Prisoners of Thought

We are so very easily swayed by the mind. It is as if the thinking mind need do no more than merely look at us and we are swayed – we are swayed by the thinking mind just as seaweed is swayed by powerful ocean currents, just as the treetops are swayed by a strong wind. Who we believe ourselves to be and what we believe ourselves to be capable of is determined by this mind. The thinking mind tells us something and we believe it and there is no gap or interval between the two things. These two things have been collapsed into ‘just the one thing’ which is not a healthy state of affairs. It’s not a healthy state of affairs because there is no freedom for us in this situation. We’re ‘prisoners of the mind’.


What would be helpful therefore would be if we could open up a gap between these two things – this gap would mean the difference between being controlled by the thinking mind and not being controlled by it. It would mean the difference between ‘being free’ and ‘not being free’, as psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, Viktor Frankl says in this well-known quote:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

To open up such a gap is not such a straightforward thing as it might on the face of it seem however. We can grasp the idea, but to put it into practice is another matter entirely.


If I have a thought which triggers me in some way and then I have the thought that ‘I ought to allow a gap’ then there is of course no gap. First there is the original thought, and then there is the thought which follows on from this which says ‘I should allow a gap’ – this is no good at all however because the thought ‘I should allow gap’ is not a gap. It’s just another thought, so nothing has changed. One thought follows immediately in the wake of another and so we are no closer to a gap than we ever were!


If I have a ‘triggering thought’ and I respond to this thought up by using a method or strategy to alter or prevent the reaction (which is the principle that CBT is based on) then this is no good either because methods and strategies are created by thought and this means that they are thought. Methods and strategies follow logic and thought is nothing but logic. Thought is logic through and through. Or, as we could also say, both methods and strategies have an ‘aim’ or a ‘goal’ and all aims/goals are created by thought. There is no such thing as ‘a goal that was not created by thought’, after all!


Opening up a gap between two thoughts (or between one thought and our reaction to that thought) isn’t as straightforward as all that, therefore. It’s not as straightforward ‘as we might think’! There are two ways to talk about this lack of straightforwardness. One is to say that logic can’t be used to create a gap because there are no gaps, no discontinuities in logic. That’s the whole point of logic – that it is an unbroken continuum, that one thing always follows on from the other. The other way of talking about ‘the lack of straightforwardness’ is to say that forcing or controlling can’t be used to create a gap because the whole point of forcing is to close gaps, not open them. When we force or control we are closing the gap between ‘what we want to happen’ and ‘what does happen’, between ‘our will’ and ‘the fruition of this will’, between what we have in mind (i.e. our ‘goal’) and the actualization of this goal.


So just to repeat what we have said so far, our freedom lies not in thinking but in the gap between our thoughts (or in the gap between ‘stimulus’ and ‘reaction’) and this gap cannot be forced or brought about by design. ‘The controlling part of us’ is no good at all here therefore and yet the controlling part of us – which is called ‘the thinking mind’ – is almost always the only part we know. In therapy we talk about developing resilience for learning patience but this is something the mind can never do – the mind can only ever struggle and scheme to bring about the fruition of its agenda, the realisation of its goals. If the mind’s goal is to be ‘patient’ then it struggles to bring this about – in an inpatient way!


We can’t understand any way of going about things other than this, other than ‘having a goal’ and then ‘struggling to make it happen’. That’s our god – we place willed action on a pedestal. Who we truly are in ourselves doesn’t depend on control and manipulation however – who we are in ourselves doesn’t need anything ‘from outside of itself’ so it doesn’t need to pin all its hopes on this thing that we call ‘successful controlling’. When we are in touch with our true nature we know on a very deep level that our well-being doesn’t require the attaining of any external advantage! To believe otherwise is to be a slave.


We can relate this to the Buddhist virtue of equanimity. Equanimity means ‘it’s OK happen things happen the way we want them to and it’s also OK if they don’t’. In the West we value controlling, and the knowledge-base and skills or methods that facilitate controlling. As we just said, we put willed or purposeful action on a pedestal. The reason we do this however is because – on an unconscious level – we link our well-being or happiness with ‘successful controlling’. This is our ‘core assumption’ in the West – we somehow imagine that ‘being’ comes from ‘successful doing’! Our whole way of life is based on this ‘never-examined but deeply held’ core belief. We go through agonies because of it.


This assumption is entirely false however – as we would see if we were to reflect on it for a moment. ‘Being’ and ‘doing’ are two completely different things – our being is completely independent of our doing. ‘Who we are’ has nothing to do with our ability to successfully control – that’s the Western myth, that’s why saying that someone is ‘a loser’ is such an insult, such a put down. There is in reality no such thing as ‘being a winner’ or ‘being a loser’ – there is only ‘being a human being’ and this is something that is beyond winning and losing. Being ‘who we truly are’ is beyond winning and losing. The awareness of this absolute independence of being from doing is ‘the gap’ that we are cultivating through the practice of mindfulness.









Validating the Status Quo

Thought’s ‘cover story’ (i.e. its ‘excuse for being there’) is – obviously enough – that it is actually useful! That’s how thought gets to make such a major claim on our attention, by claiming to be of actual utility. ‘Think me, I’m useful!’ the thought says, and we – gullible as ever – go right ahead and think it. We fall for this claim every time, like citizens who can’t help voting for an idiot leader…


Some thoughts really are useful of course but the interesting thing is to try to work out the ratio of ‘genuinely useful thinking’ to ‘useless’ or ‘space-filling’ thinking. This is the same as talking – sometimes we talk because we actually have something to say, at other times we might talk simply to fill an empty space. Is it even possible to work out how much of our day-to-day thinking is genuinely useful rather than being purely redundant? It might be argued of course that thinking doesn’t have to be ‘genuinely useful’ (or ‘genuinely meaningful’) – it could after all simply be comforting to us.


This could indeed be true – no doubt thought very often is comforting to us – but just because something is comforting doesn’t mean that it is good for us though. From a psychological point of view the exact opposite is always true – ‘comfort’ leads to addiction/dependency and addiction/dependency robs us of our autonomy, and without our autonomy what are we? Our biggest problem is that we prefer what is comfortable to what is true and so arguing that ‘pointless thoughts’ are okay because they are comforting doesn’t really hold any water! We are simply ‘validating the status quo’, which is pretty much what we always do, come rain or shine. Being committed to validating the status quo (no matter what that status quo might be) is however no way to live.


Again, we might ask exactly what the problem is with this business of ‘validating the status quo’ – this sort of thing is after all very highly regarded in some quarters; there are lots of people who think that validating the status quo is pretty much our moral duty (and that not to do so is an act of heinous immorality). We can answer this perfectly legitimate question (and what questions are not legitimate?) by arguing that they are two great tendencies in life – one is ‘conservatism’ (which equals ‘risk-avoidance’) whilst the other is ‘rebelling against the norms’ and pushing ahead into new and uncharted territory. We either ‘hold onto the past’ or risk ‘letting go of the past’, in other words. We either consolidate our supposed gains or we look for a new challenge. It’s not that we’re saying here that we ‘should’ be one way rather than the other, we are simply making an observation. If there were some ‘authority’ saying that we should either be the one way or the other then listening to this authority, wherever it comes from, would constitute a loss of our autonomy and – as we have said – our autonomy is all we’ve got. Lose that we lose everything!


Using ‘have to’ or ‘should’ or ‘ought’ as leverage to change our thinking or behaviour is always a sorry joke – it’s a sorry joke because it only ever digs us deeper into the hole that we’re in. It only ever adds to our suffering, and why would we want to do that? From a psychological point of view (rather than a ‘conventional morality point of view’) the only thing we can’t do without is our autonomy and this brings us face-to-face with an intractable paradox because there is no way to ‘leverage’ ourselves to regain our autonomy once we have lost it. We can’t say we ‘have to be autonomous’ because that ‘have to’ is a loss of autonomy in itself. That’s like saying that we ‘have to be free’, when ‘have to’ is itself the very absence of freedom. Submitting to authority (which includes the authority of our own ideas or theories or beliefs) will never free us from the ills that afflict us. No ‘authority’ is ever going to save us – ‘Where there is authority there is no freedom’, as the graffiti on the wall says…


So to come back to our argument, we can say that there are these two tendencies or motivations in our lives, one being the conservative motivation and the other being the exploratory motivation and the key observation here is that the former type of motivation always leads to suffering. It can’t not lead to suffering because the movement of life itself is forwards and ‘into the new’ (rather than ‘back into the past’). The ‘holding on’ type of motivation is resistance to life therefore. There is no one saying that we shouldn’t resist life or that it’s wrong to resist life; that would be ridiculous – resisting life is very natural tendency and we all do it! All we are doing is observing that ‘resisting life inevitably causes suffering’, which is of course perfectly obvious. Holding onto the old and fearing the new is clearly never going to do us any good – it’s never going to do us any good because we’re thwarting the process of growth in ourselves. We’re refusing to grow out of fear…


Our next observation, which is perhaps not so obvious, is that thinking is itself resistance. All thinking is resistance, without exception – there is no such thing as ‘thinking which helps us to let go of the old’! There is no such thing as helpful thinking (from a psychological point of view) – from purely practical standpoint they can be but from a psychological standpoint there can never be. This may not be immediately obviously, but it is nevertheless abundantly clear once we reflect on it – thinking operates by saying ‘what things are’ (or ‘what things should be’) and what is this but resistance? Thought doesn’t ever allow things to ‘be what they actually are’; that is what consciousness does, not thought. Thought is a tool for fixing problems not allowing them to be there! Thought (we might say) is by its very nature aggressive whilst consciousness is not; consciousness relates as to what is whilst thought relates to ‘what we say reality is’, or ‘what we say reality should be’.


Coming back to what we were saying earlier therefore, it can very clearly seen that our constant, space-filling thinking isn’t useful for the point of view of reducing the level of suffering that we going through – our habit of non-stop thinking doesn’t ‘save us from suffering’ (is it implicitly claims to) it actually creates it. There are two fundamentally conflicting ways of looking at this however, not just the one. If our orientation is life is such that we want security above all (and want therefore to ‘stick with the known’) then thinking can indeed be said to be ‘useful’ to us. It’s ‘useful’ in terms of the short-sighted goal of ‘increasing our spurious sense of security in the world’. In this very provisional sense of the word thought is (at least temporarily) ‘saving us from insecurity’. From a wider perspective however thought is not saving us from anything – if we take the bigger view of what’s going on we can see that whilst thought might be helping us with regard to to the goal of obtaining a temporary sense of security, it is doing this at the cost of creating great suffering in the future. Depending upon whether our orientation is towards the short-term benefit of perceived-if-not-actual security, or towards our ‘greater good’ (which inescapably involves relating honestly to ontological insecurity) thought is either ‘useful’ or the exact opposite of ‘useful’, therefore.


The key point here – the point that we keep on reiterating – is that we are perfectly free either to be in ‘conservative’ or ‘exploratory’ mode. These are the two possible approaches to life, after all – one, as we have said, is ‘holding on’ and the other is ‘letting go’; one is ‘closing down our horizons’ and  the other is ‘opening them up’. Not only are we perfectly free to be in either mode it is also the case that we can’t deliberately switch from one mode to another. There is absolutely no choice here in other words, even though it naturally seems to us that there is or should be. It’s certainly true that when I am in conservative mode I can act as if I’m interested in or committed to ‘opening my horizons’ but the bottom line is that I’m not – I’m just playing at it. And why wouldn’t I throw myself into this role – isn’t it a very attractive and appealing one? Who wants to know that they are ‘hiding from life’, after all?


What are we talking about here is what Chogyam Trungpa calls spiritual materialism, which is where we ‘throw ourselves into the spiritual way of life’ and we ‘do all the spiritual things’ whilst behind the scenes it is the ego that is very much in charge, which makes the whole thing a sham. The ego never wants change – change would be the end of it so of course this isn’t what it really wants. As Chogyam Trungpa says, it wants to make a lovely cosy nest or playground for itself that it never has to come out of! What’s actually happening when I’m in this ‘disguised conservative mode’, is that I am seriously investing in hiding from the awareness that I don’t want to change, which is of course a painful awareness to face up to. That’s like saying that we don’t want to be free – we don’t but we certainly aren’t going to admit to it!


For the most part however the conservative mode doesn’t need to be disguised since its usual tactic is to glorify ‘staying the same’ or ‘not wanting to change’ on the grounds that the way we are is actually ‘the right way’ and all other ways are ‘wrong ways’. This is of course this is of course how most of us are – we’re locked into one ‘equilibrium-world’ or another for the sake of security. What else is religion after all if not the situation where our way of seeing things (surprise, surprise) is ‘right’ and all other ways are said to be ‘wrong’? This is the oldest dodge in the book. When we are in the ‘conservative mode’, then, thinking – or rather ‘the right type of thinking’ – is not just ‘helpful’ but absolutely obligatory, and from the point of view of blindly upholding whatever belief structure it is that we are tied into this logic makes undeniable sense! If however we were somehow to catch a glimpse of the ‘bigger picture’ – which as we have said is not something that we can do on purpose, by any kind of clever trick – then we would see that thinking (any type of thinking) is most emphatically not helpful from the point of view of ‘saving ourselves from future suffering’. We’re thinking ourselves into a hole, not out of it! This ‘future suffering’, as we have said, is always going to be lying in wait for us because of the way in which we are ‘holding on’ when life itself is a ‘letting go’. This is simply a restatement of the principle in Buddhism and Vedanta that ‘says attachment causes suffering’.


‘Holding on’ – when it is our fundamental orientation in life – stores up suffering (we might say) because [1] it’s not possible to hold on to what we are so trying so desperately to hold onto and [2] because what we are trying so desperately to hold onto doesn’t exist. [And clearly, these two reasons actually come down to pretty much the same thing!] Life is ‘an unfolding of the new’ not a fixed form to cherish or guard jealously; the corollary of this statement is therefore that when we do ‘hold on’ to life what we holding onto isn’t life. It’s something else – it is just some random token that we are sworn to protect and protecting this ‘token’ means (as we might imagine) never questioning it. This is why, when we are in conservative mode, the greatest virtue – as we all know – is ‘never questioning’. Validating the status quo is of course all about never questioning – that’s the agreement we make and we’re free to make it. We’re perfectly free to make it but at the same time we shouldn’t expect this agreement of ours to do us any good!



Art: Phlegm, on











The Psychostatic World

Our fundamental orientation is towards obtaining a sense of security in life and this is another way of saying that our basic orientation is towards illusion. This is of course a rather difficult thing to take on board! How can we take ourselves seriously if this is the case (i.e. if it is the case that we are illusion-lovers rather than truth-lovers’). What kind of relationship would we have with ourselves if we were to see this about ourselves? To say that this would be ‘an uncomfortable awareness’ would be a vast understatement…


This is a kind of trick question in a way however because just as long as we are orientated towards illusion rather than the truth we are never going to allow ourselves to see that we are orientated this way. Because we are almost always orientated towards security (or illusion) we simply aren’t going to be able to address this fact and so our relationship with ourselves doesn’t actually exist; it doesn’t exist because the only type of relationship there could be is an honest one and there’s no honesty here. We could call this a ‘basic principle’ therefore – the principle being that when we are orientated towards delusion then we can never know that we are – the former precluding the possibility of the latter. [This is almost too obvious to say but we will say it anyway.]


When we are orientated towards illusion we don’t know that we are but instead, it seems to us that we are benefiting ourselves, helping ourselves, it seems that we are (at least potentially) progressing in life in a legitimate or meaningful way. If it were the case that the illusion were not an illusion then this story would have a happy ending but because it is there is never a happy ending! It feels good to move in the direction of increasing security but because this isn’t a real thing the feeling that started off being ‘good’ sooner or later turns ‘bad’.


The only way the good feeling wouldn’t turn bad later on would be if our perception of ‘security’ were a real perception instead of a false one and as we keep saying, it isn’t. There isn’t any such thing as security’ (in the ontological sense of the word which is how we mean it) and so the perception – convincing though it might be – can’t be real. There is no such thing as ontological security (or ‘security of being’) because what we essentially mean by it is ‘lack of change’. Lack of change is the one thing we can’t ever have however and this is of course a key principle in Buddhist metaphysics (i.e. the ‘principle of impermanence’). We don’t need to take this principle on trust however – an observation of the world around us shows us that everything is changing – some things quickly and other things less quickly, but either way change is a universal principle!


We can it is true also spot examples of ‘non-change’ ‘when it comes to human behaviour or human cognition and this is the principle of conservatism (or the principle of neophobia (or ‘fear of newness’, if we want to call it that). We hang onto our habits, our opinions and our beliefs for decades on end, perhaps even for the whole of our lives. It is very possible indeed for any of us to become ‘frozen in a moment’ or ‘frozen in time’ in this way – more than just possible it is practically an inevitability. The tendency that we all have to resist change is so well known that we hardly need to go into it – to be human is to fear change. The world may change around us, but that doesn’t mean that we have to…


This might seem therefore to be a contradiction of ‘the Principle of Change’ – the universe (we have said) never stops changing and yet we human beings – very often if not almost always – don’t change at all (not in any important way, anyway). This turns out not to be such a hard puzzle to work out – real things change, whereas ideas (or beliefs) don’t. An idea can go for any length of time without changing – it’s a fixed or frozen type of thing anyway, it belongs to ‘the abstraction realm’ which is – by definition – ‘the Realm of No Change’. It is like Narnia under the spell of the White Witch Jadis in the story by CS Lewis – frozen forever in time, waiting for a Christmas that never comes. This is the Psychostatic World – the World of Recycled Time, the World of Eternal Reruns.


So here we have two worlds which we ordinarily fail to distinguish between – one is ‘the natural world’ – so to speak – (i.e. the world that follows its own inscrutable law) and the other world is ‘the world of our own devising’, ‘the world of our own constructs’, the ‘abstract world’ which we read routinely mistake for the naturally occurring world. In the abstract world there is no such thing as change (since genuine change cannot ever be translated into abstract form) and when we gravitate towards this realm (and define ourselves in terms of it) then we don’t ever change either. This is why we can say that ‘the ego or concrete self never changes’ – because the ego or concrete self is an abstraction and not a real thing. We can optimise ourselves (or our performance) so as to get closer and closer to some abstract standard or value, but optimisation is as far away from true change as it is possible to get. Optimization is worshipping the fixed, the static (even though there is no such thing as ‘the fixed’ or ‘the static’).


When we say – therefore – that our fundamental orientation is towards ‘security’ or towards ‘illusion’, then this is about the very same thing as saying that our orientation is towards the abstract world of our thoughts and ideas. Our ideas about reality inexorably replace reality itself (as Jung says) and so it comes about that this whole sorry business of ‘security-seeking’ becomes a legitimate (and indeed laudable) endeavour rather than an exercise in being totally deluded. Security-seeking becomes ‘the way to go about things’, ‘the reasonable course of action’, ‘the officially recommended behaviour’, and so on and so forth.


This behaviour is two things at once therefore – it’s what we want to do out of our weakness, out of our prejudice, out of our hopeless addiction or dependency, but it’s also what everyone says is good, what everyone says is advisable and right. This is the ‘social collusion’ in a nutshell and this is more the reason why we invariably band together in groups rather than for any altruistic motives. It would be nice to think that human society is predicated upon both practical good sense and altruism towards our fellows but if we see things like this then we’re failing to pay attention to the true situation! What we are really doing when we join a group is to turn our backs on something we don’t want to know about, something we don’t want to be dealing with; there is an aspect to our lives that we don’t want to pay attention to and so what we do is that we get together in order to collectively ignore this key aspect of what it means to be human being. None of us individually want to confront the fact that what we’re doing on a full-time basis is ‘seeking security’ and collectively we are even more opposed to becoming aware of this truth. Whatever chance we might have had of owning up to our blatantly fear-based behaviour as individuals, we have zero chance of acknowledging when we are in a group!


Taking responsibility for our situation means going against the group therefore – not only do we have to ‘go against the group’, we have to ‘go against the group’ and then do the very thing that we were afraid of doing in the first place. Not only do we have to forgo the security that is provided (however spuriously) by the group, we also have to confront head on the very fear that drove us to join the group in the first place.


There is difficulty awaiting us both on the outside and on the inside, in other words! There’s nothing we have to ‘do’ as such of course – it’s more a matter of not doing what we almost always do what we usually do, which is to treat our orientation towards security-seeking as if it were some kind of a good thing. We won’t (in all probability) be able to undo the habit of a lifetime and start walking bravely off in the direction of zero security – and head off into the unfathomable mystery of the unknown – old habits die hard, as they say – but what we can do is to start seeing this security-seeking behaviour for what it really is. We see it without automatically legitimising it, in other words. We don’t have to wrestle with ourselves so as to become different from the way that we always have been; there’s no ‘wrestling’ involved here – it’s not a matter of wrestling or fighting and struggling but simply a matter of not blocking ourselves from seeing the truth about our situation in the way that we are so very prone to doing. It can be said that there is a type of struggle involved here perhaps, but it’s not a ‘struggle’ as we usually understand it; we’re not trying to change anything!


This is such an extraordinary thing – to be ourselves as we always are and yet at the same time not automatically align ourselves with the mechanical forces that are governing our lives. When we do align ourselves with the security-seeking mechanical motivations (and all mechanical motivations are security-seeking) then we are nothing at all, we aren’t there – we are in this case profoundly unconscious and ‘the mechanical life’ just happens without us ever being any the wiser as to what’s really going on. It’s a predetermined affair, like clockwork winding down.


It’s not as (we have just said) that we have to fight against the tendency to gravitate towards what we perceive as ‘a state of increased security’ since  resisting resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of the universe is only going to complicate matters even more. That will complicate things to the nth degree. Resisting what’s going on isn’t going to help us; what does help is to see what’s going on – seeing what’s going on straightaway acts in the opposite direction from  identifying with the ‘mechanical’ or ‘equilibrium-seeking’ forces. This disidentification is a gruellingly painful process but it is at the same time a ‘freeing’ one. ‘Wisdom arises as a result of suffering’, says Aeschylus. Or as he says in his play Agamemnon

Nothing forces us to know / What we do not want to know / Except pain.

Awareness of our mechanical nature isn’t something that comes about because we want it to, because it suits us that it does – this awareness reflects a profound and involuntary change in our inner orientation – instead of being orientated firmly towards the apparent comfort of illusion, the mysterious ‘inner compass’ in our hearts is now pointing in the direction of the truth…







In The Absence Of Being…

In the absence of being we need tricks, we need gimmicks, we need dodges, we need strategies. With being no tricks, no gimmicks, no dodges, no strategies are needed…


Things being what they are however there is fierce business going on in the buying and selling of tricks, gimmicks, dodges and strategies of all kinds. Things being what they are, the person with the best strategy gets to be the winner. The Holy Grail – as far as we are concerned – is some kind of super-effective trick or strategy.


Things being what they are, the question on everyone’s lips is “What’s your angle?”That’s what we all want to know.  Everyone has an angle after all and the player with the best angle wins the game, as we have just said. We are perennially interested in the type of approach the other guy might be taking – just as long as he isn’t an obvious loser, otherwise, of course, we’re not so interested! No one asks a loser what his strategy is!


If being replaced ‘nonbeing’ then an entire world, an entire system, an entire way of life, would vanish overnight. The whole economy would collapse. None of that stuff would be necessary – none of that would be relevant. We would no longer have this all-consuming concern with tricks, gimmicks, dodges and strategies. We could take it easy instead. We could hang out. We could enjoy life. We would no longer have to spend all our time ‘trying to make something be what it isn’t’.


This seems like such a strange thing – too strange for us to grasp, generally speaking. It’s an alien concept. When our whole way of life is about trying to make something be what it isn’t (even though this may not be how we see it) then how strange must it feel to all of a sudden stop this? What would we do with ourselves? What would our lives be about then? Or would we be then? As Jean Baudrillard says,

It is always the same: once you are liberated, you are forced to ask who you are.

Our sense of self (our identity) is provided for us by our ‘seeking behaviour’ – our seeking behaviour (and the specific strategies by which we enact this never-ending seeking) are our identity. Just as Carl Jung says that through the process of unwise social adaptation we very quickly end up being our masks, being our roles, being our personas, it is also true that we end up being our tricks, our gimmicks, our strategies. What else are ‘masks, roles, and personas’ other than strategies, after all? All of these are a means of seeking; all of these are way of seeking the being that we so painfully lack in our lives.


For this reason (because we have ended up becoming our own strategies) we don’t want to ‘give up our ceaseless strategizing’. Giving up our tricks (‘the tricks of the trade’) would mean losing our identity and we certainly don’t want to see that happen. Stumbling across being would mean the loss of our identity as the striver, the seeker, the controller, the master player, etc, and that’s why we don’t want to have anything to do with ‘being‘. Erik Fromm says that if we ever came across freedom then we would run a mile, and the very same could be said for being!


This puts us in a very odd position therefore. It puts us in an extraordinarily odd position. Our entire way of life is based on the (unacknowledged) striving for being (since we strive without really knowing what it is that we’re striving for) and yet this being is – at the same time – the very last thing that we want. Our whole identity is defined by our strategies, by our approaches, by our ‘striving to obtain being’ and yet it is this very identity that we would have to say goodbye to if we actually found what we were looking for. We are searching for being on behalf of the ever-hungry concrete identity and yet the concrete identity doesn’t really want to have anything to do with it.


It is this very identity that we would have to kiss goodbye to forever and yet – quite understandably – the identity which is based on tricks and dodges and strategies, the identity that is based on the ongoing never-ending doomed attempt to ‘make good its lack of being‘ – doesn’t want to say goodbye to itself. That’s not part of its plans at all. The concrete identity very much doesn’t want to ‘kiss goodbye to itself’ and if it has any say at all in the matter (which it does) then it won’t…









We Can’t Hang Out’ On Purpose

One of the basic ideas in all anxiety management classes (and ‘anxiety management’ is not actually a very nice term) is that of challenging the avoidance of situations that provoke anxiety in us. This is fine as a far as it goes but we need to understand that ‘challenging’ isn’t really a purposeful thing in the way that we always assume that it is. If we don’t understand this then we are simply going to go around in circles. The point is that challenging isn’t something that can be done intentionally (i.e. as part of a strategy) because when we challenge intentionally then this too becomes ‘an avoidance’. This isn’t the easiest thing in the world to understand but we can get to it in easy stages. Avoidance is without any doubt at the very heart of anxiety because as soon as we avoid we automatically reinforce the belief that the situation in question is dangerous enough to be worth avoiding. We don’t stick around to see what is really going to happen, we just get out of there, and the instant sense of relief conditions us to do the very same thing next time. It is easy enough to see how this works: if I stay in the situation I feel bad, and if I avoid I feel relief, so what am I going to do? It’s a no-brainer, really…


What has happened when I get stuck in a pattern of avoidance is that I have created a mental barrier that corresponds to a ‘no go’ zone in real life. Every time I avoid going to the supermarket (for example) I reinforce the original belief that something terrible is going to happen to me if I stick around, and eventually the force of this belief may become strong enough to make me feel physically sick if I even think about going there. What is worse is that avoidance creates a precedence: if I have ’solved’ one difficulty by avoidance then I am more than likely to solve the next problem that comes along in the same way. Eventually I am going to be retreating on all fronts and the whole of life will be a ‘no go’ zone. So where does that leave me? In the end even my one ‘safe place’, whatever that is, will become threatened – just because I have ignored the bigger problems in life by ‘over-simplifying’ my interaction with the world, that doesn’t mean that my life will now be problem-free. On the contrary, smaller, pettier problems will unfailingly arrive to take the place of the old ones, and all the anxiety that used to attach itself to the original problem, will proceed to attach itself to the new one.


The point here is that the anxiety hasn’t actually gone away, and that it will always find something to associate itself with. It doesn’t matter how trivial the issue, the anxiety reaction will be just the same. This is a phenomenon with which we are all familiar – a tiny little difficulty completely upsets me, a minor inconvenience elicits a disproportionate physical and mental reaction. We know it is ridiculous to be worried by such a small thing, but this knowledge doesn’t help us. At this stage we might try to simplify our lives even more, so that there is less and less that can ‘go wrong’, but this doesn’t work because we can never control our situations 100% – that is a law of the universe – and the frantic attempt to do so is a one-way ticket to neurotic hell.


We see this, and so we decide to start challenging our patterns of avoidance – all well and good. Let us say that one of the situations that I have been avoiding is going to the high street and buying something in a shop. Let us also say that this is not my ‘Number 1 fear’ – it is quite low down on the list and so it is a realistic thing for me to try to challenge this avoidance. So what do I do? Well, because I am challenging the avoidance, I make a goal of doing the thing I don’t usually do, the thing I don’t want to do. I grit my teeth, I set my jaw firmly, I bite the bullet and I head off out the door. In my head there is only one thing, and that is the goal which I am determined to attain. What this means is that the whole time I am making my way to the shop, I am (in my head) there already! In my head I have already arrived…


It is true that there is a delay between me first getting the idea in my head, and that idea finding its fulfilment in reality. It is also true that I am very much aware of the discrepancy between ‘goal’ and ‘attainment of goal’, but because I am aware of this discrepancy, the whole time that this gap is there I am trying single-mindedly to close it. I only want one thing, I am only interested in one thing, and that is to make reality match my idea of it. Because I am only interested in the ultimate goal, I am not actually present as I make my journey to the shop; my body is there but I am ahead of myself, only concerned with getting where I am going – touching base. This is – again – a thing that we are very familiar with when we are suffering from anxiety – it is the phenomenon of ‘always skipping ahead’.


What this means therefore is that as soon as I do touch base I then have a new goal, and that new goal is of course to get back home as quickly as possible. There is no moment of freedom, no moment of rest, no release. I never let up on the unwavering control, not for a second, and so the whole process of ‘living in the future’ is repeated until I do get back home. When I get home I can relax (possibly), and I might even feel good about having achieved my target, but just how satisfactory is this?  Obviously it is a step in the right direction, but at the same time there is no doubt that the whole procedure is a bit of avoidance in its own right! What I have been avoiding is the ‘here and now’ – it is not good enough to be there in the shop and in the high street in my body because if my awareness is elsewhere (or willing itself elsewhere, which is the same thing) then the anxiety is still dictating the terms.


If I rush from goal to goal, then that is anxiety. That is anxiety in a nutshell. If I am in one place, and I make a rule in my head saying that I should be in another place, then that is anxiety. The only thing that isn’t anxiety is being in the place that you are, and not wishing you were somewhere else! What we are talking about here is this thing called ‘hanging out’. The day I really reverse the insidious process of avoidance is the day I hang out. ‘Hanging out’ means being present with no agenda and this is easier to talk about than to do because I always have an agenda. I can’t ‘hang out on purpose’, because if I am there with a goal in my head (even the goal of hanging out) then I am not really there – I am (as we have said) in my head, planning, wishing, wanting, controlling…


I cannot have an agenda to drop my agenda, because then that is still an agenda. I am there in one place (the place of having an agenda), and I want to be in another place (the place of having no agenda). I am making a rule in my head that ‘something should happen’, and this is anxiety all over again. I’m skipping ahead. So what do I do? The answer is simple, but it doesn’t come easily. The answer is to be in the place that I am already in, which is ‘wanting to be somewhere else’. So, if I am ‘not hanging out’, then I ‘hang out in not hanging out’. This means that I don’t try to force myself to be elsewhere – I don’t make a rule saying “This is not good; this is not the right place to be”. Wherever I am, that is the right place to be. It has to be! It must be right because I am there, and I can’t be anywhere else anyway, no matter how hard I try. Mental straining is always futile and when we start to see that it is always futile that means we are actually present. Normally, we’re not ‘present’, we’re not ‘conscious’, and that means that we don’t see that the straining is futile.


Experiencing fear is one thing, and being anxious is another. Fear is when I don’t like being in a place, but I know that I am there – I am present in it, in other words. Anxiety is when I am running away from my fear – which means that I believe (on some unexamined level) that it is possible to escape if I strain hard enough. Thus, all my effort goes into ‘straining to do an impossible thing’, which is what creates anxiety. I am not orientated towards reality – I am orientated towards my goal of how I would like reality to be.  This is why goals are useful when it comes to working with anxiety; goals mean that I want to be somewhere else (obviously enough!) and so how is this supposed to help me with anxiety? Having goals (or ‘relying on methods’) always feeds back into the anxiety, naturally enough, and it is easy enough to see this – if we are actually interested in seeing it.


The purposeful mind really isn’t the right man for the job here. The purposeful mind isn’t the right man for the job because it’s always ‘skipping ahead to the future’ and this is what creates the anxiety in the first place. It’s the purposeful mind’s job to be skipping ahead – very obviously that is its job – so we can’t blame it for this! ‘Purposes’ exist in the future, after all – they certainly don’t exist in the present. There are no goals in the present; there never could be any goals in the present. There’s nothing in the present but ‘hanging out’ and we’re not hanging out for a reason. We’re not hanging out in order to achieve or obtain anything.


This might seem like a rather simplistic point to make but it isn’t – when we see that there are no goals in the present and that the present is the only place we can find relief from anxiety (because there is then no rule saying that we have to be somewhere else other than where we are right now, which is the cause of anxiety) then our orientation naturally starts to shift. The orientation is no longer directed outside of ourselves to some ‘result’ we would like to see happen. We absolutely can’t shift our orientation on purpose but when the awareness comes to us that goals equal anxiety (which society will never tell us because it is based on goals) then we will naturally let go of our goals, to some extent. ‘Letting go’ isn’t a thing that can be made into a goal; ‘letting go’ comes only from awareness and awareness exists only in the present moment…








The Path Of Error

When we force ourselves to do what we were going to do anyway – without any forcing – then we take the good out of it. We ourselves take the good out of it, no one else. The reason we force ourselves to do whatever it is that we were going to do anyway is because that way we get to avoid any risk, avoid any uncertainty. We’re afraid of taking the risk that we might not do it, and so we force ourselves. We take matters into our own hands, and this is ‘the way of error’.


Out of the avoidance of risk (or out of the avoidance of uncertainty) comes ‘evil’, in other words. Out of the avoidance of risk – when it is psychological risk that we’re talking of – comes a long, long road of suffering. The Via Erratum isn’t ‘an error’ because we have broken any rule, or because we have rebelled against the proper authorities (and have wilfully gone against the way that was preordained for us), it’s ‘an error’ simply because it leads us into suffering. We could also say that the Via Erratum is ‘an error’ because it’s a dead end, because it simply doesn’t get us anywhere. Eventually we’re going to realise this and so then we are going to have to come all the way back again. We will have to come ‘right back to Square One’…


When we force ourselves to live our lives (because we think we have to, because we think it’s the right thing to do, because we think it’s our ‘duty’, or because we are afraid of what might happen if we don’t) then this takes the good out of it. This takes all the creativity, sensitivity and joy out of it. This inevitably takes all the humour and poetry out of life and so what are we left with then? This is Alan Watts’ central message, the message that he reiterated in many different ways – “a life which is forced, a life which is conducted deliberately or on purpose, is a life not worth living”. What a terrible mistake this is to make! What could be more precious than life, and what could be more tragic than to utterly corrupt and despoil this gift – for no good reason at all?


This is the error that we all make, every last one of us. No matter where you look you will always see people making this error; there is no shortage whatsoever of people making this error. To ‘do as others do’ is to make this error. Society itself demands that we go down this road – it tells us every day that the right thing to do is to live life deliberately, on purpose, in strict accordance with our rational intention. It is through the purposeful activities of the Concrete Identity that we will find meaning and joy in our lives, so we are told. This key message is beamed out at us a thousand times a day, out of a hundred different media outlets – just in case we are a bit slow in picking it up. And yet the purposeful activities of the concrete identity are quite, quite worthless. They lead to nothing but suffering and frustration. They are suffering, pure and simple.


As we have said, there couldn’t be a bigger mistake than the mistake of ‘living life deliberately’, living life ‘on purpose’, and gravitating ceaselessly thereby towards our mind-created goals. There couldn’t be a bigger error than ‘the error of believing life to be nothing more than the fulfilment of the Concrete Identity’s agenda’! The fulfilment of the Concrete Identity’s agenda doesn’t bring us any joy; this isn’t life – it isn’t anything! The realisation of our goals isn’t life, life is when we realise that our goals don’t actually matter! Life is the falsification of our ideas about life. The person who does nothing other than chase after goals the whole time isn’t living, they are simply obsessing and obsessions are – by their very nature – always sterile. There is nothing more sterile than obsession; there is nothing more sterile than obsession because obsession is always all about the Concrete Identity and the key point to understand about the Concrete Identity is that it doesn’t actually exist.


‘What’s your problem?’ Wei Wu Wei asks, ‘Mistaken identity’ he replies. The Concrete Identity is obliged to force itself to do everything and when once we go down this road of forcing then that’s it – there’s no turning back. There’s no turning back because forcing is now the only thing we understand and so if we stop forcing ourselves then nothing will happen. We have become dependent upon control in other words and so we have to keep on controlling even though controlling everything is nothing but neurosis. Forcing is suffering and yet forcing is all we know – we have to see it through to the bitter end, therefore. ‘Forcing’ is the only card we have to play and the terrible thing about this is that no good can ever come of it, not matter how far we push it…





Art: Tyranny RPG









Overcomplicating Life

The positive approach works for many things but not for all things. It works very well for making a cup of tea, for example. The formula is simple: firstly, we boil some water (in a kettle or whatever), secondly, we throw the water in a cup and add a teabag, thirdly, we let the teabag percolate for a minute or two, fourthly, we add milk or sugar to taste. And then, Bingo!  – we have a cup of tea. Job done… The positive approach always has the basic form of “Do <X> to obtain <Y>” Every method ever invented has this basic structure, it’s an algorithm, a formula, and our whole world is founded upon formulae…


Some things there are no formulae for however. For some things the positive approach just doesn’t work. We could take ‘happiness’ as a good basic example – there is no <X> that we can carry out in order to obtain the <Y> of happiness! There is no method for being happy – there just isn’t. No one ever became happy on purpose – trying to be happy on purpose is called neuroticism in fact. ‘Trying to be happy’ is actually an infallible method for misery!


Even to think about happiness is a sign that we are miserable. If we were happy then we wouldn’t be thinking about it – only unhappy people think about happiness. If I try to think of a way of becoming happy then this thought comes out of my unhappiness and the so-called ‘method’ that I come up with will simply extend or perpetuate this original seed of unhappiness. As Krishnamurti says, if I am afraid and I try to be not afraid then my attempt to be unafraid is the original fear in disguise and if I am violent then my attempt to be non-violent is itself a violent attempt. All methods perpetuate the particular mind-state from which they arise.


Exactly the same is true for mental health (which is not by any means to say that mental health and happiness are the same thing) – the attempt to reach out and acquire mental health when we perceive ourselves not to be mentally healthy perpetuates the state of being that we’re in. Mental health isn’t to be found ‘outside of ourselves’ in other words, or as Rumi says “The cure for the pain is in the pain”. Another way of putting this is to say that what we call ‘good mental health’ is nothing other than ‘having a genuine relationship with the way that we actually are’ and there is no way that there can be any ‘method’ to bring this about! The whole point of a psychological method is to change the way that we are, not bring about a genuine (i.e. ‘non-aggressive’) relationship with the way we are. Relationships don’t come about as a result of control or manipulation, after all!


Mental health is one of those things that the positive approach doesn’t work for, in other words. Whenever we try to utilize a method in order to improve our mental health situation we always double-bind ourselves – using a method automatically puts us in a position where we can help believing that the only way we can ever ‘get better’ (so to speak) is to strive in some way to accomplish whilst – unbeknownst to us – it is our deliberate effort to improve our situation that is keeping us stuck in the very pain that we are trying to escape from.


We now find ourselves in a very thankless situation – our striving to enact the method keeps us stuck in the pain (although we very rarely see this) and because we can’t help seeing ‘purposeful striving’ as the only possible way we have of getting out of the fix we’re in, the option of ‘not striving’ is now closed to us. We are – for one thing – afraid of what will happen if we stop straining to free ourselves from our situation and we are – for another thing – afraid of being blamed (either implicitly or explicitly, either by ourselves or by someone else) for not trying to help ourselves in the way that we have been advised to. One way or another, we’re going to ‘feel bad about feeling bad’ because we believe that we ought to be able to do something about it. This – needless to say – is a very common situation.


This then is the classic therapeutic ‘double-bind’ – if we engage in the method then this isn’t going to help us and when it doesn’t work (as it won’t) then this will be taken as evidence that we just aren’t trying hard enough (since everyone knows the method would work if we tried hard enough) and if we stopped engaging in the method then for sure the blame would lie fairly and squarely on our shoulders because it is now clear that – for whatever reason – we just aren’t making the effort to help ourselves… We’re ‘caught either way’ in other words and this is the very essence of a double-bind. We just can’t win…


It might sound unfair to suggest that a therapist – within the context of a defined ‘therapeutic situation’ – is double-binding his or her clients in such a way but inasmuch as the therapist believes that the positive approach to mental health actually works (which most of us do) the double-bind is inevitable. It can’t really be avoided in this case – as long as we believe in the positive paradigm we are always going to be double-binding our clients! This brings us back to the core question of why the positive approach can’t work in mental health. We have already tackled this question in one way but because we are so very convinced that it must be possible to meaningfully change our mental state on purpose it is worth seeing if we can come at this from a slightly different angle. The more arguments we can bring to bear on this matter the better!


The essential point is that any orientation that we have towards a state of mind that isn’t the state of mind that doesn’t happen to be the one that we’re in at the moment is always going to be a manifestation of running away and  – obviously enough – ‘running away’ never led anyone to a state of good mental health! Sometimes we hear that we should acknowledge how we are feeling and then act so as to move on. We feel the painful feeling, and then ‘we let go of it’. This too is a positive approach however because the only reason we’re acknowledging the painful mental state that we’re in is so we can escape it! It’s as if we realize that a person we don’t want to see won’t go away until we talk to them and so then we talk to them simply as a way of getting rid of them! The old method was to ignore them or run away from them but that didn’t work so now we talk to them instead. Our underlying motivation is always exactly the same however no matter what strategy we adopt…


There is no method for acknowledging painful states of mind (or for feeling painful feelings) because all methods (by their very nature) are directed towards an end-goal that is just not going to cut the mustard. Chasing goals isn’t what’s needed here – that would be like having an idea or plan of doing something rather than actually doing it. Or we could say that it’s like making a goal of ‘being in the present moment’ – this just can’t be done because the moment we conceive of a goal we are departing from the present moment, not coming closer to it! We get to be in the present moment by dropping our goals, not by enacting them. We could of course try to beat this by making a goal to drop our goals but clearly this is just complicating matters even further. Methods (in the psychological sphere) always complicate things and it is these ‘complications’ that constitute our neurotic suffering…


This is our problem in a nutshell – we always overcomplicate things. We put an endlessly proliferating series of pointless complications between us and simply ‘being’ (which is of course not complicated at all, since any fool can do it). When we have successfully negotiated these complications, we say, then – and only then – will we be allowed to ‘be’. We tell ourselves this but it just isn’t true. Nothing could actually be further from the truth. Taking mind-produced complications seriously (i.e. taking them on their own terms) will never lead to being – complications only ever lead to more complications, thought only ever leads to more thought. Bring ‘methods’ into mental health is therefore a disaster right from the onset – using a method to help us feel better only leads to us being addicted to that method, dependent upon that method, and the ‘method’ itself is no more than a thought-created complication.  As such therefore, it can only ever lead on to more thought-created complications, and so on and so forth forever. There is after all no method for freeing us from methods….












We Can’t Force Peace Of Mind

Whenever we’re happy or have some kind of peace of mind then experience will show that this is always because we have ‘forgotten about ourselves’, not because of anything special that we’ve done, not because of any special method that we have learned and then applied. This is fairly obvious once we actually come out and say it – whoever heard of a ‘method for happiness’, or a ‘strategy for peace of mind’, after all? If there was such a remarkable thing as ‘a method for happiness’ then you can be very sure that we’d have heard about it by now…


Intuitively, we know that there is no way to wangle genuine happiness or genuine peace of mind for ourselves and yet – at the same time – we all buy into a technological culture that rests fair-and square on the notion that happiness/well-being/peace of mind can be brought about by technical means. Trying to obtain happiness for ourselves’ is what drives most of what we do – this is what drives this thing we call ‘the consumer society’ – we’re ‘doing the things that we’re supposed to be doing’ in order that we might (hopefully) be happy as a result! So how is it that we buy into something that – on another level of awareness – we know perfectly well to be nonsense?


Leaving aside for the moment our crude ‘materialistic’ efforts to bring about happiness and fulfilment for ourselves by partaking in ‘the consumer game’; we can spot another version of this same anomaly in our collective approach to mental health care. Mental health care is full of methodologies for (supposedly) achieving well-being and no one ever seems to question this. But if genuine well-being can only happen when we forget about ourselves (and not when we ‘do something special’ so as to hopefully obtain good mental health as a result) then just what the hell are we doing with all of our therapeutic methodologies? If the key is to ‘forget about ourselves’ (so to speak) then how is all this ‘purposefully trying to fix ourselves’ – type of business supposed to do us any good?


Once we understand this key point then this clears up everything. When we are able to see clearly that peace of mind only comes about when we forget all about ourselves then we can finally stop confusing and annoying ourselves with all these methods, all of these helpful ‘mental health tips’, all of this advice, all of the ‘things that we’re supposed to ‘do’. This preoccupation with technical means (or ‘control’) is society’s craziness, not the road to good mental health! We keep on bringing ourselves into the picture and the more we bring ourselves into the picture the more tangled up we get. Happiness or peace is when we don’t bring ourselves into the picture!


Whatever we ‘do’ in order to gain peace of mind merely ties us up in knots even more; we’re treating mental health or peace of mind as a game that we have to play in order to win but things don’t work like this at all. Nobody ‘wins’ well-being; nobody ‘wins’ peace of mind or happiness. This isn’t one of society’s games. What we need to do therefore is to see this because when we see it we will naturally stop putting so much energy and conviction into ‘enacting the methodologies’ (or ‘following the advice’) It is personal insight we need not expert advice. What do the so-called ‘experts’ know anyway? All they know is what they have been told by other so-called ‘experts’.


The trouble is that what we are talking about here (i.e. not trying to fix ourselves) is too simple and we find it very hard to believe anything as simple as this could actually be true. It doesn’t sound right to us. We’re all geared towards believing that if we are ever to gain anything worthwhile in life then it has to be as a result of hard work. This message has been beaten into us from an early age. In the same way therefore, we can’t believe that regaining mental health (particularly when were suffering from chronic ‘mental ill-health’) has to be the result of something complicated, something clever, something impressively ‘high-tech’, something that only highly trained professionals can know about. We have been very effectively disempowered, in other words!


Not only have we been disempowered, we’ve been very thoroughly ‘jinxed’!  We have been put into a double-bind. Far from facilitating us in ‘forgetting about ourselves’, anything ‘complicated’ or ‘clever’ that we (supposedly) have to do just reminds us of ourselves (and the fact that we’re ‘not right’) all the more. The existence of the procedure means that we then have the onerous responsibility of ‘carrying it out correctly’ and this responsibility causes us to be more preoccupied with ourselves rather than less. We’re under pressure because we have to ‘do the thing’ (whatever that thing is) We have to ‘do the thing’ and this makes it even more neurotically controlling of ourselves than we were before. It doesn’t free us up at all… Being neurotic means that we take on responsibility for what we don’t need to, says Morgan Scott Peck, and so leading us to believe that we need to take responsibility for our own mental state before we can feel better feeds our neurosis rather than curing it.


‘Distracting ourselves’ isn’t the answer either – naturally we think that forgetting about ourselves means ‘distracting ourselves’ but this is not the case at all. ‘Self-distracting’ is purposeful doing, it’s something we have to do ourselves and – moreover – it’s something that we have to keep on doing. If we ever stopped distracting ourselves then that would mean that we’d be ‘right back where we started’ in no time and this knowledge, even if it isn’t at the forefront of our attention, keep us very far from ‘forgetting ourselves’. This unconscious knowledge is a pressure that never goes away…


When we talk about forgetting ourselves what we really mean is ‘forgetting to control ourselves’ or ‘forgetting to be forever thinking about ourselves’ and this has nothing to do with any cheap self-distraction techniques. What it really means is ‘not being so self-conscious in the way that we almost always are self-conscious’, and obviously this is not as easy as it sounds. It’s not as easy as it sounds because we are going against the habit of a lifetime. We are so very reliant on methods but this happens to be the one thing that methods can never help us with!


As we have been saying, there can’t be any such thing as ‘a method for helping us to be less self-conscious’ since the very moment we even think of a method (or think that is a need for a method) we become self-conscious! This is like saying that we will float perfectly safely in deep water even if we can’t swim just as long as we don’t try to float, but the moment we start trying to make sure that we don’t try to float then we will sink straightaway. Merely knowing this doesn’t help us any therefore because this knowledge feeds right back into our panic as something we have to do – even though it’s actually something that we don’t have to do! Ceasing to react to the perceived need to control ourselves (or to our situation) isn’t by any means as easy as it might sound – such is our reliance on controlling that we will immediately start trying to control ourselves to make sure that we don’t control ourselves. We do this unconsciously, automatically, inadvertently. This is what the alchemist call ‘the way of error’ – we’re trying to save ourselves by our own efforts, we’re trying to rescue ourselves with our own non-stop struggling.


Changing unconscious patterns of thinking and behaving isn’t something we can fast-track, it isn’t something we can force to happen. We can’t ‘change our own minds’ on purpose. ‘Forcing’ is the very habit we want to change, after all. Really, what we’re talking about here is a whole new approach – a process is based on insight and patience rather than any sort of technological ‘know-how’. There is no technological know-how when it comes to patience, obviously. Technology is very opposite of patience – the technological approach is the ‘quintessential impatient approach’ because we’re trying to force things to happen on our own terms. We want to get to the desired destination ‘in no time at all’.


Patience is the one thing we need and insight is the other. Insight changes the ‘balance of power’ between us and the mechanical mind so that we stop buying into the ‘forcing approach’ quite so much; we see through it and seeing through the forcing approach is what makes all the difference. We can’t force patience and we can’t come up with some sort of ‘technology for catalysing insight’ either – there is simply no way to make insight happen just because we want it to happen. The idea of forcing insight is preposterous! We can of course purposefully ‘impart information’ and this is what we as a technologically-minded culture are good at; ‘providing information’ in the field of mental health is all but meaningless however – what is needed for change to take place is insight not so-called ‘psychological education’ and just telling someone what it is that we think they need to know is not going to help them when it comes to gaining insight.


What we need when it comes to our true well-being is philosophy not the cheap tricks of technology. Philosophy doesn’t have much credibility in this rational-purposeful world of ours. In our hubris we scoff at philosophy – we certainly don’t see it as having any crucial role in life. Philosophy means ‘love of the truth’ in ancient Greek. Philosophy means ‘love of the truth’ and the truth is that happiness (or well-being or peace of mind) come about when we forget about ourselves, not when we try to work towards them as goals. We don’t become happy as a result of cherishing or controlling or managing ourselves, we become profoundly miserable instead. Actually, peace of mind or happiness is none of our business – it’s got nothing to do with us, and seeing this is wisdom.




Art: Banksy, ‘Soldiers Secretly Want Peace’












Using Anxiety as a ‘Cue’

Anxiety is never about what it appears to be about – this is fairly obvious since what we are anxious about doesn’t generally warrant the worry that it is evoking in us. If the situation that we are anxious about did warrant the degree of concern that we are feeling then this wouldn’t be anxiety – it would an appropriate, healthy response to a difficult situation.


So the whole point about anxiety is that it is a disproportionate reaction to what is going on; we all know this – as anxiety sufferers we know this only too well – but the thing is that it just doesn’t help us to know this! It actually makes us feel worse not better, obviously enough…


This shows us that the anxiety isn’t really what the anxiety itself tells us it is about.  There is a displacement going on, which means that we are seeing something ‘in the wrong place’. The anxiety really belongs somewhere else and what this means is that we’re wasting our time when we allow our attention to be ‘diverted’ in the way that it is. We’re simply chasing red-herrings and that’s not going to get us anywhere!


If I’ve lost something in one place there’s no point in looking for it somewhere else, after all! That’s definitely a bad road to go down. The helpful thing is to use the anxiety as a cue to draw our attention to the fact that there is a displacement going on here – when we feel anxious about something then straightaway we realize that there is this displacement occurring, therefore. To be aware of this is helpful because we are now in a better position to feel the feeling where it belongs instead of where it doesn’t belong. When we know we looking for what we’ve lost in the wrong place then this is very useful information – it’s useful information because it frees us up from the thankless (and pointless task of ‘looking for what we’ve lost in the wrong place’…


This isn’t a method for working with anxiety because it’s not setting out guidelines as to what we should ‘do’. What it is however is a way of using anxiety as a cue to remind ourselves that we are getting our attention tied up with red herrings so when we receive this cue or reminder we can stop ‘going down the wrong road’. The cue does nothing more than ‘bring about awareness’, and it is awareness that we need because anxiety works by hoovering up our awareness! The awareness that we are being ‘misdirected’ is itself all that it takes to bring us back to ourselves so there is no question of having to follow any kind of a method, or utilize any kind of a strategy, which are mechanical responses that can only bring about more anxiety.


When we receive the cue that reminds us that we are having our attention misdirected then we have our attention back again, so to speak, and so all we need to do is to ‘come back to ourselves’ (or ‘check in with ourselves’) to see what is really going on with us. The anxious mind always points our attention away from us (like a person throwing a stick for a dog to run after and bring back) we are usually more than happy to oblige by chasing after the stick as fast as we can! As the Tibetan sage Milarepa says –

When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick: every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.

When Milarepa advises us to be like a lion rather than a dog running after sticks the whole time what he is suggesting is that we ‘come back to ourselves’ rather than looking outside of ourselves. It is important to realize that ‘coming back to ourselves’ isn’t a method – there is no method to come back to ourselves, there is no way this can be achieved via some sort of tactic or strategy. Methods can be used to distract ourselves, it is true (and as a culture we have developed a huge arsenal of them) but there’s no method for un-distracting ourselves! All that’s needed for un-distracting ourselves is awareness – when we are aware that we are distracted then we are straightaway un-distracted. No ‘doing’ is needed – or as the Buddhist teachings say “There is no need for expedient means”.


This is of course the very same principle we come across in meditation; when we are practicing meditation we don’t force ourselves to ‘come back to the present moment’ – if we did that then we wouldn’t be meditating! Instead, we notice that we have drifted away from the present moment and as soon as we notice this we are straightaway back in the present. It’s the awareness that does it, not forcing or effort or will-power. As soon as we notice that we’re ‘away’ we’re back ‘home’ again! The moment we see that we thinking then we’re not thinking – we’re observing that we’re thinking and that is awareness.


When we are using anxiety as a cue we’re not coming back to our breathing however (which is a specific focus), we’re coming back to noticing ‘how we are in ourselves’, which is an open-ended sort of a thing. Another way of putting this is to say that we’re noticing how we are feeling – we’re tuning in to the deeper emotional core of ourselves, even if only momentarily. We started off by saying that when we anxious our attention is being distracted away from where the issue really is. The anxiety is a dodge, in other words. It’s an automatic avoidance mechanism. The question is therefore, “What are we dodging?”


The simplest way to answer this is probably just to say that are dodging ourselves. Anxiety – we might say – is the thinking mind’s ‘last-ditch attempt’ to distract our attention from the place that we don’t want it to go! Instead of being ‘with ourselves’ thought is sending us off on endless wild goose chases, and who can deny that this is what anxiety comes down to? Even if we do solve the problem that is troubling us a dozen other problems will pop up more or less immediately and if we don’t solve it (as is very likely) then we are going to be worrying over it endlessly in the forlorn attempt to solve it. Perhaps if you go over it a thousand times it will somehow come right, thought says. What else can it say after all – it has no other tricks up its sleeve, only thinking, thinking, and more thinking. It’s only got the one product and so it will keep on trying to sell it to us…


In essence anxiety is the attempt to solve an insoluble problem and that is why we can never get to the end of it, that’s why we can never cure anxiety with thinking – anxiety just feeds on itself then. We could say therefore that all the worries that crop up for us are ‘surrogates for something else’ and so the real question is ‘what is it a surrogate for?’ An existential philosopher would say that we are running from the pure irreducible uncertainty of life; this is an ‘insoluble problem’ – obviously enough – because there is nothing that we can do about the irreducible uncertainty of life. It’s irreducible, after all – that’s the whole point!


The fact that life is irreducibly uncertain isn’t actually a problem, however, – being uncertain is what makes life life! Saying that ‘life is uncertain’ is just another way of saying that it is always unfolding in an unpredictable way – ‘unfolding in an unpredictable way’ is what makes life life. What other type of unfolding is there, anyway! The new unfolds, day by day and moment by moment, and this is what life (or reality) is all about – obviously enough! Why would we be so afraid of the ‘unfolding of the new’ when the unfolding of the new is the very essence of life itself though? What – we may ask – is the big problem here?


‘The unfolding of the new’ doesn’t sound so dreadfully bad after all – it actually sounds rather marvellous. The ‘old’, on the other hand, rapidly becomes very tiresome if not to say oppressive, as we all know very well. Who doesn’t know this? It’s one of those basic things that we learn that we learn in life. Even if it’s not something we can always put in practice we all nevertheless know that it isn’t healthy to be forever holding onto the old, or holding onto the past. We are – generally speaking – perfectly aware of that…


One way to explain why we so very easily become ‘afraid of the new’ (or ‘afraid of what we can’t control’, which is the same thing) is to say that we become so used to our ‘defensive position’ that it become the whole world to us. It’s all we know and we trust it because has always protected us in the past (or so it seems). We trust it because we know nothing else. This isn’t to say that our protective posture (or ‘protective mechanism’) hasn’t protected us in the past – quite possibly it has done. The thing is thought that when the protective posture ‘becomes the whole world to us’ then we always end up in the situation where what we are defending ourselves against is life itself and this – of course – is a terrible dead-end.


We’re trapped in a terribly difficult situation when what we’re defending ourselves against is life itself. It’s not just a ‘difficult’ situation, it’s an impossible one.  It’s an impossible situation because life is all there is and if life is all there is then how can we defend ourselves against it? When we identify totally with our defensive position then this is the very same thing as ‘being institutionalized’ – we’re utterly dependent on the structure that imprisons us and so we will defend it to the end. To lose it seems like the worst thing in the world, even though of course it isn’t. It’s not doing us any good any more so how can it be such a terrible thing to lose it?


The insight that it is a healthy thing to relinquish our defensive position doesn’t mean that we can just go right ahead and ‘let go’ (just because this is the helpful thing to do). We could go right ahead and let go if we were free to do so but the whole point is that we aren’t. We’re caught up in the logic of a long established defensive reflex, after all. This defensive reflex has become our only way of seeing the world, our only way of understanding the world. We’re going against the grain; we’re going against what seems to be our own better judgement. We’re rebelling against ‘who we are’, so it seems. The point is however that it isn’t who we really are and this insight is the key to everything. We’re not really this tense and frightened ‘defensive posture’ – we’re always more than a posture, no matter what type of posture that might be. Obviously, we’re more than just ‘a posture’!


To talk about ‘letting go’ in connection with anxiety is facile in the extreme – there is no way that we can let go as an act of will. We can only let go when we let go of all ideas of letting go (which means that it isn’t ‘us’ letting go at all). We can’t intend to let go because ‘intending’ is holding on to a goal; we can’t let go on purpose because a purpose is a goal and – as we have just said – goals are only goals because we are hang onto them. What we can do however is use the anxiety as a reminder to check in with ourselves. We’re not checking in with ourselves as a way of getting rid of the anxiety (much as we’d like to get rid of it); that would be an act of aggression and aggression feeds anxiety rather than getting rid of it. When we turn our backs on the reality of our situation and fixate our attention on ‘surrogate problems’ and try to fix them then this is aggression. The aggression is born of the pure desperation that comes from trying to do an impossible thing. Our aggression is the inevitable ‘waste-product’ of our attempt to safeguard the shaky belief that we have in our illusory ‘fixing’. So instead of being aggressive towards our anxiety or being fearful of it (which results in ‘the aggression of running away’), we appreciate its role in reminding us to come back to ourselves. We appreciate it (in a natural or genuine way!) because the truth is that we wouldn’t remember to come back to ourselves otherwise. The pain of anxiety reminds us. We are now seeing anxiety as a ‘help rather than a hindrance’ therefore and this means that we’re not being aggressive. We’re just noticing ‘how we are’, that’s all, and that is a peaceful act rather than a violent one! Learning not to be aggressive may not sound like very much but it’s the most useful thing we could ever learn – learning not to be aggressive is actually the key to everything…








Making Peace With Anxiety

There are two ways of approaching anxiety – one way is to approach it with a whole bunch of tools and methods and ‘skills’ (which is of course the aggressive way) whilst the other way is with gentleness and tolerance, and no attempted ‘forcing’.  The first way involves learning some method that we have to put into action when our anxiety levels rise; the first way involves the tool which we call the rational-purposeful mind, in other words. The second way does not occur via the thinking mind at all, it involves us just being ourselves amidst it all (which is admittedly a lot harder than it sounds). We don’t have to bring in any tools, any gimmicks, any foreign artifacts.


We are not therefore trying to learn some new trick that we didn’t know about – which would be daunting and put us under a strain – but rather we’re learning to bring a part of ourselves into play that we really don’t value very much, or don’t respect particularly. In fairy-tales this corresponds to the motif of the youngest brother who is generally regarded as a bit silly or soft and not really up to much; all the smart money is on the oldest brother who is single-minded and quite ruthless in pursuit of his goals. In the stories it is however the ‘silly’ or ‘soft-hearted’ younger brother who succeeds in the question rather than his hard-headed eldest brother who invariably falls flat on his face. [See for example the Celtic story of The Five Sons of King Eochaid.]


The part of ourselves we value and automatically rely on in a crisis is the ‘older brother’ of the rational-purposeful mind – it’s rather as if we’re walking around with an angle-grinder or a Black & Decker drill the whole time and if any challenging situation arises then this heavy-duty tool is what we use. But when it is anxiety that is challenging us then this heavy-handedness is only making things worse. ‘Using tools’ to further our will is only making things worse. All that aggression (all that ‘fixing-type’ energy) simply gets bounced back at us and feeds right back into the anxiety-cycle. Trying to fix anxiety is not a good thing to get into! What we’re looking at here is a positive-feedback process therefore; anxiety is quintessentially a ‘positive-feedback’ process where we are constantly reacting to our own projections, our own evaluations, our own calculations and expectations.


The whole time that we are alive in this world however we also developing the other side of our nature, whether we realize this or not. We develop this side of our nature just by growing as people, not by learning anything. More often than not, it happens that we develop the gentle, non-judgemental and ‘non-fixing’ aspect of ourselves via our relationships with other people, or perhaps with animals, and so we always have this non-aggressive side of ourselves to call upon. We just need to value this core part of ourselves, and trust it, which is something that society as a whole does not teach us to do. Society teaches us to rely on our ability to manipulate or control situations skilfully and ‘push on ahead regardless’, so to speak. Society teaches us to be competitive, self-assertive and goal-driven, etc, which a way of being in the world that inevitably backfires on us.


The difficulty comes about because when we are challenged we automatically put the rational-purposeful mind in charge which – as we have said – just makes matters worse.  This is just like voting a right-wing government into power because we are frightened by some crisis that is going on and some charismatic (or at least half-way charismatic) politician tells us that he knows what to do in order to. He never does of course – that’s just a ruse to get into power. Far-right politicians never make things better – as history shows! Since when did putting a far-right politician in power ever improve the situation? When anxiety comes along there is no quick fix and so the self-assured dictator which is the purposeful mind – with all of its recipes for ‘fixing’ the situation – isn’t the right man for the job.  We’ll ‘buy into it’ for sure because that’s what we always do, but it won’t get us anywhere. We buy into it because we’re afraid, and nothing good ever came of that…


The way to change our aggressive attitude to anxiety is to see that the pain and distress we are experiencing is trying to tell us something and that it is not just an ‘error signal’ informing us that something is ‘wrong’ with our brain. If we can take this idea on (even a bit) that is very helpful in itself because our attitude changes by 180 degrees – what works is befriending the anxiety, not turning it into the enemy (even though it very much feels like an enemy). Physical pain serves a function and so does the mental variety – if we just move to ‘squash it’ then we’re not going to learn anything, and if we don’t learn something then we’re not going to change, obviously enough. We’re going to carry on the same. ‘Stopping the pain’ is not good therapy, even though it is of course what we all want.


What ‘befriending anxiety’ comes down to is establishing some sort of relationship with ourselves as we actually ARE (i.e. the ‘anxious us’) and having a relationship is essentially a two-way thing, as we know from interpersonal  relationships. If I have a genuine relationship with you then this means that I’m not just ‘telling you what to do’ the whole time, which is what we do with ourselves when we are anxious or depressed. When we are anxious or depressed we tell ourselves do (or think) things in a different way and then when that doesn’t happen (and it doesn’t) then we blame and condemn ourselves (which is still not a relationship). This is very much how we get on with ourselves when are anxious – we don’t have a relationship with ourselves but rather we are pathologically alienated from ourselves. Needless to say, this doesn’t go anywhere – it’s a dead end if ever there was one!


Once we see things like this then it becomes apparent that the key thing is establishing a relationship with ourselves. It’s not just the ‘key thing’, it’s the only thing. The question then becomes, how do I establish a relationship with myself?’ The best way to think about this is – as we have just said – to think about how we form relationships with other people, so we can ask ourselves how we go about doing this. This, of course, turns out to be a very interesting question – what we learn fairly quickly (most of us, anyway) is that there is no ‘magic formula’. We might like for there to be, but there isn’t. People might of course try to sell us a magical formula with regard to forming relationships (for example, ‘How to make friends and influence people’) but that’s only because they’re trying to make money out of us. That’s only because they have spotted a niche and they are moving in to exploit it, not because they have any useful to pass on or genuinely want to help anyone.


What we learn – some of us perhaps quicker than others perhaps – is that there are no shortcuts, that there are no fast ways to get where we want to be. If we try to push for the ‘relationship’ to happen faster (or if we try various tricks and gimmicks to get the desired results) then the other person is probably going to smell a rat very quickly and steer well clear of us. We’ve obviously got some kind of agenda going in this case. And even if our manipulation is successful, which it sometimes is, that just makes us into a ‘successful manipulator’, not ‘someone who is successful in their relationships’! Actually, of course, it doesn’t make sense to talk of someone who is ‘successful in their relationships’. It’s impossible to success to be ‘successful’ in a relationship because we are not trying to achieve anything – if we are not trying to achieve anything how can we be successful? If we were trying to ‘achieve’ or ‘get something out of the relationship’ then there would be no genuine relationship; it would just be a case of us ‘seeking the advantage’ as always. It would be nothing more than a game in other words. A true relationship can only come about when neither party is trying to obtain anything as a result of it.


We can apply exactly this same principle to the business of ‘us trying to cultivate a relationship with ourselves’ – if we are trying to get anything out of this relationship then it’s just not going to happen! Doing it on purpose doesn’t work. Relating honestly (or sincerely) with ourselves is thus both an easy thing and a hard thing at the same time – it’s easy because it’s the most natural thing in the world and, as a result, it ‘happens all by itself’, and it’s hard because there is absolutely nothing we can do to push for it to happen, just because we want it to. There are no methods or instructions for ‘how to establish a relationship with ourselves’; there is no theory or model to tell us how to do this. We can’t do it purposefully; we can’t do it via the agency of the rational-purposeful mind. We can’t do it via the agency of the rational-purposeful mind for the simple reason that this mind never did anything without a reason. If the rational mind does something then there always has to be some sort of goal, some kind of ‘advantage’ that is to be achieved. Thought can never do anything in a non-calculating way because it is – by its very nature – ‘a calculation’!


There’s no getting away from the fact that ‘not being aggressive’ presents a major difficulty for us, for the reasons that we have all ready gone into. When we are under pressure, when we being challenged in a significant way, then we automatically turn to the thinking mind for help; not turning to the ‘reflex mind‘ for help goes very much against the grain with regard to how we have been coping with difficulty all of our life. It doesn’t come naturally to us. This is a very different type of difficulty from the difficulty of having to learn some ‘artificial method’ and put it into practice however. [And all methods are ‘artificial’ when it comes to mental health – if we have to go around using methods to feel okay the whole time then this can’t be very mentally healthy, after all!] It’s not something foreign to us we have to learn after all – we are simply relearning to be ‘the whole of ourselves’, after having forgotten what this feels like, or rather, after forgetting that there even is such a thing as the whole of ourselves. So although it might seem like an impossible task to come back to the whole of ourselves once we have been trapped in the narrow realm of thought, it is at the same time a perfectly natural process. There is no process that is more natural than this.


Perfectly natural processes don’t have to be forced as artificial ones do; in fact the whole difficulty lies in getting out of the habit of forcing everything to be the way that we think it ought to be. There is a place for ‘forcing things to be the way that we think they ought to be’ – that’s just another way of talking about purposeful action, after all – but it most certainly does not apply to mental health. Mental health means – if it means anything – that we are ‘whole and not fragmented’ and there is no way that the part or fragment which is the rational mind can get us to be whole via its purposeful or calculated behaviour! It doesn’t want to anyway – what the thinking mind wants to do is to extend its rule as far as possible in all directions. What the thinking mind always wants to do is be ‘the boss of everything’ – it’s all ‘in a good cause’ of course but, but this is what it wants. It doesn’t trust in anything else; it neither trusts nor believes in anything else. The trouble is that the very great tendency of the TM to run things its own way, no matter how narrow that way might be, isn’t ‘in a good cause at all’ – it’s only ‘in its own cause’. It’s only in the cause of what it – quite honestly but also quite deludedly – ‘understands to be a good cause’. The TM always thinks it knows best, in other words.


It is easier to explain things this way than merely talking about ‘observing yourself’ or ‘not judging yourself’ because that can sound rather clinical if it is not put across carefully. It also sounds like something we can do on purpose, which is very far from being the case. We all instinctively realize the helpfulness and healthiness of having a two-way relationship and having a relationship with ourselves is the very opposite of trying to control or fix ourselves.  We are actually being interested in ourselves in this case, we’re interested in being ourselves, even though the way we are is painful and doesn’t feel at all right to us. But if we can respect (in some small way) the overall healthiness of the process (i.e. if we make peace to some degree with the unwanted pain and distress of the neurotic symptomology) that straightaway changes our attitude so that we do become interested.


Even if we are only a little bit open to seeing the process as being ‘healthy’ (i.e. not seeing ourselves as ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’ or ‘broken’) that means that we’re not fighting against ourselves in the total way that we were before. We will still fight against ourselves because that’s our reflex, but we won’t be buying into what we’re doing so much and it is this ‘disidentification’ with thought that changes – by ‘non-violent’ means – the balance of power between us and the tyrant of thought. Thought then becomes something useful, in this case. This might be said to be the ‘esoteric’ meaning of Exodus 4:3:

And the LORD asked him, “What is that in your hand?” “A staff,” he replied. “Throw it on the ground,” said the Lord. So Moses threw it on the ground, and it became a snake, and he ran from it. “Stretch out your hand and grab it by the tail,” the LORD said to Moses, who reached out his hand and caught the snake, and it turned back into a staff in his hand.

A snake or a dragon is a very familiar way of referring to the thinking mind or ‘lower self’ (see ‘Rumi’s dragon’) – when it rules the roost then it is a terrible monster indeed and no one can stand against it – it will devour everything in sight. When it is in its proper place however then it is immediately transformed back into the staff of righteousness…