Outgrowing Neurosis

Albert Einstein famously said that you can’t fix a problem with the same thinking that created that problem, and we can expand upon this statement of Einstein’s to say that we can’t fix a ‘psychological problem’ with any sort of thinking at all!

 

This is really a matter of perspective (or in the case of ‘thinking about a problem’, the lack of it). We never gain perspective by trying to solve a problem. We might solve it perhaps, if it happens to be a soluble problem, but we will never gain perspective in this way. ‘Solving a problem’ doesn’t mean gaining perspective, after all – we’re taking the problem seriously when we try to fix it and we are still taking it seriously if or when we do fix it! And if it happens that we don’t or can’t fix it, then we are in this case also taking the fact that we can’t fix the problem seriously. We never stop ‘taking the problem seriously;’ or in other words, we never cease to relate to the problem on its own terms.

 

We are talking about ‘psychological problems’ here (if we may use that phrase) and so the point we were originally making is that no psychological problem is ever ‘fixed’. This goes counter to all of our assumptions of course but we can explain the point that we are making here very easily. What we are calling ‘psychological problems’ aren’t problems at all really, they just seem to be and the problem isn’t so much ‘the problem itself’ as the fact that we have been tricked into taking seriously what we never should have taken seriously. Once we have been tricked into taking the ‘apparent problem’ seriously then this is when our problems really begin. There is no end to our problems then…

 

The other way of putting this is to say that our problem – which is the only problem we can have when it’s mental health that we’re talking about – is a deficiency in perspective. It is this deficiency in perspective that causes us to see a problem where there is none, and it is also what causes us to get stuck in painful, self-sabotaging patterns of thinking and behaving. The ‘problem’ is the way in which we keep on trying to fix a problem that isn’t really a problem, but which we keep seeing as a problem because we are lacking in perspective. It is because we keep on trying to fix our situation that we stay stuck in the hole that we have unwittingly excavated for ourselves. This then is the essential mechanism behind all neurotic suffering – it’s always the same story every time, no matter what type of neurosis it is we might be dealing with.

 

This is what creates the trap of neurosis – the way in which we use the same thinking that caused the problem to try to fix the problem. This empties out every last bit of perspective that we’ve got in our fuel tank, so that our chance of escaping becomes effectively zero. ‘Fixing’ doesn’t just mean ‘trying to correct or rectify matters in a logical way’, it means any kind of ‘reacting’ at all. ‘Reacting’ essentially means that we are either trying to flee or fight, we’re either trying to run away from the problem or we’re trying to squash it, trying to get rid of it. This is the most ‘basic’ interaction there is, in other words, and it is ‘fully automated’, requiring no sensitivity towards the situation on our part, requiring no actual ‘input’ or intelligence from us. The reacting happens all by itself in a mechanical way. All neurotic patterns of thinking and behaving are fuelled by ‘reacting’ therefore, and the reason we keep on reacting in the way that we do is because we have absolutely no perspective on what is going on!

 

We never gain perspective by trying to fix the problem as we’ve said, and we never gain perspective by reacting to it either! We can go further than this and say that in the psychological sphere problems are created by our attempts to correct them. Obviously this isn’t the case in the physical world: if my car is broken and I take it to the garage to get fixed, clearly I am not creating the problem in my car by taking it to the mechanic! If I cut my finger and have to put a bandage on it then the act of putting a plaster on the cut is clearly not what causes the cut to be there. But in the psychological realm things are different; as we have said, there are no such things as ‘problems’ in the psychological sphere – if we think that there are then we are creating them with our thinking’, it is as simple as that.

 

We could equivalently say that the only real problem in mental health is the old, old problem of ‘deficiency in perspective’ but even to say this is misleading since there is no way that we can ‘fix’ a deficiency in perspective. There’s nothing we can deliberately do to bring perspective back into our lives – all purposeful or goal-orientated action can ever do is reduce perspective still further, as we keep saying. Lack of perspective can’t be seen as ‘a problem’ therefore because to use this term necessarily implies the existence of some sort of ‘solution’! Perspective is a very peculiar kind of thing therefore; at least it’s peculiar from our normal way of seeing things. Perspective is already there – it’s our starting-off point and so anything we deliberately do in order to achieve some end always has the effect of reducing perspective. This is because purposeful action requires us to narrow down our focus so that instead of having lots of ‘parallel’ ways of seeing the world we have ‘just the one’ and only having the one way of looking at the world is what having no perspective is all about.

 

If we are to understand what mental health really means we need to see this clearly therefore; we need to see this since ‘mental health’ and ‘perspective’ cannot ever be separated. If we can’t see that the ‘problem’ of not having enough perspective on life is not something we can tackle with rationality then we aren’t ever going to get anywhere – we’re just going to keep spinning around in circles, we’re just going to keep digging the hole deeper for ourselves. When we do (as we do) try to work with neurotic distress in terms of our normal, everyday thinking we are only exacerbating matters in other words, and so often in therapy this is exactly what we end up doing. In this case – when we try to resolve or ameliorate neurotic distress on the basis of ‘the rational approach’ – our therapeutic approach to intervention becomes no more than a logical extension of the original neurotic glitch!

 

The ‘glitch’ in question, as we have said, is where we ‘create a problem by trying to solve it’. Our automatic reacting (or fixing) is ‘the problem’, therefore. If we then introduce some kind of therapeutic rationale into the picture which has the aim of stopping us automatically reacting (or stopping us trying to fix the problem that is created by the fixing) then this too becomes a type of fixing. Trying to stop fixing is itself fixing, just as trying to stop thinking is itself thinking. This being so – which it clearly is – then any type of approach that we take which is orientated towards the purposeful/rational tackling of our neurosis is – by definition – an extension of that very same neurosis. All that we’re saying here therefore is that ‘we can’t cure aggression with yet more aggression’, which is something that we all know on some level or another. That is – we might say – ‘the basic lesson in life’. Most of mankind’s suffering is caused by us trying to cure aggression (and the fallout from aggression) with the addition of yet more aggression. This is true on the individual / personal scale just as it is true on the global scale, and so it should come as no surprise that we also try to treat neurosis with ‘rational-purposeful therapy’, which is a fine example of irony for those that can see it.

 

Jung states that psychological problems cannot ever be solved on their own terms, but can only ever be ‘outgrown’. When we outgrow a problem, Jung says, it’s still there but it doesn’t bother us in the way that it used to. It’s as if we’re viewing a storm in the valley from the mountain-top. We can still see the storm from our vantage point, but because of the extra perspective we now have the storm can actually be seen in a peaceful way. Perspective brings peace, in other words – we no longer have to see things on their own terms, and this means that we are no longer compelled to react or interact with them on their own terms. ‘Reacting’ (or ‘interacting with problem on its own terms’) IS the storm! There’s nothing purposeful or goal-orientated about ‘growth’ however – we can’t ‘grow as a strategy’! We can’t make personal growth into a goal. If personal growth was a strategy then this would mean that we are trying to ‘avoid some sort of an unwanted outcome’ and no one ever grows as a result of trying to avoid an unwanted outcome! That’s the wrong motivation entirely! If personal growth was ‘a goal’ then we would have to know where this growth was taking us,but by definition we don’t know this and never can.

 

Growth is a lot simpler than we would think. No strategies, no skills, no gimmicks are needed – the only prerequisite for psychological growth is that we stay with the difficulty, whenever that difficulty might be. A natural inclination is of course to look for a quick fix and when we go down this road we might develop skills at strategising, but we do not grow. This is a ‘trade-off’: we’re getting better at being tricky (i.e. we’re getting better at controlling or scheming or manipulating) instead of growing, and this simply means that we are engaged in digging a very deep hole for ourselves. It does of course go totally against common sense to ‘relate to the difficulty in an uncomplicated way’, and appreciate just exactly what that difficulty feels like for us. This is a very simple thing to do however – the difficult situation is real, it’s actually happening, and so we just have to take that on board; we just have to acknowledge that this is our situation and this acknowledgement is itself growth. Being ‘willing to see the truth’ is growth.

 

This idea can be all too easily taken up the wrong way however because we are very much inclined to turn this insight into a strategy which is completely unproductive, to say the least. This isn’t something we can do (or not do) on purpose – it’s more of an attitude than anything else and we can’t engineer our own attitude, no matter what the positive thinking movement might tell us. When we realise that it’s not about what we do (i.e. running away from the pain on the one hand or trying to stick with it on the other) but rather that all that is needed is for us to live our lives consciously, in whatever way our lives happen to be unfolding. If we take the attitude that all the responsibility lies with us, and that we have to enact some strategy correctly if we are to get out of the hole we’re in (whether that strategy is to fix the pain or force ourselves to stay with it) then this is what the alchemists called the via erratum (or ‘the way of error’). If I have what Julian Rotter called an ‘internal locus of control’ then I firmly believe that I am in control of my own mental state but this belief just isn’t going to work out in practice. How can perspective be ‘all down to me’ – how can I control the amount of perspective I have when ‘controlling’ always reduces perspective? I could of course always try to control my controlling so that I’m not controlling so much but this isn’t really going to help very much! If I think that this is going to work then that shows for sure that I don’t have any perspective…

 

 

In our culture we find it astonishingly hard to understand that we can’t change or modify a painful state of mind by thinking about it. We just won’t have this – we’re very bull-headed about it. The point that I just can’t grasp is that the painful state of mind is my actual reality and I can’t conveniently run away from it. I am that state of mind so how can I possibly change it? How can a state of mind change itself by acting upon itself? What foolish thinking is this? We are of course assuming that we have access to some objectively true and independent viewpoint from which to act but we don’t – we only have ourselves from which to act (or to put this another way, we only have our necessarily biased ‘subjective illusion of ourselves’ from which to act, and we’re never going to get anywhere on this flawed basis)…

 

Trying to change our state of mind by thinking about it is the most futile thing in the whole wide world and we as a culture are utterly unable to see this. There couldn’t be a more futile thing than this, there just couldn’t be. As Jesus asks (in Matthew 6:27) – ‘Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his height?’ Two thousand years later, we are still no closer to understanding this simple psychological fact! We don’t want to understand it because it makes us feel too powerless. This isn’t a hopeless message we’re talking about here however – it might look hopeless but it isn’t. The moment we stop going down the wrong road we are already on the right one, so to speak. To see that something is futile is to be free from it. The moment we see the via erratum for what it is we are already on the via veritas, the road of truth… To be on the road of truth, all we need to do is see the truth – no striving is necessary. We can’t force ourselves to be honest, after all…

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Think is to be Hypnotised by Thought

Thoughts are hypnotic, ideas are hypnotic, words are hypnotic – as soon as we think a thought or speak a word it becomes meaningful to us! It didn’t have to be meaningful, however; it’s not ‘stand-alone meaningful’, it’s not ‘meaningful all by itself’… The point we’re making here is at the thought or idea or word wouldn’t be meaningful to us unless we first engaged with it by ‘choosing to look at the world in its way’; we have to ‘buy into the construct’ first and this means making ourselves every bit as small, every bit as petty or narrow-minded as the word or thought is. We’re trapped by our own ‘compartmentalized’ or  ‘black-and-white’ language, in other words.

 

The same thing holds true for our beliefs (which are of course made up of our thoughts) – we are always bigger than any belief that we might have but when we buy into the belief then the world we live in will shrink down to the size of this belief. We often – if not always – tend to be very proud of our beliefs which is therefore rather odd – we are actually proud of being prejudiced or small-minded! It is very much as if we expect to be presented with a prize or medal (or some other type of honour) for being so appallingly, so mind-numbingly petty…

 

Any particular thought that we might have will show itself to be ‘meaningless’ (or ‘hollow’) unless we first adopt the very same framework that is assumed by that thought. Another way of putting this is to say that the thought in question only seems to be true when we look at the world in the specific way that makes it seem to be true. As soon as we spell things out in this way then this whole business is revealed as being somewhat ridiculous, therefore – the only thing being that we never do ‘spell things out’ like this! It is in fact profoundly alien for us to look at things this way.

 

This is the nature of thought – in one way we could say because that thought is a lens that brings specific details into sharp focus; this isn’t quite true however because – as we have just said – the details aren’t just ‘in sharp focus’ because of ‘the lens of thought’, they are only meaningful in the first place because of ‘the lens of thought’! This is the thing that is so very hard for us to understand – that the thought is only real to us because we ‘buy into it’, that the act of ‘buying into the thought’ makes it real. There’s no way to understand this point by thinking about it (obviously enough!) but if only we could get the hang of ‘not thinking about anything for a few moments’ it would then all become crystal clear.

 

Once we enter into the thought-stream nothing ever becomes genuinely clear – it might seem to be so but that’s only because we have ‘repressed one opposite in favour of the other’. This operation (which is  – as Jung says  – rationality in a nutshell) creates a type of clarity – the clarity of the dogmatist, the clarity of the rationalist, the clarity of the zealot, but this isn’t so much ‘clarity’ as wilful ignorance. Repressing one opposite in favour of the other isn’t wilful ignorance in the usual way that we understand it because we don’t know that we are doing anything, but it is intentional all the same. It is us ourselves who are doing it, rather than some external factor over which we don’t have any control. There is a choice there – we just make it automatically rather than consciously. We ignore the repressed opposite automatically, out of ‘long-standing habit’, so to speak.

 

Another way of approaching this is to say that when we ‘enter the thought-stream’ the mechanism involved not only supplies us with a prepackaged way of seeing the world, it also provides us with our likes and dislikes on a very basic level – it provides us with our will, in other words, even though it’s not actually ‘our’ will. It only feels like that. We can slip very comfortably into thinking that it is our will that we are exercising – we do sit very comfortably into thinking that it is our will we are exercising. We slip into it so very comfortably indeed that – actually – no one could tell us otherwise. We simply wouldn’t believe them if they tried. We could probably go our whole lives without suspecting otherwise…

 

This is us being ‘hypnotised’ therefore – this is us being hypnotised by our own thoughts (although, strictly speaking, they are not our own thoughts, as we have just pointed out). To think is to ‘give away all responsibility’, odd though this might sound. It’s as if we are engaging in a type of experiment – the type of experiment that involves pretending very thoroughly to be somebody else, somebody else who we aren’t. Actually we are pretending to be somebody else – the thought is providing us not just with a prepackaged way of seeing the world, but also a prepackaged (or predetermined) way of seeing ourselves. If I am provided with a prepackaged way of seeing/understanding who I am, then it goes without saying that ‘who I understand myself to be’ isn’t the same thing as ‘who I actually am’.

 

Our words and thoughts are only meaningful in relation to this assumed identity, this identity that thought conveniently provides us with. What we are actually saying here therefore is that ‘the thoughts that the thinker thinks’ and ‘the thinker itself’ are one and the same thing – the thoughts are only meaningful if we assume the existence of the thinker and the thinker, in turn, only make sense as a real thing if the thoughts do so. The fact that we experience our thoughts as being volitional is clearly an illusion therefore – if I assume myself to be the identity that my thoughts are telling me I am then I have no choice but to continue thinking the type of thoughts that make sense to this assumed thinker! I’ll be in trouble if I didn’t because I’ll have to let go of my black-and-white identity. I’m being railroaded here in a very extreme fashion, therefore.

 

If it were only a matter of us ‘being fed a false reality’ (in a straightforward ‘conspiracy theory-type’ manner) then this would not be such a big deal. But not only are we fed false information about the world, we are fed false information about ourselves too, and so what happens is that our will gets replaced, so to speak, such that ‘the will or volition that we routinely obey’ is the will or volition of who we are told we are, rather than having anything to do with our own actual volition. This being the case, when any impulse or feeling originating in ‘who we really are’ arises what happens is that is that we suppress it or deny it, and do not at any point see it for what it is. As far as we are concerned the feeling or impulse is merely an ‘error’. We have become – as a result of becoming immersed in the thought stream – our own enemies, our own jailers.

 

This is why Krishnamurti speaks of ‘waking up’ as the ultimate revolution – we can’t rely on anything in the system that we have put in place all around us, and yet this system, this ‘mind’, is all we know. In the world of therapy we hear a lot of talk about therapeutic tools and strategies and models and methods and so on, but the ironic point that very few therapists ever realise (presumably very few) about that this is that it is precisely these ‘tools’, ‘methods’, ‘strategies’ etc, that keep us hypnotised! We imagine, in our innocence, that our tools and strategies and models can be trusted and that they will deliver us from our state of mental bondage that we’re in, and yet the truth is that they were working to betray us right from the very beginning. Strategies and systems are the very thing that was imprisoning us in the first place; the tried and trusted methods we used to fight against the enemy were actually working on behalf of the enemy all along.

 

Once we see the situation that we are in then we can have sympathy for the mind-set of the conspiracy theorist, therefore. We can see immediately where this all comes from; we can relate to it and – not only that – we can understand the truth of it. We can trust nothing and no one because we are living in a world where everyone and everything is against us whilst pretending to be ‘on our side’. The one thing we trust the most – our own mind – turns out to be secretly against us the whole time. It was working for the enemy. In conventional, contemporary therapy we try to use thinking to free us from our painful predicament, but thinking is the very thing that hypnotises us and causes us to think that we are who we aren’t! Even as we implement whatever strategies it is that we have been given, we do it not on behalf of who we genuinely are (which has been rejected as ‘error’ by the system of thought), but on behalf of the self that we are assuming ourselves to be, the self that our thoughts are telling us we are. No strategy, no method, no model can free us; as Chogyam Trungpa says, ‘There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom’.

 

Our thoughts hypnotize us, our ideas hypnotize us, our beliefs hypnotize us, our ‘personal narrative’ hypnotizes us, our goals and our fears hypnotize us – the only thing that doesn’t hypnotize us is actually being, which is to say, being unconditionally in whatever situation it is that we find ourselves…

 

 

 

Image: ‘The brainwashing Of My Dad’, taken from progressivefilmclub.ie

 

 

 

 

 

No Tool Is The Right Tool

You can’t accept yourself on purpose. It is utter nonsense to imagine that this could be possible; it is nonsense to imagine that we can accept ourselves on purpose because anything we do ‘on purpose’ always involves two things – it always involves ‘the thing that we want’ and ‘the thing that we don’t want’. For there to be a goal there must also be a ‘not-goal’ – purposefulness wouldn’t work otherwise! How could we have ‘a goal’ without also having something that is not the goal, something that has to be rejected or gotten rid of as being ‘unwanted’ or ‘undesired’? There can be no ‘right’ without ‘wrong’…

 

When we try to accept ourselves on purpose therefore we find that we are always ‘rejecting’ to the same extent that we are ‘accepting’. There’s a paradox here in other words – if I am to accept myself then I must ‘reject the me that is unaccepting of itself’, as Alan Watts says, and this means that my act of deliberate acceptance is also an act of rejection, an act of denial, an act of raw aggression. I am ‘resisting my resistance’!

 

All purposeful acts have this dual nature of involving acceptance and non-acceptance, wanting and not wanting, liking and disliking – that’s how purposefulness works, as we have just said. That’s how goals work – there is a bias there, a prejudice there, an agenda there. That is what a goal (or a ‘purpose’) IS after all – it’s a bias, it’s a prejudice, it’s an agenda. This might sound so obvious as to be not worth mentioning but it is worth mentioning because we are all so convinced that we ought to be able to accept ourselves on purpose – we think that self-acceptance can be turned into a goal for the rational mind, in other words!

 

The rational mind can do many jobs but this is not one of them! It is a peculiarity of our Western rational culture that we think that the thinking mind should be able to do all jobs, including the jobs that involve changing how we feel about ourselves (or how we feel generally). But what would the thinking mind know about that – the thinking mind doesn’t feel anything! Our situation is like that of the carpenter who has only one tool (i.e. a hammer) and who therefore thinks that everything must be a nail!

 

Where this metaphor falls down here however is that – in this particular case – all tools are the wrong tool! It’s not as if we have to put the hammer back into the tool kit and pull out the screwdriver or the chisel or the handsaw instead! All tools are the wrong tool because tools are always about goals, always about agendas. When we use a tool we always have a positive orientation towards the ‘right outcome’ and a negative orientation towards the ‘wrong outcome’. ‘Accepting ourselves’ CAN’T be made into a goal, as we have already said – that would mean that there is a ‘right outcome’ and a ‘wrong outcome’ and when we are fixated upon not getting the wrong outcome (as we are bound to be when we have a goal in mind) then we are rejecting; we are ‘flexing the muscle of rejection in the name of acceptance’, which is of course utterly ridiculous.

 

There can’t be any straining towards acceptance – ‘straining’ means that we are ‘rejecting where we are’ and ‘trying to get somewhere different’ and there’s nothing very ‘accepting’ about that! Straining (or trying) is always about rejection, it is always about resistance, and this is precisely what we seem to find so very hard to understand. The idea of striving (or trying) to accept a situation (or ourselves) is an example of our complete lack of insight, our certain lack of psychological understanding as a culture. The problem is however that we simply don’t know what else to do. We are ‘at a loss’ and we can’t help feeling that it is better to do something than it is to ‘do nothing’, even if ‘doing something’ doesn’t actually work…

 

We do have other resources apart from the rational purposeful mind however – we just don’t know about them. We have another, much more powerful resource at our disposal and this is a ‘resource’ that is quite different from the fixing/analysing machine that is the thinking mind. What we are talking about here is our capacity to attend to (or be aware of) what is going on in the present moment. This happens to be a very underrated capacity – more than just underrated, this capacity of ours is something that we simply have no comprehension of it all. There’s nothing there for us to grasp hold of, nothing there for us to logically understand or prove. As we read in Chapter 3 of the Dao de Jing,

Hold aloft the Great Image,

The whole world will go to it…

Dao, when it is uttered by the mouth,

Is so bland that it has no flavour

When looked at, it is invisible,

When listened to, it is inaudible,

When in use, it is an inexhaustible.

The ‘Great Image’ is that which we can readily understand (i.e., in psychological terms, ‘a method’ or ‘a strategy’) whilst the Dao is precisely what we can never understand. We go with the thing we can understand therefore even though it doesn’t work. We go with it ‘by default’, we go with it because we don’t believe in anything else  – or rather the thinking mind doesn’t! The thinking mind only believes in control. ‘Attending to what is going on in the present moment’, on the other hand, does not involve controlling (or trying to control) what is going on. If we are trying to control it then how can we ‘attend’ to it? We are too caught up in our futile attempts to change it then – the evaluating or judging eye can never see truly. When we try to change what’s going on then we are inevitably distancing ourselves from it and it is our ‘trying’ (or our ‘striving’) that is creating this distance. Our trying actually IS the distance. There are fixing / analysing mind always creates distance therefore – no matter what it does it will always create distance and it is this distance stands in the way of genuine change. It is this ‘distance’ that jinxes us every time….

 

‘Attending to what is going on’ has nothing to do with ‘acceptance’ in the usual sense of the word therefore. Instead of trying – in a perfectly futile way – to accept ourselves all that is needed is for us to attend to ourselves. We aren’t trying to change anything here – there no question of us trying to be different in any way, no question of us either accepting or rejecting anything. There’s no right or wrong way – we are simply relating to ourselves as we happen to be, whatever way we happen to be. No one is saying that we have to like ourselves either – it’s a lot simpler, a lot more essential than that. We are not being called upon to like ourselves – it’s not about liking or disliking – all of that is irrelevant. We’re not projecting anything on the situation, that’s not needed.

 

Our instinct probably tells us that there is nothing to be gained from this simple ‘attending’. The idea of ‘attending to ourselves’ generally seems pointless, fruitless. But the ‘point’ is that when we relate to ourselves in this very direct, very simple way then we are utilising that capacity that we don’t know we have, that capacity that we do not value or appreciate at all. In Daoist terms, we are drawing upon the power of the Dao, the power of ‘the natural way of things’. We are drawing upon the power of the Dao because we are not trying to change anything, because we’re not trying to gain anything. The whole world is busy trying to gain something but we’re not. We are not falling into that trap!

 

Another way of putting this is to say that by not trying to accept anything (anything in particular that is) we have actually accepted Everything. We have got rid of all friction. We have ‘accepted everything’ without intending to, without meaning to, without making it our aim or agenda to. We have ‘accepted everything’ in this very simple way, just by ‘attending’ to it. If don’t like myself, if I hate myself, then I don’t object to this (or in any way resist it), I simply see that this is the case!

 

It’s easy to see that ‘this is the case’ – it’s easy because it actually IS the case! Nothing needs to be changed. I don’t need to object to my non-acceptance of myself because I haven’t got any agenda going. I’m only in the business of ‘attending’ and there is no straining or resisting in attending. I’m not trying to ‘rise above myself’ in any way. I’m not trying to pull myself up into the air by my own shoelaces. And if I see that I am trying to change myself (if I see that I am trying to pull myself into the air by my own shoelaces) then that too is simply ‘how I am’ and there is no need to change that either. As we have said, I’m in the business of attending, not manipulating, not controlling, not judging. When I see that I am resisting what’s going on then that is just ‘how I am’ and so that is simply something else for me to attend to. It’s not ‘a problem to be fixed’ by the fixing mind!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Via Negativa

When we are unable to question ourselves then we straightaway enter into a world of endless suffering – it is as simple as that! There is no way that we won’t enter into a world of endless suffering if we can’t question ourselves. We might ascribe our mental suffering to other causes (we will ascribe our mental suffering to other causes!) but that is merely another manifestation of our inability to question ourselves. It’s nothing more than that same basic inability coming up time again and time again.

 

First we create the suffering by our inability to question ourselves and then we exacerbate it by attributing it to false causes – we place the responsibility elsewhere, in other words. We lay the blame at someone else’s door – any door but our own! A crude example of this would be a person who can never see themselves of as having done wrong and will always blame some external factor rather their own actions; such a person is (in their own minds!) always right.

 

In colloquial terms, such a person might be referred to as a ‘jerk’ or an ‘asshole’. There are many such terms by which we could refer to such a person! But the point that we are making is that this is only an ‘extreme case’ of a situation that is at actually universal – the unfortunate situation where we are unable to question ourselves.

 

A good way to look at the ‘ability’ we are talking about is to say that it has to do with our capacity to gently allow ourselves to be devalidated instead of being rigid in the fact of it and straightaway rejecting or refusing the devalidation. This is an odd sort of idea, needless to say; the usual way of thinking about it – in this politically-correct age of ours – is to say that we all have the right to be validated, and that no one should ever being accept ‘being devalidated’, as we call it.

 

This politically-correct attitude of ours ignores the fact that it is only through personal devalidation that we grow – if I were to be validated the whole time then I would grow alright but I what I would grow into would be a complete jerk! On another level we all know this perfectly well – imagine if we validated our children at every turn, no matter what they did. What terrible adults we would then produce!

 

Life itself devalidates us all the time; that’s how it works, by devalidating our illusions. That’s what the process of growth comes down to – having our illusions ruthlessly falsified, and what a wonderful thing this is! To be sure, having our precious illusions falsified (i.e. shown up to be utterly untrue) is a very painful business, but following on from this pain is a great and wonderful liberation. Being freed from the oppression of an illusion always feels good in the end. It hurts at first but frees after, whilst buying into comforting illusions (needless to say) feels good at first, but causes no end of suffering later on…

 

If my environment were to unfailingly humour me, and confirm my illusions at every turn, then my illusions would grow instead of me, and as my illusions grow and increase their hold on me, so too will my suffering. To not be able to question oneself is to enter into ‘a world of pain’ as we have said. There is nothing else in store for us in this case apart from pain. That’s all illusions are good for – creating suffering!

 

‘Questioning ourselves’ is not something that can be done on purpose however, and this is the glaring error behind therapies such as CBT. If we imagine that we can meaningfully ‘question ourselves’ in an intentional way then we simply haven’t thought it through carefully enough. We haven’t actually thought it through at all! There is a paradox here that we’re just not seeing.

 

The paradox is derives from the fact that if we do question ourselves on purpose, as a deliberate tactic, then the one who is doing the questioning is not himself or herself being questioned. If I am to question myself then I cannot question the validity of my own questioning, obviously! If I did that then the whole thing would fall to pieces on the spot; this would be like a barrister in court who, as well as cross-examining the defendant also cross-examines their own rights to cross-examine.

 

If I judge myself then I cannot at the same time ‘question my judging’ because if I did this then could be no judging. The whole thing simply dissolves into infinite relativity in this case, and nothing we say (or think) can stand up. I am chasing my own tail, very obviously. I’m trying to say that I’m questioning myself but at the same time I’m not questioning myself (because I’m not questioning my own questioning). I’m trying to do two different things at the same time and it just doesn’t work…

 

This isn’t really a problem at all however because – as we have just said – life itself is always devalidating us! Life (or the universe, or whatever we want to call it) is a very good and true friend to us and it is always working away at falsifying our cherished illusions. It never gives up and never will give up, no matter how much we wish it would. The ongoing ‘falsification process’ never ends, although it may be paused for a while by our resistance.

 

Having said this, we have to admit that there is a bit of a problem (quite a substantial one, in fact) in that we have such a prodigious talent for creating ‘validating environments’ for ourselves. Life doesn’t provide us with a nice, cosy validating environment so we create a made-up one, and pretend that this is not merely an artificial construct. We use our knowledge, our skills, and our advanced technology to provide ‘the very best in validating environments’! We call this ‘progress’, or civilisation’, or society’.

 

The point that we are so resistant to seeing is that ‘everything about it is a lie’, so ‘illusion falsification’ (also known as the Negative Way or Via Negativa) is the only way to go. Anything else is simply growing illusions, feeding illusions, hot-housing illusions, and this isn’t going to bring us to a good place! Pick anyone at random on the street and they’re going to assure you, with complete confidence, that they know all sorts of ‘completely true things’ about the world – these ‘supposedly true’ things are exactly what we are calling ‘illusion’, however.

 

The ability to gently allow ourselves to be ‘devalidated’ is the ability to learn, in other words. That’s what we’re basically talking about – no one can learn when they are convinced that they already know stuff, after all! When we absolutely, unquestioningly believe in our ‘picture’ of the world, our ‘model’ of the world, our ‘theory’ of the world, then there’s going to be no learning, there’s only ever going to be ‘adding to the delusion’. This is what laughably we call ‘education’ – when we talk about education we’re really talking about ‘adding to the illusion’.

 

The ‘capacity to gently allow ourselves to be devalidated’ is a capacity to be soft rather than hard, yielding rather than rigid. Iris Murdoch explained this by saying that it’s like giving pain a place to rest in ourselves; we don’t send it packing but rather we give it a home, we give it a refuge. When we are hard and unyielding then we ‘bounce’ the pain away from us immediately – we ‘react’, in other words. We send it somewhere else, like someone hitting a tennis ball across the net with a racket.

 

We have to react, when we are hard and unyielding, because we have no capacity to bear any difficulty. We have zero capacity to bear difficulty and the reason for this is that we are not truly ourselves. We are ‘something else’; we are a rigid ‘mask’ (or ‘posture’). We simply don’t have the strength to bear any difficulty, any challenge. This is only to be expected – how could we be some kind of rigid, frozen ‘mask’ or ‘posture’, and yet at the same time have any genuine strength? Strength only comes from reality, not illusion…

 

This whole process of ‘questioning ourselves’, which we can’t do intentionally, is all about ‘finding out that we aren’t who we understand ourselves to be’, and it is this process that we are so very resistant to. By having the false idea that we have of ourselves challenged (or ‘devalidated’) we are freed up to find out who we really are. The illusion is stripped from us. The pain of devalidation – which we, in our superficial way, simply taken as being ‘an unforgiveable insult’ – is the means to this end. That’s how this process is facilitated, that’s how it gets to happen. The only problem is of course that we don’t want it to happen, and will wilfully obstruct it every step of the way…

 

 

 

Art – image taken from paroleinviaggioblog.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Thought Is Conjecture

The most basic ‘error’ that we make in life is to our base our sense of well-being on our thoughts. We allow ourselves to feel good on the basis of our thoughts, and we also allow ourselves to feel bad on account of them – we can’t really have the one without the other! So – just to give a simple example – suppose I am about to sit an exam: I can think to myself that the exam is ‘in the bag’ that I’m going to ace it, in which case I will of course feel great, or I can think that I am definitely going to flunk it and fail miserably, in which case I will of course feel correspondingly bad.

 

This is such a commonplace example that we will in all probability think nothing of it. Of course some thoughts make us feel good whilst others make us feel bad – what of it? The point is however that this is completely ridiculous; thoughts are conjectures, they are guesses about what is going to happen, or what is happening, so how can we possibly feel good or bad on this basis? We’re actually being very lazy here – we’re jumping to the conclusion the thought is the very same thing as the reality and we’re not even bothering to notice that we have made this assumption! We’re jumping to conclusions without noticing that we’re making the jump. What we’ve done is that we have flagrantly ignored the uncertainty that is inherently involved in everything, and at the same time we have ignored the fact that we are ignoring it.

 

The uncertainty that we are ignoring so happily as the difference between ‘reality’ and ‘the thought about reality’ and this is a very big difference indeed. What bigger difference could there be than the difference between ‘the description of the thing’ and ‘the thing itself’? To assume that there is nothing in the thing that is not in the description of it our description of it is very lazy indeed; to be completely and uncritically accepting at the veracity of our own conceptualization of the world is what we might call ‘a terminal lack of curiosity in life itself’, and this is, of course, what ‘laziness’ (that innocent sounding word) ultimately comes down to.

 

The ultimate form of laziness is – we might say – where we fail to differentiate between the formal description and the thing that is being described, where we fail to look beyond the conventional labels that we have for things and what these conventional labels actually refer to. We fail to look beyond our thoughts, in other words, and – by default – take our thoughts to be synonymous with what is being thought about. This is like a deep dark hole that we fall into, and what happens when we do fall into this hole is that all the intrinsic uncertainty goes out of our life, and all that we are going to be left with are various dull shades of ‘certainty’, various shades of grey.

 

The black-and-white nature of this grey world (which is the conjectural world that thought has created for us) gives rise to various corresponding states of feeling. The type of concrete conjectures we make about the world (without realising that we have made a conjecture) conditions us to feel a particular way – either ‘good’ to a lesser or greater extent or ‘bad’ to a lesser or greater extent. The important point to note here is therefore that we wouldn’t feel ‘automatically good’ or ‘automatically bad’ in this way if we did know that we are reacting to pure conjecture. If there is some ‘reflex reaction’ of either feeling good or bad about the concrete reality that is been identified by thought then what this means is that (on some level) we have lost sight of the fact that ‘thought’s conjecture is only conjecture’. Our reactivity shows that we have ‘gotten lazy’, in other words!

 

When we fall into this hole of ‘forgetting about intrinsic or irreducible uncertainty’ (which is the same as ‘forgetting that our thoughts are only conjectures’) then we have to get everything out of the conceptual/concrete world that thought produces for us. There is nowhere else to look and so of course everything has to be bought in this one shop. The only ingredients are the ingredients that can be found in this pantry and if the pantry is limited then there’s nothing we can do about it! We just have to cook up a meal with limited ingredients… As far as we’re concerned the concrete, thought-created world is the only world there is and this necessarily makes us very concrete too. Our emotional reaction to the world becomes ‘jerky’ in nature – we are constantly either ‘going up’ or ‘going down’ depending on whether the situation we are in is deemed by thought ‘favourable’ or ‘unfavourable’, ‘advantageous’ or ‘disadvantage us’. Thought pulls the strings and we jump this way or that accordingly.

 

There is no peace or stillness to be had in the concrete/conceptual world therefore – we are always either ‘heading in a positive direction’ or ‘heading in a negative direction’ and there is no possibility of us ever finding ourselves in a situation where we don’t have to be either constantly ‘seeking the advantage’ or ‘avoiding the disadvantage’. That just isn’t going to happen. The rational mind always has to be on duty, in other words; everything always has to be controlled, everything always has to be regulated. ‘Controlling’ is a job that never comes to an end; there is no question of us ‘controlling so successfully that we never have to control again’ – we think that there is this possibility, but there just isn’t!

 

The one thing we will never find in the mind-created world is peace, therefore. There simply is no peace, no stillness to find there and to be searching for peace (as we are, whether we know it or not) with no chance of ever finding it is a fundamentally unhappy sort of an existence, no matter which way you look at it! Not only is it unhappy because we are always (whether we know it or not) looking for the one thing we can never have, it is also ‘an unhappy existence’ because how we feel about ourselves and the world is always being determined by our thoughts, by the thinking mind, which we have very unwisely put in charge of our (perceived) well-being.

 

If thought sees us as ‘gaining the advantage’ then we automatically get a feel good, and if it sees us as ‘incurring a disadvantage’ (or ‘being at risk of incurring a disadvantage’) then we feel we automatically get to feel bad. What kind of a ridiculous situation is this however? How on earth can life be reduced to a matter of always seeking the advantage in everything we do? How can life be reduced to just a game in this way? The full gamut of neurotic pain arises from this grimly mechanical orientation of ours; as we have just said, what we are essentially doing here is putting ourselves at the mercy of the thinking mind and asking that very unforgiving mind what it wants us to do so that it will be pleased with us and reward us with a good feeling. We are assuming that there is a way of ‘pleasing the thinking mind’ however, and there isn’t! The mechanical mind is a complete and utter tyrant, and what’s more – it is a tyrant that (in the long run) is never going to be pleased. In this respect, the everyday mechanical mind is more like a bully than a straightforward tyrant – the more we give in to it and try to please it the more cruelly and ruthlessly it will bully us. Anyone who has ever had any experience of neurotic suffering knows this.

 

The ‘cure’ for neurotic pain (which is the meaningless pain of always trying to please the machine-mind which is in charge of us) is simply to stop believing in everything it tells us. The default situation is for thought to tell us something and for ‘the way we feel about things’ to change according to what it has told us. We are emotionally coupled to our thoughts, in other words. We bob up or sink down, we perk up brightly when a ‘positive thought’ comes along and then we get knocked back down again by a ‘negative one’. Our strings are pulled and we respond obediently, we respond automatically. Nothing we think can change this and this is something that’s very hard for us to understand (naturally enough, since we are so habituated to using the thinking mind to solve everything); we see thought causing us to feel bad when there is no need for us to be feeling bad, and so we try to use thought to correct this error, in a nice logical way, and we don’t see any problem with this. But in doing this we are of course handing over responsibility to thought even more and this is the very last thing we should be doing! We’re still trying to please the bully – we’re still trying to please the machine-mind. We haven’t ‘got it’ yet….

 

There is only one helpful thing that we can do and it’s a lot simpler than falling into the treacherous morass of ‘using thought to correct thought’. There is only one helpful thing we can ever do and that is create some space the between us and our thoughts’ so that we have some degree of independence from them. This is the space between stimulus and response that Viktor E. Frankl speaks of in this well-known passage –

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.

This is the gap that gives us back our autonomy and peace of mind – without it there can be no possibility of either! Cognitive restructuring is no good to us because every time we use thinking we ‘close the gap’, obviously! The only thing that brings about this gap, this life-giving discontinuity between consciousness and thought, is paying attention. Not ‘paying attention with a view to fixing anything’ (which would mean that our ‘noticing’ is serving the master of the rational mind) but ‘noticing for no reason’, or as we could also put it – simply being aware. Actually, simply being aware (or ‘noticing without an agenda’) is the very same thing as the space between stimulus and response that Viktor Frankl is talking about. That space is consciousness.

 

To simply be aware means not being pulled in by the urge to fix (the urge to correct) all the time, and this is at root nothing more than fear. We are afraid to let things be. This is also the reason we always are always so quick to make guesses about the nature of reality and instantaneously forget that our guesses are only guesses. This is the concrete manifestation of fear – fear makes us want to fill up all the available space and when it comes right down to we don’t really care what type of nonsense it is that we are filling it up with! This is what fear is – it’s the overwhelming desire to fill up all the available space. Fear is the overwhelming need to ‘run away from space’. We’re driven by the urge to ‘shut down space‘; we’re afraid of space because space equals irreducible uncertainty – ‘space’ is another word for the intrinsic uncertainty which allows for the unfolding of all things. Intrinsic uncertainty is (we might say) like a blank page – a blank page is ‘uncertain’ because it hasn’t been written on yet! We like the thinking mind’s concrete conjectures because then we can just get on with the ‘matter-of-fact’ task of accommodating ourselves to the script that has been given to us. The script that the mind gives us is ‘already finished’ – everything has already been decided and so all we have to do is ‘get on with it’. We don’t have to relate to the Bigger Picture (which is always uncertain), we don’t have to ‘ask any of the big questions’. All we need to do is ‘act out’ the script; all we need to do is ‘follow the stage directions’. All that is required is for us to ‘do what the script tells us to do, say what it tells us to say, and feel what it tells us to feel’. That’s all we know of life, all we need to know!

 

‘Ignorance is bliss,’ in other words, although it isn’t really any sort of ‘bliss’ at all but simply ‘ongoing drudgery’ – the ongoing drudgery of believing that the thinking mind’s unexamined conjectures are a ‘concrete reality’ that we have to adapt ourselves to. Who doesn’t know this drudgery? We are promised great things at the end of it all of course but that’s merely a cheap trick that is being used to incentivise us. What ‘great things’ could ever come about as a result of us forgetting that the rational mind’s conjectures are only conjectures? The ‘Great Thing’ that we’re looking for is to be found in the intrinsic uncertainty of life itself (which is synonymous with what we have called the ‘Big Picture’) not in what the dogmatic old ‘machine-mind’ has to say on the subject…

 

 

 

Art: Graffiti by Achilles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chasing Being

In this world we try to construct our being out of our doing – that’s the type of world we live in. This is the type of message we have been given right from the word ‘go’. We are encouraged to ‘do’, we are (to some extent or another) given support for our ‘doing’; we are on the other hand given zero encouragement to ‘be’, we are given zero support for our ‘being’. We’re actively penalized for ‘being’, since to be is to drop out of the social game that we are all playing, and ‘dropping out of the game’ has never been encouraged by any society.

 

‘Doing’ is very highly valued in the Western world – the implication is always that it will lead to something great, the implication is always that it will definitely need to some marvellous state of being. This is precisely where our error lies, therefore. Successful doing can of course lead to a highly desirable socially-constructed identity (just as being unsuccessful can lead to another, rather ‘less desirable’ type of socially–constructed identity), but ‘identity’ is not at all the same thing as being. It is a substitute for it, but it is not the same thing.

 

There is no being in identity! This is the same as saying that there is no being in a label, or no being in a mask – of course there isn’t! What could be hollower than a label or a mask? To chase after an identity as if this were the same thing as being is therefore the road to nowhere. No matter what sort of identity we obtain as a result of our efforts it’s not going to do it any good – all identities are the same, all identities are hollow. It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s a socially-approved identity or a socially-disapproved one, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a highly prized ‘winner identity’, or a not-so-highly-valued ‘loser identity’ that we have obtained for ourselves – it is hollow either way.

 

We never really look at this idea, the idea that says it is possible to be someone as a result of ‘successful doing’ (which is the idea that the idea that we can somehow find being through our doing). The pain caused by our lack of being drives us unrelentingly; it causes us to put that special emphasis on our goal-orientated activity. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with goals therefore, only that if the goal we are chasing secretly stands for our ‘missing being’ then the effort we are putting into this endeavour is always going to be wasted effort’. We are busy chasing an illusion in this case. Whenever we get too serious, too driven in relation to our goals this is because we are – unbeknownst to ourselves – trying to obtain ‘being’ as a result of our ‘successful doing’. Whenever we get humourlessly fixated in this way, then it is inevitably the case that we are actually trying to find our ‘missing being’. We are looking for it in a place there it isn’t, in a place where it never can be. How can our ‘missing being’ be tied up with the realisation of some concrete goal? Or to put this another way, how could we ever make a goal of finding our ‘missing being’ when we don’t have the faintest clue as to what this missing being is, or what on earth it would look like even if we did find it? How is this endeavour ever going to work out for us?

 

We don’t of course know that we are trying to find our missing being as a result of our tightly-focussed goal-orientated behaviour. If we knew that then we would be on the right track! We don’t know this at all – we don’t have the faintest clue as to what our real motivation is, we don’t actually have any reason to suspect that it isn’t what it declares itself to be. Our situation – therefore – is that we unconsciously believe that we can make up for our inner, invisible deficit (the deficit that comes with identifying with the mind-created image of ourselves) by engaging in the correct type of goal-orientated behaviour; a more conventional way of expressing this would be would simply be to say that we believe that we can ‘fundamentally or radically better ourselves’ on purpose, by pure effort of will.

 

In one sense (admittedly a very superficial sense) this assumption is true – by exercising and taking care of our physical body and eating well and adopting what is generally called a ‘healthy lifestyle’ we can indeed ‘improve our situation’; in terms of what really matters in life however – which is (we might say) ‘to reconnect with who we really are’ (or ‘re-engage with the authentic inner life that we have long-since forgotten about’) there are no logical/purposeful steps that we can take to bring this about. No one can make a goal of remedying their inner deficit (or rather we can do but not in a meaningful way) – no matter what goal it is we come up with, it’s never going to be more than an extension (or projection) of our own unconsciousness. Who we really are can’t be made into a ‘goal’ and so there can be no such thing as ‘the right type of goal-orientated behaviour that can somehow bring it into being’.

 

Goals are doing (just as theories and strategies and the actions that arise out of these theories are ‘doing’) and being can never come about as a result of doing! Not even the most determined, assiduous, high-intensity doing that there ever was can bring about actual being – if there isn’t any actual being at the beginning of things then there can’t be any at the end. Unreality can’t be turned into reality no matter how hard we labour at it! It is actually a deficit in being that drives all our overvalued purposeful activities – if we felt complete or full on the inside then of course we aren’t going to be ‘overly goal-orientated’. We would no longer be so very hungry, so very needy… As the mystics have been saying for thousands of years, it is the ‘unconscious or unacknowledged perception of a lack of completeness’ causes us to crave completeness without knowing what it is that we are craving. and it is this ‘craving’ that accounts for most of the everyday activity we see around us. This type of ‘displacement-motivation’ is what drives the economy – we’re looking for ourselves in the wrong place!

 

So within the mystical/spiritual traditions it might be said that we are ‘grasping at illusions’ and that it is this misguided activity that brings us so much unhappiness. This – quite possibly – may not make very much sense to us – we may object for example that that what we are busy grasping at are real things, not illusions! Who is attracted to illusions. after all? The point is however that we are not so much grasping for the things themselves but what they represent to us without us even realising that they are representing anything! The things we are grasping at, are trying to obtain, hold an extra degree of attractiveness to us because they seem to be promising us some special, magical ‘X factor’ that we can’t help being magnetically attracted to. We’re attracted but we don’t ever wonder why we’re so attracted. We just know that the object of our desire is promising us ‘something great’ and that is good enough for us! We know on some level or other that there’s ‘something good out there in the world’, something good that we don’t have, and so we are very keen indeed to get our share of the special thing (or magical quality) that we feel we are missing out on! Everyone wants a slice of the pie after all, and that’s what consumerism is all about.

 

This is why ‘doing’ is idolised to the extent that it is in our world therefore. Nothing inspires us as much as ‘the myth of the supremely successful doer’ and all we can do is to try to approximate that myth as best we can in our own lives. All we can do is try to get some of that special action kudos to work for us! We’re too fast off the starting block though – we’re too fast off the starting block because we’ve got things the wrong way around – we don’t produce being out of doing, but rather being produces doing.

 

We have put the cart before the horse and things just aren’t going to work this way! There is a parallel to this idea in Taoism and the philosophy of Eastern martial arts where it is said that action is only effective when it comes out of stillness. Very much along similar lines, D. H. Lawrence writes: “One’s action ought to come out of an achieved stillness: not to be a mere rushing on.” Stillness is where our good sense lies (our wisdom rather than our intellectual smartness) and if our actions don’t come out of stillness they’re not just going to be ‘ineffective’, they’re going to be painfully counter-productive (or self-defeating).

 

This is actually a pretty fair assessment of what’s going on in the world around us, the world of human affairs – lots and lots of doing that hasn’t come out of ‘stillness’ (or ‘wisdom’) at all! Our doing has become extraordinarily ‘clever’ (‘clever’ in a superficial sense, that is) and this of course makes things worse for us not better. Mankind has been self-defined as ‘the tool-using animal’ and our tools are becoming ever more sophisticated – they are in fact becoming ever more sophisticated at an exponentially-increasing rate. And the result of this is that we are now living in a world that has been created as the result of the invisible assumptions that lie behind our tools being played out (or concretized) in the form of the concrete environment within which we live. It is as if our tools bring with them unwanted side-effects that define us and our world without us even being able to see how we have been defined. We didn’t see the ‘side-effects’ coming, and we don’t see them when they arrive either – we don’t see them when they arrive because it is the ‘side-effects’ of our tool-use (which is to say, the conditioning effect of the invisible limitations inherent in our assumptions) that determine precisely what we see and cannot see.

 

Enacting the age-old principle therefore, ‘the tool usurps the user of the tool’; the servant/instrument overthrows the master and no good is ever going to come about as a result of this. This very simple principle is illustrated by the fairy tale of the Magic Porridge Pot, which can feed the hungry if it is used properly, but which will drown the whole village under six feet of run-away porridge if there is no one there who actually knows how to use this valuable tool. ‘Knowing how to use the tool’ means knowing how to stop using the tool when the job is done, and if we don’t know how to do this (as we don’t) then disaster is only just around the corner. This motif is also echoed in such tales as Why the Sea is Salt (and ‘The Master and his Pupil’). A more modern variant of this theme is of course the well-known science fiction motif of ‘Frankenstein’s monster’, typified by the Terminator series of films (see for example, ‘The Rise of the Machines’). ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ is our own ‘disconnected cleverness’, which is directly analogous to what we have been calling ‘doing without being’.

 

On a personal/individual level, we might say that this comes down to ‘reacting’ rather than consciously responding (or not responding, as the case may be). It is perfectly possible – if not more-than-just-possible) to go through the whole of our lives ‘running on reflex’, reacting mechanically without ever questioning our own reactions. Without a shadow of a doubt, this ranks as the most ‘suffering-producing’ way of living that they ever could be – we ricochet from one painful situation to another in the most senseless way imaginable, and we call this ‘living our lives’. This is after all the only type of life we know; as far as we’re concerned there is no other type and all we can do is endure it as best we can. On the collective level, it may be said that we have ‘externalised our mechanical reflexes’ and turned them into an entire environment which we inhabit – a conditioned environment which defines our lives for us. This is of course no better than the first scenario we mentioned, which is where we allow our internal reflexes of thoughts or behaviour to run our lives for us, as if there is actually some sense inherent in them!

 

Ultimately, both the internal reflexes and the external ones (i.e.the ‘Machine Environment’) are one and the same thing, which is that thing that David Bohm calls ‘the system of thought‘. The remedy either way is simply for us to learn how to turn the machine/servant off, so that it doesn’t run our lives for us. The horse needs to be put before the cart again, if the natural order of things is to be restored. Instead of ‘doing–without–being’ (or ‘disconnected doing’), we need to bring being back into the picture again. This is of course easier said than done but it is a perfectly natural process that we are talking about here (rather than some sort of artificial imposition) and all we need to do in order to work with this natural process (instead of against it) is to see how we have got everything back to front, to see how we have put the cart before the horse. We can’t stop all of this heedless, runaway mechanical doing (all of this ‘disconnected cleverness’) on purpose (‘by force’, or by ‘will power’) but what we can do is allow ourselves to see that ‘being can never come from doing’, and when we can clearly see this we will inevitably stop putting all our money on a horse that can never win. We’ll still put some money on this horse of course – we will continue to invest in our automatic behaviour patterns to some extent – but ‘the heart will have gone out of it’, so to speak. We will no longer believe that we can create being with our frantic competitive doing and so we won’t be ‘lost in that doing’ in the completely immersive way that we were before. We will start to separate ourselves from our rational thinking and our purposeful doing and it is this process of separating ourselves from the illusion-seeking behaviour (which is sometimes called ‘the process of disidentification’) that brings about our actual being, or actual presence in our lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Formulaic Approach To Anxiety

There is a huge amount of misinformation and obfuscation about anxiety going around – the self-help section in any bookstore in town is pretty much guaranteed to be full of it. All of our approaches to anxiety suffer from the fault of being far too superficial; they suffer from the fault of being ‘superficial to the point of being entirely useless’ – and this is a rather curious thing. Why do we feel compelled to treat anxiety in this way? Why can’t we just be straight-up about it when this would obviously be ‘the helpful thing to do’? Why are we always so damn trivial when it comes to ‘the psychology of anxiety’? Søren Kierkegaard, writing over a hundred and fifty years ago, was able to take a ‘non-trivial approach’ to anxiety, so why can’t we? What’s wrong with us?

 

The ‘misinformation’ or ‘obfuscation’ that we’re talking about here comes down to the idea that if we are anxious and we do ‘X’ – whatever the hell ‘X’ might be (and it could be anything at all) – then this will help us. We are given the idea (in a very authoritative way) that there is a formula that can be used to free us from anxiety and although the formula in question may vary from authority to authority (as is usually the way) the idea that there is, or should be, a formula is constant. We are always being told that there is a formula, that there is ‘a thing that we can do’ or ‘ a method we can follow’. This is ‘misinformation’ because it’s simply not true – anything we deliberately do in order to ‘free ourselves from the anxiety’ is the anxiety, and if we can’t see this then we can’t see anything!

 

There is a very good reason why – culturally speaking – we seem to be so insistent on spreading this facile ‘formulaic approach’ to anxiety and that reason has to do with what Alan Watts calls ‘the taboo against knowing who you are’. The idea that there is a societal taboo against knowing who we are sounds very strange to us – we all go around after all constantly saying who we are, making confident and definite statements about our identity. Aren’t we just delighted with all the labels that we have accumulated saying ‘who we are’? Isn’t that what life seems to be all about – proudly saying who we are, and what we are all about?

 

All of that takes place in our public life, however – this kind of ‘identity-affirming’ stuff is no good at all when we are thrown back on ourselves and have to relate to what’s really going on with us. Labels and designations aren’t going to provide any satisfaction or validation here, obviously. So straightaway we can see that there are two domains here – there is the domain of public life which is the theatrical world of how we are seen and how we want to be seen and there is the inner world that is not on display for everybody else and which is not a ‘mere societal construct’. The taboo that we are talking about is the taboo about against knowing anything about this inner world therefore. It’s not just the case that this is something that we know we mustn’t bring up in polite conversation, but rather it is a world that we are not supposed to give any credence to at all. It doesn’t take too much in the way of philosophical reflection or introspection to see that we live in a world that is very much all about ‘the outside’ and not at all about ‘the inside’. Who could possibly deny this? One would have to be very foolish indeed to say that this isn’t the case!

 

Our everyday life is therefore dedicated to the ‘outer man’ or the ‘outer woman’ – this is unquestionably what our culture celebrates, to the complete exclusion of any other more profound type of life! We celebrate ‘the generic life’ (which is the life that ‘doesn’t really belong to anyone’) when it comes right down to it. It doesn’t belong to us and so whatever we do or don’t do is of no consequence outside of this theatrical realm. It’s all pure time-wasting, in other words! It’s ‘time-wasting’ because it’s not about what matters to us as the individuals we are, but rather it’s about those concerns and interests that are foisted upon us by the ‘overvalent generic mind’, if we can put it like that. The ‘overvalent generic mind’ puts thoughts into our heads a thousand times a day and we then think that these thoughts are ours, and if this isn’t ‘time wasting’ then what is? We have become ‘the tool of thought’ rather than vice versa. The ‘outer life’ is that so-called life which intrudes upon us from morning to night and which is basically selling us issues to ‘take seriously’, issues ‘to worry about’ that are actually completely and utterly spurious. In our normal state of being we are unable to spot these thoughts for what they are and as a consequence we spend most of our waking hours being preoccupied by them, one way or another.

 

In psychiatry we talk about ‘intrusive thoughts’ – which are distressing thoughts or ideas that burst in on us – and it could be said that all of our everyday thoughts are like this, albeit to a lesser degree. It could be said that our whole culture (the ‘positive’ or ‘defined’ world that we have built up around ourselves) is like this – it is ‘extrinsically originated’, forceful, brash and entirely ‘lacking in soul’. It’s all appearance with no content, action with no poetry, mechanical motivation or impetus with nowhere real to go to. This is the world of the glossy image with nothing behind it, the world of the pretence that has long since left reality far behind! To understand this is to understand something very important about anxiety: anxiety, on an essential level, has to do with defending an image of ourselves, defending a ‘role’ we are playing but which we don’t know ourselves to be playing, rather than defending or securing who we are behind all that. We don’t know who we are behind the role or act – all of our awareness is hooked onto the coat-hanger which is the rational mind’s concrete version of us.

 

When we allow ourselves to be defined – and therefore ‘narrowed down’ – by the profoundly unpoetical rational mind (which is the same thing as allowing ourselves to be defined and ‘narrowed down’ by society, society being an extension of that mind) then we gain in terms of how certain (or ‘solid’) we feel our existence to be, but we lose in terms of how real we feel. Instead of real we feel ‘solid’, and this is the trade-off that we are making. As a result of making the trade-off ‘solid/definite/concrete’ substitutes itself for real, which thus comes to mean the same thing to us, even though it isn’t at all. Solid/definite/concrete is not the same as ‘real’ because none of these terms have any application whatsoever to reality. Reality as it is in itself becomes unknown to us therefore and we trade on ‘concreteness’ instead, trying to squeeze whatever good we can out of it.

 

This is where the problem lies however because – ultimately – we can’t squeeze any good out of the concrete because there is no good in it to be squeezed out! There’s nothing there at all actually, either ‘good’ or otherwise. There’s nothing in an image, nothing in an act, obviously. That’s why an image is called ‘an image’, that’s why an act is called ‘an act’. What we do get out of the concrete surrogate for reality is (of course) ‘a sense of ontological security’. This sense of security substitutes for reality, in other words, even though there is no such thing as ‘security’ in the real world. What we’re doing comes down to a trick therefore – we get intense reassurance from the ‘concrete representation of reality’ and we like that a lot (obviously) but the other side of the coin is the ‘negative reassurance’ that occurs when we find ourselves face-to-face with a concrete representation of reality that we don’t like. It cuts both ways, in other words. It’s impossible to obtain the good feeling that we like from the concrete representation of reality without at the same time putting ourselves directly in line with a corresponding bad feeling that we don’t like which can just as easily be supplied for us by the conceptual mind. ‘Definite’ always comes in two flavours, we could say – either positive or negative, either ‘definitely like’ or ‘definitely don’t like’, and it can’t come as one without also coming the other. This is abundantly clear once we take the trouble to reflect on the matter.

 

So the first thing we can see from all this is that opting for the security of the concrete representation of reality that the thinking mind provides us with sets us up for an endless sequence of up-and-down, pleasure and pain, hope and fear. We go ‘up’ only to be taken ‘down’ again later on and yet we see ‘up’ as being the best thing ever! We see ‘up’ as the best thing ever, but really it’s just ‘down’ in disguise. Another way of expressing this is simply to say that ‘attachment brings suffering’ which is a very familiar formula to any student of Buddhism or Vedanta. If we look deeper into what is going on here we can also gain an important insight into how anxiety arises. We don’t just have the euphoria/dysphoria cycle to contend with in unconscious living, we also have fundamental anxiety! One way to look at anxiety is to say – as we did earlier on – that it comes about as a result of us defending the image or idea of ourselves. Although the image is very definite (and therefore reassuring for us in an ‘ontological-security sense’) it is at the same time entirely hollow, entirely lacking in any actual reality. Although we can’t directly see this (we can’t see it because we are, as we have said, taking ‘definite/concrete’ as an indication of the presence of reality) we nevertheless have an indirect awareness of this disconcerting lack of reality, this disconcerting lack of any genuine basis, and this indirect awareness is what we call ‘ontological insecurity’.

 

In the normal run of things we don’t perceive ontological insecurity as being what it actually is (i.e. we don’t perceive it as a ‘grasping for a type of reassurance that just doesn’t exist in the world’); we don’t perceive this at all but rather we perceive it ourselves to be ‘striving positively after legitimate values in life’. So, is to give a very simplistic example, we could build a seven foot wall all around the house because we feel that there is an actual danger out there rather than because we feel inherently unsafe in ourselves. Being orientated to concrete goals appears to be meaningful stance to us not because of our insecurity or uncertainty about life in general, but because of some supposed ‘positive value’ that exists in the goals themselves. When we displace our insecurity effectively then the anxiety inherent in our situation will not show itself; as long as we can ‘trick ourselves effectively’ via this displacement mechanism we will not feel anxious, in other words. The thing about self-deception however is that when any awareness at all does start to come back into the picture (which it is bound to sooner or later) then we will start to feel ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘unsettled’ in a very particular way, we will start or feel uncomfortable and unsettled in that ‘very particular way’ that we call anxiety.

 

When we are anxious and we try to solve anxiety by carrying out some action (no matter what that action might be) then the essential nature of what we are doing is in no way different from what we do when we engage in everyday unconscious displacement activity – we’re ‘trying to get away from what we are afraid of’ in both cases! The only difference is that in the second case (which is where we try to ‘manage’ our anxiety) then we know that we are anxious but at the saying time we are still legitimizing our activity by saying that we are ‘doing something positive’, so to speak. We are not running away from something that we are afraid of; we are on the contrary striving to fix a problem that needs to be fixed. The thing about this however – as we have just said – is that there is no essential difference in what we doing. We are only imagining that there is a difference! If it was the case that it were possible for is to ‘do something’ (i.e. for us to purposefully enact some specific type of behaviour’) that would reduce our levels of anxiety in a long-term way, then what we are doing would of course be ‘entirely legitimate and above board’. It would be legitimate in this case but the only thing is that there no way that ‘doing something to get rid of the anxiety’ is ever going to bring about the result that we are looking for! Just as ‘running away from the fear is the fear’, so too is ‘trying to overcome the fear’ nothing but that same fear.

 

The only ‘legitimate’ stance we can take with regard to fear is no stance, just as the only legitimate (or ‘helpful’) response we can make to anxiety is not to make a response. If we do make a response then no matter what tour responses is it will be the response of the narrow, fragmented sense of self that we think we are, and since it is this narrow, fragmented (or concrete) sense of self that is at the root of our anxiety, doing this is not going to help us any! To act on behalf of an illusory, suffering-producing ‘concrete image of the self’ is to perpetuate that self, and not only is it perpetuating this self, it is of course also perpetuating the suffering that comes with it. All that is needed for us to grasp this is to understand that we are not at all we think we are, and that it is possible to be absolutely convinced that we are this concrete sense of identity, and yet for this not to be true at all! This very simple insight is all that’s needed for us to be free from anxiety!

 

Of course, this ‘simple little thing’ that we need to grasp just happens to be the most unlikely thing that we are ever going to see. People can understand all sorts of intellectually challenging stuff, but even the smartest professor in town won’t understand this. The man or woman with the highest IQ in the whole country won’t understand this point! Yet even though there is an intellectual element to this awareness (which can be discussed and analyzed by the thinking mind) – what we’re talking about here is a very practical, down-to-earth thing rather than any sort of high-flown ‘attainment’. When we say that someone is ‘kindhearted’ or ‘generous’ or unselfish’ (or whatever word we might want to use) this obviously isn’t something that happens as a result of a particular intellectual understanding that they have developed about themselves or the world. It comes about, on the contrary, as a result of their actual genuine nature showing itself. It’s a natural as a tree putting out leaves. This is what in Buddhism is sometimes called ‘the good mind’ – the good mind being the mind which is naturally concerned with the well-being of others rather than being exclusively concerned with its own advantage.

 

This almost inevitably sounds like an issue of morality, which in turn automatically jinxes it for us. We are so used to being bombarded with messages that tell us to be good and not bad, unselfish rather than selfish, kind not mean, patient not cross, virtuous and not sinful, and so on, that we have become completely numb to it. We switch off when we hear it. The problem arises – as P. D. Ouspensky says somewhere – in the fact that we are never told how we might go about following these lofty moral instructions. Our ‘moral development’, so to speak (and this seems to be particularly true in the Christian world) consists of us being given rules and then being put under pressure to obey them. ‘Successful obeying of the rules’ is what is needed if we are to satisfy the overarching moral code. This is a complete jinxes us however because – as we have already indicated – the narrow or concrete sense of identity cannot become ‘wider’ or ‘more inclusive’ as a result of following rules or procedures. Anything we do on the behalf of the ‘fragmentary-or-isolated self’ perpetuates that self. We cannot ‘redeem ourselves’ as a result of our own willed actions, no matter how hard we push ourselves.

 

Anxiety is in inevitable corollary of living life on the basis of the concrete identity which is ‘the act we put on without knowing that we are’. We’re trying to prove a point that can’t be proved; we’re trying to say that we are what we aren’t! Because of the ‘switchover’ that has taken place when we accepted the rational mind’s dubious offer of ‘ontological security at any price’, ‘certainty’ is seen as being synonymous with reality itself (as we have said) and so we are effectively ‘wedded to certainty’. Being ‘wedded (or addicted) to certainty’ means that we are ‘trapped in the vibration,’ it means that we going to be going up-and-down, up-and-down (with respect to the perceived well-being of the concrete self) forever. It also means that at the very heart of things (at the very heart of ‘he unconscious life’ there is always going to be this terrible anxiety – the anxiety that comes from saying that ‘the unreal is real’ and basing the whole of our lives upon this flagrant inversion of the truth. The concrete sense of self, for all its ‘obviousness’, is a castle built in the clouds, and there’s no way that we can inhabit it in the firm belief that it is built upon solid ground, without incurring anxiety. Anxiety is simply ‘the truth that we are repressing’ coming back at us in a very disturbing way. We absolutely can’t control or rationalise our way out of this predicament, there is no ‘logical exit route’ out of the trap. There’s more to us than mere logic however, and when we tap in to the ‘Wider Reality’, into ‘the reality has not been produced by the conceptual mind’ (which we never have much interest in), then we find something there can help us in an entirely illogical (or ‘irrational’) way!

 

 

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