the endless cycle of ‘up and down’.




We have said that the system of belief is an attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist until we start attempting to solve it. We can also look at this in terms of ‘identification’ (or ‘attachment’) – when I get caught up in a system of belief (i.e. a fixed or unquestionable way of looking at things) then I automatically identify with what that system of belief says I am. I identify with the conditioned self, in other words. From this point on it is inevitable that I will be 100% committed to promoting and defending this sense of ‘me’ – I will be fighting the corner of the conditioned self.


This really means that I am fighting on behalf of the belief system, since it is the belief system which has creating the conditioned self. The belief system is the conditioning which informs (or determines) the conditioned self and when we fight on behalf of this ‘false’ self we are really –without knowing it – fighting on belief of some arbitrary belief system which we have accidentally acquired along the way.




There is no limit to the sort of things we are prepared to do on behalf of our beliefs. We will hurt others, hurt ourselves, commit murders, torture people, start wars, all for the sake of some meaningless belief. As psychotherapist Scott Peck says in The Road Less Traveled, what we are really doing all this for is so that we don’t have to extend ourselves, and by this he means question our beliefs.



Rather than question what we fundamentally believe in we would do the most terrible things – although we will of course rationalize what we are doing, so it seems justified to us. It goes without saying that we are all very good at justifying ourselves! If I am a religious ‘fundamentalist’, then I might be prepared to kill others or sacrifice myself for the sake of my belief, but really I am only doing what I am doing for the sake of not questioning my belief. I am driven by the need not to question my beliefs and this is fear, but I have turned it all around in my head so I get to feel like a hero. Basically, as Scott Peck says, this comes down to the motivation of laziness. My true motivation might be laziness, but I will not of course admit this to myself because facing up to my own laziness involves a tremendous amount of work, and work is the one thing I do not want to do. For this reason, I ‘dress up’ my actions so that they appear presentable, respectable, altruistic, honourable, and so on. Basically, I behave appallingly, but ascribe to myself the pure and selfless motivation of a saint or hero, and this is the wretched state of affairs which is sometimes known as ‘psychological unconsciousness’.



The idea that most of what we do, most of what we feel strongly about, is only (really) as important as it is to us because we cannot bear to challenge ourselves – because we are too afraid of change – is very hard to take seriously. If we did take it seriously then we would have to change and this is reason enough for us to consistently refuse to see our own true motivation. Becoming conscious (or becoming aware) is painful, and it is because of our automatic refusal to feel pain that we stay in the unhappy and ignominious state of unconsciousness.




We said right back at the beginning of this discussion that the one hope that we never give up on is the hope that one day things will work out the way we want to. Of course, often enough we slide into despair – we despair that things will ever work out for us. But despair still contains as a key ingredient the stubborn belief that things ought to work out for us, that life ought to follow our plans for it. If this stubborn belief were to finally evaporate, then there would be no more despair because despair is all about ‘me’ and ‘my plans’. ‘Me’ and ‘my plans’ are the very same thing (as we have already said) and it is the stubborn yet futile obsession that creates so much trouble for us.



It has been said that our situation is like a man who is forever rowing a boat, forever trying to reach a place where he doesn’t have to row any more. Such a place doesn’t exist, but the man keeps hoping, and keeps deluding himself that he will soon find that place where no more effort, no more work, is needed. Because of the futile nature of his struggle, the man is subject to an endlessly alternating repetition of hope followed by despair, hope followed by despair, hope followed by despair…



Another way of putting this is to say that we keep on striving time after time to find a place where there is no more insecurity, not realizing that such a place does not exist, and never could exist. The reason this place could not ever exist is simple – what we mean by ‘security’ is a place where the construct which is our ‘system of belief’ can rest contentedly in itself without having to fight to prove itself, defend itself, and validate itself. This for us is the ‘ultimate goal’ – it represents for us the ‘ultimate solution’ to all of our problems. The desire to reach this place is therefore the desire that we all have to ‘bring all of our troubles to an end’.



We are yearning for closure, yearning for an end to the discomfort, yearning for a final resting place, and we will do anything in the service of this goal. We are always finding ourselves in the situation where it appears that only one last, tremendous effort is needed to bring this about, and so we give it everything we’ve got, only to find ourselves right back at square one again. “This time it’ll be different,” I think, but it never is.



But what’s wrong with wanting all our troubles to be over? This seems reasonable enough, surely? The crux of the problem is that we want peace and happiness, but we want it on the terms of our belief system! We want our belief system to be intact and unchallenged, and for us to be at peace at the same time. The reason this can’t happen is of course because the system of belief is always at odds with reality – it isn’t actually true after all, and so can I find final happiness if I insist on hanging on to all my contradictory and divisive prejudices?



Basically, the goal of getting everything to work out the way I think it should is an impossible goal because ‘the way I think things should be’ is a foolish illusion. And even if things could be the way we want them to be all that we would happen is that we would find ourselves delivered into a nightmare. Every time our wishes come true it is a disaster because we aren’t wise enough to make good wishes – we leave out the most important thing, we miscalculate, we have an erroneous picture of life, we don’t think things out properly in our greedy hurry to make the wish. The wisest wish would be for things to work out the way they are supposed to work out, not the way I want them to work out, on the basis of my absurd and foolish preconceptions. When we think about the metaphor of the man rowing the boat, who always thinks that he is in with a chance of never having to row again, and who is always hankering after this goal, we tend to think “Yes, but how is your man any better off when he realizes that he just has to keep rowing forever? How does that help?”



Well, on the one hand it is obvious that at least he is spared the anxiety and stress of worrying about whether he will be able to ‘win’ in the game that he is playing. All anxiety has to do with the need to win (which is the same thing as the need not to lose), and so anxiety is no longer a feature. In addition, our man’s situation is such that he always has to be in denial of the truth – he has to insist on believing that his goals are meaningful, that his game-plan is meaningful. What this means is that he has to repress all the feelings of meaningless and futility that he is getting (that he is bound to get) and repressed feelings of meaningless and futility inevitably turn into depression. Thus, believing that the game is real creates anxiety and depression. We’re ‘investing in the unreal’ and the unreal isn’t a good investment!



“Even so,” (we might think) “isn’t it awful hard to have to keep on rowing the whole time?” But here too our assumption turns out to be wrong. Rowing seems like an unbearable chore to me when my heart is set on finding a way out, finding a way not to row. When this is the case (which it usually is) then my heart is not in the job, so I am ‘working but wishing I was not working’. I am working, but at the same time always scheming for a way out of working. I am ‘working’ in order that I might find a way not to work, and this is not work at all. All I am doing is waiting, like a man in the waiting room in the GP’s surgery is waiting. Somehow I have the idea that “this isn’t life, this is just a painful and thoroughly undesirable interlude that I have to put up with until the good bit that I’ve been looking forward to comes along later”. But actually I am 100% wrong, because it is life and if I just try to ‘wait it out’ then I am turning my back on life. I am hiding in a hole. And if I think that I will suddenly be able to come into life when the easy bit comes along, then I am sadly mistaken because I’ll still be in my miserable hole. I’ll still be stuck in my narrow beliefs about the world, in other words, and so I will still be incapable of being truly happy.



The advantage of rowing (which is to say, ‘being in a difficult place’) is that by looking at our beliefs in this way we become free from those beliefs. In order to look at our beliefs we have to become bigger than they are and this is what frees us from them. When we want to avoid difficulty that really means that we want to avoid giving up our beliefs – the over-all belief being “I should never be challenged” or “I should never have a hard time”. But how is this helping us? This rejection of difficulty puts us in the position of the man rowing the boat, hoping to reach the place where he doesn’t have to row anymore. The tragedy is that he never learns the ‘secret’, which is that when we give ourselves wholly to the rowing we discover that the rowing isn’t actually a problem.  The rowing’ is life, and life isn’t a problem. It’s only a problem when we decide that it is and refuse to use it as an opportunity to grow, an opportunity to learn that we are actually bigger than our limiting beliefs about ourselves and the world….

Imaginary Work


If we say that psychological work is where we have the capacity not to automatically resist our own inner state (i.e. not to try to make it different to the way it actually is) then clearly ‘non-work’ is where we aren’t able to draw upon this capacity. ‘Non-work’ – we may say – is where we do automatically resist our inner state, one way or another. It is where we are constantly (and insightlessly) trying to make things be what they aren’t…


It is however not sufficient simply to say this. When we are ‘resisting’ we do not perceive ourselves to be engaged in non-work – if we did perceive this to be true then this perception would constitute genuine honest-to-goodness psychological work! To see that we are in the state of non-work is itself work. To see the truth is always work – it is ‘work’ because we are not simply passively accepting what is given to us. Seeing the actual truth is psychological work because we are not automatically (or ‘helplessly’) identifying with the generic, mind-created version of what is supposedly the truth. There is some degree of wakefulness involved, rather than mere mechanical acceptance of what we are being told.


When we are resisting we imagine ourselves to be working even though we are not. I am ‘straining towards a goal’ and thus any movement (any ‘progress’) in the direction of achieving this goal will be seen as evidence of work. Even if I am not visibly progressing (or even if I am ‘going backwards’) with regard to obtaining the desired goal I will still perceive myself to be working because I am fighting, because I am struggling. There is ‘straining’ involved. My habitual automatic resistance is therefore what I see as work. The point is though that just so long as I am straining, just so long as I am tensing up inside myself, this is not psychological work. It’s ‘running away without realizing that we are running away’. This is therefore the exact reverse of how we would normally see things – usually we feel that if we are trying to change things then this is work and if we aren’t trying (if we aren’t ‘straining to reach some goal or other’) then this definitely isn’t work. This is the difference between genuine psychological understanding and what we might call non-psychologically minded understanding – to our regular type of everyday understanding straining to obtain a goal is always regarded as work.


‘Work’ is here being understood as being identical to ‘control’ (or identical to ‘the attempt to control’). This however is looking at thing backwards – if I am attempting to control then I am resisting my inner state, and ‘resisting my inner state’ is as we have defined it non-work. If I am attempting to maintain control then I am trying to escape from ‘not being in control’, and this is non-work! Or to put it another way, if I am controlling then what I am essentially doing is running away from uncertainty, running away from risk. I am running away from something that frightens me – I am running away from my own vulnerability and attempting to reach the maximally-defended (or maximally-protected) state of being ‘totally in control’. When I am controlling I am trying therefore to reach the ‘closed-down’ state of being invulnerable and so in what way can we call this work?


Work – very clearly – would have to be where I am not running away (for all I am worth) from my own vulnerability. To ‘be’ is to be vulnerable and so when I run away from my own vulnerability I am running away from my actual being and this ‘running way from my own being’ is what non-work is all about. So work is where I am not running away, obviously. There’s no way that ‘running away and not even seeing that I am running away’ could ever be work! Work is difficult and it is ‘difficulty’ that we are running away from.The understanding of what constitutes either work or non-work is however a subtler sort of thing than we might at first imagine, as we have already suggested. I can’t fight against myself so that I am no longer running away – that would be me trying to control the situation, which is ‘security-seeking’, which is ‘risk-avoiding’, which is non-work. Control is always non-work. The glitch is that if I try not to be running away (if I try to not to be in the state of non-work) then my motivation for doing this is fear and so I am simply ‘running away from running away’. This of course is not really changing the situation! I’m doing the same thing I always do, so it can hardly count as ‘work’…


Running away from my running away is not solving the glitch, it is adding another loop to it. It is another twist to it. Any sort of straining to either avoid one situation or facilitate another is control and control – as we have said – is always non-work. It’s just ‘trying to get away from what we don’t like’, which is the basic bog-standard mechanical motivation that we always follow. ‘Not straining’ on the other hand sounds like failure to us – it sounds as if we are going along helplessly with whatever ‘bad thing’ is happening to us. It sounds like we are going along with whatever despairing feelings might come along when we stop fighting. We all know what ‘giving in to despair’ is like and this unhappy state of affairs surely isn’t work! This is therefore what we are afraid of if we stop trying, if we stop straining, if we stop with the goal-orientated efforts, if we stop with the positive thinking. But if this is our motivation to keep fighting (which it is!) then what this means is that we are ‘afraid not to be positive’ and what this means is that our trying, our positivity, is simply fear by any other name. Our constant positive trying is ‘fear in disguise’, as we would know if we were in any way psychologically-minded.


We don’t want to fall into the swamp of despairing feelings because we know how hard it is to get out of it again. We don’t want to give up, we don’t want to succumb, and so this is why ‘not resisting’ sounds wrong to us. Getting caught up in despair isn’t what ‘not resisting’ means however. Despair is a ‘closed down’ state of mind – we’ve already decided that the place that we’re in is ‘just not workable’ and so we’re just closed down to it. We’ve switched off. Instead of being overtly aggressive we have become passively aggressive and this is just the same game being played another way – passive aggression is resistance just as aggression is! Saying that ‘everything is going to be terrible’ is non-work just as saying that ‘everything is going to be great’ is – either way we’ve ‘made up our minds’ and are not relating to reality any more. We’ve ‘closed down’. We’re just relating to our own conclusions, our own thoughts. Although we don’t see it as being the case, whenever we relate to the world that is made up of our own thoughts as if this were reality (as if this is ‘the way that things are’) we are in the state of despair! Whenever we’ve closed ourselves down to reality this is despair – what else could it be? How else could we describe it? How could the closed-down state ever not be despair?


In the closed down state (which as we have said is the state in which we relate to our own conclusions as if they were a final reality) there are only two possibilities – there is either the possibility of elation or the possibility of despair. And since – as Johannes Fabricius says in The Royal Art of the Alchemists – elation is only the denial of despair, it’s the same basic package either way. Either we have despair or we have the denial of despair. Take your pick. Thoughts – when we concretely believe in them – can only ever do two things for us – they can either give rise to the state of elation or to the state of despair and ultimately there is no difference between the two. It’s the very same coin spinning endless around and around, showing first one face and then the other. This is the coin of samsara, samsara being ‘illusion that we can’t see to be illusion’.


Work therefore is where we relate not to the world that is made up of our thoughts (i.e. the ‘projected world’) but the world as it is in itself, which we cannot conceptually ‘know’. How can we despair about a situation that is in its very essence uncertain? Our situation may be extremely difficult, extremely painful, but it is nevertheless at all times a living situation, a dynamic situation. The world of our thoughts – which is to say the world of our definite conclusions – is however not a living situation. The world of our thoughts is static rather than dynamic and relating to the static picture that is being presented to us by our thoughts (in such a way that we flatly believe in this picture, in such a way that we take it at its face value) is never work. How can relating to illusion that we can’t see to be illusion ever be work?


Accepting the world that thought presents to us at face value cannot ever be work because this is an entirely passive sort of a thing to do. All we do is ‘passively receive the imprint’; all we do is ‘allow ourselves to be moulded by the official template’. Thought tells us that things are good, that things are great, and we’re over the moon. We’re as happy as Larry. We’re in top form. We’re delighted. Thought tells us that our situation is bad, that things are really terrible, and we’re down in the dumps, we’re in a rotten mood, we’re in the depths of despair. Where’s the work in this? Along with telling us that things are either great or terrible thought also tells us that we need to control so that we can obtain the one outcome rather than the other. Once we believe that one outcome is great and that the other is terrible then – obviously – control is the only way to go! What else can we do? We have to control. Evaluation and control are thus one and the same thing. They are inseparable – evaluation is control and control is evaluation. When we’re tied into the evaluating / controlling modality then we’re tied into a formulaic, black-and-white way of seeing the world, we’re tied into a generic, pre-conceptualized way of understanding the world, and being completely restricted to this formulaic, black-and-white way of seeing the world, this generic, pre-conceptualised way of understanding the world, is the very essence of what we are calling ‘non-work’.


Everything that happens on the basis of the generic mind is non-work. Everything is pre-decided and all we have to do is ‘go along with it’ and even this isn’t a choice because we don’t know that what we’re going along with is ‘a pre-decided or generic version of the world’. We think that we’re making genuine choices. We think we’re acting freely. We ‘fit into the generic pattern’ without realizing that we’re fitting into anything and this unconscious compliance is the very essence of non-work. Work – in contrast to this passive state of affairs – means not automatically seeing things in the same old way that we always see them. It means not compliantly seeing the world within the terms of the generic format that we have been presented with. Work means – in short – not automatically believing our own thoughts!


What we have here therefore are two different ways of looking at what ‘psychological work’ is. The first way is to say that-

Psychological work is when we have the capacity not to automatically try to change (or resist) our own inner state.

And the second way is to say that-

Psychological work is when we have the capacity to see the world in a way other than the way that we have been given to see it by the ubiquitous thinking mind.

These two ways of approaching the crucial question as to what is meant by the term ‘psychological work’ may sound different but they come down to the same thing. If I can’t help struggling to change things (in accordance with how I think things should be) then this clearly isn’t work because I am being controlled by my need to control. I am entirely pre-determined in what I am doing, and if I can’t see the world in any other way than in the way that has been provided for me by the thinking mind this is also very clearly not work for exactly the same reason. I am passive in both cases. I am being controlled without realizing that I am being controlled. I am ‘being taken for a ride’ by the thinking mind…


Both of these two ways of looking at what constitutes work and non-work follow on from each other because seeing things in such a way that I have to struggle is a function of the way in which I have unwittingly opted to go along with a particular limited way of seeing things. Buying into the black-and-white picture of reality that thought provides us with is also buying into ‘the need to fight against things not being the way I think they should be’. Furthermore – for reasons that will become clearer shortly – the need to fight against things ‘not being the way I think they ought to be’ is the same thing as ‘the need to try to change my inner state’.


If I fall into a specific limited way of seeing the world without realizing that I have fallen into anything, and this specific limited way of seeing the world (which is not mine, but has been ‘given to me’) causes me to perceive reality in a particular way, think in a particular way, act in a particular way, then this is not work and never could be work. Everything about me (including how I think and how I act) has been determined by the template that I have unwittingly adopted – everything about me actually is the template that I have adopted – and since what we are calling ‘psychological work’ is predicated upon me having autonomy in my mode of being in the world, nothing but non-work is ever come out of this situation. Nothing new is ever going to happen – it’s all a foregone conclusion. I don’t have any bearing or influence on what happens – only the assumed template does.


What we are really talking about here are games – we are talking about games and the way we have to unconsciously give away our own freedom in order to play a game. If I have given away all my freedom and at the same time have also given away my freedom to know that I have given away my freedom then there is no way that anything I do from this point on can ever be called work! What I am doing when I hand over my freedom to the game is that I am ‘passively adapting to a determinate structure’. I am passively adapting to a formal system and the thing about a formal system is that there is no free will in it. I am free only to choose between the options that the system offers me; I am free only to see things the way the system demands that I see them; I am free only to ‘want what the system wants me to want’ and this is no freedom at all…


The crucial thing to understand about a game is that I am not free not to play it. I have no choice but to go along with it – I have no choice but to struggle as hard as I can to win and not to lose. In a game I am not free not to be constantly struggling to win; I am not free not to want to win. It’s an involuntary thing – I can’t help wanting to win. Everyone playing a game wants to win – that’s the necessary precondition for playing it! To play a game is to want to win the game, it’s the same thing. When I am playing a game I will say that I very much want to win and I will experience this as being an accurate statement of my true volition. For me it will be ‘subjectively true’ that I really do want to win. But the actual truth – as I could easily find out if only I tested it – is that I have zero choice in the matter. If I have to want to win (if I have no choice in the matter) then how can I possibly say (as I do say) that I really and truly want to win? How can I say that winning is ‘my’ goal? This is such an easy thing to see if we look into it, but the fact of the matter is that we never do look into it. This insight never seems to come our way. We give ourselves over to playing games so much that – as a culture – we have zero capacity to understand what they are all about…


So the thing about games is, as we have said, that there is no freedom in them. To play a game is to enter into a fully pre-determined situation, a situation in which nothing can happen unless it has been determined beforehand. The only choices I have are the choices that are provided for me and so these aren’t really choices at all; all that’s happening is that the determinate system is providing me with the illusion of choice, the illusion of freedom, the illusion of free will. This being the case, we can reiterate that there is no possibility of work within a game. If there’s no free will then there can’t be any work – no one else can do psychological work for us, after all. A mechanical system certainly can’t! There is however the illusion of work and the ‘illusion of work’ is when I strive as hard as I can in order to achieve the specified goal, when I try as hard as I can to win at the game. Striving to obey the rule thus becomes a substitute for genuine work. Striving to obey the rule might feel like work but actually it is the antithesis of it – striving to win (or striving to obey the rule) can’t be work because it is involuntary. Work-within-the-terms-of-the-game isn’t work, it’s just the illusion of work. It’s imaginary work!


Another way of saying that there’s no freedom within games is to say that a game always contains pain. To have zero freedom is to be in pain – this, we might say, is something of a ‘basic psychological principle’. Wherever there is no freedom there is pain because freedom is our inherent nature. Taking away our freedom is therefore ‘an act of violence’. This pain and our desire to escape it constitute the essential mechanism of the game – this is how the game works. When we strive to ‘win’ what we are really doing is striving to avoid the pain that is in the game. ‘Winning’ looks as attractive to us as it does because it covertly represents the cessation of the pain. Our goals are as shiny and glittery and enticing as they are because they covertly represent relief from the unacknowledged misery that we’re in. Because we are not consciously attending to the pain that we’re in (since our attention is ‘outwardly directed’), its promised cessation appears as an actual positive thing that is outside of us, it appears as an external positive value. The motivation in games is all about trying to escape from unacknowledged inner pain. Or we could equivalently say that it is all about chasing unacknowledged inner pain that has been projected onto the outside world as an actual positive value. No other motivation is needed – everything runs on the basis of this very simple displacement mechanism. In a goal we’re trying to escape inner pain and we’re trying to win back our freedom – the two are the same thing. Winning represents ‘relief from the unacknowledged inner pain’ and it also represents freedom from the constraints of the game. We’re ‘playing for our freedom’, in other words.


This is of course a total contradiction in terms because we’re trying to use the game in order to escape from the game and this doesn’t make any sense at all! As James Carse says in Finite and Infinite Games, the contradiction inherent in all games is that they are played against themselves. Our unexamined assumption is that if we invest in the game enough, if we take it seriously enough, then we will somehow be rewarded from this investment by being granted freedom from the game. The incentive to play the game is that if we get good enough at playing it then we won’t have to play it any more. The reason we play the game is to be free from the game! The incentive is deceptive however because the more invested in the game we become (i.e. the more seriously we take the game) the more we let it define us, and the more we let the game define us the less free we are! The ‘unconscious assumption’ is thus that freedom can come about as a result of giving away our freedom (as a result of passively identifying with the rules of the game) and this is clearly the most absurdly nonsensical assumption that it is possible for us to make!


To lose all our freedom is to lose ourselves – it is to lose the essence of who we are – and if we lose ourselves (if we lose sight of who we essentially are) then how can there be such a thing as work? The pain we are running away from is ‘the pain of not being there’, the pain of ‘not being who we essentially are’, and very clearly running away from this pain (which is an awareness) is not going to return us to ourselves, return ourselves to our original state of Wholeness. It’s going to have the very opposite result. This constant unremitting pressure not to see our own essential absence (because we are afraid to see it, because we can’t bring ourselves to face seeing it) is what gives rise to the characteristic activities of our daily lives. In our everyday lives we validate this displacement activity – we see it as being ‘positive’, we see it as being admirably industrious and hopeful. We see not being involved in constant purposeful activity as being reprehensible, as being irresponsible, as ‘letting the side down’. We see our constant purposefulness on the other hand (restlessness, really) as being synonymous with work. But it isn’t work. It’s imaginary work. It’s the avoidance of seeing ourselves as we really are, and the striving after comforting illusions. What we call ‘work’ is us running away from ourselves!

Valuing Our Vulnerability

Kuan Yin

Emotional ‘shutting down’ (or closing off’) is something that happens automatically – it’s a reflex, a mechanical response. The complementary process of ‘opening up’ – on the other hand – happens spontaneously. What this means is that we can’t open up again on purpose, just because we want to, just because we think that it is the right or helpful thing to do. This is like a snail retreating into its shell in the face of danger – the retreating will occur by reflex, but once the snail has retreated there is no way to push it or force it or trick it to come out again! Naturally enough, any sort of forcing will simply have the opposite effect and make the snail even slower to eventually re-emerge. The only thing that works is patience and gentleness. It takes as long as it takes, in other words!


‘Shutting down’ occurs as a result of us trying to become less vulnerable. This is so to speak the ‘default mechanical process’ in life – we are subjected to emotional pain, we get hurt, and so we tend to shut down (or ‘harden up’) so as to avoid the pain of this happening again. The logic is that if we are emotionally shut down – to whatever extent – then we won’t feel the pain so much. Perhaps, we might hope, we won’t even feel it at all! The process of growing up and becoming adults corresponds to a large degree with the process of becoming more defended, more withdrawn from the possibility of being emotionally hurt, more secure in our ‘personality armour’. As adults, we generally manage to develop tough hides for ourselves, and as a result we better able to survive in the aggressive, competitive world that we have created for ourselves. Being aggressive and unfeeling is – needless to say – much more of an advantage for us than being gentle and sensitive and the inevitable logical conclusion of this adaptive process of emotionally shutting down is that we become more and more narcissistic and more and more closed-off to (or disinterested in) anything that doesn’t have an immediate bearing our own well-being. Closing down causes us to be like machines, just getting on with our own business, accepting whatever way of life we are given, not looking at the bigger picture, and this makes living in our mechanical society a lot easier.


If being emotionally closed down helps our chances of succeeding in the outside world it certainly doesn’t do us any favours with regard to how we are on ‘the inside’. It doesn’t do our mental health any good. Success (or sometimes simply survival) is obtained at a high price – eventually – if we go down this road far enough – we lose touch with who we really are underneath it all. We lose touch with our true nature, which is compassionate and sensitive, not aggressive and unfeeling, as our acquired generic personality-armour is. Losing touch with who we really are is a pretty big price to pay by anyone’s standards – if I lose who I actually am underneath it all then who has benefited from this successful adaptation? Who’s the winner if the authentic self is no longer there? What happens in this case is that the ‘personality-armour’ runs around all by itself, without anyone on the inside. I become ‘an outside without an inside’. I become a bundle of reflexes and hard-wired survival strategies with no heart since my heart (my core) is the sensitive and compassionate part of myself, the part that I have had to jettison in order to get on in the world…

This is of course an old story. What we’re talking about is ‘selling our birth right for a mess of pottage’. Or as we read in Matthew 16:26 –

What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?

Nothing in psychology is new, much as we might think that our situation is different now to that of previous ages. As has often been said, it is only the superficial trappings that have changed – the same challenges, the same human dramas emerge time and time again. The psyche remains the same. And the lessons that life teaches us are the same. The primary challenge in life – we might say – is the challenge to stay true to ourselves in the face of everything that goes on in the world. On the one hand we have the pressure of a competitive, aggressive, image-based society which demands that we be a certain way in order to fit in, and on the other hand we have the personal traumas that we go through, particularly in childhood, that cause us to emotionally withdraw, to emotionally shut down, to survive in any way we can. Either way, our own defences (our own survival strategies) are going to end up causing us a whole new chapter of suffering, which is the suffering of being disconnected from life itself. This is the whole thing about ‘becoming invulnerable’ – what we are in our core is pure vulnerability (i.e. pure sensitivity) and so when we shut the door to ourselves, we shut the door to who we really are. Alternatively, we could say that when we make ourselves insensitive (desensitized) from the pain and the ugliness of life, we make ourselves insensitive to everything else in life too. And the pain of being cut off from life, cut off from our sensitive core, turns out – in the long run – to be the worst pain of all.


As we have already said, ‘closing down’ (and becoming as a result ‘invulnerable’) happens automatically, and once it has happened there is nothing we can do to deliberately reverse it. This means that there is no way to remedy our situation by any deliberate, rational strategy – even though this what we always try to do. We can’t trick or coercive or bribe the snail to come back out of its shell! There is no such thing as strategy or method for ‘increasing our vulnerability’ – all strategies, techniques, methods, etc., exist for the purpose of decreasing our vulnerability not increasing it. If I’m using a strategy it’s because I want to be more in control and if I’m ‘more in control’ then I’m less vulnerable. We can’t pressurize ourselves not to ‘shut down’ because pressurizing (or ‘forcing’) always makes us shut down more. This means that our normal/habitual mode of ‘dealing with stuff’ is of no use to us. It is not just ‘of no use to us’, it is counterproductive. It works against us. It has the opposite effect to the one we wanted. What helps is not trying to control or manoeuvre or pressurize ourselves so that we ‘become the way we want ourselves to be’, but to cultivate sensitivity and gentleness so that that we can relate to ourselves as we actually are.


It could be said that there are two side of our nature – the ‘purposeful’ or ‘rational’ side, the side that is in control (or wants to be in control) and the side that is spontaneous, playful and ‘child-like’. The purposeful side of us is the invulnerable side (or at least it proceeds on the basis of always trying to minimize its vulnerability!) whilst the spontaneous side doesn’t act with the agenda of minimizing its vulnerability – it doesn’t act with any agenda, which is why we can say that it is spontaneous! The purposeful / rational side of us is always trying to seek advantage in everything it does, whilst the spontaneous aspect of ourselves is not seeing the world narrowly on the basis of loss or gain, advantage or disadvantage, good or bad, right or wrong. The spontaneous self is not aggressive, in other words. It’s not a manipulator.


As we have indicated, what very much tends to happen in life as we grow up and move away from the ‘child-like’ side of our nature (this movement being of course perfectly natural) is that the other (invulnerability-seeking) aspect of ourselves ‘takes over completely’ and chokes the spontaneous side. This process happens quite automatically and as we have said we don’t usually notice it happening. This is what Wei Wu Wei is saying here in this quote from Ask the Awakened

As busy little bees, gathering honey here and there, and adding it to their stock in their hive, we are wasting our time, and worse, for we are building up that very persona whose illusory existence stands between our phenomenal selves and the truth of what we are, and which is what the urge in us is seeking.

The psychological urge to seek security and avoid risk/ uncertainty in life is both extremely powerful and extremely persuasive, whilst the spontaneous self (which is the heart of who we are) is not demanding and aggressively assertive in the way that the purposeful self is. It is therefore very easily forgotten about. We listen to the loud voice not the quiet one. We pay attention to the noisy, clamorous purposeful self and neglect its quieter, gentler companion! We feed it in preference just as a blackbird or starling will feed a baby cuckoo in preference to its own. And of course the thing that happens in the case of the cuckoo is that the real offspring gets thrown out of the nest entirely. It gets evicted, and the imposter is given all the privileges…


This neglect precisely what happens to us in the process of ‘growing up – the true self gets forgotten about, gets turfed unceremoniously out of the nest. It gets ditched. We never even notice that it is gone because we have a substitute to keep us busy. Or rather, we don’t notice for a long time – until the pain of living on the basis of who we’re not’ (rather than ‘who we are’) comes so much to the foreground that we start to realize that something is not right. When this happens we can’t help seeing that something is not right. Lavishing all our attention on the purposeful-rational self is therefore the root of neurotic suffering, and the ‘cure’ is simply to get back in touch with who we are. The snag here however is as we have said that this cannot be done on purpose, using methods and control. This is a real dilemma – we can’t get back in touch with ourselves on purpose’ and yet the other side of ourselves – the spontaneous, creative, intuitive, humorous, compassionate side, is the side that we have lost! That’s the side we threw out!


The question is therefore, how do we get back in touch with the sensitive (non-aggressive) side of our nature? How can we become non-aggressive, without being aggressive about it? How can we learn to relinquish control? The thread that is provided for us to follow is – of course – our own pain! If there is pain then there is sensitivity – how could there be pain there if there was no sensitivity? The sensitivity actually is the pain we are experiencing, when it comes down to it, and so the problem here is that we are forever trying to get away from our own sensitivity (which is our own true nature). Our automatic response is to run away from it, to build barriers. Even if the barriers are continuously crumbling or disintegrating, we are still working away at reinstating them. This is what is happening in anxiety. This is where insight comes in – once we have the deep understanding that what we are fighting against is our sensitivity and that our sensitivity is our own essential nature, then some of the automatic energy goes out of this fight, out of this bitter struggle, and we find that we start to relate to our pain in a less violent or aggressive way. Being sensitive to our own pain (instead or dismissing or disowning it as we would normally do) is how the Thirteenth Century Persian poet Rumi says we cultivate compassion –

Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.

In Tibetan Buddhism relating with tenderness to our own inner pain is also seen as a key practice in ‘recovering oneself’; in the following passage Pema Chodron explains this practice in terms of cultivating bodhichitta

Bodhichitta is also equated, in part, with compassion—our ability to feel the pain that we share with others. Without realizing it we continually shield ourselves from this pain because it scares us. We put up protective walls made of opinions, prejudices and strategies, barriers that are built on a deep fear of being hurt. These walls are further fortified by emotions of all kinds: anger, craving, indifference, jealousy and envy, arrogance and pride. But fortunately for us, the soft spot—our innate ability to love and to care about things—is like a crack in these walls we erect. It’s a natural opening in the barriers we create when we’re afraid. With practice we can learn to find this opening. We can learn to seize that vulnerable moment—love, gratitude, loneliness, embarrassment, inadequacy—to awaken bodhichitta.
An analogy for bodhichitta is the rawness of a broken heart. Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic; sometimes to anger, resentment and blame. But under the hardness of that armor there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we’re arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all.

The very thing that we are fighting against is the thing that will help us therefore. The pain which we are automatically (and violently) rejecting is actually inseparable from our own true nature, and so in closing off to it we are closing off to ourselves. That’s the only place the help can come from. Being invulnerable creates second order pain and we react to this pain by closing down (or attempting to close down) still further. If we could do this then we would, and we would not feel the pain, but the very fact that we can’t manage to close the pain down is our life-line since this is our connection with the core of who we are, which had become lost to us. Naturally we don’t want to cultivate this connection – if my essential nature is pain then why would I want to have the connection to it? This is the logic that leads us to run away, to shut down. But the dilemma is always the same – when the pain of being shut down becomes worse, more unbearable, than the pain we were originally shutting down to, what do we do then?


This of course seems like a cruel and very unwelcome dilemma to find ourselves in, but at the same time it is the healing process at work (the healing process being that process by which we recover the Wholeness of ourselves). As Rumi says,

The cure for the pain is in the pain.

Eventually, if we go along gently with the process of healing (instead of fighting it tooth and nail), we find ourselves opening up again instead of closing down, and when we open up in the face of pain we come to discover something we couldn’t ever have imagined. This might be likened to the blooming of a strangely beautiful and entirely unexpected flower, under the most adverse conditions. In Rumi’s words,

The wound is the place where the Light enters you.

This is a very curious thing. The strange and beautiful flower we are talking about does not bloom under normal conditions. It blooms under adversity. As long as we are absorbing all our values from the social system that we’re born into there will be no flowering of our true nature. There will be no flowering of wisdom and compassion. That doesn’t come from adapting to society and living as we are expected to live, but only from deep within ourselves. From a mechanical tree comes nothing but mechanical fruit. To expect otherwise would be like expecting an assembly line in a factory to produce something different, to produce something quirky and unique. No matter what it may claim to the contrary, the social system wants us to shut us down – it wants us to be narcissistic and uninterested in the bigger picture. In a word, it wants us to be ‘asleep’. The flower of compassion, wisdom and love blooms under difficult conditions, not under the sleep-inducing conditions that are provided for us by contemporary culture. The generic culture gives rise to the generic self, and the generic self is the denial of who we truly are.
From an alchemical point of view, it could be said that ‘the more severely we are tested, the purer the metal that is formed in the crucible’. The starting-off point of the alchemical work of self-transformation is to be found in those parts of ourselves which we most want to reject, as Paul Levi says –

The elusive prima materia needs to be found before the opus could begin. Psychologically speaking, the mysterious prima materia re-presents, and is to be discovered in, the parts of the psyche that we deny, dis-own and marginalize, the aspects of ourselves that we feel ashamed of, revulsion for and turn away from in disgust. In Jung’s words, this “means that the thing which we think the least of, that part of ourselves which we repress perhaps the most, or which we despise, is just the part which contains the mystery.” We typically want to get rid of the shadow aspects of our personality, but the alchemists understood that our wounded, inferior and unconscious parts aren’t an accident or error, but rather, has a value and cosmic perfection to them that is stunning. Our wounds, the base material of the work, are indispensable for the accomplishment of the opus, for without these shadow parts there would be no way to make the alchemical gold.

It is of course true that very few of us would chose to walk this most difficult of paths ourselves, but if we happen to find ourselves on it (and there is nothing we can do about it), would we not welcome the message of the ancient wisdom teachings that have helped human beings throughout the ages, and which is so very different from the message that contemporary culture gives us?

The Eternal War

Ahura Mazda

One of the oldest, most fundamental myths is that of the conflict between the two opposing forces of Light and Darkness – the Eternal War. Every culture has its own version of this story – this is such a commonly encountered theme that we have grown blind to its psychological significance. It has become a cliché, a stereotype. We ‘tune out’ when we hear it. We think we know what it means. We have become blasé about it and so the myth has quite lost its power.


What has become clichéd however is not the myth itself but our superficial and habitual way of understanding it. The story has become degraded through the mechanical repeating of it. The thing about archetypal stories is however that they always find new ways of presenting themselves, new ways of bursting forth into our consciousness. The story itself, although ancient, is never old! As Victor Hugo writes –

Two opposed forces are always in existence, fighting for possession of man, from the cradle to the grave.

Philip Pullman, in The Subtle Knife, expounds the idea like this –

There are two great powers and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.

It has been said that there are no new stories, only the old ones retold. It has also been said that there are no old stories – since archetypal stories are always current, always heard ‘for the first time’. The reason for this is that the psychic dramas which go make up our lives are archetypal – it’s just that we can’t see them as such. We’ve lost our connection with the deeper, archetypal level of our being. We keep personalizing these dramas, trivializing them, stereotyping them, and thus losing the very real meaning that is in them. One way of trying to talk about this ‘meaning’ is to say that each one of us has our part to play in the ongoing conflict between the force of Light and the force of Darkness, and that our part, our role, is not a minor one. The way the war goes on the outside is a reflection of the way it goes on the inside and so, ultimately, the only thing that really does matter is the outcome ‘on the inside’ – which is to say, whether it is consciousness or unconsciousness that prevails.


In order to get an unclouded understanding of this struggle, this ‘war’, it is much better to look at a myth with which we are unfamiliar, rather than one which we know so well that we have become blind to. One such story that we could look at is the ancient Persian myth of the two twins Ahura Mazda (or Ohrmazd) and Ahriman. These two twins were the sons of Zurvan, who was the god of infinite time and space and fate. The story of the two twins is related here by Robert Charles Zaehner

When nothing existed at all, neither heaven nor earth, the great god Zurvan alone existed, whose name means ‘fate’ or ‘fortune’. He offered sacrifice for a thousand years that perchance he might have a son who should be called Ohrmazd and who would create heaven and earth. At the end of this period of a thousand years he began to ponder and said to himself: ‘What use is this sacrifice that I am offering, and will I really have a son called Ohrmazd, or am I taking all this trouble in vain?’ And no sooner had this thought occurred to him then both Ohrmazd and Ahriman were conceived – Ohrmazd because of the sacrifice he had offered, and Ahriman because of his doubt. When he realized that there were two sons in the womb, he made a vow saying: ‘Whichever of the two shall come to me first, him will I make king.’ Ohrmazd was apprised of his father’s thought and revealed it to Ahriman. When Ahriman heard this, he ripped the womb open, emerged, and advanced towards his father. Zurvan, seeing him, asked him: ‘Who art thou?’ And he replied: ‘I am thy son, Ohrmazd.’ And Zurvan said: ‘My son is light and fragrant, but thou art dark and stinking.’ And he wept most bitterly. And as they were talking together, Ohrmazd was born in his turn, light and fragrant; and Zurvan, seeing him, knew that it was his son Ohrmazd for whom he had offered sacrifice. Talking the barsom twigs he held in his hands with which he had been sacrificing, he gave them to Ohrmazd and said: ‘Up till now it is I who have offered thee sacrifice; from now on shalt thou sacrifice to me.’ But even as Zurvan handed the sacrificial twigs to Ohrmazd, Ahriman drew near and said to him: ‘Didst thou not vow that whichever of the sons should come to thee first, to him wouldst thou give the kingdom?’ And Zurvan said to him: ‘O false and wicked one, the kingdom shall be granted thee for nine thousand years, but Ohrmazd have I made a king above thee, and after nine thousand years he will reign and will do everything according to his good pleasure.’ And Ohrmazd created the heavens and the earth and all things that are beautiful and good; but Ahriman created the demons and all that is evil and perverse. Ohrmazd created riches, Ahriman poverty.

In one sense the struggle is a very unequal one since while the path of truth is extremely arduous to tread, the path of self-deception is ridiculously easy! We go down it without even knowing that we are. Since we are all very much inclined to look fondly upon the easy path whilst at the same time dreading the difficult one, how things are going to eventually pan out is therefore almost a forgone conclusion. Since we can’t very well just come right out with it and say to ourselves “What the hell, I’m going to go down the road of self-deception!” (because this honesty would of course make us aware of the very thing we don’t want to be aware of) we have to evolve all sorts of sneaky validations, all sorts of clever rationalizations, all sorts of trickery. Ultimately, all the rationalizations come down to the same thing, they all come down to a systematically ‘inverted’ viewpoint which sees the false as being true and the true as being false. So as a result of this super-rationalization we see the truth as being the invention of the devil, so to speak, and we see systematic self-deception as being the only right and proper way to proceed. This equals ‘adapting to the framework’. By adapting to the framework we actually get to feel righteous about turning our back on what deep down we know to be true, and embracing a whole bunch of lies, which we know will make us feel good (on the short term, at least)…


This ‘super-rationalization’, this system of self-deception becomes not just a device that we can whenever it suits our purposes to do so, however. There is a price that needs to be paid in order to avail of this neat bit of trickery and that price is that we lose the capacity to see that we have ever done this thing. We lose the capacity to know that there is such a system, so that if someone comes up to us and suggests that there is then we won’t understand what they’re saying at all, their words will be utterly incomprehensible to us. The system is inaccessible to us – it governs what we see but we do not have the privilege of being able to be aware that it is governing us. To paraphrase Carlos Castaneda in The Active Side of Infinity

We have two minds and only one of them is truly ours.

The system may therefore be said to constitute a kind of a ‘false mind’, which we take for granted in everything we do. The other mind – our true mind – has been repressed, abandoned, rejected, betrayed, and so using this as a metaphor we can say that the war that we are talking about here is the one that between the true mind, which we do not know, and the false mind, which we automatically accept and go along with just about every minute of the day…


Calling this a war is thus not really entirely appropriate in one way since there is absolutely no conflict going on! The false mind dictates and I obey, it is as simple as that. And it is not really true to put it like this either, since I do not perceive my self to be obeying what Castaneda calls ‘the foreign installation’ (which is the false mind) but rather I have the perception that it is myself thinking this that or the other, that it is myself who wants to do this or wants to do that. This complete and utter absence of any awareness that there is any such thing as a ‘conflict of interests’ going on in my daily life means, in Jung’s terms, that there is no consciousness, since “consciousness arises out of conflict”. As Ouspensky says,

If a man gives way to all his desires, or panders to them, there will be no inner struggle in him, no ‘friction’, no fire. But if, for the sake of attaining a definite aim, he struggles with the desires that hinder him he will then create a fire which will gradually transform his inner world into a single whole.

Where there is only pandering to the system, unreflective compliance to the system, there is nothing but the system, and this system has nothing to do with consciousness – it is in fact the very antithesis of consciousness…


Going back to the story of the two twins Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, we can say that consciousness arises when we see through Ahriman’s attempts to continuously misrepresent the truth to us, and that the toxic stasis of unconsciousness prevails when we do not. It is of course the case that this dynamic occurs anew every time we practise meditation – Ahriman may be understood as the principle of distraction and Ahura Mazda (we might say) the principle of awareness. Ahriman’s job is to distract our attention away the state of awareness into the compulsive consideration of some trivial or superficial matter, something that doesn’t matter at all really but which nevertheless seems to at the time. This is of course what ‘distraction’ is all about! This is what the ‘contest’ comes down to – there is the ‘seeing of the truth’ on the one hand (which is difficult) and there is the ‘accepting of the lie’ on the other, which is naturally very much easier and correspondingly more palatable.


The trouble is that when we are actually conscious we can see that the thought in question is banal and empty, but when we get drawn into it we promptly lose all perspective and so then whatever it is starts to seem genuinely meaningful and important to us, purely as a result of this loss of perspective. The false mind takes over the reins. So what is meaningless then becomes meaningful, what is hollow seems substantial, what is banal seems profound, and what is unreal seems real. This is ‘the sleep of the spirit’, this is ‘unconsciousness’.


This same dynamic actually goes on all the time, not just in the time which we spend in formal meditation. Our whole life is the arena for this particular struggle: on the one hand there is the stuff that really does matter to me, and on the other hand there is all the stuff that somehow seems to matter at the time, and which as a result acts as a magnet upon me, drawing me into affairs that – if only I could see it – don’t actually matter to me at all. They don’t matter, they only ‘pseudo-matter’. As a result of this magnetic force (the force which causes me get pretty much permanently distracted from my true interests) I end up spending all doing things that I don’t actually want to do. I end up putting all my money on the wrong horse. I end up putting all my energy and ingenuity into useless and pointless activities – superficial pursuits whose only real purpose is to prevent me from attending to what genuinely does matter in life. Sogyal Rinpoche (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. 1992. P 19) calls this sort of thing ‘active laziness’ –

How many of us, like the man in the story, are swept away by what I have come to call an “active laziness”? Naturally there are different species of laziness: Eastern and Western. The Eastern style is like the one practised to perfection in India. It consists of hanging out all day in the sun, doing nothing, avoiding any kind of work or useful activity, drinking cups of tea, listening to Hindi film music blaring out on the radio, and gossiping with friends. Western laziness is quite different. It consists of cramming our lives with compulsory activity, so that there is no time at all to confront the real issues.


If we look into our lives, we will see clearly how many unimportant tasks, so-called “responsibilities’ accumulate to fill them up. One master compares them to “housekeeping in a dream”. We tell ourselves that we want to spend time on the important things in life, but there never is any time. Even simply to get up in the morning, there is so much to do: open the window, make the bed, take a shower, brush your teeth, feed the cat or dog, do last night’s washing up, discover you are out of sugar or coffee, go and buy them, make breakfast – the list is endless. Then there are the clothes to sort out, choose, iron, and fold up again. And what about your hair, or your make up? Helpless, we watch our days filling up with telephone calls and petty projects, with so many responsibilities – or should we call them “irresponsibilities”?


Our lives seem to live us, to possess their own bizarre momentum, to carry us away; in the end we feel we have no choice or control over them. Of course we feel bad about this sometimes, we have nightmares and wake up in a sweat, wondering: “What am I doing with my life?” But our fears only last until breakfast time; out comes the brief-case, and back we go to where we started.

Norton Juster addresses the principle of active laziness in this passage in The Phantom Tollbooth

“Pardon me,” he said, tugging at the man’s sleeve and holding the sheet of figures up for him to see, “but it’s going to take eight hundred and thirty-seven years to do these jobs.”

“Is that so?” replied the man, without even turning around. “Well, you’d better get on with it then.”

“But it hardly seems worth while,” said Milo softly.

“WORTH WHILE!” the man roared indignantly.

“All I meant was that perhaps it isn’t too important,” Milo repeated, trying not to be impolite.

“Of course it’s not important,” he snarled angrily. “I wouldn’t have asked you to do it if I thought it was important.” And now, as he turned to face them, he didn’t seem quite so pleasant.

“Then why bother?” asked Tock, whose alarm suddenly began to ring.

“Because, my young friends,” he muttered sourly, “what could be more important than doing unimportant things? If you stop to do enough of them, you’ll never get to where you’re going.” He punctuated his last remark with a villainous laugh.

“Then you must—” gasped Milo.

“Quite correct!” he shrieked triumphantly. “I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.”

The Humbug dropped his needle and stared in disbelief while Milo and Tock began to back away slowly.

“Don’t try to leave,” he ordered, with a menacing sweep of his arm, “for there’s so very much to do, and you still have over eight hundred years to go on the first job.”

“But why do only unimportant things?” asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them.

“Think of all the trouble it saves,” the man explained, and his face looked as if he’d be grinning an evil grin—if he could grin at all. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing, and if it weren’t for that dreadful magic staff, you’d never know how much time you were wasting.”

As he spoke, he tiptoed slowly toward them with his arms outstretched and continued to whisper in a soft, deceitful voice, “Now do come and stay with me. We’ll have so much fun together. There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why, if you stay here, you’ll never have to think again—and with a little practice you can become a monster of habit, too.”

There is more active laziness (or distraction) around than we might think there is. This is not just something that we indulge in occasionally – it’s a full-time occupation. The Terrible Trivium (‘the demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort’) is a jealous god and does not allow us to time off from carrying out his wishes. What is more, it is very far from being an easy thing to discern between tasks which are genuine (in the sense that they will actually get us somewhere) and those which are only apparently going to get us somewhere, but which are really only there for the purpose of keeping us wholly and completely distracted on an indefinite basis.


Society itself is a demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, and an ogre of wasted effort. It delights in offering us ‘petty tasks and worthless jobs’. It doesn’t just delight in offering them to us, it bullies the life out of us until we comply! This is what Alan Watts is saying here in this excerpt from one of his talks – [quote taken from joesworld]

The whole point of the dancing is the dance.


Now, but we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our everyday conduct. We’ve got a system of schooling which gives a completely different impression. It’s all graded—and what we do is we put the child into the corridor of this grade system, with a kind of “c’mon kitty kitty kitty…”


And yeah, you go to kindergarten, and that’s a great thing, because when you finish that, you’ll get into first grade. And then c’mon, first grade leads to second grade, and so on…And then you get out of grade school you go to high school—and it’s revving up, the thing is coming…Then you’re going to go to college, and by Jove then you get into graduate school, and when you’re through with graduate school, you’ll go out to join the world.


And then you get into some racket where you’re selling insurance. And they’ve got that quota to make. And you’re going to make that. And all the time, this thing is coming, it’s coming, it’s coming—that great thing, the success you’re working for. Then when you wake up one day about forty years old, you say “My God! I’ve arrived! I’m there!” And you don’t feel very different from what you always felt. And there’s a slight let-down, because you feel there’s a hoax. And there was a hoax. A dreadful hoax. They made you miss everything. By expectation. Look at the people who live to retire, and put those savings away. And then when they’re sixty-five, and they don’t have any energy left, they’re more or less impotent, they go and rot in an old people’s “senior citizens” community. Because we’ve simply cheated ourselves, the whole way down the line. We thought of life by analogy was a journey, was a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end. And the thing was to get to that end.


Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead.


But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played.

From a naïve viewpoint, it does of course sound utterly incredible that the social system which we which we all take so much for granted should be accused of having the covert function of being a decoy or red-herring. Are we capable of even hearing the suggestion that the group mind has the secret agenda of endlessly distracting us from what really matters, so that anything else that we might be interested, anything that isn’t a distraction, should be passed over in our constant hurry to reach the next collectively validated benchmark of what we’re supposed to be doing in life, what we’re supposed to be achieving in life? Because this is too much for us to take on board, we end up (as Alan Watts says in the passage given above) falling for the hoax. We end up being taken for a ride…


This suggestion – which is equivalent to the Cathars’ rule of thumb that all institutions are inherently evil – sounds excessively dramatic and outrageously unreasonable, to put it mildly. And yet it ought to be more than obvious that this is of course the case! How could it be otherwise? Let us suppose for the sake of the argument that I do go along with the plan, let us suppose that I do adhere to whatever the template is. So if this is the case and I am sticking with the programme what is going to happen is that I am going to be rewarded / acknowledged when I make the grades, when I meet the benchmarks, when I tick the boxes that I am expected to tick, and – contrariwise – I am going to experience negative reinforcement when I fail to do so. Negative and positive reinforcement isn’t something that was invented by behavioural psychologists in the last century, after all – this kind of business has been going on as long as society has been!


Society is a logical structure (all structures are logical or else they wouldn’t be structures!) and logical structures are made up of rules. Structures are made up of yes and no, right and wrong and the only way to fit into the structure (or obey the rule) is of course to get yes’s instead of no’s, to get it right rather than getting it wrong (the way to successfully adapt is to ‘obey the rules’, in other words). There’s no way around this, there’s no flexibility in the system – the only way to fit into society is to agree with the way everyone else sees the world, understands the world, behaves in the world, etc. A rule is only a rule because we all agree that it shall be but after we agree to the rule we all then become its prisoners. We sign away our freedom as the price for being allowed to join the group!


This is all very straightforward. It’s simple mechanics. There’s no problem at all in it except, we might say, for one little thing and that ‘one little thing’ is that the psyche isn’t a logical system! The rational mind is a logical system for sure, but not the actual person, not the actual individual. When we all agree to fit into a logical system that is to be ‘generically true for all of us’ then what this means is that we are agreeing to conform to something that isn’t actually true for any of us. We’re adapting to the generic mind but that generic mind isn’t who we are.


We can only ‘ever agree’ with or ‘conform to’ a logical system – we can never agree with or conform to another individual unique human being! This of course doesn’t seem particularly obvious to us – we are after all agreeing or disagreeing with other people the whole time. That’s pretty much ‘what we do’ – that’s how we interact with those around us, by either agreeing or disagreeing with them. Our friends are a small group of people who we agree with and society is a bigger group of people who we agree with. This isn’t what we’re saying though. What we’re saying is that true individuals don’t either agree or disagree with other people (except perhaps with regard to very limited and practical matters). It just wouldn’t make any sense at all to say that they do! After developing his own practice beyond the traditional ‘styles’ of Kung Fu, Bruce Lee stated that he could not teach anyone anymore because he no longer had ‘a system’:

…I cannot teach you for I am not a teacher and I have no style. I don’t believe in system, nor in method. And without system, without method, what’s to teach?

If there is no system then there are no rules. There is no pattern to follow and therefore no way of knowing whether you have got it right or wrong. The same is true for all true individuals – we can’t teach anyone to be like we are, or to live life as we do. They would not be following their own path if they tried to do so. ‘Education’ – in the way that we normally understand the concept – is not for individuals, it is for generic human beings. When we agree with an external framework, an external format, we cease to be true to ourselves. If a group of us get together and agree on ‘a way to be’ (or ‘a way to see or describe the word’) then none of us are being true to ourselves and this fundamental lack of authenticity (or lack of ‘integrity’) is the price of conforming to the generic mind.


None of this is exactly new. We all know this to be the case, on some level of awareness or other (we tend to know it intuitively rather than rationally). And yet even though we all do have some kind of awareness around the difficulties of being true to oneself in the face of the coercive pressures associated with the group, we don’t realize just how crucial this struggle between on the one hand ‘staying true to oneself’ and on the other hand ‘succumbing to the generic mind’ is. We’re not paying attention. We haven’t spotted the danger.


This is a deadly struggle – the deadliest of struggles, in fact. It is we might say a game that is played ‘for keeps’ – it is ‘for real’, it is a contest that it acted out in deadly earnest, whether we realize it or whether we don’t, and the odds are weighted very heavily against us even at the best of times. Deep down we know the truth of the ancient philosophical maxim “To thine own self be true” but when it comes to the crunch we almost invariably overlook it in favour of the temporary advantage. When the pressure is on we almost always betray ourselves and side with the collective; when push comes to shove we almost always throw our lot in with the all-persuasive generic mind.

This is no minor skirmish or inconsequential tussle that we are talking about here – this is the Age-Old Conflict. This is the Eternal War. The Eternal War is fought for the highest stakes of all – our autonomy, our integrity, our dignity as human beings, our freedom to be who we really are and not what the system would have us be (which is a tool of itself). The struggle is between the timeless truth of who we really are, and what we are made to believe we are. We lose sight of the truth under the non-stop pressure of all the persuasive lies, under the overpowering force of all the bullying and cajoling that the Adversary brings to bear against us. And at the end of the day we either hold true to what we know deep-down to be true, or we sell out for temporary benefit and regret at leisure. The one who benefits from ‘doing the deal’ with the Adversary is after all not ourselves, it is only ‘who we have been tricked into believing we are’! The system corrupts us and turns us into an extension of itself, and then rewards us for what it has made us into…

Ultimately, the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness (i.e. the tendency to wake up and the tendency to fall asleep) are partners. It could be said that it is through slavery that we learn the value of freedom. The Sufi metaphor is to speak of a caged bird, and being caged or constrained like that bird allows us to fully appreciate what it means to be able to fly freely. Or as Paul Levy puts it, it is only through being tested by the false authority of the negative father that we are pushed sufficiently to draw upon our deepest resources and ‘become truly whole and empowered’:

The emergence of the negative father archetype in this waking dream of ours is an invitation ─ make that a demand ─ to step into our true strength and power. Seen as a dreaming process, the negative father embodies the very process we need to engage with so as to build up our muscle of realization. That the archetypal myth of the negative father is incarnating itself in our world is an expression that this deeper process is available for conscious assimilation in a way that was simply not available before. Whether we are destroyed by the negative father or empowered is up to no one but ourselves. We collectively bear the responsibility for our current situation, and we also have within us the power to change it.

The Adversary (otherwise known as Satan, Shaitan the Whisperer, Mara, or Ahriman) helps us, in other words. It is after all only by being tested that we know ourselves. Or as Nichiren Daishonin says,

When we fall to the floor, we raise ourselves from that same floor.

As Paul Levy indicates in the quote given above, this view that the two forces of Light and Dark are ultimately in partnership does not mean that we can relax in the knowledge that we will somehow be ‘saved’! If we are to be saved it will only be by own own efforts. As Levy says it ‘is up to no one but ourselves’. The view of the universe that is portrayed by the ancient Persian myth of Ohrmazd  (or as he later came to be known, Ahura Mazda) and Ahriman is not a deterministic one. Nothing is set in stone, the outcome cannot be foretold, the balance hangs undecided. The drama has to play out… J.G. Bennett uses the term hazard to refer to this essentially undecided aspect of the contest between the two forces. In a passage from The Dramatic Universe, J.G. Bennett writes –

If man is not a pawn in the hands of an omnipotent and omniscient chess player, then he may be something much more significant: a being upon whom rests real responsibility for taking his own part in the universal task.

If we see life in mythological terms we can see that it is not at all about what we think it is about (that’s just the decoy, that’s just the red-herring. That’s not what’s really going on. What’s really going on is the Eternal War…


Cultivating Non-Aggression

sun sky

We are so habituated to controlling that we try to apply it to everything – like Abraham Maslow’s story of the carpenter whose only tool was a hammer. For this lamentably under-equipped carpenter, says Maslow, the whole world is a nail. If the whole world is a nail then the only thing to do with it is to hit it. The only thing to do with it  is to whack it hard with your hammer! And if this doesn’t work, then what else is there for it but to whack it again, only extra hard this time!


Already this scenario doesn’t sound very good! Control as an approach works in some cases (just as a hammer is an appropriate tool to use when what you’re hitting happens to be a nail) but one thing it is no good at all for is when dealing with distressing feelings or thoughts (which is to say, with painful states of mind). Control is no good when it comes to honestly relating to how we are, any more than it is good in honestly relating to how someone else is! It is of course true that when we are feeling bad then we automatically try to remedy the situation by controlling ourselves, by controlling the way that we feel. We start ‘using the hammer’, so to speak, and – not surprisingly – this doesn’t actually help the situation.  It doesn’t make anything better, but even though it doesn’t make things any better we keep on with it all the same. Control is all we know, after all…


Even though most of us would agree that our normal response of trying to control ourselves when we’re feeling bad doesn’t work, we still don’t tend to see ‘not-controlling’ as an acceptable option. Quite the reverse is true – not controlling seems entirely unacceptable!  After all, the fear is that if we stop trying to keep a lid on what we’re feeling (even if it isn’t actually helping) then how we are we to know that things won’t get a lot worse? The fact that we are ‘fighting against the painful mental state’ might be the only thing that is stopping us sliding off the edge of the precipice into a pit of bottomless suffering. We feel that the only thing to do is to keep on clinging (as best we can) to the edge of the cliff and hope for all we’re worth that the little tussock of grass that we’re clutching onto doesn’t give way. As it seems very likely to…


This is the fearful scenario that the thinking mind comes up with. But thinking this isn’t really any different to thinking that if we worry enough then this will stop the ‘bad thing’ that we’re worried about from happening. Not only does worrying not stop the bad thing from happening, it actually creates far more suffering for us that the bad thing happening ever would! The non-stop worrying is the real disaster! And in the same way resisting (or ‘trying to control’) how we feel doesn’t prevent how we feel from getting worse, it magnifies the pain many times over and – what’s worse – it ensures that we get stuck in it. Resisting the mental state unfailingly causes us to get so very stuck that a tractor couldn’t pull us out! Resisting (or controlling) is just like some kind of super-glue in this respect – it sticks us to what we are resisting as effectively as any fast-setting polymer. Fighting creates an unbreakable connection to what we are fighting against, no matter what the thinking mind may tell us.


The thinking mind is simply not to be believed in this matter – all the thinking mind knows is resistance – different shades of resistance, different varieties of resistance – and resistance only ever exacerbates painful states of mind. No one ever successfully resisted (or controlled) a painful state of mind, no matter what we might like to believe to the contrary. If we believe that pure stubborn old-fashioned resistance can ‘get us out of the pain we’re in’ (if we apply enough of it) then this is just hopeful thinking. Or even more to the point, it is denial – which is the ultimate form of resistance! Our belief that we can successfully control (or successfully ‘force an escape’) isn’t anything heroic (no matter what our culture might tell us) – it is simply fear. Resistance is the enactment of fear.


The very best we might hope for is that if we resist strongly enough, aggressively enough, then we might succeed in ‘pushing the pendulum out’ so that it temporarily swings away from us. Even if we do manage to do this however, the one thing that we can be sure of in this situation is that the pendulum is going to come right back again, with renewed energy. The unwanted painful feeling is going to come right back at us, and when it does then it is going to hit us harder than ever precisely because we have pushed it away so vigorously. What we are really dealing with here (if we took the time to look at what’s going on, that is, which we understandably don’t tend to do when we’re in pain) is our own aggression being reflected back at us, and causing us ‘extra pain’. The pain we’re in causes us to respond with aggression, but rather than helping anything that aggression comes right back to us in the form of a ‘pain backlash’. We very rarely have any insight into the fact that what we are experiencing is our own aggression rebounding on us, reflecting back at us, and this is why we keep on with what we’re doing. This is why we keep resorting to the ‘blunt instrument’ of control. This is why we keep on hitting out with the hammer..


Using the word ‘aggression’ in this context (in the context of controlling) doesn’t tend to sound right to us. We don’t see controlling as necessarily being aggressive. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be, most of us would probably say. But from a psychological point of view, controlling is always a manifestation of aggression! From a psychological point of view, controlling and aggression are synonymous. What we mean by controlling is, after all, simply ‘getting things to be the way that we want them to be’. Control means that we are ‘enforcing our will’; it means that we are ‘pushing our agenda’. In control there is no question of taking anything else (any other viewpoints, so to speak) into consideration – if there was then what we are talking about would not be control. No matter how ‘nice’ I might be about it, if I am controlling than its all about what I want to happen and this will always be ‘the bottom line’. I don’t care about anything else. I might be diplomatic, I might be tactful in my approach, I might use skilful persuasion, I might ‘sugar-coat the pill’, but if this doesn’t work then I’ll skip the ‘velvet glove’ and go straight to the ‘iron fist’!


We aren’t using the word ‘aggression’ in a moral sense here – as if to say that it is wrong or unacceptable. Saying that stuff is ‘wrong’ or ‘unacceptable’ is itself aggressive! We’re just using it in a neutral ‘technical’ sense to designate ‘the assertion of personal will’ (or, as we might equivalently say, the ‘unreflective enactment of a closed agenda’).  Sometimes it is helpful or appropriate to assert personal will but when we are talking about working with painful mental states asserting ‘how we want for things to be’ is not at all helpful. The contrary is true, as we have been saying – asserting ‘how we want for things to be’ unfailingly rebounds on us and causes us extra pain on top of the pain we were already feeling. Aggression doesn’t work! Control doesn’t work! It’s worth emphasizing that we have a very big blind-spot about this. We have a huge blind-spot about this. We can’t see why we shouldn’t be able to ‘force’ ourselves to change. We can’t see why it shouldn’t be possible to ‘quit’ a painful mind-state ‘on purpose’. We can change other things so why not this? We can escape other difficult situations, so why can’t we escape from a painful state of mind? Why can’t we just say “No” to it?


What we can’t seem to see is that we can’t use ‘how we are’ to change how we are! And when we try to change anything, we always use ‘the way we are’ as a basis. We always use ‘how we are’. What else would we use? We have nothing else to use other than the way we are. So using the way we are to try to change the way we are just isn’t going to work – not ever! It’s a non-starter. It’s a no go. Possibly the most intuitive example of why this can’t work is provided by the mental state of fear. Fear almost always turns straightaway into ‘controlling’ – we control so as to get away from the fear. On the one hand the controlling could mean ‘running away’, in which case we try to run away from the fear, and on the other hand the controlling could mean ‘fixing’, so that whatever we find frightening is no longer there to frighten us. These are the two ways of reacting to fear – either flee or fight, either run away from the problem or fix the problem. But if I try to run away from the fear then it is the fear that is making me run away, and so as I run I am of course bringing the fear with me! The running is the fear, so how can the running possibly help me escape my fearful state of mind? This is like trying to run away from my own shadow.


And if I try to fix the problem then my motivation for doing this is also fear, and so the fear is in the fixing. I am ‘fearfully fixing’ – fear is the only reason I am fixing and so the fixing is the fear. The fixing is a manifestation of the fearful state of mind and so even if I do manage to temporarily get rid of whatever was causing me to be afraid I haven’t got rid of the fear – I have just made myself into a ‘successful slave’ of the fear, I have just ‘done what the fear wants me to do’ and so how is this ‘escaping the fear’? How is this going to do me any good? Far from escaping the fear, I have made myself into its servant. It’s going now to rule me. If I automatically ‘obey’ the fear every time it comes along (by either fleeing or fixing) then it’s guaranteed to be with me full-time…


The same is clearly true for the mental state of anger. If I am in the state of anger then whatever I do I am going to be doing it angrily. If I shut the door then I will shut it angrily. If I go for a walk then I will walk angrily. If I apologize to you for losing my temper shouting (for example) then I will apologize angrily. If I try to control myself so as not to be angry then I will do this angrily too! I don’t have any choice – if I could just turn around and do something ‘not angrily’ then I wouldn’t be angry in the first place!  If I could tell myself not to be angry – and yet at the same time not tell myself this in an angry way – then obviously I wouldn’t be angry, and so I wouldn’t need to try to tell myself not to be angry! Worrying is another example – if I am worrying a lot and someone helpfully tells me not to worry (or advises me to stop worrying, i.e. says to me “Don’t worry about it”) then this is no good because all this does is provoke me to ‘worry about my worrying’. If I could simply tell myself to stop worrying then I wouldn’t be anxious in the first place so the advice to stop worrying would be unnecessary. And if on the other hand I actually am in an anxious state of mind then all the advice in the world – whether it is to do this, that or the other, will be no good at all because whatever I try to do the one thing that is one hundred per cent for sure is that I will be doing it in an anxious way….


Telling yourself not to be angry when you are angry (or telling yourself not to be nervous when you are nervous) is of course very crude stuff and we can easily see how this wouldn’t work (although we are admittedly unlikely to see this at the time). We do nevertheless hold onto the belief that that there must be some sort of sophisticated ‘scientific’ (or ‘psychological’) way of changing the unwanted state of mind that will work. We still hang on (with great persistence) to the idea that there must be some way to therapize the anger away, that where must be some way to rationally manipulate the anxious state of mind away. We may not be confident in this when we’re actually in the throes of the negative state of mind, but otherwise we’re quite convinced that there must be some way to ‘snap out of it’ by sheer effort of will. We’re equally convinced (although we might not come right out and say it) that if other people don’t do this then they’re just being awkward or lazy or even downright perverse. We know very well that we’d ‘snap out of it’ if it was us so why don’t they?


This is just not possible however. We can’t snap out of a painful state of mind just because we want to, even if we have got some sophisticated, supposedly ‘scientific’ method to do it with. Aggression is aggression, even if it is cloaked with sophisticated trappings, even if it is carried out in a very logical and systematic kind of a way. It’s either the one thing or the other, as we have said. When we look at this clearly, with an unclouded mind, we can see that it’s either one or the other! I can either be aggressive, or I can be non-aggressive, and that’s all there is to it. There’s no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ about it – there’s no smudging and there’s no fudging. I can’t be aggressive and non-aggressive at the same time – I can’t serve two masters. I can’t be ‘non-aggressive’ with a secret aggressive agenda! This is so simple that a child could understand it, and yet what is simple for a child to grasp is not necessarily simple for an adult, because being an adult usually involves having an awful lot of complicated baggage. To be an adult in this world that we live in is rather like being a politician – ‘the truth’ somehow becomes infinitely slippery and susceptible to all sorts of encroachments and modifications.


What we as adults find so very hard (if not impossible) to understand is that everything the rational mind does is aggression! This is sounds rather outrageous but when we remember our definition of ‘aggression’ as ‘trying to change things in accordance with a closed frame of reference’ the point becomes easier to understand. The rational mind functions by trying to change things in accordance with its own criteria, its own rules, its own agenda. It functions by controlling, in other words. Even if we’re only commenting on things this is still controlling because we’re putting our own spin on things. Even if we’re just naming stuff, or describing stuff, we’re trying to ‘say what reality is’ and this is controlling. By describing what’s going on we’re controlling the meaning of what’s going on! This makes the operation of the rational-conceptual mind a fundamentally aggressive sort of a thing; it is agressive because we are placing our own brand of order on the world, and then saying it was there all along (to paraphrase David Bohm). What’s not aggressive about this?


Aggression is aggression and non-aggression is non-aggression and if you’re going to have one then you can’t have other. The two can’t be mixed, they can’t be blended in some sort of ‘skilful mixture’. It is crucial to get this straight because the everyday thinking mind is so very prone to confusing the issue – in fact the everyday thinking mind can’t help confusing the issue! But once we have got this straight (and we are no longer relying on our thinking process to sort things out for us, our ‘aggression’ to sort things out for us) then what do we do? Where do we go from here? What’s the nest step? Aggression is easy because we do it all the time, without even knowing that we’re doing it, but how do we cultivate non-aggression?


A good way to look at this is in terms of ‘head’ and ‘heart,’ even though this may sound rather unscientific. We can illustrate the point by imagining a situation where we are sitting at a desk facing another person, facing another human being. There are two ways to do this – two ways to relate to another human being. Either (we may say) I can be ‘all official’ and relate to the person facing me in terms of who I am supposed to be (in terms of my role, or my idea of myself), or I can relate as my true, honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth self, which is not a role, not a mental construct. If I relate the first way then this is the ‘head’ relating and if I relate the second way then this is the ‘heart’ way – the way with no ‘attitude’, the way with no ‘artifice’. We don’t have to be in some kind of official role to be stuck in our heads, of course. Very often that just happens to be how we find ourselves – operating out of our heads rather than out of our hearts. Speaking in a general way, we could say this this happens because of the way in which we are defending ourselves against inner pain or fear or insecurity. The head is very often a place of defence, therefore. Operating out of our heads, out of our rational minds is a very normal way to be but it isn’t a helpful way to relate to other people because when we relate to other people in a rational (or logical) way we don’t see them as they are, but as our thinking makes them. We see them in terms of our own agenda, in other words.


People aren’t ‘defined things’. None of us are. We’re not counters in someone else’s game. We’re not ‘objects’ – even if the classifying mind says we are. On the contrary, ‘what we are’ is essentially undefined and undefinable. When we are defined (either by someone else or by ourselves) then this is an act of aggression. We have been ‘objectified’. For this reason when we to find ourselves being defined or evaluated it doesn’t feel good. If I am defining (or judging) you then I am aggressing you! If you label me you negate me, as Soren Kierkegaard says. This being the case there is no genuine ‘relating’ – there is only negating disguised as relating! This is a relatively easy point to understand with regard to relating to other people (since we all know how bad it feels to be judged or to be turned into objects in another person’s eyes, but not quite so easy to understand with regard to how we relate to our own painful states of mind, to our own thinking. And yet the principle is exactly the same – the only way to sincerely relate (i.e. relate in a non-aggressive way) to how we ourselves are is through the heart, not through the controlling and calculating head!


When we relate via our heads, via our rational mind then what happens is that our ‘attempt to control’ gets reflected back at us in the form of intensified pain. This is what Chogyam Trungpa calls negative negativity – first there is the original pain, and then when we try to control this pain, to clamp down on it, then this desperate aggression of ours gets reflected right back at us (like an echo in a cave) and causes us more pain than ever. Unaware that it is our aggressive (or attacking) reaction to our pain that is responsible for hurting us further, the intensified pain causes us to react even more aggressively, and this ‘counter-productive reaction’ causes us to get locked into a vicious circle of neurotic suffering. It is therefore only when we gain insight into this vicious circle – and the way that our own aggression is being reflected right back at us – that we can start to disengage from this pain-producing cycle (or loop) of ‘reacting and then reacting to our own reacting’. The understanding of what we are doing naturally weakens the mechanism of what we are doing, since this ‘mechanism’ relies on our ignorance of the way in which we ourselves are trapping ourselves in the cycle of suffering. “Order is born from understanding disorder” says Gurdjieff’s student Jean de Salzmann. As long as we remain sublimely ignorant, then we will continue to throw fresh logs upon the fire, and complain about the heat!


Aggression fuels (or intensifies) painful states of mind, rather than dissolving them, and when we see this then we quite naturally ‘let go’ of the aggression, of the controlling. When we let go of the controlling then what happens then is that we come back to ourselves, and when we come back to ourselves then what we find is that we are relating to the world (and ourselves) through our hearts and not through our heads. If the characteristic of the head (or the rational intellect) is that it is aggressive then the characteristic of the heart is that it is peaceful. It is not peaceful in a weak (or passively compliant) way, it is peaceful in a tremendously strong way.


We can think of the response of a strong and loving parent to a child who is upset, and creating lots of fuss. The strong parent doesn’t react to the distress of the child with yet more distress by being aggressive, by being controlling – instead, they are gently accepting of the child’s distressed state. There is allowing’, rather than ‘disallowing’, and this is precisely what makes them strong! By accepting the upset nature of the child rather than trying to control it (i.e. trying to ‘shut it down’), the situation is helped rather than aggravated. By not refusing the child’s distress, and meeting it with peace rather than aggression, the distress is allowed to empty itself into the infinite space of the parent’s love. Were the child’s distress to be disallowed, then it would have nowhere to go – if met with aggression then it is just going to intensify, which in turn will provoke further sanctions from the controlling parent, causing the situation to escalate rather than de-escalate.


In the same way when we don’t automatically attempt to control or stamp down on painful mental states, then the pain in it is allowed to empty out into the infinite space of the compassionate, patient, non-judgemental mind, whereas if we disallow this pain, if we reject the pain, then it just remains cooped up in the box of our denial, trapped and feeding on itself. It then festers and breeds new demons. It intensifies and becomes its own justification…


We control because control creates the need for more control, and this logic never lets up. Yet if we ‘step outside’ the logic-using head and become more truly ourselves, by being compassionately aware of what is going on rather than trying to control it, then – as the Buddhist traditions teach – the painful mind state will be allowed to ‘spontaneously liberate’ itself.

Paying Attention to Thinking


We normally think pretty much automatically, which is to say we passively allow ourselves to be ‘taken over’ by whatever thoughts come along. This doesn’t usually seem a problem until we find ourselves being plagued by thoughts that we do not like. When this happens we naturally try to rid ourselves of the negative thinking, but what we find then is that we are simply not able to tell the unwanted thoughts to ‘go away’.


The problem is that we have allowed our thinking to become automatic, which means (as we have said) that our thoughts take us over whether we like it or not. Automatic thinking is a habitual sort of thing and I cannot snap out of it all of a sudden just because I have suddenly decided that I don’t like the sort of thoughts that I am getting. What happens then is that I say ‘NO’ to my thoughts – I struggle against them and try to break free, but all that happens is that I feed the thoughts by fighting them. Saying NO to a thought strengthens it because saying NO makes a big issue of it; the thought is like a bully and if we run away or try to escape we only make ourselves more of a victim to it. We play right into the bully’s hands, so to speak.


It is perfectly possible to get out of the trap of negative thinking but in order to do this we must first start paying attention to all of our thinking, so that our thinking stops being so ‘automatic’. Basically, automatic thinking is due to our long habit of ‘not paying attention’ and so the only cure is simply to start paying attention! Even if someone tells me this, though, I still feel confused because I do not know what exactly I am supposed to be paying attention to. The best way to deal with the confusion that comes when I start wondering “What am I supposed to do?” is to look more closely at what thinking actually involves, and ask ourselves the question:


One way to look at thinking’ is to say that our senses pick up information from the world about us (or from our memories of previous sense-impressions) and then our thinking interprets that information for us – i.e. it analyses the data and presents us with solid conclusions, when it is able to. This is all one continuous automated process: first there is the sensory input, and then our thinking ‘processes’ this information and tells us what the information means, and what implications it has for us. It gives us (or so we assume) the correct interpretation. We then act on this basis.


There is a serious problem with this way of looking at the thinking process however, and this is that it is unreflective. This means that we totally trust that thoughts are providing us with an accurate picture of what is going on; a thought turns up on our doorstep saying, “This is the story, this is how it is” and we automatically accept that this version of reality is true, or ‘right’. This is where the problem is because there actually is no ‘right’ way to look at the world. What we see when we look at the world depends upon the way which we choose to look it from – there are many possible perspectives that we could take, and each particular perspective gives us a different picture. But we can’t really say that one picture is right and the others are wrong because the picture that each perspective provides us with is ‘right’ for that perspective, but no picture is ‘universally right’.


A simple way to illustrate this idea is to thinking in terms of a house. When I look at a house from the front, facing the front door, it looks one way. If I go around and look at the house from the side, then the picture that I see of the house is a totally different one. From the back of the house I see another view, and if I somehow suspend myself in the air and look down on the house from directly above the roof, then I will get yet another perspective on the matter. So which is the true picture? Clearly, none of the perspectives taken provide the definitive ‘right way of looking at the house’ – they are all right in their own ways, and at the same time we have to say that none of them are absolutely right because there is always more to the house than we can see from any one viewpoint.


Perhaps, we might think, if we take all of the views and add them together we would arrive at the correct description? This seems sort of logical but it doesn’t work either. For one thing, we can only look at the house one way at a time (although for this example it is true that we could make a series of architectural drawings of different views and look at them simultaneously), and for another thing, there are an endless number of possible perspectives that we could take! As Robert Anton Wilson says, you can never have a map that totally describes the territory. The map is never equal to the territory, no matter how much detail you manage to cram in! The scientific term for this sort of idea is complexity, which simply means that there are many right ways to see anything, but no overall right way. As Nobel prize winning chemist Ilya Prigogine says, there just isn’t any ‘divine viewpoint’ from which we can objectively survey (and map) the whole of everything. This idea can be related, within the field of mathematics, to Godel’s ‘incompleteness theorum’.


The example of the house is not perfect for our purposes because it is possible (as we have said) to visualize a number of different views simultaneously. This is not true for thinking because one thought excludes another – we simply cannot think two thoughts about something at the same time (at least, not under ordinary circumstances). I cannot think that something is good and bad at the same time; I may alternate from one to the other but that is it. Because one way of thinking about things necessarily excludes all other possible ways, this means that our thinking process cannot be trusted in the way that I do.


Now, it is important to stress that our thoughts are not actually ‘lying’ to us. They are telling us their own truth, which is necessarily limited (or ‘relative). Relative truth means that ‘it is true for that particular way of looking at the world’. The picture that thought gives us is true relative to the assumptions that had to be made before the thought in question could produce a clear cut (or definite) conclusion. Without making assumptions there can never be any solid certainty for us to rest on, and so another way of looking at this is to say that thought is limited because its always has to make unfounded assumptions before it can proceed.  Making ‘assumptions’ basically means that we have to assume that the perspective (or ‘angle’) that we are going to take is the right one; if I don’t take this first step of saying “I’ll look at it this way” then obviously I’ll never get anywhere! It goes without saying that I could have taken a different perspective, but then that would have had to been the ‘right way’. Therefore, the whole concept of ‘rightness’ is relative…


So, our thoughts do not lie but they only show part of the truth, not the whole truth. Where the problem comes in is when we take it for granted that this thought that I am having is absolutely true, not just relatively true. At this point, my thinking stops being helpful to me, and becomes a deadly sort of trap. What tends very much to happen is that we have an unconscious reason (or bias) to see things one way rather than another, and so I start selecting one view (often an extreme black or white view) without realizing that my data processing is prejudiced. Then, I fall into the trap of believing this black or white view of the world. I might think that I am a terrible person, and that my life is ruined; or I might think that I am a truly great person and that I am really going places. Both views are the result of unconsciously biased information processing.


What is the true story? Well the true story is that thinking can never give me the true story, and so the most helpful thing that I can do is to stop ‘jumping to conclusions’ and leave life as it is, an open book. The crucial difference between life and our thoughts is that our thoughts are always certain, whilst life is uncertain. Another way to put this is to say that our thoughts are conclusions – they are finished, whilst life itself is ‘unconcluded’, open, and always therefore unfinished. There is a secret reason why we opt for the certain (thought-produced) version of reality and the reason is that we cannot bear the discomfort of ‘not knowing’. We find uncertainty hard work because it demands something from us – if I can write something off by being final in my judgement then I do not need to do any work; I can resign, so to speak. If I think that I know the ending of the book then I do not need to carry on reading it, I can throw the book down and say, “What’s the point? I already know what is going to happen…” In this way I sneakily avoid the ‘work’ of being in reality, which is always uncertain, always developing, and I obtain the short term benefit of feeling justified in not giving life a chance to prove me wrong.


So far, then, we have said two things. The first thing that we said was that normal everyday thinking is an automatic process whereby we tend to unreflectively accept a partial picture as being ‘absolutely true’ and the second thing we said was that we always have an ulterior motive for accepting the certainty of our thoughts at face value in this way. All of this is pure theory however, and as such it is useless to us in any practical sense unless it makes sense to us on the basis of our own experience. A theory is like a thought – if I am tempted to either [1] believe it or [2] disbelieve it then what this shows me is that I have a secret agenda to take refuge in certainty (either of the positive or negative variety); which relieves me of the necessity to take on the responsibility (and the risk) for ‘seeing for myself’. This means exposing myself to the uncertainty of reality, where I cannot be sure what I will find.


We said before that the key to becoming free from the habit automatic thinking (i.e. taking stuff for granted) is paying attention, and we are now in a better position to understand what paying attention means in practice. Normally, we pay attention in a one-sided (or ‘uneven’) way, i.e. we notice the way in which the thought is right (or true) and we ignore the way in which the thought is not right and not true. This is like when I deliberately see only one side of the argument so that I can have the satisfaction of having a definite belief to hang on to. It is not that the evidence I am paying attention to is necessarily wrong, but where the thing is that I turn a blind eye to ‘competing’ evidence, and also turn a blind eye to the fact that I am turning a blind eye. The point is that ‘uneven attention’ is not attention at all, but rather it is a sort of unconscious manipulation (or distortion) of reality.


The first step in developing ‘evenness’ (or ‘lack of bias’) is therefore to pay attention to the way in which we are deliberately not paying attention. This means spotting the fleeting moment of choice in which we decide not to notice something, which also equals the moment of choice in which we decide to give away our freedom. The way in which we do this is very simple. The first thing that we have to do is just spend a bit of time reflecting on the ordinary everyday process of having thoughts. Basically, having a thought is like catching a bus – here I am waiting at the bus stop and a bus pulls up in front of me. The process of passive identification which we talked about earlier means in terms of this metaphor that when a bus pulls up, I automatically jump on it and let it take me for a ride. This process seems perfectly normal and acceptable to me and I don’t experience myself as having no freedom in it – the reason for this being that I take it that I actually want to catch the bus. I side with the compulsion so that it doesn’t seem like an external force, but my own free will.


But suppose a bus (i.e. a thought) comes along that I don’t like – a scary or unpleasant thought. Well, as we have said, the problem with the state of passive identification is that I have to go along with what ever comes my way and so if an unpleasant thought comes along I have to ‘go along’ with that too. This is the difference between buses and thoughts: I can choose not to jump on a bus if I don’t want to go where it is going to take me, but with a thought it makes no difference whether I say YES or NO to it because both positive and negative reactions create an unbreakable attachment between me and the thought. ‘Attachment’ means that there is an issue, and any purposeful reaction to an issue just confirms the issue as an issue. Thoughts are like traps because any reaction to them feeds them and makes them stronger – even if I deliberately don’t react (i.e. ignore) the thought, this too is a purposeful stance that I have taken, and it too will strengthen the thought in question.


So what can I do, if I can’t deliberately do ‘not doing’? The answer is very simple. If we go back to our analogy of ‘catching the bus’, what I do is that I catch the bus as normal. I have to do this – I can’t fight this automatic process because fighting always involves ‘identifying a certain reality’ and identifying a certain reality means that I am jumping on the bus just the same. So what I do is that I jump on the bus as normal and notice myself jumping on the bus as I do it. This ‘noticing’ is the key: to notice that I am catching a bus (i.e. to notice that I am forming an attachment with a thought) is to be aware that I didn’t have to do it. When I notice myself hopping onto the bus I am also at the same time noticing my lack of freedom in this – I am noticing the automatic quality of my thinking, which a completely new and surprising thing to see.


“And how exactly does this help me?” I ask again. Well, it is true that noticing doesn’t seem to be helping me. It makes the whole thing even more painful and frustrating than it was before. What I don’t see straight away is that this pain is how my increased freedom of perception shows itself. Before, I did not have the freedom to see that I wasn’t free and so all my problems were to do with unconscious suffering, which is where I suffer without understanding my suffering. Unconscious suffering is the usual state of affairs for us – it is when we do not allow ourselves to see the real problem, but pre-occupy ourselves with ‘phoney problems’ that are designed to protect us from being aware of what is really going on. If we solve the phoney problem we feel great (for a while), and if we fail to solve it we feel bad, but whether we win or lose we are still only involved in games, i.e. we are still ignorant of the hidden motivation behind what we are doing. When I see thinking as the automatic process that it is, then I am ‘free to see that I am not free’, which means that I am gaining insight into the hidden motivation that compels me to identify with every thought that comes along.


When the hidden motivation is no longer hidden, then the ‘integrity of the game’ is fatally flawed – it can no longer function. We can explain this in terms of the ‘self-distraction’: let us say that there are two possible states, one is present and the other absent. When I am present I am ‘here’ in reality, in touch with what is going on, and when I am absent I am away somewhere else, completely not in touch with ‘here’. In the second state I am distracted, and in the first state I am not. The point about this is that when I am distracted I do not know that I am distracted. I am ‘absent’ precisely because I don’t know that I’m absent! In the game of self-distraction it is absolutely essential that there is this ‘double not-knowing’: I have to ‘not know’, and not know that I do not ‘not know’; I have to be absent, and also absent from knowing that I am absent. Without the doubleness it doesn’t work at all, which is to say – if I am absent but I am not absent from knowing that I am absent, then I am not absent at all. To be present in my absence is to be present. What this means in practice is that the instant I realize (or see) that I am in a distracted state, then I am no longer distracted but back in reality.


Having understood this principle in relation to the game of self-distraction, all we need to do now is to apply it to the game of thinking, which is not (as it turns out) that different. We can say that thinking is a game because it involves a hidden motivation, which means that is based on self-deception. The way the ‘deception’ works can be explained in the following way. A thought is essentially a theory or model of reality, it is a picture which comes with the suggestion that “This is the way things are”. As long as the thought is seen as a provisional theory and nothing more, there is no deception. A provisional theory says, “ Well, maybe this might be a useful approximation of the way things are…” and when there is this ‘maybe’ the theory keeps its legitimacy  – it is not taking itself too seriously and it doesn’t really matter that much if the theory turns out to be wrong because no one had invested in it. We don’t invest in maybes, we only invest in certainties. For example, I can’t get that excited just from knowing that there is a theoretical possibility that the world may end tomorrow, any more than I can get particularly excited by the remote possibility that I may perhaps one day win the lotto if I keep playing.


The thing is, though, that thoughts incorporate within them a sort of ‘slippery slope’ which we tend to slide down. When we start to slide we can’t stop sliding, and the whole process of ‘identification’ has happened before we know it. We have ‘bought the ticket,’ and we are firmly on board the bus. What has happened is simple: in order to produce any kind of a definite picture at all – even provisional dotted-line type picture – the thought has to oversimplify reality, it has to direct our attention in a certain direction, at a certain class of details, and therefore it has ignore all the other directions, all the other details that we might otherwise have picked up on. This is basically a process of ‘losing perspective’: when we toy with a certain view of the world, a certain thought, then there is naturally a temptation to follow the logic of the thought a bit further to increase the definition, which is to say, to join up all the dotted lines of the provisional theory in order to produce a ‘total picture’ – a solid picture made up of strong black lines and satisfyingly defined spaces. What happens then is that we lose a huge amount of perspective in one go, and because of this dramatic ‘information collapse’ we no longer have the ability to know that we are missing anything. The ‘doubleness’ of irreversibility has spring its trap on us: we have forgotten something very important (that the thought is only a theory), and we have also forgotten that we have forgotten.


At this point, the provisional theory has become unquestionable dogma  – we have a way of looking at the world which asserts itself to be the only way of looking at the world, and such is the authority of the picture we see that we become totally ‘brainwashed’ by it. The process of ‘yielding to temptation’ (sliding down the slippery slope) usually happens so very quickly that it is quite invisible to us; the whole thing is fait accompli before we know it, and therefore there is no feeling of choice at all. Going back to our bus analogy again, the automatic quality of the identification process means that we just find ourselves sitting on the bus going down the road – this happens every time, whether I like it or not, and there is simply no way for me to put the breaks on the flow of events by brute force.


The ‘self-distraction’ example allowed us to see quite clearly that no brute force is actually needed at all to fatally injure the integrity of the game – all I need to do is to be aware of myself being distracted and – lo and behold – I am no longer distracted. The hidden gain behind distracting myself is obviously that I don’t want to be where I actually am, and so I use some pretext to draw my attention away, but what is the hidden gain behind thinking? This is much harder to see because we are so sold on the idea of thought’s legitimacy, which is to say, we find it absurd to suppose that we think not to solve legitimate problems but rather to avoid some ‘awareness’ that we don’t want to have. We have already touched upon this notion, and what we said was that thinking is a way of avoiding uncertainty. The idea is that there is security in certainty, even when that certainty is negative, and so we tend to cling on to it despite the fact that this clinging is causing loads of long-term problems. In fact one handy definition of a psychological game is to say it basically involves the ‘one-sided’ (or (‘uneven’) operation of focussing on the short-term gain as a way of distracting ourselves from the inevitability of the long-term cost. Another way of putting this is to say that the secret agenda behind having a thought (or a theory) is to exclude any other thoughts (or theories), i.e. we want the feeling of being totally sure about something and we don’t really care what it is we are being sure about. For this reason, I am not really interested in seeing the process whereby I choose to identify with a thought, and see the world in that particular way rather than in another, all I want is the ‘final product’, so to speak.


At this point it is helpful to look even deeper into our motivation to be attached to our thoughts (as opposed to having thoughts but being unattached to them). Why are we so scared of uncertainty? One way to explain this fear is by considering the somewhat challenging idea that the self which we normally identify with is itself a game, which is to say, it is a picture that only looks real when I look at things in a certain way. Of course, as with all games, the point is that I cannot allow myself to see that my secure and solid sense of self is dependent upon me choosing to look at the world in a specific narrow way, because then the solidity (or certainty) which is so important to me evaporates into thin air. Anything that I do on the basis of this constructed self reconfirms the validity of that self, and so straight way we can see that no matter what the overt aim of my purposeful actions (which includes thinking) might be, the covert aim is to maintain and protect the integrity of the game of being ‘me’.


It is easy to see why there should be fears in connection with letting go of the empirical or game-playing self. This is a big step to take – it is unprecedented, in fact. What happens if I let go? How can I trust that everything will be okay if I take this unprecedented step? What lies behind the certainty of the familiar everyday ‘me’? It is not helpful to attempt to answer any of these questions because then all we are doing is swapping one certainty for another. What we can say however is that the deeply familiar sense of being ‘me’ is produced by deliberately losing perspective, which is to say, looking at things in one way only. If my perspective increases on the matter, the black and white lines or boundaries that define my sense of self become provisional and ‘open to interpretation’ – we find ourselves on shifting sands, in fact.


The narrowly defined self is just like a theory because it forces us to focus only on stuff that is relevant to our inbuilt data-processing prejudice. Basically, the self which I am identified with is a bias; it is an arbitrarily biased viewpoint that I do not acknowledge as being arbitrary. We have just said that the defined self forces us to see the world in a narrow way; contrariwise, we could just as well have said it the other way around – that the act of focussing on a specific way of looking at the world creates a specific observer. A defined view automatically generates a defined self. When our perspective increases (for whatever reason) we start noticing irrelevant information, information that doesn’t ‘fit in’ with our neat theory of the world. This means that I start to lose my grip my identity a bit. The general process is one of ‘increasing openness’: when boundaries (defining lines) get rubbed out, I stop feeling separate and isolated and instead I start to notice all the ways in which I am connected the world around me, a part of everything rather than a-part from everything. It starts to become impossible to say for sure where ‘self’ ends and ‘other’ begins.


As Alan Watts says, the everyday self is like a lap which seems to be there when we are sitting down, but which vanishes when we stand up. ‘Sitting down’ corresponds to the low perspective situation, and ‘standing up’ corresponds to high perspective. Using this analogy, we can say that the secret motivation of the thinking is to maintain a state low of low perspective, where we can’t see the wood for the trees. In a similar way, we can also say that the anxiety behind thinking is the anxiety of the lap being afraid (without admitting it) that it might evaporate out of existence. And yet the irony of all this is that the lap doesn’t really wink out of existence because it was never really there in the first place. It was only a construct of our way of looking at things and so what is there to lose?


Of course, despite the fact that in reality there is ‘nothing to lose’, we continue to hang on to our thinking for dear life. This is because thinking is a circular argument: if we could get enough perspective we would see perfectly clearly that we do not need our thinking (that our non-stop thinking has become pointless and unnecessary) but from inside the thinking, it all seems very necessary and very important. So yet again, it seems that we have got stuck, that we have reached an impasse. How do we work with this? In order to see our way out of the apparent impasse all we need to do is to go back to our practical exercise of ‘catching the bus’: I cannot deliberately stop myself from jumping on board the bus, but I can watch myself doing it. This seems so simple that we cannot see how it can possibly help and so it is worth just going over the principle again. The point is that when I see myself catching the bus I can’t help seeing at the same time that I didn’t have to catch the bus. I am actually seeing two things: [1] I am powerless to not catch the bus and [2] there is no absolute need for me to catch that particular bus – I could have caught any bus in fact. Or not caught a bus at all..


In terms of becoming identified with a particular thought, what this means is that I see myself having a thought, but at the same time I know that the thought I am having is not an absolute statement of ‘how things are’. Basically, I see how the thought is forcing me to look at the world in a specific way – I see it taking away my freedom to look at the world in other ways. This is where the similarity with the game of self-distraction that we talked about earlier comes in. Just as awareness of the fact that I am distracted punctures the integrity of the game of self-distraction, so too does awareness of the essential arbitrariness of thought puncture the integrity of the game of thinking. When I know that the way I am presently seeing the world is the result of the bias inherent in the thought, then what I have is an awareness of the relative truth of the reality that I am seeing. My thought is showing me a picture of ‘how things are’, but I know that this is just a version of reality, one of many. I cannot fight this version (i.e. deny it), but the whole point is that I do not need to fight it – seeing that a thought is only a thought and not reality is enough.


It is important to stress that this awareness approach doesn’t ‘make everything better’ straight away. What happens is that we gain a greater insight into reality, whereas before we were using the ‘automatic-identification-with-thoughts’ process in order to avoid perceiving reality. The reason we were so happy to give away our freedom to perceive reality was because we were avoiding discomfort – this is the motivation behind all games – and so gaining awareness of the thinking process necessarily involves encountering that discomfort. We can give a straightforward example to explain this. When we feel seriously bad (i.e. when the ‘mental discomfort indicator needle’ jumps into the red), a certain type of thought automatically appears. This type of thought is basically about escaping from the mental or emotional pain that we are going through. The actual thought could be anything – I might think “If I have a drink I’ll feel better”, or I might think of doing something else that will straightaway make me feel better. All of these thoughts are offering me a way out, and they appear as if by magic as soon as the pain hits me. Even thoughts like “Why me?” or “If only I hadn’t…” are offering an escape from the pain (although this is not immediately obvious) because what I am still looking for a way out, only here I am doing it by leaving reality entirely.


This allows us to see clearly the (hidden) motivation behind believing in those thoughts – I desperately want to believe that there is a way out, and I am willing to bend reality if needs be. The actual reality is of course that there is no quick fix for the pain – there is no way for me to exit what I am going through. If I were to practice paying attention to my thinking, I would expose the avoidance game that I am playing, and so I would start to feel ‘worse’ because I would no longer be able to believe in the ‘false escapes’ offered by my thinking process. The thoughts of ‘how-to-escape’ still come thick and fast, but now I am unable to take refuge in them any more. The effect is painful, like adding insult to injury – not only do I have the original pain or discomfort, I also have to endure these utterly stupid and futile thoughts. I know that the thoughts are futile, but I am still totally powerless not to think them, and so as a result the experience is doubly painful.


Actually, I would probably prefer to go back to the old state of believing in my thoughts but once I have become disillusioned it is not so easy go back to the old ‘unconscious’ ways. I have sacrificed the short-term gain of false escaping for the pain of reality, and ‘reality’ is synonymous with ‘zero freedom of manipulation’ (i.e. the impossibility of doing anything about it). This does not look like much of an improvement, but it is. I have lost my ability to believe in illusory short-term escaping (and the false comfort that comes with it) but it is precisely because of this that I am no longer obstructing the natural process of change. When I see through the false comfort of my games I take on board the true nature of my situation and the long-term result of this is that I find the peace of mind that had been so long denied me.


If we apply this principle to thinking in general, the long-term result is that we become ‘free from thinking’. This does not mean that we become totally mentally blank, but simply that the nature of our relationship with our thoughts changes. We can think, but we don’t have to. We’re free to think or not think. Eckhart Tolle says that he counts it as his greatest achievement that he doesn’t have to think if he doesn’t want to! So being ‘free from thinking’ means that if we do think, we think freely, and not because we are being compelled to do so by the overwhelmingly compulsive quality of the thoughts themselves. But being ‘free to think or not think’ also means that when we do have thoughts, we know these thoughts to be thoughts, which entirely changes the nature of the thoughts. The thinking process no longer determines reality for us, it no longer writes the script for us, and as a result we are no longer trapped in a prosaic ‘thought-created virtual reality’. As Eckhart Tolle says,

If there were nothing but thought in you, you wouldn’t even know you are thinking. You would be like a dreamer who doesn’t know he is dreaming. When you know you are dreaming, you are awake within the dream.

Not Fixing

Not fixing

If I am suffering from some kind of neurotic distress then the way that this is seen, both by myself and others, is as a problem that needs fixing. For me, the neurotic disturbance is a cause of mental pain and anguish that I want very much to be free from; for a healthcare professional it is seen as a dysfunctional coping strategy that needs correcting. For everyone concerned, it is a glitch that needs to be ironed out so life can continue smoothly along again. In general, from a rational perspective, the neurosis is a puzzle that needs to be successfully solved…


The fact that we all (professionals and non-professionals alike) tend to see it this way highlights how little insight we have into the nature of neurotic glitches – this is not some logical error that can be corrected, or some kind of intellectual puzzle that can be figured out if we think about it enough. If we take this approach then we are missing the whole point. If we think that neurosis is ‘something to be fixed’ then we are failing – on a rather spectacular scale – to understand what neurosis is all about. It’s not that we need to get clever first of all about understanding neurosis and then secondly about ‘curing’ it – we simply need to stop being clever about it. We need to stop making theories about it, and trying to remedy the neurotic situation by applying either logic or technology, and this is the one thing we are most unwilling to do.


The crux of the matter is that the logical, problem-solving mind can never understand neurosis. The reason the problem-solving mind can never solve neurosis is because neurotic patterns of thinking and behaving are the inevitable by-product of rationality, not something that it can conveniently separate itself from and fix. David Bohm explains this by saying that our thinking contains inherent (i.e. systematic) self-contradictions that it is necessarily blind to. These systematic errors are the one thing the logical mind can never see, any more than we can see the back of our own heads without using a mirror. Errors that are ‘non-systematic’ the logical mind can see and fix; errors of the systematic variety are on the other hand by definition unfixable. We can’t see the errors for a start, and even if we could see them our attempt to correct them would only magnify them because we would be trying to fix the problem with the very thing (i.e. our thinking) that created it in the first place!


The nature of the neurotic glitch is this: when we try to fix the neurotic pattern of thinking then this ‘fixing’ is itself part of the neurotic pattern that we are trying to get rid of. The attempt to fix the neurosis is the neurosis, in other words, as perplexing as this may sound.


This is most obvious with the type of neurotic distress known as ‘anxiety’. If I am suffering from anxiety then it is natural that I will try to fix it so that it will no longer cause me so much suffering. Anxiety is all about ‘fixing’ anyway – when I am anxious what is keeping me busy is the constant attempt to fix problems before they happen. In effect, I want to intercept all problems before they arrive at my doorstep and start knocking on the door. In an ideal world (according to the anxious mind-state, anyway) all problems would be resolved before they materialize and as a result everything would then be fine. In an ideal world all problems would be fixable – I would not then need to get anxious about the possibility that some problem might arise that I couldn’t fix. In the real world of course this 100% secure situation never comes to pass, and so the anxious state of mind perpetuates itself indefinitely.


Whenever there is a problem that hasn’t yet been fixed (or whenever there is a problem that might happen in the future that I haven’t yet worked out how to fix) then this is fuel for anxiety. And because when I am suffering from anxiety I see potential or actual problems everywhere (they are coming out of the woodwork) there is no way that I going to be able to put together plans of how I am either going to be able to successfully fix or successfully avoid all of these problems (or even a modest proportion of them) and so I am always going to be anxious. Because 100% control is impossible in the real world, and because that is what – in effect – I am insisting on, there is no other outcome possible for me other than anxiety…


Now it stands to reason that I am going to try to fix my anxiety – that’s what I try to do with all problems, after all! But because anxiety is a problem that I can’t be certain of fixing, this uncertainty is necessarily going to cause me extra anxiety on top of the anxiety that I already have. Trying to correct my anxiety is going to feed into that anxiety, in other words. Or to put this another way: trying to fix the anxiety is itself the anxiety.


This isn’t just true for anxiety, it is true as we have said for all neurotic disturbances – all neurotic disturbances are about fixing one way or another. Another very clear example would be what is called obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD is all about fixing, obviously! When I am suffering from OCD what is causing me to suffering so much is the fact that I am trying very hard and very persistently to solve some problem that I just don’t seem able to solve. As in anxiety, the obsessive state of mind is insisting on 100% control and this just isn’t possible in the real world. And because it isn’t possible I am running repeatedly into a brick wall. I want something very badly and this just isn’t happening for me, and the ‘resultant’ of these two things (my insistence and the impossibility of me getting what I am insisting on) is interminable mental pain and distress…


There is an absolutely tremendous amount of blind mechanical force involved in this obsessive ‘wanting to fix the problem’ business. It’s like stepping unwarily into a raging river that is going to sweep you away with it just as soon as it gets a hold of you. So as soon as I allow myself to get involved at all with thoughts of fixing I’m swept away like so much chaff by the force of the current. The same is of course true for anxiety – once I get caught up in it at all then I’m propelled along helplessly by the blind mechanical energy of it. I am taken over by it, I am possessed by it. I don’t really know what I’m doing or why, despite the fact that I assume that I do. The truth – which I can’t see when I’m caught up in the struggle – is that some sort of ‘surrogate battle’ is being fought. This is a totally unconscious situation in which I am trying to avoid some inner challenge, and all the resistance (or fear) that I have with regard to this inner challenge is being displaced onto some external (or ‘surrogate’) problem.


It doesn’t of course matter in the least what this external problem is – any sort of an itch, any sort of an irritant, will do. In the case of anxiety it is some kind of threat to my (imagined) security, whilst with OCD the ‘problem’ could be any sort of everyday task – or it could even be something that isn’t a task at all, it could just be a random thing that I make into a task. It could be a ritual that is particular to myself and which serves no practical purpose at all, other than to displace my resistance to the inner challenge onto. The point is not what the external itch ‘is’, the point is that there should be some kind of problem there (or at least something that I can make into a problem) so that I can then proceed to use this is a decoy, so that I can go ahead and ‘fight the surrogate battle’.


The surrogate battle itself can never be solved – it can never be solved because it isn’t the real problem!  And what is more, we could say that ‘solving it’ isn’t really what the battle is about anyway – the only thing that really matters here is that I am able to remain safely unaware of the internal challenge by remaining 100% absorbed in the arbitrary ‘external struggle’. This is what neurosis is all about – getting involved in innumerable false issues so as to avoid the real challenge


We might at this point want to know what exactly this ‘real challenge’ is that we are so determined to turn our backs on. This seems like a reasonable question. What is it we are avoiding, and willing moreover to pay such a very high price in order to carry on avoiding it? The answer – ultimately – is nothing specific – what we are fleeing so determinedly from might be said to be life itself. Life is the challenge we are so terrified of. Life itself is what we are trying to ‘solve’ (in surrogate fashion) via the hoped-for resolution of the external struggle. The reason life is such a challenge – we might say – is simply because it can’t ever be fixed, because it can’t ever be solved. Life is such that it can never be ‘countered’ by any sort of rational answer or prescription (i.e. it can never be put in a box) and this, although we might not see straightaway why this should be so, is a very challenging thing. We don’t know – in its essence – what it is, or what we are supposed to do about it, or think about it, and this huge question mark constitutes what we might call an ‘irresolvable existential challenge’.


When it comes down to it, when we try to solve (or rationalize) life what we’re really trying to do is get rid of it!  The true nature of the neurotic struggle is therefore the attempt to escape from life and so the successful resolution of the surrogate battle represents for us the ‘successful flight from life’ – although we naturally won’t see it as this. But since it isn’t possible to escape from life (or ‘escape from ourselves’) the neurotic struggle is a non-terminating one. We can’t terminate it – we experience an absolutely overwhelming need to terminate the struggle but we can’t do so, and so this is what creates all the endless suffering that we are going through in neurosis.


Curiously, even though we can’t successfully escape from life (or successfully escape from ourselves) to the extent that we manage to live life on a purely rational level (i.e. to the extent that we manage to put life in a box) we have – apparently – ‘pulled it off’. This is curious because it appears that in everyday life we have ‘done the impossible’ therefore – we have found a formula, we have found a way of wrapping life up in our ideas of it so that it is no longer an irresolvable existential challenge. And astonishingly, most of us manage to do this most of the time! What this means is that everyday life, for most of us, seems to represent a successful resolution of the neurotic struggle. We have rationalized life – which is a neurotic thing to do because it is an avoidance – but we seem to have gotten away with it! The only way that our everyday existence wouldn’t be a neurotic evasion would be if life were as fresh and new to us as if we were experiencing it for the very first time and this is – needless to say – not the case.


The thing about normal life therefore is that it is neurotic but we don’t know it. The neuroticism is concealed, covered up, camouflaged. This is all very well but what can happen then is that sooner or later, in one way or another, the ‘solution’, the ‘fix’ that we have found (which is usually the socially-prescribed one) starts to come undone. The concealed neuroticism stops being concealed, and becomes glaringly overt.  In this case it is more likely than not that we will be said to be suffering from some kind of neurotic mental illness and we’ll be referred on the appropriate healthcare agency to have our problem ‘fixed’, either by drugs or perhaps by some ‘fixing-type’ therapy. This is of course highly ironic, if only we could see it – the ‘fix’ is starting to fail so off we go to get our fix fixed. Our rational formula for life is starting to come apart at the seams and so the time has come for us to get it rebooted, in some way or another, if this proves to be possible (which is not always the case). If we do get fixed then we go back to our old way of life, and if we don’t then we adopt the role of a sick or unwell person. There is also of course another possibility here and that is the possibility that if we do find the courage to unflinchingly confront the failure of our comfort zone and learn to live without any ‘rational strategies’ then will actually use the neurotic suffering as a springboard to wholeness…


The odd thing that we ought to mention here is that for some of us – the majority of us, in fact – this ‘failure of our rational strategies’ never does seem to happen (at least not in any dramatic fashion) and so we never do get to know that we are existing in a state of legitimized neurotic withdrawal from life the whole time. This raises the point as to who the ‘unfortunate’ ones are – those of us who are allowed to carry on with their neurosis, or those of us who reach a point where we can’t carry on, and have to undergo the painful process of learning to face life ‘head-on’ for the first time, without any tricks and gimmicks.


‘Fixing’ – as we can clearly see if we have enough perspective on the matter – is not a legitimate response in the case of neurotic distress, much as we might like to think that it is. What does help is not shoring things up, not applying whatever sort of band-aid we might find in the first aid box, but being provided with support and understanding as we face our deep-down fear of life. This sort of support is hard to find however because the majority of us won’t admit to ourselves that we have a deep-down fear of life! It is this universal ‘non-acknowledgement’ of our existential insecurity that makes our treatment of neurosis as blind and crudely insensitive as it almost always is. If I had more support from the culture that I live in for the endeavour that I am engaged in then I would be far more likely to discover the helpful way to work with neurotic suffering and not get caught up in the constant counterproductive struggle to ‘make things be right again’. But what usually happens is that I have to learn this on my own, at the same time as I learn that the advice and instructions from my fellows is for the most part the very opposite of helpful…


The overwhelmingly intense ‘urge to fix the problem’ is as we have said at the heart of all neurotic disturbances. Anxiety and OCD we have already discussed. Perfectionism is another obvious example of the urge to fix and so is what is sometimes known as ‘being a control freak’. Addictions too embody this same dynamic of being possessed (or taken over) by the urge to fix, only in this case ‘fixing’ means ‘successfully servicing the addiction’. Obtaining the ‘fix’ that I am so desperately craving seems to be ‘the answer to everything’ at the time I am chasing it and for this reason addiction, of whatever sort, may be said to constitute a classic example of pseudo-solution, a classic example of ‘getting 100% absorbed in a surrogate battle’.


One type of neurosis that may not – on the face of it – appear to be about fixing are the simple phobias, where what is usually called ‘an irrational fear’ exists in a strictly compartmentalized form. If we reflect on the matter for a moment or two however we can see that an intense fear is just another example of a ‘problem’ – the solution being of course to successfully avoid or escape from the fear! The overt fear is not the true source of our terror – if I have a fear of birds then it isn’t really birds that I am afraid of, and similarly, if I have a phobia about fish, then it is (probably) not because I imagine that these scaly, aquatic creatures are going to do me any harm. The thing that I am phobic towards is a symbol for something that I am not allowing myself to know about, and because I have placed a hefty manhole cover over the original terror it simply pops us elsewhere in an ‘opaque’ form, i.e. in a surrogate form that I cannot see through.


Leaving aside all these classic ‘text-book examples’ of neurosis, we could also mention in passing a few socially respectable or socially-approved forms of neurosis, one of which would be the pursuit of money or status as if either of these were actually worth chasing for their own sake. Another might be an all-consuming interest in sport or games, where the thrill of ‘winning’ is – from a psychological point of view – a clear example of the pseudo-solution of life since in winning at the game we are able to (momentarily) obtain the highly addictive feeling that we have, in some way, ‘solved’ life.


This idea can of course – as we have already implied – be generalized to include the whole of society since society is itself no more than a big game (or a big game that contains lots of little games). The social game consists – we might say – of a set of arbitrary boxes that we are required to tick in order to acquire ‘credibility’ (or ‘respectability’). This is a pseudo-solution of life because we get the feeling that if we do X, Y and Z then we are living life correctly, which is in no way even remotely the case since it is utterly ludicrous to think that there is a way to ‘live life correctly’. We can go further than this and say that if we obtain for ourselves the feeling that we are ‘doing it right’ (by ticking all the boxes that we have been given to tick) then as we have said all that we have been ‘successful’ at is in the neurotic avoidance of life…


Conforming to ‘how other people think we should be’ is therefore just another way of ‘fixing’ since if we conform successfully we get approval and so this seems to prove to us that we have lived life in the right way. We have ‘solved the problem’. But really of course we haven’t solved anything – we have just found a cheat for ourselves (a dodge or a scam or a strategy) that seems to work pretty well!


But this cheat doesn’t work anywhere near as well as we might think it does. If it did we’d be a lot happier in ourselves, and we wouldn’t be stressed out trying to fix things the whole time, trying to ‘make the grade the whole time’, trying to find approval the whole time. No one ever got happy as a result of investing themselves in the pseudo-solution of life! So if it really is being happy that matters – as we keep on saying it is – the only thing that can help us in this regard is not ‘fixing, fixing and yet more fixing’ but getting better at not-fixing

‘Acting Out’ Versus ‘Repressing’


We have two usual ways of reacting to urges (or impulses), moods and thoughts, and both of them trap us and make us even more helpless the next time the urge, mood, or thought comes along. These two ways of reacting are called ‘acting out’ and ‘repressing’, and we can explain what these terms mean by considering anger. Suppose that I find myself feeling really angry for some reason (the actual reason or trigger doesn’t particularly matter). I can do two things with this anger:


[1] I can attempt to relieve my feelings at the expense of someone else by shouting at them or by giving them a hard time, and if nobody is there to take the brunt of my bad humour, I can take it out on my physical environment by slamming doors, punching the wall, or by just being generally aggressive. This type of reaction is ‘outwards directed’ and involves the attempt to control (or clamp down on) the immediate external environment. This is called ‘acting out’ because we try escape the horrible feeling by doing what it wants us to do. This means that we justify the emotion, and ourselves for having it.


[2] I can deny the anger because I find it unacceptable, and ‘put a lid on it’. I don’t want to be angry and I don’t like the feeling of being angry (understandably enough!) but instead of blaming the world, I implicitly (or explicitly) blame myself and try to force myself not to be angry. This means driving the unacceptable emotion underground and ignoring it, and being artificially pleasant and reasonable on the surface, although we can never get rid of the underlying tension that this ‘forcing’ creates in us. This we call ‘repression’ because it is a way of trying to escape pain by saying that it isn’t there – it is control which is directed inwards. This involves rationalizing the situation: we tell ourselves that anger is the wrong reaction, i.e. we justify to ourselves why we shouldn’t be angry.




Reaction number 1 is no real help, although at the time we can easily fool ourselves into thinking that it is ‘the right thing to do’. Acting out does have a short-term benefit of course, and this is why we do it. The short-term benefit is that we shift the responsibility for the way that we feel onto someone (or something else), and this instantly allows us to feel good about ourselves. We don’t actually feel happy, but there is a sort of satisfaction to be had there, even in our frustration. After all, our frustration and anger is now justified! The short-term gain associated with acting-out manifests itself as an immediate easing off of the pressure that we are feeling, along with the self-righteous glow that comes with ‘being in the right’. Because of this pay-off, when I get into the habit of acting-out, it becomes entrenched as a habit in me – in psychological terms, I become conditioned. Basically, I am training myself to react in this way, just as I might train a dog by giving it a reward every time it sits up and begs.Conditioning is an on-going process and not a once-off thing, and this means that every time I act out my anger, I make it a little but more likely that the next time the anger comes along, I will do the same thing again. Therefore, this is a slippery slope to becoming a total slave to anger. There is a similar principle in the theory of anxiety-management, which says that “Every time I avoid a situation that makes me anxious, I make it more likely that I will avoid the next time I find myself in that situation. ‘Avoiding’, we may note, equals ‘acting out anxiety’. The ‘slippery-slope’ principle is of course best known in addiction, because, as everyone knows, every time I act out the urge or craving to have some more of whatever it is that I am addicted to, it makes the habit that little bit stronger than before. I start off thinking that I can give up the drug (or the habit) any time I want, but before I know it my addiction has become a monster that has taken over my life, a monster that it dragging me down more every day. The general rule is: The longer I put off dealing with it, the harder it gets to deal with.




‘Acting out’ is no good therefore. But what about Reaction no. 2, which we have called ‘repressing’? Pretty obviously, this is no good either! Like acting out, it makes us feel better at first, it gives us a sense of instant relief, but the price for this relief is very high. Basically, repression means pushing what I don’t want to see out of sight, and pretending that it isn’t there. There are several nasty problems with this tactic however. For a start, once I shove everything down in the basement of my mind where I can’t see it, I have to keep sitting on the trap-door that leads to the basement – I can’t ever totally forget about the stuff that I have hidden there, because if I do, it might start coming up again. This puts me in an awkward position: I have to be permanently on guard so that I don’t find out about the stuff that I don’t want to find out about, and, in addition, as if that wasn’t bad enough, I have to be on guard against finding out that I am on guard, because if I knew that I was deliberately keeping the basement door barricaded, then that would tip me off that there is something nasty down there – and that is exactly what I don’t want to find out!




There are other problems with repression too. Apart from the fact that I am constantly stressed out without knowing why, because of the hidden anxiety of having to conceal from myself the true situation, I am also storing up big trouble for the future. What happens first is that all the feelings and thoughts and memories that I have hidden away start to amalgamate in some way, so that they all turn into a big undifferentiated mass of not-quite-conscious worries, waiting for their chance to burst out. During the day, when I am busy and preoccupied with purposeful activities, I don’t notice anything. But when my defences are weakened, that is when all the demons come out to plague me. If I am having an ‘off’ sort of a day, then all it needs is one little upset and the volcano will erupt! Alternatively, if it is anxiety that I have been repressing instead of anger (and if we have been repressing one thing, the chances are that we will repress everything else as well) then what happens is that I get afflicted by ‘generalized worry’. Generalized worry means that all the things that I ever avoided facing all come out together in a big floating mass that go round and round inside my head. Because this ‘anxiety cloud’ has so many faces, so many aspects, even if I wanted to deal with it, I wouldn’t know where to start. It just seems too hopeless.




In addition to all that we have just said, repression of unwanted feelings like anger and anxiety means that I have permanently deadened myself – I have lost contact with my creativity, I have cut myself off from my ‘soul’. And so what is the point? What would be the point in saving myself from experiencing difficult feelings, if the cost is that I can never experience any other emotions either? Life becomes artificial and strained. There is no joy left in it, I can never be pleasantly surprised by anything anymore because I am too scared of surprises; because I have set off down the road of controlling, I feel that I cannot stop controlling. It is like telling a lie – once you start, you have to carry on with it. With repression, therefore, it is very much a case of ‘the cure being worse than the disease’.




So if I can’t act out and I can’t repress, what is there left to do? I am caught between a rock and a hard place – I can’t go forward and I can’t go back. I can’t say YES (which is ‘acting out’) and I can’t say NO (which is ‘repressing’). And yet, despite this apparent impasse, there is another way, a way which is so simple and obvious that we just don’t see it. We can understand this ‘third way’ by considering the fact that saying YES and saying NO are both ways of trying to control the situation. To get back to our example of anger, what is happening is that the initial ‘pang’ of anger (the feeling rather than the reaction to the feeling) is unacceptable to us – it puts us in a place where we just don’t want to be. In a way, we could say that this is because there is pain involved, but it isn’t pain in the usual sense of the word. It is more like an uncontrollable urge to do something; if we were to get right to the root of the feeling, we would see that it is rather like a fear of seeing something that we don’t want to see – and so rather than seeing this ‘thing’ we act, and thereby distract ourselves from whatever it is that we don’t want to know about.


As soon as we react, we get trapped in the process of reacting, and so lose sight of what it really was that we were reacting to, and this is of course exactly what we want! The same general principle applies in sulking. The point about sulking is that we do it to cover up – there is always a split second when we see clearly that we don’t have to sulk, but we feel like a fool in some way (or we feel exposed, or vulnerable) and we react to cover this up. As soon as we get into the sulk, we lose sight of the secret motivation that we had for sulking; in fact this is what sulking is all about – it is about telling a lie to ourselves, and swallowing that lie by going into the ‘sulking manoeuvre’. This means that, although there is a deliberate choice to go into a sulk, we simultaneously hide that all-important decision from ourselves so that it feels like we had nothing to do with it. If we didn’t hide this awareness from ourselves, the whole point of the sulk would be lost, since the whole point is to convince ourselves that ‘it isn’t our fault’. We need to distract ourselves from seeing how we engineered the whole thing.

Although the example that we just gave was sulking, the idea of a ‘secret motivation’ is true for all of the compulsive emotions (a compulsive emotion is an emotion that makes us feel that we have to do something). We can therefore say that all such emotions are really ways of avoiding. This assertion doesn’t make much sense at first. What would we be trying to avoid? The answer is simple, although not immediately obvious: we are trying to avoid the subtle pain of ‘not being in control’, which in another sense means ‘the pain of not knowing what is happening to us’. We can make this clearer by using the example of anger. In the first brief moment of anger, there is a feeling of something that is totally unacceptable, something that I have to do something about. If I reflected for a second or two about what this ‘something’ is, I would discover that I do not actually know why I feel so bad – there is some hidden issue there. I know that it matters, and therefore I react, but by reacting so quickly I lose any chance of seeing what the issue really is. Reacting makes me feel good. I get a satisfaction out of it, I get the pay-off (or ‘reward’) of feeling that ‘I am in control’, although this is clearly ridiculous, since if I do not actually know what the issue is, how can I possibly be ‘in control’?


If I paused to reflect, I would realize that the ‘reward of satisfaction’ that comes with acting-out and repression is connected with the fact that I am dodging awareness of the truth. There always is a reward for reacting (obviously, since why would I do it otherwise?) and the satisfaction involved exists in reverse proportion to the pain that I have avoided by the manoeuvre. In other words, the more I distract myself, the better I feel. This feeling of satisfaction occurs whenever there is a slide into comfortable unconsciousness, i.e. when I start believing the lie that I have told to myself. The reverse of this process must therefore involve becoming increasingly uncomfortable, and this ‘pain’ equals awareness, i.e. seeing the truth that I was trying to hide.




But what is this painful truth that I want to avoid? The answer couldn’t be simpler – it is the reality of the ‘here and now’. Anger is a way of avoiding reality, it is what we do when we don’t want to accept the reality of how we feel. This is easy to see if we consider the statement that both ‘acting out’ and ‘repressing’ are games. A game may be defined as a manoeuvre that is designed to distract me from the truth of the my situation – in essence, I say YES to distract myself from the threat of NO, or I say NO to distract myself from the threat of YES. Another way to define a game is to say that it is a way of ‘being in control’ of the meaning of the situation that I am in. It is this feeling of having control that holds the key to what we are talking about here: actually, in the here and now there is no possibility of control (or choice) whatsoever. How could there be? What is, is, and the only sane thing to do is see what is, and to unconditionally accept what is. When I think about it, this is obvious – it is utterly absurd to think of ‘doing a deal’ with the reality of the here and now, of saying “I will accept that it is true if…..”


Reality is reality, whether we like it or not, and any attempt to control the meaning of ‘what is’, is an avoidance of ‘what is’. However, the crucial point to understand is that we all try to avoid reality, all of the time. This is normal – in some way, we cling to the unconscious belief that no matter what happens, we can somehow change it to be the way we want it to be. This point is not usually obvious. For example, if something bad happens to me (if I have an accident that was clearly someone else’s fault) then I will get angry. Yet I would probably say that I am not denying the reality of what happened: I am accepting the reality of what happened, but I am angry because it ‘didn’t have to happen’. I might say that just because I am angry, that doesn’t means that I haven’t accepted that what happened, has happened. And yet, this is exactly what it means. On the face of it I ‘accept’, because it is very hard not to do so, but because I am still pre-occupied with questions like “Why did it have to happen?” and “Why should I have to put up with this?”, this means that I am rejecting the reality of what happened. If I am analysing and questioning then that means I am ‘looking for a loop-hole’: I don’t want whatever happened to have happened, and I am stuck in the mental posture of refusal. Because of this I can’t move on in my life, because ‘moving on’ means unconditionally accepting what happened in the past, and starting off from the basis that ‘it has happened’, rather than refusing to carry on until things are magically made to be the way I want them to be – which they never will.




If I am going over and over the situation, and analysing the causes, then this means that I am unconsciously clinging to the belief that I can do something about it to make it different. If I really knew that there is no way to change what has happened, then I wouldn’t keep thinking about it. I don’t consciously see that I am trying to fight reality, but that is what I am doing when I ask “Why?” – on a deep-down level, I have not truly accepted what has happened. In the same way, if I experience an angry reaction towards the world, this is a way of saying NO, it is a way of denying the reality that I find myself in. This is true for all compulsive emotions, they are all to do with wanting (obviously enough), and wanting means that we crave for things to be otherwise. “I don’t want to be here!” is what I am saying.


How does it help us to know this? Well, actually it helps a lot. If I don’t have insight into how anger works, then I won’t see that wanting is the essential part of the compulsive emotion, and I won’t see that when I try to satisfy the wanting, I am only perpetuating the emotion that I am trying to escape from. Once I see what is going on, i.e. when I have insight into the hidden motivation of anger, then I know that I am trying to avoid being in the ‘here and now’, and I also know this to be an impossibility, because I can never be anywhere else. What comes out of this is ‘compassion for oneself’. Compassion arises at the same time as insight: I see what I am doing, and I see why I am doing it, and I also see that it is impossible. This doesn’t mean that I force myself not to do what I am doing, but rather that I allow myself to compulsively try to avoid reality, and I have compassion for myself as I do so. I have compassion because I understand, and I understand because I have the courage to be there with myself, seeing what is going on.




It is okay not to want to be there! We are not suggesting that I SHOULD NOT WANT to be there’. That is still wanting (it is ‘wanting not to want’) and it is the wanting that is the problem. Positive wanting and negative wanting are both the same: either I want something, or I want not to want something, either way it is a game. Wanting has no place in the here and now because it is denial; the present reality is not something I choose, it is where I actually am. To think that I have a choice in the matter of ‘being in the situation that I actually am in’ is the sickness that is causing my suffering, not the nature of that situation itself. Therefore, when faced with the awareness of this massive reaction of rejecting reality, of saying “I do not want to be here”, it does not help to be panicked into rejecting this rejection. That way, we never get to find out what we are rejecting, and there is no compassion, and so there isn’t the peace that comes with compassion, only the blind, unconscious compulsiveness of the automatic avoidance reaction. This blind compulsion is the opposite of peace, and, what it more, it can never lead to peace because it is fundamentally unintelligent: because it is based on ignoring reality, its results can only ever be more conflict, and more blind suffering.



What we are talking about here is suffering with our eyes open. We are going to suffer anyway, but at least if we have our eyes open we may learn something, and without learning all that can happen is the endless repetition of the old pattern. As we have said, it is the rejection of pain that is at the root of all our problems. But saying this doesn’t make my situation any easier. I already know that I don’t like pain! Is the bottom line that I have to go through hell and bear it? If so, then that doesn’t help me much. In fact, this is not true at all, because it is our attitude that is tripping us up and nothing else. The pain is caused by our rejection of the pain, by our avoidance of what we think is going to happen. What we are suggesting is that the pain is actually to do with our not being able to have things the way we want them. The pain we so resist is the pain of not wanting to let go – it is the pain of our own frustrated ‘wanting’. Once we sincerely give-up on our stubborn insistence on having things our own way, then out of this graceful surrender to reality comes a peacefulness and relief, because we are no longer insisting upon having a problem. Or perhaps we could say that there is peace because we are no longer making an issue out of our situation.


The circumstances that brought about the anger may still be there, but the particular brand of oppressive, ‘closed-in’ hopelessness which was holding us in its grip has now gone. It is not until this closed-in feeling disappears that we realize that it was there, stifling us, and preventing us from thinking clearly – we don’t see the nature of the prison that we are in whilst we are in it. Once we give up our resistance we find ourselves in an open and developing situation, so even if we have to go through pain, the pain is no longer seen as being unfairly visited upon us, and so we do not refuse it, or try to give it back to someone else. Instead, we see it as part of life, the same as everything else, and we just get on with it. For this reason, ‘unconditional acceptance’ of the here and now doesn’t mean lying down to die, but having the courage to see the truth, and carry on living. Neither does it mean being a door-mat and meekly taking whatever crap people give me, but rather it means having the courage to see why I react in the way that I do, and not putting myself in the position where it seems necessary to defend myself and take their games seriously.




We are not talking about a ‘quick fix’ here, but we are talking about something that actually works, something that isn’t just another game, another evasion of reality. In a sense, all those times that we have evaded reality have to be made up for: we have made the here and now into an enemy, and this has to be slowly undone. Conditioning happens easily because it means opting for a short-term gain and ignoring the cost in ‘loss of freedom’; the undoing of conditioning, on the other hand, takes working at, because we have to ‘feel the sting’ each time the impulse of anger comes along, instead of dodging it. Each time we absorb the momentum of the impulse we use up a little of the energy in it, and so instead of becoming a progressively worse problem, the anger becomes less and less of an issue each time. The ‘pain’ is no longer seen as an enemy (i.e. something which has to be resisted at all costs), but as a transformative doorway – a doorway back into reality and out of the ‘nowhere land’ of denial.

The enemy wasn’t who we thought it was. On the conscious level, we identify the enemy as being something outside us, something to be resisted or resented. On the unconscious level of our secret motivation, the enemy is the actual reality of ‘us being in the situation that we are in’, and we are fighting reality itself. When we no longer get totally distracted by the automatic compulsiveness of our anger-reaction, we gradually gain insight into what we are doing, and we see that we are actually attempting to reject the here and now. Because our mind cannot see any other way out of what is happening to us, we end up making a friend of denial, and an enemy of consciousness – which is not a good way to do things! Having insight into this means we see that the enemy isn’t the here and now at all, but rather the enemy is the act of identifying the ‘here and now’ as an enemy, and acting on that assumption. We are our own enemy, and in anger we are attacking ourselves. If I am constantly, chronically angry, everyone else can see that there is no enemy there, just me, giving myself a hard time. I am haunting myself, persecuting myself without realizing it, and all the while blaming someone else.


Being an enemy of oneself is the inevitable consequence of psychological unconsciousness, which is the state of hiding our own motivations from ourselves so we don’t have to see the truth about what we’re doing. Instead of seeing that the problem is my reaction to reality, I project the problem outside of myself – I disown it, I hand over all responsibility. This makes me feel good because the situation has been simplified and made into something that is conveniently ‘black-and-white’. However, the down-side is that as long as I am not facing reality, I will never have any chance at all of developing as a person. I am basically ‘stuck’ and I will remain so just as long as I continue disowning my own feelings, my own emotional pain.


I have fooled myself that I am ‘getting somewhere,’ either through acting-out, or denying (which both involve handing over responsibility), whilst actually I could be more stuck. I am like a fly stuck on a strip of fly-paper! I am ‘doing something about it’ in my imagination, but not in reality. In order to really get out of my predicament I have to first see that I was fooling myself; I have to be willing to learn something that I didn’t know before – I have to open up. This is where the pain comes in, because if we have been busy avoiding the truth, then naturally it hurts to see what we have been avoiding. Unless I see it, though, I will never escape the trap that I have made for myself; I will not learn that truth was never my enemy in the first place. Conditioning, we may say, means ‘learning to believe a lie’, whilst undoing conditioning means learning to see through the lie. Therefore, in order to do reverse conditioning it is necessary to be genuinely interested in seeing the truth. This however is an unusual state of affairs!




What we are talking about here is the motivation of curiosity, which is the same thing as ‘being interested in the here and now’. Here we are speaking of curiosity in a rather specific sense of the word, which we can define as ‘being interested without an agenda’. Curiosity that has an agenda is suspiciousness, and since suspiciousness is only interested in finding out what it already knows, it is not an open frame of mind at all. Needless to say, open-minded curiosity is totally different to our usual motivation, which is based on fear, which equals ‘having no interest at all in the here and now’. It is an easily testable fact that no one ever got angry and curious at the same time. The two are opposites! Likewise, no one ever got anxious and curious at the same time, or envious and curious at the same time, or bitter and curious at the same time. Compulsive emotions exclude any possibility of a healthy curiosity in ourselves and the world we live in, and therefore the ‘cure’ for these unhappy states of mind is simply to get curious, i.e. ‘genuinely interested’.


If the pain that we don’t want to be interested in were a ‘dead-end’ (which is what we think) then we would perhaps be justified in not being interested. But the pain is not a dead-end! It is a cultural assumption (as well as a personal one) that pain doesn’t go anywhere, that it has no value, but the truth – as has long been known in all the ‘wisdom traditions’ – is that pain is a transformative door. Whenever we honestly relate to our own pain we change, and whenever we don’t – then we stay stuck…