Anxiety is a very misunderstood kind of a thing. We see it as being a problem, when really it is a teacher! Anxiety is a teacher and it teaches us something very important – it teaches us who we really are!
Straightaway when we hear this there tends to be a problem and that problem is that we almost always think that we already know very well ‘who we are really are’, and so on this account we don’t feel that we need anyone or anything to come along and teach us otherwise. The very idea that we don’t already know who we are comes across as being ridiculous, it comes across as being totally absurd. This however is because we have made a rather big assumption which we’re just not paying any attention to. Somehow, in our culture, it is assumed that ‘knowing who you really are’ is something that comes very easily – as easily as falling off a log in fact. This must be the case since everyone we meet automatically ‘knows who they are’, regardless of how much work they might (or might not) have put into uncovering the mystery. The way we are brought up to see it is that knowing who you are isn’t a difficult thing at all, but simply a formality, the same way we might know our national insurance number or address. It’s not considered a big deal, no matter what the philosophers of olden times might have said to the contrary! Because we believe that knowing our true identity isn’t a big deal (and that everyone automatically knows it, so to speak), the notion that anxiety could have a valuable function in helping us to learn (or perhaps remember) who we are doesn’t really make a hell of a lot of sense to us, and this is putting it mildly!
The thing is that when I think that I know ‘who I am’ all I really know is what I have been told or conditioned to believe about myself and this – very obviously, when we state it like this – isn’t the same thing at all. Knowing ‘who you are supposed to be in a game’ isn’t the same as knowing who you really are – knowing who you are in the game is just a matter of learning a role, it’s trivial. Thinking that you know ‘who you are’ because you believe what you’ve been told isn’t just ‘not quite the same’ as knowing who you really are – it’s the very antithesis of this. Very obviously, believing you are ‘who you’ve been told you are’ prevents you knowing ‘who you really are’…
The reason that anxiety manifests as such an intractable problem to us is because is because we are already so very sure that we know who we are. Or we could say, the reason that anxiety is such an intractable problem is because the lesson that it is teaching us is one that we are extremely resistant to learning. This lesson is the lesson in life we least want to learn; we are – it seems – so very resistant to learning it that we would rather put up with any amount of suffering rather than do so! The more resistant we are to seeing the truth, we might say, the more of an absolute ‘negative’ anxiety will be experienced as being, and it is pretty much undeniable that we experience anxiety as an absolute negative – we experience anxiety when it comes as an out-and-out curse, a curse with no good side to it at all.
So the reason anxiety is such a problem to us is because we really don’t want to know who we are. This is why we suffer so much. It is in fact no exaggeration to say that the thing we are most reluctant to learn in life (and using the word ‘reluctant’ is putting it far too mildly) is who we actually are.
On the face of it this sounds very strange – how could it possibly be the case that the thing we are most resistant to learning is who we are? What kind of a crazy idea is this? This is – admittedly – not the kind of idea that we tend to come across very often (if at all) in mainstream culture. We don’t come across it in the study of psychology either – there are all sorts of models, all sorts of theories that will be covered in a course on the psychology of personality but the theory that our single greatest fear is discovering who we really are is not one that sounds immediately familiar. Actually, it sounds very unfamiliar – so unfamiliar in fact that we would be unlikely to take it very seriously! And yet as an idea it isn’t entirely unheard of – it has a powerful resonance outside of the mainstream theories of psychology. The philosopher Alan Watts has explicitly referred to this curious state of affairs (the state of affairs in which we don’t want to know who we really are) in his book The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, the thesis of which is that the Number One (unspoken) social rule is that we should not be allowed to have any clue regarding our true identity and that we should all collude in covering it up as much as we possibly can by taking up some sort of prescribed role. As Alan Watts says –
Our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing — with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized. The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.
The one thing we are never supposed to go into (on pain of total social exclusion) is the question of who we really are under the opaque façade of who we are conventionally supposed to be, who we are told we are, who we habitually understand ourselves to be. It’s not of course that anyone explicitly addresses the issue, or in any way acknowledges that there is or might be an issue, but rather its something that we all just take for granted – that we all are who we think we are, that we all are who we understand each other to be. The very thought that we might not be, the thought that there might be some sort of conspiracy of silence going on here regarding ‘who we really are’ (and what life might really about) sounds totally ridiculous. We’re far too adult, far too hard-headed to tolerate any kind of airy-fairy talk like that. That just sounds plain silly to us.
The thing about a ‘conspiracy of silence’ – if we agree for the time being that there might be such a thing – is that if we all agree to pretend that whatever it is doesn’t exist (or isn’t an issue), and then we also agree to pretend that we didn’t ever make such an agreement. This of course means that if you ever do raise the issue (if you ever do suggest that there might be an issue here worth raising) then people will simply look at you strangely – whoever you’re talking to will look at you with that particular look on their faces that lets you know that there must be something wrong with you for coming out with such strange stuff. You will be made to feel that you are being ridiculous, and on the wider scale of things, you will be excluded from any ‘serious discourse’. So even though Alan Watts wrote the book The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are the ideas in it never reached the mainstream and never gets mentioned in any course in social psychology. This, after all, is what happens when you try to bring up something that is taboo, something that has already been decided to be ‘not a subject’ or ‘not an issue’. No one takes any notice of what you’re saying.
What we have collectively done – and this is fairly obvious once we get to thinking about it – is to make a very big assumption about ‘who we are’ and about ‘what life is all about’, and then we have rushed ahead without ever looking back. We aren’t interested in questioning the assumptions that we jumped to on the outset, we’re interested in what happens when we proceed on the basis of these assumptions. Looking at the assumption undermines the whole exercise that we are collectively engaged in, and inasmuch as we are all committed to the exercise (which simply equals ‘the type of life that we are all busy leading’) we don’t want to go spoiling the whole thing. And anyone who does want to go back and start looking at the flimsiness of our ‘starting off point’ is going to be very thoroughly excluded from the public discourse. That is the game we are playing after all, and this is how the game works.
Sociologists Berger and Luckman made this key point in their work The Social Construction of Reality – the only way to create any social structure (and the idea of ‘who we are’ and what ‘life is about’ is a social structure) is to pull a few rules or stipulations out of a hat, and then do a kind of a turnaround and say that we didn’t arbitrarily arrive at the rules or stipulations in question, but that they were there all along. We say that the rules are self-evident, that they were always there, or perhaps that God appeared in the form of a burning bush and dictated them to Moses, or something like that. Whatever way we do it we make those rules, those stipulations unquestionable – we make it so that if anyone does question them then it becomes clear to everyone that the problem is with them and not the rules! This is a type of conspiracy – it is a conspiracy of silence regarding the flimsiness of the foundation regarding the collective endeavour that we are all engaged in, the collective story of what it is we are all about, what life is supposed to be, who we are supposed to be, etc. Really what we’re talking about here is game-playing – a game is where we pick a bunch of rules at random and then act as if they weren’t picked at random, as if the rules ‘simply have to be there’ and that is that. We have to pretend that we aren’t free to question the rules or else the game just won’t work. ‘Not questioning the rules’ is what games are all about!
So we can say that the conspiracy of silence that we have been talking about is a necessity if we are to have any social structure to work with, but the only thing here is that the structure in question then takes over and we get stuck in it – upholding the structure becomes more important than anything else, it becomes more important than our mental health, it becomes more important than our happiness. It becomes more important than anything even though it’s only a game, even though it ‘doesn’t really need to be so’! We get so stuck in the game that we lose sight of the only genuinely meaningful quest in life – which as the philosophers and mystics have always said is the quest to know ourselves – and this loss of meaning naturally has very major consequences for us. Being locked into a way of life that is essentially meaningless (as of course all games are, outside their own frame of reference!) and which systematically denies who we really are is – very clearly – not going to be good news for us in the long run!
So looking at Berger and Luckman’s theory of reification and the general theory of games allows us to see how it could be that we don’t know who we really are, even though this might sound like a rather peculiar idea on first hearing. It also gives us a strong indication that there are going to be major ramifications in terms of our mental health, in terms of our ability to be happy and creative; not being in touch with our true selves is – after all – not exactly a recipe for happiness and creativity! We have said that the discovery of what has been covered up (our true selves) is not a trivial kind of thing – it is not like we can read it in a book or get told about it by some highly-trained expert. On the contrary, it is the work of a lifetime – and no one else can help us if. If they do try to help us, that will only lead us astray. There are no easy answers when it comes to discovering what the truth of our situation is – easy answers are only to be had in games, where everything is standardized, where everything has to be what it is designated to be by the rules of the game…
The thing that is being ‘covered up’ by the game has to be covered up for the game to proceed, and yet the other side of the coin is that from our point of view – as the actual individuals we are rather than the mere players of the game – what is being obscured is actually the only thing that truly matters in life! The journey by which we discover our true individuality is a ‘path with a heart’, as Castaneda puts it. It’s the only genuinely interesting pursuit in life – everything else is just a diversion, everything else is just a red-herring! In our culture, however, no time at all is given over to this endeavour, and instead all sorts of other tasks and duties and ‘responsibilities’ are pushed upon us, to the point where anything else gets quite buried. This is not to say that there isn’t a practical side to life that needs to be attended to – there obviously is – but no matter how important the practical aspects of life are if these ‘practical necessities’ (or ‘responsibilities’) are used as a way of stopping us ever reflecting on what this thing we call ‘life’ is all about, then something has clearly gone very wrong. And this is precisely what has happened – it is hard to imagine how anyone could deny it! First of all there are the things we have to do in life in order to attend to our material needs and then there are the things we do to entertain ourselves when we aren’t working, or when we aren’t attending to the practicalities of life, but between ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ there simply isn’t any space for anything else. When we’re not busy doing what we have to do in order to survive we’re busy entertaining ourselves – we’re watching television, or shopping, or going out drinking. This is the prescribed regime. That’s what modern life is like.
Jung makes the point somewhere that whilst in India there exists a tradition in which one can leave behind the life of a householder in one’s later years and turn to a life of reflection and contemplation, there is no corresponding tradition in the West. On the contrary, once we are past the ‘productive’ years of our lives (or the years in which we are still young and good-looking) we are no longer considered to have much to do in life. We hear talk of the ‘golden years’ that are to follow retirement but this is merely marketing speak designed to sell us pensions and life-assurance policies. In reality, no value is given to the second half of life because underneath all our fine talk we don’t understand life to consist of anything other than purely ‘surface-level’ matters – we have no comprehension of any psychic process, any movement in the ‘inner life’ that is the deeper meaning of our lives in this world. We only believe in externals, in ‘the image’, which is the important thing in the first half of life. No matter what we might say, as a society we don’t place any value in the inner life at all. The term itself is all but meaningless to us. Our so-called ‘inner life’ is simply the generic outer life that we have internalized, the external script or picture that we have unreflectively gone along with.
There is of course a good deal of lip-service paid to ‘self-development’, to this sort of therapy or that sort of therapy, this sort of healing or that sort of healing, but almost always this comes down to fixing the socially-prescribed image that we have of ourselves – almost all of it comes down to what Alan Watts calls ‘social adjustment therapy’. We go off the rails, one way or another, and the expert clinicians are there simply to help us to get back on them again! In Psychotherapy East and West Watts writes,
Whenever the therapist stands with society, he will interpret his work as adjusting the individual and coaxing his ‘unconscious drives’ into social respectability. But such ‘official psychotherapy’ lacks integrity and becomes the obedient tool of armies, bureaucracies, churches, corporations, and all agencies that require individual brainwashing. On the other hand, the therapist who is really interested in helping the individual is forced into social criticism. This does not mean that he has to engage directly in political revolution; it means that he has to help the individual in liberating himself from various forms of social conditioning, which includes liberation from hating this conditioning — hatred being a form of bondage to its object.
According to Alan Watts, a lot of our mental ‘un-wellness’ comes from the inherent contradictions of having to adapt to a system, to a way of life that restricts or denies our true individuality, and forces us to become regulated and mechanical. Simply patching us up and sending us back out onto the front-line again hardly qualifies as ‘therapy’! In Health as Expanding Consciousness, Professor of Nursing Margaret Newman speaks of ‘linear interventionism’, which is where we – as doctors or therapists – attempt return people to where they were before they became unwell. In the case of physical illness we can see that there is a lot of sense in this – if I break a leg I want to go back to being able to go walking and running again; if I get appendicitis or malaria, I want to recover so that I can go back to living my life again, and so on. But even in physical medicine there is the question of considering what elements in or aspects of my life-style predisposed me to becoming unwell in whatever way that I did, which means that healing is not just a matter of ‘us getting better so we can go back to what we were doing before we became unwell’! This may not be the case with a broken leg, or with some infectious disease, but with all of the endemic ‘life-style’ diseases that we are suffering from (such as heart-disease or diabetes) ‘going back to the way we were before we got sick’ is clearly not the answer at all. But with neurosis the idea that we can be patched up and ‘stuck back in the trenches’ is itself clearly pathological. This is the type of thinking that leads to entrenched neurotic mental suffering – the type of thinking in question being where we can’t let go of a fixed pattern of doing things even though that fixed pattern is doing us harm…
It’s not simply the case that we are stuck in one particular pattern that happens to be dysfunctional and that if we switched to a different pattern we would be a lot better off – neurosis is an automatic consequence of holding onto any sort of pattern! As far as mental health is concerned, there is no such thing as good pattern, there is no such thing as a good system. Mental health is synonymous with having the personal courage to let go of all patterns, to let go of all precedents, and this is the one thing that society (which is itself a fixed pattern of thinking and behaving) will never support us in doing. The rules of the game do not have any provision in them to encourage us to not play the game – the rules of society are never going to encourage us not to take them as seriously as they are asking us to! Society is a system that (like all systems) is made up of unquestionable precedents and this means that the one thing it is never going to do is play fast and loose with these precedents. That’s just not how things work, as we could very easily understand if only we could see that all logical systems necessarily have to repress the individuality (i.e. the ‘irregularity’) of the elements that comprise them.
So if we define mental health as fitting in with the world-view of everyone playing the game called ‘society’ we can see that linear interventionism makes a lot of sense. It is the ‘only way to go’ if this is how we understand mental health. This way of defining mental health is however really just a way of approving of our own arbitrary way of doing things – I have a certain set of prejudices about ‘how things should be’ and so then naturally I will go ahead and define good mental health as ‘subscribing to these prejudices’! I am making my way, my pattern, my system into the standard by which all things should be measured. This is clearly a cheat though because no matter what set of biases I start off with I’m going to promote this as being ‘the mentally healthy way to look at the world’. Really, therefore, I am abusing the word ‘health’ because health no longer means anything apart from what I want it to mean. It simply means conformity to the pattern to which I happen to subscribe. It is like me telling you that you are ‘sane’ if you happen to agree with what I say, or if you happen to believe what I believe, and that you are ‘mentally unwell’ (or insane) if you don’t. This way of defining mental health is clearly quite nonsensical, as well as being distinctly sinister into the bargain…
In Finite and Infinite Games James Carse differentiates between ‘society’ and what he calls ‘culture’ –
It is a highly valued function of society to prevent changes in the rules of the many games it embraces… Deviancy, however, is the very essence of culture. Whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past, is culturally impoverished. There are variations in the quality of deviation; not all divergence from the past is culturally significant. Any attempt to vary from the past in such a way as to cut the past off, causing it to be forgotten, has little cultural importance. Greater significance attaches to those variations that bring the tradition into view in a new way, allowing the familiar to be seen as unfamiliar, as requiring a new appraisal of all that we have been- and therefore all that we are. Cultural deviation does not return us to the past, but continues what was begun but not finished in the past…
To say that deviance is the very essence of culture is no different from saying that ‘deviance is the very essence of individuality’, and so we can rephrase what James Carse says above and say that ‘whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past has lost all awareness of who they truly are.’ When we follow the script, and substitute the collectively-validated ‘external life’ that we have been provided with for our inner life (without us either seeing that this substitution has taken place, or understanding what that means to us) then the unique individual self has been replaced by the generic self, which is a self made up of nothing more than theatrical appearances. The generic self doesn’t have any actual content – it can’t have any actual content because it’s ‘an externality’, because it’s a theatrical performance and nothing more. The outer life is of course made up of externalities – that’s why we are calling it the ‘external life’! The inner life, on the other hand, has no defined features or aspects that we can talk about, or readily discuss in a public forum, but instead of having generically recognizable features that can easily be talked about it is full of actual content. Hence, Carl Jung says –
Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.
When we dream, and live the external socially-validated life only, then what we gain in theatrical definition we lose in genuine content and saying that we ‘lose the content’ is just another way of saying that we lose the connection with who we truly are. What bigger thing could there be to lose than this? We worry about losing all sorts of unimportant, trivial things, but we never seem to worry about losing the biggest thing of all, which is losing our awareness of who we actually are. When we lose this we lose the heart, the core of who we are and as a result of this essential ‘hollowness’ we become slaves to this desire and that desire, this belief-structure and that belief-structure, all of which have the hold on us that they do because they promise to give us what deep-down we know we are missing. They promise to return to us our Wholeness, which we do not consciously see that we are missing.
Society itself is a belief structure that we cling to because it promises to remedy our inner deficit, and provide us – if we play the game well enough – with the much-sought-after social validation (often called success) which is the external substitute (or analogue) for ‘being who we truly are’. This is ironic because society is motivating us with the promise of remedying the painful inner deficit which it itself has engendered in us! It’s both the ‘cause’ of the sickness and the ‘cure’ at the same time, which is something that really ought to tip us off as to what is really going on here…
When we lose the core of who we are and have to go ahead on the basis of what Wei Wu Wei calls the self-concept and what Krishnamurti calls the self-image then we are at a disadvantage, even though we cannot directly see or understand what this disadvantage is. We’ve been ‘wrong-footed’ right from the start. We can talk about this disadvantage (or wrong-footedness’) in terms of loss of essential being – we have lost our essential being and have to make do instead with the theatrical ‘substitute for being’ – which is image or appearance. Some of the time we can get on like this just fine – if we believe the image to be the thing then we don’t see any problem. If we take the theatrical performance of the self-image to be the same thing as ‘who we genuinely are’ (as we almost always do) then we won’t necessarily feel ourselves to be ‘at a disadvantage’. But as we get removed further and further away from any connection with our true nature – from the well-spring of our being – we’re getting stretched thinner and thinner all the time. We’re getting into a sticky situation without being able to see that we are getting into a sticky situation.
As we ‘forget ourselves’ and caught up more and more with a false notion of who we are we end up in a very peculiar – if unappreciated – predicament. The predicament is that we have become ‘unreal without knowing that we are unreal’ and this is akin to having suffered a very serious accident without knowing that we have done so. We have suffered the most serious ‘accident’ of all, and yet we carry on blithely as if nothing had happened, getting caught up in one trivial issue after another. We’ve lost something without which we can’t really continue, and yet we haven’t worked this out for ourselves yet…
And yet there is a way in which this lost understanding can come to us, albeit a way that we cannot readily understand. We cannot see what has happened directly, in a straightforward way, but we can see it in an ‘upside-down way’, so to speak. When being is lost, then we don’t experience this loss of being, but we do experience the neurotic suffering that comes with it – all we need to do therefore is understand this neurotic suffering for what it truly is.
This isn’t actually a question of ‘doing’ – there’s nothing we can ‘do’ to purposefully regain our lost being. It is after all our unconscious attempt to regain our lost being (through all our surrogate purposeful activities) that keeps us trapped in our deficit condition. We just need to be aware of our loss of being, rather than automatically trying to correct it, rather than automatically trying to make it better. When we automatically try to ‘make it better’ all we’re doing is avoiding the awareness. The challenge isn’t to strive to become ‘more confident in ourselves’ (which everyone invariably says it is) – the challenge is to clearly see our lack of confidence and understand its root. The challenge is to fearlessly observe the reality of our situation. If we do somehow manage to become confident again (just like we used to be) all this would mean would be that we have managed to go back to sleep again, immerse ourselves in the dream again. The challenge isn’t to ‘go back to how we were before we became anxious’; the challenge isn’t to ‘go back to sleep’ – the challenge is to wake up!
Our default situation in dreaming is that we are 100% helpless with regard to the script, the drama, the narrative that we are being presented with. The way it usually works is that dreaming – for us – means going along with the script, going along with the drama or narrative. There is a narrow predetermined route of ‘how the dream is going to go’ and we go down that route. There is a clearly defined format for our experience in the dream and we accept that format…
The primary element of the script – aside from what it literally entails, i.e. ‘the defined storyline’ – is the degree of compulsivity that comes with it (which is to say, the degree to which we are swept helplessly along with it). ‘Compulsivity’ means the degree of unfree fascination that we experience with regard to the story-line that has been provided for us. It is a measure of the degree to which our attention is held by the storyline, in other words, which is a concept that is known as immersion in gaming. The more immersive the game (or the dream) the less able we are to know that it is a game, or that it is a dream. If the experience is 100% immersive, then we have absolutely no sense that it is only a game, that it is only a dream. Another way of putting this is to say that when compulsivity (or immersion) is at a maximum, then we are completely trapped in the narrative that we have been provided with…
We’re swept along with all dreams – that’s the nature of dreaming – but the degree of compulsivity (or immersion) does vary. Sometimes we’re more aware that we’re dreaming, other times we’re less aware. Compulsivity is what leads to ‘immersion’ and compulsivity is all about how much fear or desire we experience in the dream. Fear/desire is what keeps our nose to the grindstone, so to speak. We’re either attracted to what’s being shown to us in the storyline or we’re averse to it and this attraction/aversion is what determines our ‘compliance’ in the dream. It ensures that we will go along obediently with the storyline. Straightaway – as soon as we say this – this allows us to see what would help free us from the narrow constraints that are being brutally imposed upon us by the compulsive element of the dream. Straightaway we can see what it is that would allow us to work towards not being so ‘helplessly controlled’ or ‘driven’ in the dream…
If attraction/aversion is what keeps us hooked into the script, the drama, the ongoing narrative, then our natural ‘child-like’ curiosity about what is going on is what will free us, and allow us / our experience to be less defined by the script that we have been presented with. Curiosity is the perfect antidote to attraction/aversion. What almost inevitably happens is that as we get older we become less and less curious about life, more and more ‘serious’ in ourselves. This is pretty much what ‘being an adult’ has come to mean – it means being serious. ‘Being serious’ simply means that we don’t question the predetermined situation that we have been presented with – on the contrary, we accept it at face value. We go along with it, in other words. Or we could say that being ‘adult’ very much tends to mean that we just take stuff for granted.
We are presented with a structure (with society, with a way of thinking and behaving, with a whole pre-formatted world in fact) and we unreflectively adapt ourselves to it. We narrow ourselves down until we fit that way, until it wholly determines us. As the character Cristof says in The Truman Show,
We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.
It could be said that this process of adaptation to a given structure is what the whole process of ‘becoming an adult’ is all about – even though, in a healthy society, it ought to mean more than this. Another word for this adaptation process is simply training. We’re trained. We’re told that we are educated but really we’ve been trained (the difference being of course that the former broadens us whilst the latter narrows us down). This is the point being made here by Krishnamurti –
Education is not merely a matter of training the mind. Training makes for efficiency, but it does not bring about completeness. A mind that has merely been trained is the continuation of the past, and such a mind can never discover the new. That is why, to find out what is right education, we will have to inquire into the whole significance of living.
To most of us, the meaning of life as a whole is not of primary importance, and our education emphasizes secondary values, merely making us proficient in some branch of knowledge. Though knowledge and efficiency are necessary, to lay chief emphasis on them only leads to conflict and confusion.
Training is all about pragmatic considerations, and pragmatic considerations are all about continuing the pattern of the past, as Krishnamurti says. The more ‘narrowed down’ our sense of ourselves is the more committed we are going to be to perpetuating the structure that we have been presented with – when we’re totally defined by the training process then we going to be 100% committed to perpetuating the given pattern, the given template, and this is of course just what the ‘given pattern’ (i.e. society) wants. This is what all defined patterns of organization want – to be perpetuated!
So to go back to this notion of ‘child-like curiosity’ – we can say that this quality still exists in all of us even if it isn’t visible. If it didn’t exist, then we’d really be in trouble! Our innate curiosity about the world might have been covered over by the false sophistication of the adult mind but it’s still there – essentially, it’s who we are. It’s our true nature. We aren’t the dry format that has been imposed on us, we are that which has been formatted. We aren’t what has been written on the page, we are the page. We aren’t the message – we’re the medium by which the message (i.e. ‘the conditioning’) is transmitted.
What this means is that the ‘narrowing down’ process of adaptation can be reversed, although not as easily as it happened in the first place. Becoming free from habits of seeing, habits of thinking, habits of behaving in the world is never going to be as easy as acquiring those habits! With regard to the matter of being ‘swept along with the dream’ – in a purely passive modality of being – we can say that being curious is what frees us up and gives us more space to be ourselves within the narrow, predetermined confines of the dream. Curiosity, we could say, is how we come back to ourselves and cease to be wholly defined by the mechanical forces that are operating in the dream.
Being curious within the dream means being present enough to notice where we are, and what is it that is really happening. Moving in the direction of becoming more present means becoming who we truly are, and this means becoming curious. To be genuinely present in the world is the same thing as having an unsophisticated interest in where we are and what it is that is going on with us but this isn’t the same thing as being ‘interested’ in an adult way, which is all about looking at how we can get better at exploiting our environment. As sophisticated adults, we don’t care about what the world is, we just care about how we can use it! Our normal way of being in the world is to be forever concerned with how we might benefit from our situation (or ‘perform optimally’ in our situation) and this isn’t being interested at all – this is just attraction/aversion, this is just ‘the need to control’…
A small child isn’t looking to control the situation that they find themselves in – that would be ridiculous. Only adults do that. A child is caught up in the wonder of the world, not consumed with the need to control it. A child (or the child-like part of us) is not coldly calculating and devious, but immediate and straightforward. So when we tap into our inner ‘child-like’ nature we straightaway find ourselves reconnected with the essential wonder of the universe. We tend very much to think that it is only possible to experience wonder under ‘special’ circumstances, but wonder is there all the time, under all circumstances – it’s just our interest in the wonder that varies. That we exist (or that there is anything at all) is a wonder, and so any situation that might arise on the basis of this existence is also a wonder – even if we can’t at the time see it. The reason we can’t generally see it because we’re stuck in the artificial mind-created context which relates everything to the self, so that everything we perceive is perceived in terms of this self, either in terms of how it is either going to be of benefit or be of danger. This way of looking at the world straightaway removes all wonder – it makes everything banal! When we look at life without this artificial self-referential context, however, then everything is a wonder, even our own pain, as Khalil Gibran says in this line from The Prophet–
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
The artificial context that takes the wonder or mystery out of everything is as we have implied the everyday rule-based mind – it is the ‘adult’ way of thinking that we are all so caught up in. It derives as we have said from our agenda to optimize our situation, to either obtain something or escape from something, which is attraction/aversion.
Attraction/aversion drives out any sense of wonder – there is zero possibility of wonder existing within the framework of fear and desire. This is the realm of grim seriousness, not wonder or curiosity. Yet even though attraction/aversion drives out all sense of wonder, it is all the same always possible to bring our natural curiosity about the world back into play. Even if I can’t experience any wonder or curiosity about my environment I can still experience curiosity over the fact that I am not curious about my environment. This is a very curious thing, after all! If I notice the fact that I have no sense of wonder about that fact that I exist (about the fact that anything exists) then this itself is a wonder!
Another way of putting this is to say that even when we are in the grip of attraction/aversion (even when we are experiencing 100% immersion in the drama) we are still free – at any time – to notice that this is the case. We are always free to notice our own immersion in the drama and when we do notice our immersion then – by definition – we are no longer immersed! There is a kind of rule or principle that comes into operation when we obey the compulsivity of the dream. This rule/principle has to do with the ‘narrowing’ process that we have already alluded to in relation to the adaptation process.
We can explain this principle as follows:
The more we go along with the compulsivity the more we let it define us and it is the defining that narrows us.
Fear defines us just as desire does but what this ‘defining’ business entails may not be immediately apparent. We may not see what is so very bad about ‘being defined’! Definition is, after all, generally seen as a good thing when it comes to the question of identity, when it comes to the question of ‘who I am’…
It is true that it feels good – in a particular sort of a way – to assert our identity in a positive way. It feels good to say “I am this!” or “I am that!” but the reason this feels good is because in doing so we are obeying an external compulsion (even though we can’t see this). By asserting our identity in a positive way we are ‘obeying the script’. It feels good (in a particular sort of a way) to be this defined identity, this defined self, but only because of the security that it represents. And security feels good precisely because it is a defence against fear! When we opt for security then we are obeying fear therefore. When we aggressively assert our identity (personal, tribal, cultural, religious, national, or whatever) then we are obeying fear. And when we act on desire and ‘add to ourselves’ by acquiring property, wealth, status; influence, etc., then we are also obeying fear. We are obeying fear when we operate on the basis of desire because we are strengthening our defences, adding to our security, consolidating our position, and our need for defences, security or a solid position is of course nothing else other than fear.
What we don’t see amidst all this business of adapting to the game, adapting to the compulsiveness of the dream is that who we are isn’t some ten-a-penny defined identity! We are vastly more than that. Who we are is not a defined thing at all because to define is to limit. By obeying attraction/aversion we lose ourselves, therefore, we lose ‘who we really are’ and become something else, something limited, something that has been defined for us by ‘the rules of the game’. This is what Jung means when he says that by heedlessly following ‘the passions’ we become ‘Everyman’. Everyman is the generic man, the generic human being, and when we obey the passions of greed, lust, envy, jealousy, rage etc., (which are the ‘generic emotions’) then we allow ourselves to be defined by them and this means – as we have said – that we lose who we truly are, which is unique not generic. When we don’t automatically obey attraction/aversion then the reverse is true -we come back to ourselves, we regain ourselves. We don’t regain ourselves by what we do, therefore, but by what we don’t do! Purposeful doing is just attraction/aversion. The part of us that doesn’t obediently follow the script that has been laid down for us – the part of us that doesn’t let itself be defined or determined by mechanical compulsions – is the unique part of ourselves, which is who we truly are under all the habits, under all the generic conditioning. We recover ourselves (not just our independence but who we actually are) by not automatically getting sucked into the narrative that we have been presented with in the dream. The degree to which we do not engage in the dream-drama is the degree to which we actually are, therefore!
This isn’t just true for the dreams that we have when we’re asleep in bed at night – it’s true for everything. Actually, to be present in our dreams is the hardest thing to do – we generally have least presence in our dreams. Dreams ‘just happen’. The point is that everything we have been talking about applies equally well to our ‘waking’ life and the predetermined scripts that we automatically follow in that life. The same principle holds true across the board, under all circumstances, in every possible situation that we might find ourselves in. The principle is that all we need to do in order to come back to ourselves (or ‘wake up’) is to see that we are unreflectively ‘obeying a compulsion’. This simple act of observation makes all the difference in the world! This is a very basic manifestation of curiosity – the curiosity as to whether or not we are free!
For example, if I am angry and I am acting out this anger in some way then I get curious about what is happening here and I take the trouble to notice whether I am free to not act out the anger. If I notice that I am not able to ‘not be angry’ then I take an interest in this observation! I am interested in this awareness that has just come my way – the awareness that I am not free. Or to give another example, if I desire some outcome or other then I take the trouble to notice whether I am free to not want whatever it is that I want. If I discover that I am not free to do anything else other than obey the desire then I am interested in this awareness. I am curious about the unfree nature of my situation…
Very curiously, the normal state of affairs is that we do not manifest this basic level of curiosity! We’re not curious about whether or not we are free – all we’re interested in is how we can best obey the compulsions that are driving us, how we can best accommodate ourselves to the mechanical forces that are determining the reality of our existence. Beyond this, we have no interest! We have no interest in challenging the status quo, we have no interest in discovering that it is possible to challenge the status quo. We have therefore no interest in discovering who we truly are…
The situation of being totally unfree, of being totally controlled by our conditioning, by the compulsive forces that are shaping our lives, and yet not being interested enough in our own situation ever to find this out is a remarkable one. This is a wonder in itself. It is a wonder waiting to be discovered when we do start to take an interest – one wonder amongst many others…
To say that ‘everything just is what it is’ tends to sound rather vague, rather wishy-washy. It tends to sound emptily portentious. It doesn’t sound like we’re saying anything really. Of course everything is what it is! So what, we might ask. Where does that get us? It might sound rather wishy-washy to say this (from the point of view of our ordinary way of thinking) but actually this is a radical insight. It’s a ‘radical insight’ because it changes everything!
Normally, we take it for granted that ‘things are what we think they are’ which is an entirely different kettle of fish to them being ‘what they actually are’. Normally, we do a whole heap of assuming in arriving at our identifications of what things are, what the world is, what we are, and we never pay even the slightest attention to the fact that we have done all this assuming to arrive at what we think to be ‘the final picture’. We assume a hell of a lot to obtain our rational picture of the world, and this – we might say – wrong-foots us right from the very start. It wrong-foots us right from the very start because it makes everything about us, and everything isn’t all about us….
When we make assumptions in order to arrive at a rational picture of the world (which we have to do, since this is the only way the rational process can occur – by guessing, by assuming, by jumping to conclusions, by saying ‘let’s suppose that..’ and then proceeding as if this basis were true) then we make everything ‘about us’ because the assumptions that we are using here are ours and do not exist independently of us, out there in reality somewhere. So when we form a rational picture of the world we are of course seeing that world in terms of our own assumptions and this is making the world all about us. We’re not seeing things as they are in themselves at all.
Another way of explaining this is to say that when we see the world through our rational/conceptual filter then – even though we are unconscious of the fact – we have introduced the need to control and because we have introduced the need to control (right there at the very beginning of the process) we are obliged from here on in to carry on controlling. Controlling always leads to more controlling. There’s no way we can start off controlling without being obliged to continue – there’s no way out of this because we have ‘taken charge of the process’. By taking charge of the process because we’ve made it all about us!
When we see that ‘everything just is what it is’ then this means that we haven’t made any assumptions. We haven’t taken control of the process therefore – we’ve allowed it to carry on being the way that it already is and so we don’t get hooked into the need to control it. Or as we could also say, when we see that ‘everything just is what it is’ then we are in the flow. But how often is this the case? Generally speaking, we don’t even know what it feels like to be ‘in the flow’. Generally speaking, what happens is that we set up a static framework of thought around us and then we see everything in terms of this framework. We conceptualize everything – we have it all organized neatly in our heads and once we do this then we don’t let go of the reins – we can’t let go of the reins because we’ve taken on the job of saying what reality is’ without even realizing that we have taken anything on. Unwittingly, we’ve taken control of something we ought never to have taken control of. Or perhaps we could say, we’ve taken control of something that didn’t actually need us taking control of. It was after all doing quite fine all by itself beforehand…
We might have the world all conceptualized, we might have it all organized in neat and tidy boxes in our heads, but that of course isn’t the way it actually is. Really, the world just is. It doesn’t fit into any framework. Why should it? The framework is just there for our benefit, after all. The world doesn’t need a framework to explain itself to itself! The world isn’t obliged to ‘make sense’ in any particular narrow way. That’s just the game we play with it. So what we think is going on around us when we look at the world through the ‘narrow filter of the rational mind’ isn’t going on at all. When we look at the world in the way that we normally do then we’re seeing things in terms of our agenda, and this happens without us even knowing that we do have one. We think we’re ‘seeing things straight’, just as they are! We’re absolutely convinced that we’re seeing things straight – we couldn’t be more convinced.
This invisible agenda guides our thinking. More than this, it determines what we see and what we don’t see. If something doesn’t have any bearing on our agenda, any relevance to our agenda, then it doesn’t have any importance to us and because it doesn’t have any importance to us we don’t pay it any attention. Because we don’t pay it any attention it doesn’t really exist for us. So the invisible agenda (which is the same thing as the rational-conceptual mind) determines what we see and what we don’t see, what’s important and what’s not important, what is real and what is not real. Having an agenda (or having a ‘framework’ or ‘rational overview’) gives us a whole different way of relating to the word, therefore. In short, we personalize it! We personalize the world – we make it all about us.
When happens then (after we personalize the world) is that we react to everything that happens according to the meaning that our agenda puts on it: if it fits in with what we want to happen then I feel good and if it doesn’t fit in then I feel bad. Everything gets coloured with this – the whole world gets coloured with ‘like and dislike’. Because I am seeing everything in terms of my framework (the framework which is my mind, the framework which is ‘me’) nothing gets seen for what it is in itself. Instead, everything gets seen in terms of me, in terms of what it means to me, and this isn’t the same thing at all. As we have said, everything has now been personalized and so all I am really seeing is my own agenda reflected faithfully back at me…
Because everything has been personalized, there is no more flow. I’m not in the flow any more. Instead, I am controlling. I’m out of the flow. I’m in my head. I am bending everything out of shape to fit my agenda for seeing things. I am complicating everything by ‘making it what it is not’. What I am doing is as we have said is that via my controlling I am personalizing everything – because I am controlling everything I am making it all about me. I am of course perfectly free to personalize the world in this way but to do so is to introduce a distortion because the actual truth of the matter is that the world isn’t ‘all about me’! This just isn’t true, this just isn’t the case! How could everything be about me? How could the whole world be centred on me (and what either I want or don’t want)? And yet despite this being very obviously absurd, we still go ahead and personalize the world on a full-time basis. We hardly ever don’t personalize everything. The very fact that I only ever see the world in terms of how it looks when it is fed through the distorting filter of my rational mind means that I am personalizing it. This isn’t reality – this is my own private version of it. As Heraclitus says,
The waking have one world in common; sleepers have each a private world of his own.
My everyday mind is the framework into which I am trying to fit everything – it is ‘my agenda for seeing things’ and so when I see the world through this framework then I have immediately taken myself out of the flow. When we operate out of the assumed framework, out of the thinking, measuring mind, then we are taking ourselves out of the flow because we are not seeing things for what they are. Instead, we are seeing them for what they mean to us. We are then trapped in the abstract world that the measuring mind has created for us, and we don’t know the difference! Or as is suggested here in verse 32 of the Tao Te Ching (Trans. Stephen Hodge 2002), once we start naming then we get trapped in the world of names and we don’t know the difference –
When we begin to regulate, there is naming,
But when there has been naming
We should also know how to stop.
Only by knowing how to stop can we avoid danger.
To our normal way of thinking the suggestion that we are trapped in a false, mind-created world sounds quite ridiculous – we would reject it straightaway as being nonsensical. We’re in the real world, we would say. The suggestion that we are seeing things in our own private, personalized way sounds nonsensical. And yet – as a moment’s reflection would show – there’s no way that this can’t be the case. Of course we are seeing everything from our own arbitrary point of view, of course we are seeing everything purely in relation to our own personalized ‘yardstick for measuring reality’. Of course we are trapped in an abstract mind-created representation of the world. We might collude with others in using the same arbitrary point of view, the same yardstick, but this doesn’t make it any less arbitrary. Utilizing a collective viewpoint just makes it a million times harder to actually see that it is arbitrary…
Because of our assumed viewpoint everything’s bent out of shape without us knowing that it’s bent out of shape. Because of our assumed viewpoint we’re bound to keep on controlling without knowing that we are controlling. We don’t know that we are controlling, we don’t know that we are holding the reins so tight the whole time. We aren’t aware of this because we’re so very used to it. It’s normal for us. The only time we start to become aware of this controlling is when anxiety creeps into the picture and we catch a glimpse (a very unwelcome glimpse) of just how much stress we’re under, of just how much we need to control. Sometimes we get more than just a glimpse – sometimes we become very aware indeed of how terrible our ‘need for control’ is and when this happens we are said to be clinically anxious. At such times we tend to get the terrifying feeling that we are ‘about to crack up’ – only it’s not really us that is about to crack up, but the unconscious ‘system of control’ that we have come to rely on without realizing it. It is this system of control that is heading for a crisis point (it is after all ultimately unworkable anyway) but because we have identified so thoroughly with the system of thinking, and because we invested so much in it, we experience this as our impending crisis. The one thing we can’t see at such times is that we don’t actually have to be in control at all!
If we were ‘in the flow’ then we would see that we don’t have to control because the flow doesn’t need controlling. That’s why it’s called ‘the flow’ – because it doesn’t need controlling! The normal state of affairs however (as we have said) is for us to be ‘out of the flow’. Everything’s bent out of shape without us realizing that it’s bent out of shape. We’re controlling without realizing that we’re controlling. In this ‘normal state of affairs’ – even when there (apparently) isn’t any major stress going on – there are constant minor fluctuations or perturbations going on. When these fluctuations tend towards ‘the way we think things should be’ then we feel good and when – on the other hand – the parameters under consideration are drifting away from their designated values then we feel correspondingly bad, we feel bad because we feel that we have failed to control the situation satisfactorily. These variations in the gap between ‘how things are’ and ‘how we think they should be’ have the mechanical role of determining whether we can feel good or bad, therefore. In Eastern terms, this is known as attachment.
There are always going to be these little stresses occurring in everyday life in accordance with how we are doing with regard to controlling the relevant variables, the variables that we (or society) have deemed important. The ‘need to control’ is always present therefore, but as long as we are able to stay more or less on top of things it seems as if we have controlling because we want to, controlling because it suits our interests to be doing so. When however anxiety cuts in (and we start to get the feeling that everything is going out of control) then we become painfully aware that we are ‘controlling because we have to’ and this is a different kettle of fish entirely. In the first scenario, this is more like a pleasant game or distraction that we can enjoy, whereas when anxiety really cuts in then everything switches over into the dark side (so to speak) and there is no hiding the fact that we are mercilessly controlled by ‘the need to control’. This is the grim reality. Fear is the grim reality.
The type of life we normally lead (which is to say, the type of life that we lead when we are not in the flow) is thus one in which we are constantly swinging between right and wrong, good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable, satisfactory and unsatisfactory. Everything is either ‘win or lose’, as we could also say. This is a very peculiar state of affairs because there is no peace in it, no ease in it. There is simply no ‘resting’ in this type of a situation – if I get it wrong (if I lose) there is no resting because I have to make things right, and if I get it right (if I win) then I still can’t rest because I have to make sure that the advantageous position which I have just secured for myself doesn’t slip away from my grasp again. It’s an ongoing struggle, in other words, and the reason it is an ongoing struggle is because the goals that I am trying to attain are abstract ideals that do not exist in the real world! This particular type of problem shows up very clearly in what is called ‘perfectionism’ – perfectionism is an endless, fruitless struggle because there is no such thing as ‘perfect’ in the real world…
The state of affairs in which we are constantly swinging between right and wrong, good and bad, win and lose, etc, isn’t actually life, no matter what ideas we might have to the contrary. This isn’t life – it’s a mockery of life, a cruel distortion of life. What we have actually done by ‘personalizing everything’ (or ‘controlling everything’) is that we have turned life into a game. Life is a flow – it moves freely on, it doesn’t need to be controlled or regulated. It moves with grace, with ease, with its own innate poetry and dignity. It doesn’t get snagged on hooks the whole time; it doesn’t keep running into insurmountable barriers, into brick walls. A game, on the other hand, is a loop. And not only is it a loop, it’s the type of a loop that we can’t see to be a loop, and because we can’t see it to be a loop we keep on going around and around in it. Rather than seeing that we’re trapped we think that we’re actually getting somewhere and so we keep on with what we’re doing, we keep at it and it, ricocheting from win to lose, from right to wrong, from hit to miss the whole time without ever really getting anywhere. We’re forever bouncing from one extreme to the other; we’re forever oscillating from one polar opposite to the other like some kind of a crazy rubber ball.
What’s tripping us up all the time is ourselves. That’s what’s keeping us out of the flow. Or we could say that what’s keeping us out of the flow (what’s keeping us trapped in the loop that we think is the flow) is our agenda – i.e. our everyday thinking – which is of course the one thing we are never going to see as the source of our problems.
‘Like and dislike’ is what’s tripping us up all the time. ‘Like and dislike’ is what’s keeping us spinning around and around on the wheel. And all we need to do to get free from this wheel and come back into the flow of life is to see through like and dislike, is to see though our constant counterproductive fear-driven need to be in control…
The question is, are we interested in stepping outside of the mind, or are we not interested? This isn’t a loaded question. There’s no right or wrong answer – it’s not a question of what we ought to do – but it is a crucial question all the same. Do we even care what it might be like to see the world without the conceptual filter of the mind? And if not why not? The thing is that this rational-conceptual mind that we’re talking about is only a tool or an instrument, and yet it is a tool or instrument that we can rarely see beyond. Essentially, it is no different to a hair-drier or a toaster or a food mixer even though it might sound ridiculous to say this. The thinking mind might be a hell of a lot more complicated than a food mixer but it runs on exactly the same principle – it’s a bunch of mechanical processes linked together in a specific way…
The ‘special thing’ about this instrument (as opposed to a hair-drier or toaster or food mixer) is that is has the rather unique job of representing reality to us in a particular way, within a particular format. It does this job continuously, and yet at the same time it doesn’t tell us that it is doing so. It doesn’t have a function ‘built into it’ whereby it informs us that it is representing reality to us in a particular way. It isn’t required to do that. This of course is rather significant because it means that the instrument of the rational-conceptual mind is invisible to us in its operation, unlike hair driers, toasters or food mixers. What it is doing is of absolutely crucial importance to us, but we can’t see what it is doing!
According to David Bohm, the system of thought (the logical system which is the thinking mind) points to divisions in the outside world without ever making reference to the fact that they only exist within it, not anywhere else –
Thought is creating divisions out of itself and then saying that they are there naturally.
As a result of this ‘omission’, we automatically take the world that the rational-conceptual mind shows us to be the whole story, the whole of reality. We take it as being the ‘final word’, the ‘ultimate authority’. This being the case, of course we don’t look beyond the mind-created world, of course we don’t have any curiosity as to what the world would look like without the filter of our concepts, without our conditioning (or ‘programming’) getting to process everything for us. This possibility simply doesn’t exist for us. It doesn’t exist because the thinking mind doesn’t tell us that it exists and we rely totally upon this mind to tell us everything that exists and doesn’t exists. Or rather, we rely on it totally to tell us what is important, what is significant, what is worth taking notice of, and anything else we simply have zero interest in!
So the question as to whether are interested in stepping out of the everyday mind or not is really a question about whether we are interested in reality as it is in itself, or whether we are content simply to stick with the everyday mind’s mind’s patented version of reality. And the thing here is that if we don’t know that the world we relate to every day isn’t the genuine article then how are we going to be curious about anything else? And – generally speaking – we AREN’T going to know that the world that the everyday mind shows us isn’t the same as reality as it is in itself, we aren’t going to know because the mind isn’t going to tell us!
This is a curious situation, therefore. The rational-conceptual mind really ought to come with some sort of warning printed on the package telling us to be extremely careful with it since the moment we start using it we are liable to get lost in it forever! The whole point is that there isn’t such a warning however. There’s no government health warning on the packet. We have to work it out for ourselves, we have to learn to be careful…
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t use the instrument or tool which is the thinking mind. Like all instruments, like all tools, it is very useful when used in the right situation. Everything comes down therefore to a question of what we might call ‘appropriate’ versus ‘non-appropriate’ applications – which is to say, it all comes down to understanding the difference between things that the tool can do and things that is can’t do. If we know that then we’re OK! This difference is very easily explained: the appropriate use for the rational-conceptual mind is for logical problem-solving, and the non-appropriate use is everything else!
Straightaway this shows us something very curious – we use the instrument of the rational-conceptual mind for just about everything. We use it for living life, and this is not an appropriate use for it! What we’re actually doing here therefore is that we’re treating life as if it were a logical problem, which is utterly ridiculous. If life is a ‘problem’ then there must be a ‘solution’ to it therefore and so what would that solution be? What would the solution to life’ look like? What would happen if we were to use it, if we were to utilize the solution? What exactly does it mean to ‘solve’ life anyway? In relation to a logical problem or puzzle the idea of a ‘solution’ is of course perfectly appropriate; in relation to life the term becomes distinctly sinister. What does life turn into after we have solved it? What’s the story then? The only thing it could turn into (after being thoroughly packed and regulated by thought) is a ‘plaything of the thinking mind’. Life will get turned into a ‘game’ in other words, and what does it mean to turn life into a game, into the plaything of the thinking mind?
It is evident that – for the most part – we have turned life into a logical puzzle. If this wasn’t the case then we wouldn’t be trying to ‘fix’ it the whole time and this is exactly what we always are trying to do. This is what thinking is – it’s ‘searching for a solution’. Every time we engage in rational thinking we are trying to fix something – that’s what rational thinking is for after all, as we have already said. So if we’re thinking all comment, the time (and we are thinking all the time!) then what this means is that that we’re trying to fix life. Even if we’re only naming something, or making some kind of a comment, we’re ‘looking for a solution’ – we’re trying to cure life of its inherent uncertainty, we’re trying to ‘say what it means’, we’re trying to say ‘what it is’, we’re trying to fit life into a specific, pre-made template of meaning when actually life only ever has the concrete meaning that we believe it to have because we ourselves have given it that meaning.
Instead of relating to the world simply as it is therefore, we are continually aggressing it, continually trying to force it to be the way that we think it ought to be. Instead of being conscious of the world as it actually is in itself we are in other words forever trying to control it, this is what the thinking mind does after all – it packages, it labels, it controls. That’s its job…
There is a consequence to us trying to control things the whole time however – by doing this we automatically tune into a very narrow ‘band’ of reality, and we very easily fall into the trap of thinking that this narrow band of reality is all that there is. When we’re engaged in controlling we are necessarily involved in a ‘negative feedback loop’ whereby all our attention goes into registering ‘error’ and then doing our best to correct it. I notice how close I am to obtaining my goal and then I use this information to improve my performance. This means that I’m only interested in stuff that can help me optimize my performance, stuff that will enable me to reduce my margin of error, and so everything else goes out of the window. This is how things are when we are in ‘control mode’ (or in ‘purposeful doing mode’) – we have identified with the thinking mind, we have allowed it to ‘take us over’, and so we have allowed its limited perspective to be our perspective. Or rather – as we could also say – we have allowed its horizons to become our horizons, its limitations to become our limitations, its ‘blindness’ to become our blindness.
Perspective itself – in the true sense of the word – is the one thing we DON’T have when we are in control mode! The world ‘perspective’ really means openness – it means that we are aware of a bigger, more expansive context than whatever narrow frame of reference it is that we might be using at the time. When we’re ‘relaxed’, when we’re not in control mode (or ‘analytical mode’), then we are always going to have a sense of perspective on things. Perspective is always going to be there – perspective is naturally there. It’s there ‘all by itself’! When we’re relaxed we’re going to have a bit of perspective on our situation simply because we’re not busy screening out information, simply because we’re not narrowly focussed on a particular task. Being focussed on a particular task means – as we have already said – that we are only interested in those details that are relevant to what we are specifically trying to achieve. We are not interested in ‘the irrelevant’ and this means that we are not interested in anything outside of the frame of reference that we happen to be using at the time.
This therefore is what it means to be identified with the rational-conceptual mind – it means that we have no perspective, it means that we’re not aware of anything outside of the frame of reference that we’re operating within. What has actually happened here is that the virtual world associated with the particular frame of reference that we have identified with has swollen up and become the whole world, the whole of everything that is possible, as far as we are concerned. We’ve switched from an open–ended view (which is ‘perspective’) to the closed view, the view which has only the one possibility of seeing things, the view which is associated with the particular frame of reference that we’re stuck in without realized that we’re stuck in anything. We can’t know that we’re ‘stuck in the FOR’ because in order to know it we’d have to have perspective and the whole point of the closed mind-set, the whole point of the closed FOR, is that there’s no perspective in it!
When we switch from open awareness to the closed mind-frame which switching from a humorous, playful and unconstrained mode of being to one that is humourless, ‘serious’, fixated and essentially ‘driven’. We’re going from ‘spontaneous’ to ‘directed’. It is of course a very familiar kind of a thing that we’re talking about here – we see this type of switch-over from the one mode to the other taking place around us all the time. It happens when the thinking mind takes over (for whatever reason), to the detriment of our inner freedom, to the detriment of our ‘lightness of touch’, to the detriment of our sense of humour. It happens when we get sucked up into some kind of negative state of mind, and it also happens when we start taking some particular idea or theory more seriously than it deserves, and in the case of negative emotions, or negative mind states, it could be said that the idea we are taking too seriously is the idea of ourselves!
We also switch from open awareness to a closed frame of mind when we are engaged in performing some kind of a demanding logical task, which is of course something that we all need to do from time to time. Logical tasks are part of life and this goes back to what we were saying about this being the ‘appropriate’ use of the rational mind. The only thing here however being that our modern rational-technological culture demands that we spend more and more time in control mode, in fixing mode, in purposeful doing mode and the result of this is that we are very likely lose the ability to ‘switch out’ again! The odds are very much stacked against being able to do so. What happens then is that we become identified with the rational-conceptual mind on a full time basis, and we won’t realize that anything is amiss because everyone else has done the same thing as us. We’ve all made the same mistake and so it becomes normal. We’ve all got the same sickness and so it becomes healthy! It’s actually become a requirement. We are required to be in ‘purposeful doing mode’ in order to be employed, just to give one particular example of how the pressure on us to be more ‘machine-like’ than ‘human-like’ operates. Generally speaking, we’re required to ‘play the game’ in order to fit in.
As far as our rational-technological society is concerned the fact that we are identifying with the thinking mind pretty much on a full-time basis is very useful. It makes people much easier to direct, to predict, to motivate and to control. Actual human beings are a hell of a lot trickier to deal with – they are notoriously prone to questioning rules and refusing to conform to mechanical systems. The fundamental difficulty here being (for the mechanical system that is society) that its agenda is not going to be shared by the people that are making it up, not unless – that is – they too are rendered ‘mechanical’. From the point of view of society, therefore, it makes sense that everything we do should be based upon rules. Not just our work-time is to be spent identified with the thinking mind therefore, but also our leisure time, our recreational time. On the collective level, it makes sense that this should be the way things are. But although it makes sense for society for us to be like this, it does not make sense from the POV of the actual individual. As Jung said over sixty years ago, the needs of the collective and the mental health of the individual are two very different things – the former is not in sympathy with the latter. What is ‘healthy’ for society is most emphatically not healthy for the individual human being – society needs everyone to be thinking the same way, behaving in the same way, seeing reality in the same way, and in order for the individual to be individual (in order that we might ‘be ourselves’!), we cannot be ruled by unexamined beliefs or game-rules that are imposed upon us from the outside, from the mechanical ‘group mind’.
In our society – as we have said – it is normal to be identified with the thinking mind on what is practically a fulltime basis. This means that it looks right, this means that it looks in fact like the definition of ‘good mental health’. But what happens as a result of this identification is that we end up being tuned into a very narrow band of reality. We only get to know about (and care about) that part of reality which corresponds to that rule-based mind and this means that we lead a very impoverished form of existence – even though we won’t know it because to be this way is validated at every turn. We’ve lost something crucial in other words but the rules of the game are that we’re not allowed to know it!
Even if we do well in the social game and gain status, wealth and power as a result, we’re still impoverished. We’re impoverished on the inside – our inner life has been curtailed to the point of non-existence. Our ‘inner life’ is a reflection of the outer one and so what we’re talking about here therefore isn’t an inner life at all – it’s the outer generic one. One size fits all! All we have left to us is this ‘outer’ life, which is the one that has been designed by society, the one that has been provided for us by the mechanical group mind. When it comes right down to it, full-time identification with the thinking mind means that we lose contact with reality (since reality is at root that sense of perspective that we no longer have) and become wholly caught up in what is essentially a meaningless mechanical game – doing stuff because we think it is the right thing to do, doing stuff because we have been told it is the right thing to do, doing stuff because the unexamined rules of the game say you have to do them…
There is no way a fundamental alienation from reality can be seen as ‘a good thing’. When we allow ourselves to be possessed (however unwittingly) by the rational conceptual mind so that it ends up defining reality for us then we are cut off from everything that lends magic to life. We’re cut off from our own wholeness, our own happiness, our own creativity and this makes us prey to whatever sort of malign influences might happen to be at large in the world. The ‘malign influences’ have a field day in fact! Because we’re coming from such an impoverished place they can offer us this and offer us that and we’re going to go for it every time. We’re not going to be able to see it happening because we’re automatically allowing reality to be defined for us. We’re allowing our own best interests to be defined for us. We’re in the position of being infinitely manipulable by whatever collective forces happen to be out there. Because we’re coming from a place where our connection with the true self has been severed we’re at the mercy of all the threats and promises that are being used against us. We’re hoodwinked and taken advantage of at every turn…
And when we do go along with the narrow version of reality that we’re being offered (compulsorily offered, so to speak) things still don’t go well with us – the incidence of anxiety and depression have been increasing over the last hundred years to the point where almost one third of the population will suffer majorly from them. Our culturally-approved way of looking at such disturbances of the psyche is to say that they are due to mechanical malfunctions of the hardware. We assume that our brains have for some reason become rather unreliable in recent times and need to be given a helping hand. A better explanation is that the culprit is not nature and its failure to provide us with properly working brains (despite all those millions of years of evolution), but our tendency to spend our entire lives being operated by the run-away instrument of the thinking mind! This is the elephant in the room. How can living on the basis of a generic inauthentic identity not give rise to depression? How can the loss of the true self (and the tremendous inner resources that come with it) not cause anxiety? The only wonder is that more of us don’t experience acute neurotic distress as a result of having to live life on such a narrow and artificial basis…
The current popularity of meditation (repackaged as mindfulness) as a way of recovering our peace of mind might be taken as evidence that at last we have ‘come to our senses’ and have realized that the thinking mind cannot be given free rein to run our lives as it pleases. It would seem that we are starting at last to redress the balance between the psyche as a self-governing system and the faculty of the rational intellect and move in the direction of becoming more human (rather than continuing to move as we have been doing in the direction of becoming more mechanical). But if we imagine this to be the case we might be in danger of being hoodwinked yet again! The question is this: have we at last understood that the rational-conceptual mind, which ought to be the tool or instrument, has ‘turned the tables on us’ so that it is now our master instead of our servant? Or is it just that we are quick (in our narrowly clever way) to seize upon any advantage that we might come across, and are using the ‘advantage’ of meditation to offset or ameliorate the burden that living the rational-mechanical life has placed upon us (the burden that living as components in a machine, in a system, has placed upon us)?
If the first answer is true then this is evidence of true wisdom – which is the rarest of fruits! If it is the second that it true on the other hand then what we are seeing is no more than a case of the slave-owner trying to squeeze an extra mile or two out of his poor slave, as clever slave-owners always do. This is one of the points made by Ron Purser and David Loy in their article Beyond McMindfulness.
The question we’re asking here would seem to be a rhetorical one. Is there really any sign of our culture turning in its tracks, so to speak, and valuing wisdom over mere cleverness? Do we really want to change what we’re doing? Or is the runaway tool of the rational-conceptual mind simply getting better at managing us, by providing us with a watered-down version of meditation designed to improve our productivity rather than radically liberate us? Are we really interested in stepping outside of the everyday mind, or do we just want to live more comfortably within it?
Our basic situation is that we are solidly, very solidly, enmeshed in the ongoing concrete drama of our lives. We’re caught up in it to the exclusion of anything else. It’s all we know or care about. This sounds like a stupid thing to say – of course I am enmeshed in (or caught up) my life, wouldn’t it be very weird or unnatural if I wasn’t? What else is there to be ‘caught up in’? Why wouldn’t I be absorbed in my own life?
This is a point worth thinking carefully about though. It is not that I am ‘one with life’ or anything like that (which would of course be a wonderful and wholesome thing), but rather that I am enmeshed with the on-going concern that is ‘MY life’, which is not the same thing at all. ‘Life’ and ‘my life’ are two totally different things – they couldn’t be more different. Life is life, but ‘my life’ is just me…
‘My life’ is just a kind of a narrow drama. It’s a kind of ongoing sterile obsession that I get absorbed in, sucked up in. Needless to say we don’t see it like this however! We see it in the most glowingly positive of terms! We validate the drama. The on-going concern that is my life is – we could say – like a party political bandwagon that is buoyed along by a constant supply of good old-fashioned ‘hype’: there is the outer appearance of an endeavour that is positive and progressive and worthwhile, that is running along the correct tracks to the correct destination, but actually this bandwagon isn’t going anywhere. Or, we could say, it is ‘going to hell in a hand-cart’. It’s a sterile obsession. It is a form of ‘sleep’; it’s a way of ‘not being awake’.
This is a very strong thing to say, but for anyone who is willing to stick around and hear the argument, it will inevitably start to sound all-too-true. A good way to express the argument is to say that the on-going concern, the on-going band-wagon, the on-going drama, that is my life is actually a red-herring. It’s a diversion, a distraction from reality. This ‘ongoing concern’ consists, as we all know, of innumerable details and issues that I have to keep attending to. It is the show that I am keeping on the road, the ‘three ring circus’ that I am involved in maintaining. It’s my prize ‘project’!
It feels good to be so busy, to have plans and goals and ‘things on the go’. It feels good to have a career, a set of interests, a vibrant social life, a busy social calendar. There is the feeling that there is something positive happening, that I am a real person with a real life. “It’s all happening,” or so I think. “My life is progressing as it should be doing….” I might think. The endeavour of ‘trying to get things to work out’ is wholly engrossing and when things seem to be working out this feels very good indeed – it is like a narcotic drug. It’s euphoric and as a result of this euphoria I go into a type of trance – the trance of Narcissus!
The same principle applies even when I am depressed and upset and fed-up about my life (which is the inevitable ‘let-down’ phase that occurs when I can no longer believe the hype). Even when I am feeling bad I strive to keep myself busy with my daily habits, with all the various forms of self-distraction and entertainment with which I am familiar. Or perhaps I can distract myself from my unhappiness by believing that I might turn things around, that I might get somewhere, if only I can work things right, if I can only get the break, if only my luck turned. I can seek solace in dreams, in other words…
But actually ALL the type of stuff that we are talking about here (‘good’ or ‘bad’) is ‘strictly theatrical’. It is for show only; it is ‘for the sake of appearances’, and it doesn’t connect with who I am on the inside at all. Who I am on the inside (the inner self) does not thrive on habitual routines, predictable patterns, distractions, entertainment and socially validated games. Winning and losing are both equally irrelevant to the inner life. Success and failure are only distractions for the outer self, the theatrical self. The inner self needs something real to make it manifest and grow in our lives, it needs for us to be true to our own inner nature and strike out in our own unique way, rather than falling in with the crowd, rather than trying to get better at ‘playing the game’.
When I ‘fall in with the crowd’ I get caught up in the sort of socially prescribed life that other people (and myself) think I ought to have. I end up living the sort of life that society recognizes and validates. I end up following the path that has been laid out for me, rather than finding my own way. I end up enmeshing myself with the life that I have been given, a mass produced sort of a life, a generic life, a life that could be anybody’s and yet which really belongs to no one, since it’s really only the mass-produced ‘shell’ of a theatrical life, a phoney life that is not really worth the paper it is printed on.
The life that I am so enmeshed in seems like an on-going concern, but really it is a stone. It is a dead lump of lethally immovable deterministic weight, and it is going nowhere but down. The concern that I am enmeshed with is a stone, and so is the ‘me’ that so busy getting enmeshed. Actually, ‘my life’ isn’t my life at all, it is ‘somebody else’s movie’ and the role that I am playing in this movie isn’t me either. So the question I need to ask myself is, “What am I doing here? What the hell am I doing playing the leading role in someone else’s story of ‘my life’?”
The role that I am playing isn’t who I really am at all – it is in fact as Alan Watts says a case of ‘mistaken identity’. It’s not who I am at all. It is a bus I jumped on one day, not realizing that it wasn’t really going where I wanted to go, and with every minute that passes it is taking me further and further in the wrong direction. What is worse, the longer I stay on this bus, the harder it is for me to take the initiative to ‘jump off’ and walk all the way back to where I had started off, so long ago. The bus has gone too far, I have been on it too long, and so now it seems less painful to stay on (and kid myself that the bus is going where I want to go) than to face the fact that I am on the wrong bus, a bus that is busily going to the wrong place.
But I am falling into a deadly trap here: the longer I stay on the bus the more I fall into the trance of denial, the deadly and deadening trance of unconsciousness. When this happens the ‘life that isn’t mine’ and the ‘me that isn’t who I really am’ takes over and the whole thing hurtles onward and onward like a runaway lorry on a mountain road heading for the final catastrophic disaster. At this stage I don’t actually want to see the truth – in one way it suits me to be 100% preoccupied with endlessly proliferating trivia, with time-consuming superficialities. It suits me to be caught up with the ongoing empty drama of what I absurdly call ‘my life’.
Now and again, though, I get a flash of awareness – “What am I doing here? Where am I going?” This awareness is beautifully articulated in this verse taken from the Eighth Century devotional hymn Bhaja Govindam:
Who is your wife? Who is your son? Exceedingly wonderful, indeed, is this empirical process! Of whom are you? Who are you? Whence have you come? O brother, think of that truth here.
Like in the Talking Heads song, I may find myself saying “This isn’t my beautiful wife / house / car….” The question is, however, as always, “What am I going to do about it?”
What am I going to do? Go back to sleep – allow myself to get sucked up into the pointless, empty, going-nowhere drama again, or wake up?
A good way to understand what is happening when we are anxious or panicking is to look at the difference between ‘noticing’ and ‘evaluating’ (noticing being where we are simply aware and present, and ‘evaluating’ being where we are trying to stay in control). Naturally enough we all think we know everything there is to know about being anxious and the state of being panicked, but what we know is how it feels when it happens, not how the process actually happens. We know all about how it feels, but – generally speaking – nothing at all about what is actually happening. This is the whole point – as is the case with all unconscious processes – if we could see clearly what was happening as it happened then it wouldn’t happen. It’s because we aren’t conscious of what’s happening that it gets to happen!
Firstly, in order to understand the unconscious mental activity that is anxiety, we need to look at ‘evaluation mode’ – the mode in which we automatically and rigidly evaluate everything that is happening to us. ‘Evaluation mode’ is by its very nature rigid and inflexible – everything has to be accommodated to it, rather than the other way around. The whole point of evaluation mode is to focus completely on whether or not things are the way that we think they ought to be. What this means is that ‘the way we think things have to be’ (i.e. our ‘assumed framework’) is never questioned for a second – it is enshrined in the background like some sort of untouchable holy dogma. The very idea of the ‘assumed framework’ having to accommodate itself to what it encounters is utterly unthinkable. Nothing could be more out of the question – it simply doesn’t work that way.
Not only is the evaluation mode is inherently rigid and inflexible, it is also fragile and brittle – like a china plate or a piece of Waterford crystal. It’s not something that can accommodate itself to change. Why this should be so is of course very easy to see: anything that has no give in it, no flexibility, will crack up, will ultimately ‘fly to pieces’ when it meets a force (or reality) which is bigger and stronger than itself, and which refuses to give way to it.
Thus, when we meet with difficult situation in the rigid and brittle mode of evaluation there can only be one outcome – we will start to feel that we are ‘cracking up’. We will of course try to control what is going on but when we find that we can’t then we will experience unbearable stress and tension. It feels for all the world as if cracks are starting to appear, small ones at first but then gradually branching out, inexorably spreading, getting wider and wider. Our very language reflects this – when we talk about ‘having a breakdown’, or ‘cracking up’, this is what we mean. The terrifying perception that we have is that the whole structure of ‘who we are’ is going to inevitably ‘crack up’ in catastrophic (and irreversible) way.
The reason this projected ‘cracking up’ process feels so very frightening is because we have associated ourselves completely with a fixed and unyielding structure – the structure being the rigid framework of assumptions or rules which lie at the heart of ‘evaluation mode’. This framework of rules is actually not who we are at all because we are not some inflexible ‘thing’ – we are not china plates and we actually can’t ‘crack up’. We aren’t mechanical things, we are living beings and life in its essence is always flexible and unfixed – not determined by any structure or pattern of rules. Only dead things are rigid and fixed, which is the idea expressed here in Chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching:
While alive, the body is soft and pliant
When dead, it is hard and rigid
All living things, grass and trees,
While alive, are soft and supple
When dead, become dry and brittle
Thus that which is hard and stiff
is the follower of death
That which is soft and yielding
is the follower of life
Somewhere along the line we have become convinced however that what is good by the mechanical standards of the utterly inflexible evaluation mode is good for us, and so we have tied our fortunes with its continuing existence. We have linked our well-being with the integrity of the particular pattern of rules that evaluation mode is based on; in fact to say that the two are ‘linked’ is not putting it strongly enough – we use these rules to define and ensure our well-being and so they are everything to us. It could be said that we have obeyed these rules so unthinkingly and for so long that we have become them. Our true nature is to be fluid and flexible – which is to say, it is to be free. It doesn’t contend with anything because it doesn’t have to – it’s got nothing to prove, no axe to grind. The trouble is however that our true nature has been forgotten about as a result of lack of use and as a result we’ve got lots to prove, many axes to grind.
Once we start going down this road of meeting difficult situations by automatically going into rigid ‘evaluation/control mode’ things we get all the more trapped in it. What happens next in the chain of events is that we meet the difficult situation of the projected ‘crack up’ of ‘who I think I am’ in the same inflexible (or ‘non-allowing’) way. ‘Inflexible’ means that we are setting ourselves up for another crack-up – so to speak – on top of the first; it means that only my way is acceptable and all other ways are unacceptable. That there should be a ‘crack-up’ is in itself of course totally unacceptable and so when I am confronted with the fact that this is happening I insist for all I’m worth that it mustn’t be happening. And when this doesn’t make any difference – which of course it won’t! – I start to crack up about this. I ‘crack-up about the fact that I am cracking-up’ and so instead of things getting better they get a lot worse. They get exponentially worse: I am helplessly ‘reacting to my own reacting’, I am ‘freaking out about freaking out’, and this is a chain reaction that can go on forever. When this happens I get a glimpse of the gates of hell opening before me – the hell of total panic – and this, needless to say, makes me crack up all the more…
Next we come to ‘noticing mode’. Noticing is a completely different kettle of fish entirely – it is not rigid or unyielding, but rather it is all about ‘giving way’ to the event that is happening. As Bruce Lee says,
Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.
Alan Watts (The Wisdom of Insecurity, P 96-97) also uses the metaphor of water, which by its very nature instantly and easily gives way to any object that is placed in it:
If, when swimming, you are caught in a strong current, it is fatal to resist. You must swim with it and gradually edge to the side. One who falls from a height with stiff limbs will break them, but if he relaxes like a cat he will fall safely. A building without “give” in its structure will easily collapse in storm or earthquake, and a car without the cushioning of tires and springs will soon come apart on the road.
The mind has just the same powers, for it has give and can absorb shocks like water or a cushion. But this giving way to an opposing force is not at all the same thing as running away. A body of water does not run away when you push it; it simply gives at the point of the push and encloses your hand. A shock absorber does not fall down like a bowling-pin when struck; it gives, and yet stays in the same place. To run away is the only defence of something rigid against an overwhelming force. Therefore the good shock absorber has not only “give,” but also stability or “weight.”
‘Noticing mode’ is perfectly explained by the metaphor of water, which accommodates without running away. When an object is placed in water the water doesn’t try to enforce its own rules, its own expectations. It does not demand that the object conform to its preordained pattern, its preferred shape. The whole thing about water is of course that it doesn’t have a fixed shape – it is fluid, non-rigid, infinitely adaptable. Water doesn’t ‘come with an agenda’, so to speak, and so it doesn’t waste time trying to enforce its expectations upon what it finds! It doesn’t have opinions and it doesn’t have prejudices.
In the same way therefore we can say that ‘noticing’ doesn’t come with a preordained pattern or agenda about whatever is to be noticed. The sole determining factor about what I notice is ‘what is there to be noticed’, not ‘what I like or dislike about it’ (or what I think ought to be there or not there). In other words, whatever is there is accommodated instantly and allowed to be what it already is. This, after all, is what noticing (or awareness) is all about! It’s not about us projecting our expectations on the world – it’s about us being open to what’s there in an unprejudiced way.
Noticing is something that takes place absolutely instantaneously. There is no question whatsoever of deliberating or choosing or in any way ‘processing the information’. The question of “How should I see this thing?” never comes into it. There is no need for any control, any input, any modifications, any preference on my part – whatever is, that’s just the way it is. Obviously enough, consciousness (which is another word for noticing) couldn’t work any other way. If it did work the other way – which is to say, if it were I who decided the nature of what I was seeing, or being aware of – then this wouldn’t be consciousness at all but the complete reversal of consciousness! When the information is coming in from outside of me, in a direct way, without any interference or ‘management’, then I am able to be honestly aware of what is there. But if the information about what is to be seen, how it is to be seen, etc, comes from me instead of outside me then this isn’t consciousness at all but projection. It’s my own delusory, self-referential system.
A projection – we might say – is an image of reality that I construct myself and then project like a film on top of reality so that I don’t actually see the true reality at all. Projection therefore obstructs consciousness; rather than helping the process of honest or authentic awareness it subverts it. Projection therefore is all about unconsciousness rather than consciousness – it is all about blocking or obscuring awareness with our unexamined expectations and prejudices. When we are unconscious we are ruled by the detritus (i.e. the useless remnants) of all the experiences (misunderstood experiences at that) which we have automatically accumulated in our minds. This ‘detritus’ is sometimes called our conditioning and the important thing to understand about conditioning is that we can’t ‘fight against it’ because ‘fighting’ or struggling’ (or any sort of purposeful doing) always means using our conditioning. It always involves us having definite models or maps of reality, definite expectations, assumptions which trap us helplessly within them whenever we use them. What we can do however is to become aware of our programming. This may not sound like very much but because becoming aware does not involve ‘taking stuff for granted’ (which purposeful action always does) it is the only way of becoming disentangled from the invisible framework of rules and arbitrary beliefs that lie behind ‘evaluation mode’.
If instead of associating ourselves with the evaluative mode the whole time we allow ourselves to remain more often in noticing mode, which is where we are naturally anyway, then when a difficult situation does come along there is some ‘give’ (as Bruce Lee and Alan Watts say) right there at the heart of us, instead of the usual mechanical rigidity. Of course, when a difficult situation comes along it is perfectly natural that we find ourselves going into evaluation mode – this is a long-standing habit because the evaluation/control mode is where we are used to getting our sense of security from. It’s what we have always used to ‘help’ ourselves, to ‘save’ ourselves so of course we are going to be automatically reaching out for it every time things get difficult. We just have to be aware of this tendency!
At this point however – if we understand a little bit about the difference between evaluation and noticing, the chances are that we will fall into the trap of trying to correct matters by attempting to notice what is going on instead of evaluating it. We will attempt to change ourselves: first we will notice that we are evaluating and then we will say to ourselves “This isn’t right, I am evaluating when I should be noticing!” and as soon as we say this we are of course firmly back in evaluation mode. We are evaluating our own evaluating, and from this point on we are caught up in the same old endless mechanical chain reaction of ‘the mind trying to escape the mind’.
The point is simply that it is impossible to go into the noticing mode on purpose. ‘On purpose’ means that it’s coming from me, not from outside of me and whatever comes from me is always the result of evaluation and control. As Alan Watts says somewhere else, control and methods are good for creating things that don’t yet exist, but ‘noticing mode’ – which is to say, consciousness – already exists. It is already there, we don’t have to invent it, or make ourselves ‘do it’. We don’t have ‘create consciousness’ – it’s not our responsibility to do this!
This is like ‘being yourself’ – there is no method to ‘being yourself’ because you already are yourself. Just as you already ‘are yourself’, so too are you ‘already aware’ – awareness is actually ‘what you are’ and it is therefore always right there at the heart of things. What this means is that whatever happens, no matter how much you might seem to be cracking up, you can always ‘just notice yourself cracking up’. And if you are noticing yourself crack up then you aren’t cracking up because ‘cracking up’ only ever happens in evaluation mode!
‘Noticing mode’ doesn’t crack up any more than water cracks up – it can’t crack up because it has no rules, no prejudices, no arbitrary and limiting assumptions to protect. It has no position to protect! It can’t crack up – that’s fundamentally impossible for it!
Furthermore, when it comes right down to it, noticing mode is – as we have said – where we always are. Noticing – which is to say awareness – is always there right at the heart of everything. We don’t have to engineer it, or plan for it, or arrange it; we don’t have to fix it, or analyse it, or correct it, or ‘have a theory for it’ or ‘do it on purpose’ – we don’t need to do any of that stuff at all. We don’t need to invent a way to be, we just need to be how we already – in our essence – are.
The idea of vexation, and the state of ‘being vexed’, relies on there being two essential ingredients:  – That I want things being a certain way, and  – That things aren’t that way. This is so simple and so obvious that we don’t really think about it like this. Of course we know it well enough, but it is so obvious that we don’t dwell on it – instead, we quickly rush on to the next bit which is where I get my teeth firmly into the all-important question of “How can I rectify the situation?”
This second stage, the stage where I dig my teeth into the problem like a dog gnawing a particularly juicy bone, is the stage that we call ‘vexation’ and this is where we get well and truly stuck. The first stage (which is where I see that things aren’t how I’d like them to be) is over in a flash, but the second stage can last for a long, long time. Sometimes it can last for years!
THE NEED TO WIN
If I could straightaway get things to be the way I want them to be then needless to say there would be no vexation, on the contrary, I would experience ‘triumph’ or ‘satisfaction’ or simply ‘relief from the problem that is bugging me’. Satisfaction is what we all want – this is what we are all gunning for the whole time. It is no exaggeration to say that for an awful lot of the time, this is the only thing on our minds. Our main interest in life is obtaining the satisfaction of getting things to go the way we want them to go. To put this another way, we are very often preoccupied with the fulfilment of our goals (and whether these goals actually mean anything or not doesn’t actually matter a lot when it comes right down to it).
WHY SHOULDN’T WE ‘WANT TO WIN’?
The fact that we have ‘a need to win’ doesn’t necessarily sound that bad to us. It sounds perfectly ok in fact. After all, what is wrong with wanting to be successful? What is wrong with wanted to ‘win out’ over adversity? What is wrong with wanting to achieve our goals? Isn’t it a sign of life to struggle to get things to work out for us? Isn’t it natural that we should want to succeed rather than fail? These questions sound perfectly reasonable, but as it happens the only reason they sound ‘perfectly reasonable’ is because we are not thinking the matter through properly. Imagine if there was a person who always got what they wanted, right from the word ‘go’. The question we have to ask is “Will this person be happy and be in a peaceful, content state all the time?” The answer is of course that they will most definitely not be happy or peaceful – in fact the exact opposite will be true because they will unfailingly be miserable and chronically malcontent, just like a spoilt child is miserable and chronically malcontent.
THE ‘INFANTILE WILL’
One word for this state of affairs is ‘infantilism’ – this term has been used by psychologists because of the way in which an infant seems to experience strong desires, which causes it to make a lot of fuss. If the infant gets what he or she wants then they are content, and so they quieten down, but if they don’t get what they want then they cry a hell of a lot and throw tantrums and generally make life very hard for everyone around them. This sort of behaviour is healthy in an infant – it obviously makes very good sense to let your carers know in no uncertain terms if and when you need something. However, if as an adult I still possess this sort of infantile will (which is the ‘will’ that wants to get what it wants straightaway for no other reason than the fact that it wants it) then this is clearly not at all healthy.
When my wants are unquestionable, and have to be obeyed no matter what, then this is – psychologically speaking – a unmitigated disaster. Given the fact that life can’t be the way I want it to be, the trait of infantilism means that I am going to be more or less permanently vexed! Even if I am a multimillionaire, and I have a hundred servants who will get me whatever I want as soon as I want it, I am still not going to be happy. One reason why I won’t be happy is because my life will have become utterly selfish, utterly self-centred, and there is no person more deeply miserable and unfulfilled than a person who is completely immersed in his or her own self! Another reason is that ‘the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’ (i.e. the more you get the more you want); when I make wanting my god, and exalt it above all else, then wanting becomes my ruination. There is no end to it.
Contrary to our automatic assumption, the gratification of our will in all things does not make us happy. Whoever said that just because I get what I want that will make me happy? This is a crazy idea that we all subscribe to without ever really questioning it. That this should be so is not surprising – after all, we are conditioned by the consumer society we live in to believe that satisfying our ‘wants’ (our so-called ‘needs’) is the way to find personal fulfilment. It makes sense for the consumerism-based society we live in to give us this belief, because then we will keep struggling to buy more, which means that we will have to work more to be able to afford the life-style. The end result is that the whole merry-go-round keeps turning, and the ‘economy’ continues to grow. That is supposed to be what life is all about – how much we ‘need’ (how greedy we are, in other words).
Greed is what drives the economy, as everyone knows, but the only problem with this is that greed never made anyone happy! It might be good for the economy (though in the long run this itself is questionable) but it certainly isn’t good for the individual. Never in the entire history of the human race did a single person ever get happy through trying very hard to be happy, no matter how clever they might have thought they were being about it!
FEEDING OUR OWN WEAKNESS
So that is one good reason why the urge to get things to work out our own way isn’t a good basis to build our life on – it does not result in happiness. Of course, this doesn’t means that if we become obsessed by denying ourselves satisfaction this is going to make us happy either… People are very cunning in the pursuit of happiness and this particular tactic (the tact of self-denial) has already been tried. If I ‘deny myself with the secret agenda of benefiting myself’ this is only going to make me even more miserable, and what is worse, it is going to make me self-righteously miserable into the bargain, which is a thousand times worse and more toxic than normal misery!
The reason self-denial tends to produce sanctimonious but fundamentally miserable people is because it is based on selfishness, (or greed) just as much as self-gratification is, only it is more dishonest. We said a minute ago that if we could obtain self-gratification in all things this would not make us happier people – similarly, if I conceive the wish to deny myself gratification, and I relentlessly enforce this wish, then I am obtaining self-gratification all the same. I am gratifying my wish not to gratify myself! Everything I do is self-gratification really, or at least it is the attempt to achieve self-gratification, and so I cannot escape from my predicament that easily.
VEXATION IS THE KEY
One of the best ways to escape from the trap of my own all-powerful and all-encompassing ‘urge to self-gratify’ is by paying attention to the situations that cause me to experience vexation. Vexations are the key to going beyond my own personal ‘infantile’ will because – as we have already said – vexations represent the way in which the world is not fitting in with my personal will. This means that at the time of being vexed, I actually have the possibility of accepting the fact that my will (which is to say, my wishes) are being flagrantly thwarted. The basic ingredient, luckily for me, is already in place – things are very rarely the way I want them to be!
The mismatch between ‘what I want’ and ‘how things are’ provides an opportunity for freedom for me – it provides an opportunity for me to realize that it doesn’t really matter if I get my own way or not and this is an incredibly valuable lesson. On the one hand, if I always launch straightaway into ‘trying to achieve satisfaction’ this simply reinforces the erroneous idea that my wishes are all-important and on the other hand, if I sit back and reflect on the matter, and refrain from immediately getting 100% preoccupied with seeking satisfaction, then I inevitably discover (in time) that my wishes are not so all-important after all. More than this, if I leave a gap between ‘stimulus’ and response’ I discover that my reaction is not actually helpful in any way since it generally ends up creating more problems than it solves.
My automatic reaction is of course to evaluate the situation of things not being the way I want them to be as ‘unacceptable’, and go straight into control mode. Control mode is where I struggle to change things so they are the way I want them. Now if I am being vexed then the one thing I know for sure is that I am not being successful in my struggle to win out. I am losing and there is nothing I can do about it. After all, that is precisely why I am feeling vexed, or frustrated, or angry, or resentful, etc. Now the fact that my will is being thwarted is good news for me if I want to weaken the ‘automatic urge to always try get my own way’ – and the fact of the matter is that the more I weaken this automatic urge the better off I will be.
Earlier we said that it is impossible to become happy on purpose, by being clever at controlling, or by being good at getting our own way. This is because the more I am successful in getting my own way (i.e. achieving my goals) then the stronger the need to get my own way will become in the future. And when this need is strong that means it will keep cropping up in every situation – time and time again. The ‘urge to get what I want’ will refuse to allow me any peace until I satisfy it, any more than a spoilt child will allow its parents any peace until it gets what it wants. For this reason we can see exactly why it is that we will never be happy until we stop being a slave to the compulsion to always get our own way.
ACTING ON ATTACHMENT FEEDS ATTACHMENT
Actually, we can see that the desire to ‘win out’ is bound to make us unfree as well as unhappy, because this urge is based on the motivation of fear and greed. Maybe I am in a bad situation and I am afraid of what will happen if I don’t get out of it, or maybe I see something that I badly want and I am afraid of not getting it. Either way, if I act on the urge that I am feeling then I feed the motivation of fear and greed and make it stronger. When this dual motivation (which is sometimes called attachment) becomes strong in my life, then I have precious little freedom left because I always have to obey either my fear or my greed.
This shows that even if I don’t succeed in getting my own way all the time, but do keep on trying, I am still strengthening my attachments. Therefore, it is not my own well-being, my own mental health that I am striving for – I am striving on behalf of my attachments and my attachments are against me. My attachments are the very thing that takes away from my well-being, my peace of mind and my happiness. This is a strange way of looking at things, but it is true nevertheless – most of the effort I put into fretting and struggling on what I take to be my behalf, is actually on behalf of the attachments that ceaselessly work against me to degrade whatever quality of life I have.
WANTING TO GET RID OF ATTACHMENTS
Attachments are straightforward enough to free ourselves from just so long as I am genuinely willing to take on the job, and I am able to see what is going on clearly. However, the whole point about attachments is that they distort our understanding and this makes it very hard to see things clearly. I keep thinking that what the attachment wants, I want, and this is the problem in a nutshell.
‘Wanting’ is the very thing that trips me up, time and time again. If I see that I have a particular attachment, and I want to undo the hold that it has over me, then this ‘wanting’ (and the ‘trying’ that comes from it) is itself attachment. I am attached to the idea of getting rid of my attachment (which is to say, I am negatively attached to attachment) and so what improvement is there in this?
We can also put this in terms of vexation: suppose that I realize that the ‘enemy’ is not what I am getting vexed about, but my automatic tendency to get vexed when things don’t go my way. This is the key insight, but the problem is that I want to change (or ‘correct’) this state of affairs. How I want to be is ‘not vexed’, how I actually am is ‘vexed’, and so once again reality fails to fit in with my wishes. What happens next of course is that I get vexed with myself for being vexed.
The pain of seeing that the reality is not what I wanted it to be acts as an instantaneous stimulus for me to go into control mode – even though there is absolutely no way for me to control myself so that I am no longer vexed. It is crucial to understand that I cannot make a goal of being ‘not vexed’ –
The reason for this is that the state of not being vexed is the state of ‘non-attachment’, and I cannot make a goal of being non-attached because goals are by definition attachments…!
There is absolutely no way around this one – ‘being vexed’ is what happens when I don’t succeed in attaining my goal, and so if I make a goal of ‘not being vexed’ and I fail to succeed in this goal (which I will do for the reason that we have just given) then what is going to happen is that I am going to get vexed. I am going to be vexed with myself for being vexed, so now I am doubly vexed!
ABSOLUTE NEED IS UNCONSCIOUS
So what is the answer? To put it as simply as possible, the answer is to see all this clearly. If I see the attachment, and if I also clearly see the absurdity (or impossibility) of trying to do anything about the attachment, then this seeing is itself ‘non-attachment’. Attachment means that I have to do something, or not do something, which is ‘absolute need’. But absolute need is an unconscious sort of a thing,
Because the need is absolute, it governs me absolutely and all I can do is try to work out how to fulfil it – nothing else matters but this. But if I can do something that is not connected to this need – such as seeing the attachment for what it is, then this seeing is by definition is non-attachment.
When we say that absolute need is an unconscious sort of thing, this means that all our attention is directed away from it, away from the all-important ‘rule’, towards whatever it is that the rule is about. Nothing else matters, which is another way of saying that we are not allowed the freedom to consider anything that is unconnected with the need. However, the supposed importance of obeying the rule or obeying the need is only a bluff – it is not really important at all. Actually, ‘the need’ is not really a need and ‘the rule’ is not really a rule – the secret is that they only seem like they are ‘absolutely important’ when we are preoccupied in obeying them. Attachments only have power over us when we are ‘unconscious’, in other words. If we ever stop to question them then we would realize that the whole thing is a bluff or a trick, because the one thing that we are always free to do is ‘be aware’. I am always free to see the need, and when I do see the need then I am on the way to becoming free from the need.
CLINGING EQUALS REJECTION
Attachment means that I am absolutely ruled by the need to get things my own way. When I am under the influence of the need then I cannot question it at all – all my energy goes into trying desperately to succeed, even if it is utterly impossible for me to win out I still put all my energy into trying to succeed. Attachment means clinging to how I want things to be no matter what. I cling blindly, I cling because I cannot question the authority of the need that I am feeling, because I cannot see through it. This desperate clinging means that I am rejecting awareness – awareness (or consciousness) is thrown to the dogs, it is jettisoned without a further thought. Clinging is all about refusing to see something, or refusing to accept something. Clinging to ‘YES’ means rejecting ‘NO’, which means that clinging and rejecting are the same thing. The state of clinging/rejecting means that we are trying to separate YES and NO, and when we fight to hold YES and NO apart this is unconsciousness – it is unconsciousness because we are trying to do something that is impossible, and by our very trying we are ignoring the fact that it is impossible. The reason that I cannot separate YES and NO is that by insisting on one, I create the reality of the other; YES and NO are the two ends of the same stick, which is to say –
When I create an ‘issue’ about something by saying that it is absolutely important for me to win the battle, I have enslaved myself to the need not to lose at the same time.
If I say that it is absolutely important for me to win, then at the same time I am saying that it is absolutely important for me not to lose – in other words, losing becomes as real to me as winning. This means that the NO outcome of the struggle becomes as meaningful and as pressing as the YES outcome; in other words, as soon as I create the reality of YES I also create the reality of NO.
‘WORKING WITH REALITY’
Another way of looking at this is to say that whatever it is that I have rejected is a problem to me only because I have rejected it. It is my rejecting that creates the problem. The answer therefore to the problem of my desperate attempt to separate the opposites of ‘win’ and ‘lose’ is to not reject the one outcome, and not cling to the other outcome. This solution is not only simple, it is also very practical and workable. It is practical and workable because what I am rejecting is actually the situation that already exists, and so I don’t have to ‘do’ anything to apply the solution, I just have to see that ‘the way things are is the way that they are’. This is obviously true – if I am desperately fighting to get things to work out the way I want them to, then this means that they must already be the way I don’t want them to be. This has to be so – if things were not ‘the way I don’t want them to be’ then I would not be struggling to get things to be ‘the way I do want them to be’. So if the solution is to let things be the way that they are, which is the way that I don’t want them to be, this is very practical because that is actually already the case. Now, I am working with reality, not against it.
Normally, we do not work with reality, we work against it and this basically means that we are ‘tormenting ourselves’. As we have said before, the state of affairs where ‘things are not the way that I want them’ to be is my opportunity for freedom from attachment. When I react as a result of vexation I am rejecting the one thing that can help me – I am rejecting the chance that I have of being free from vexation. This is due to the distorted (or ‘backwards’) way of seeing things that attachment causes in me – attachment causes me to ‘act against myself’, it causes me to ‘fight against my own best interests’. The end result of the distorted or ‘backwards’ way of understanding things is that I end up constantly haunting myself, so to speak. I am my own affliction – I make the trouble that I am complaining about, I create the whole situation. Another way of explaining this is to say that it is as if I am biting my own flesh, and the pain which this creates causes me to bite even more, in a mad attempt to ‘bite out the pain that the biting is causing’.
In the same sort of way, we can say that the state of being vexed is actually a form of self-tormenting’ because I take a position saying ‘such and such is totally not acceptable’ and then I torment myself about the fact that this is how things are. First I take the absolutely immovable position saying ‘this is totally unacceptable’, which gives me an illusory feeling of power or being in control, and then I notice that things are the way I said they mustn’t be, and this fact torments me. But really it is me tormenting myself because it was me that wilfully chose to pit myself against reality in the first place. I am the one who ‘made the rule’, and then got ‘hung up on the rule’.
But even if I see that I am fighting against myself, fighting against my own best interests, and try to reverse this, I am still no better off. If I see that I am rejecting the way things are, and try to stop myself rejecting the way things are, I am still rejecting the way things are because ‘the way thing are’ is that I am rejecting the way things are. When I try to stop rejecting nothing has changed because I am still rejecting – I am ‘rejecting rejecting’. The situation remains the same – there is me on the one side, which is the place that I don’t want to be, and I am straining towards the other side, which is the place where I do want to be. But the instant I decide to stop rejecting where I am, then the place where I don’t want to be is still where I am, and so I am still straining after the other side, which is of course as unattainable as ever it was.
SEEING THE TRAP
This is the trap of attachment, which is so hard to understand – the trap of attachment is that trying to escape from the trap is the trap!
When I try to do something about attachment, then I am acting on attachment. The attempt to escape attachment is attachment. When I see that the attempt to escape attachment is attachment, then I no longer harbour any hope of manipulating the situation so that it turns out the way I want it to. The key is therefore to ‘stop looking for a way out’ or to ‘stop looking for satisfaction’. This sort of ‘total surrender’ doesn’t come easily because attachment makes me think that what I am fighting for is what I actually need. It makes me think that I am fighting for my own best interests. It makes me think that ‘fighting’ will help me. What will help me is not ‘me desperately trying to help myself’ however – paradoxically, the only thing that will help me is when I give up trying to help myself. Instead of eternally (and so very wearisomely) looking for advantage, I surrender the game – I give up always trying to have my own way. This, at long last, is freedom.
It sounds very peculiar to say that there is such a thing as ‘weak strength’ since it sounds like a contradiction in terms but in actual fact this turns out to be a very handy way of thinking about things. Normally we confuse the two. We mix up weak strength with genuine strength and as a result we get totally confused, but once the difference between the two is made clear, then everything becomes much more straightforward.
We can explain weak strength by saying that it is the strength behind controlling – if I am very good at controlling stuff then this is weak strength pure and simple. Control is always ‘weak strength’. If I am a strong controller I might be able to get my way, but I am not strong. Why this is so becomes more obvious if we take an extreme example and think about a person who is a bit of a ‘control freak’ and has to have control over the people around them. If I feel that I have to have control over you then clearly the reason for this is that I am afraid of what might happen if I don’t control you. I don’t control because I’m ‘strong’, I control because I’m afraid of what might happen if I don’t control. We can say therefore, that the motivation behind weak strength is always fear. If I act like a total tyrant and everyone in my family has to bend over backwards so as not to annoy me (or make me flip my lid) then this is obviously not because I am a genuinely strong person! Quite the contrary is true, I am driven by fear and so I am actually ‘weak’. We are culturally conditioned to think that ‘being in control’ is synonymous with being strong, whereas in reality it is simply a disguised way of being fearful…
DON’T GO THERE…
The weakness we are talking about typically shows itself in the form of inflexibility – if things don’t happen the way I want them to be then I respond either by getting very angry or by getting very upset in one way or another. It doesn’t matter what type of emotional reaction I display, the net result is the same because people tend to let me have my own way. Everyone else bends to fit me, but as we have said this is not because I am strong but because I have ‘weak strength’! We can see how deceptive this can be if we consider a man who reacts when he is challenged by getting angry and roaring loudly and banging his fist on the table. “Don’t go there!” is his message. This looks very much like a display of strength – if I’m doing this then I seem to be a powerful and scary person and everyone else will probably back down from me but the truth of the situation is that I am not strong at all. Obviously I am not strong because the motivation behind my rage is fear; I am afraid of dealing with whatever subject it is that has come up – deep down I feel unable to face it and I react with anger so that I don’t have to. My intimidating behaviour is a smokescreen to cover-up my inner weakness; it is a red herring to distract everyone’s attention away from seeing that I am afraid. What we are calling ‘weak strength’ is a smokescreen to cover up the fact that I am afraid. Controlling is a smokescreen to cover up the fact that I am afraid.
All neurosis comes down to the exercise of weak strength – the type of sheer indefatigable obstinacy or stubbornness that we associate with neurotic patterns of thinking and behaviour is ‘weak strength’ through and through. For example, if I happen to suffer from anorexia then I will give the impression of having iron will power, extreme powers of endurance, and great resistance to other people’s attempts to ‘talk me out of it’, so to speak. I seem to be very strong – in my own (obviously counterproductive) way. Superficially speaking this is true because I will put myself through ordeals that few other people would be able for, and I will stay true to my own convictions no matter what. I will be resolute – I will be supremely determined to continue with my policy of restricting my calorie intake, no matter what the cost. But the point is that all this ‘outward’ strength and apparent autonomy masks a tremendous rigidity or inflexibility – I’m not really doing what I’m doing because I freely choose to but because I don’t have the freedom to do otherwise. Essentially, it could be said that I’m covering up my ‘fear of life’ with my behaviour.
If I happen to suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder then I would show the same incredible perseverance but once again (as is very obvious) this apparent strength comes out of ‘the inability to do otherwise’. I do not act out of freedom (which would be genuine strength) but out of a lack of freedom, which is ‘weak strength’. The same is true for all cases of addiction – for example, if I am addicted to pharmaceutical opiates I will often show incredible cunning and skill and resourcefulness at doing whatever I need to do in order to obtain the drug. But, impressive though this may be on one level, the truth is that in addiction we do whatever we do because we don’t feel that we have any choice in the matter. The deciding factor is our ‘inner weakness’ or ‘need’ – which we just have to obey. The ability to obey the mechanical rules that are governing our lives (and substituting themselves for our true volition) us in a successful and resourceful way is not strength!
The opposite of ‘inner weakness’ is of course ‘inner strength’ and it is this that we are contrasting weak strength with. If weak strength is ‘the strength to react’, then inner (or genuine) strength is the strength not to react – it is the strength to ‘let things happen without being panicked into trying to stop them happening’! We can illustrate this with the example of social anxiety. If I am socially anxious then the main thing that is worrying me is what other people think about me, and how well I am able to ‘keep up my front’. I feel that I need to have the strength to be able to project the image I want to project, and I almost always fail to see that this is not strength at all, but the desire to hide or conceal myself. If I can control my image (my ‘presentation’ of myself) so that I ‘fit in’ then this is – therefore – another example of ‘weak strength’. Being myself, on the other hand (no matter what this entails) would be genuine strength.
We can take a typical sort of scenario just to make the point. Suppose I am sitting in the canteen at work and someone is staring at me. My first thought is usually, “What should I do?” Basically, I want to know what the correct thing to do is under these circumstances and if I am seeing a psychologist or some other sort of mental health worker I will ask them for some sort of strategy. When I ask for a strategy or method what I am really doing is looking for an effective way to control the situation – I am looking for some sort of security so I can say, “Right – this is the correct thing to do. If I do this then everything will be okay…” Now the problem with this is that when I go looking for a method (when I ask “What do I do?”) then this means that I am straightaway assuming that I do not have any inner strength. This is the assumption. I am taking it for granted that I simply am not able to be in that uncomfortable space of having someone staring at me. That is not an option – I have to find some way out. I need a technique, a trick, a gimmick.
When I assume that I don’t have any inner strength then all that is left for me is to rely on my weak strength, which is really a measure of my ‘desperation to avoid’. Weak strength is pure desperation, and this is what I am inevitably thrown back on when I believe I am not able to remain in the difficult situation that I am in. I have to find ways of escaping; I have to develop skills at escaping. I have to get good at ‘dodging the difficulty’. This creates a vicious circle because the more I develop and validate my ‘weak strength’, the more I am conditioning myself to believe that I don’t have any choice. Basically, I train myself to react this way under adversity – I train myself to believe that I don’t have the ability to stay in the difficult situation. I am as a result putting my money on the wrong horse – a horse that will not come in for me in the end.
Actually the question “What should I do?” (when applied to a situation like the one we have just described) is itself a red herring. Asking this question automatically assumes that I have to do something, and of course I don’t. I only have to do something if I believe that I am totally unable to experience mental discomfort (or mental pain) but the fact of the matter is that everyone has as much inner strength as the situation demands. The tougher things get, the more inner strength we find that we have, if only we have the willingness to give it a try. The more we ‘extend ourselves’ (as M Scott Peck puts it) the more we will find that we are able to extend ourselves. Not extending ourselves (or being afraid to extend ourselves) and being stubborn at not doing so equals ‘weak strength’, therefore. This business of ‘extending ourselves’ (or staying in the difficult situation without opting out) comes down to ‘taking a risk’ because at the end of the day there are no guarantees that everything will work out okay, that the sky won’t fall in on us. There is no certainty with regard to outcome, no promise of sure-fire results (which is of course what we want with a ‘tactic’ or a ‘method’). There is no definite goal that we can aim at, that we can keep our eye on. All we can do is ‘go through it anyway and then just see what happens’. All we can do is ‘take a chance’. When we find it within ourselves to do this, then this is inner strength.
This is really just like taking physical exercise to become fitter. The more we exercise the stronger our muscles become and the more stamina we have, which is why it is good to push ourselves physically every now and again! We don’t want to become totally flabby because it doesn’t feel good to be totally flabby (in fact it feels terrible). Obviously, it is counterproductive to try to ‘do too much too soon’ and so we build ourselves up gradually, with patience. We have to respect our limitations before we can overcome them! Building up our inner strength is exactly the same – we start off with small challenges and gradually work our way up the ‘scale of difficult situations’. This takes time and patience but the one thing we know for sure is that every time we use the muscle of our inner strength our capacity to be in a difficult situation increases. There is no one that this is not true for – there are no people without inner strength, only people who do not have faith in their inner strength! When we deliberately set out to put ourselves in difficult situation without have any ‘method’ to what we are doing, simply being in the uncomfortable space without yearning for a particular outcome, then this is ‘psychological work’. Psychological work is ‘being there unaided, on your own, with no handy comfort zone or security blanket to cling on to.’ This is also the very same thing as ‘being alive’ (or ‘being in reality’), when it comes right down to it!
THE WORLD IS MY GYMNASIUM
Usually, when painful or uncomfortable situations come our way, we bemoan our bad luck and complain with gusto about the uncaring universe that treats us so badly. But once we start looking at each of these difficult situations as an opportunity to do psychological work and increase our mental ‘fitness’ then this changes our entire outlook. If it were not for the difficulties then I would never learn that there is such a thing as inner strength. I would stay flabby! I would stay ‘un-extended’! I would remain ‘untransformed’! I would never find out that I actually do have this resource of inner strength to draw and so I would continue to live life in a superficial or shallow (and therefore deeply unsatisfying) way. And what is more – I wouldn’t even get to escape any suffering this way because the suffering that comes from avoiding life (the suffering that comes from obstinately refusing to extend ourselves) is the worse type of suffering of all! There is nothing worse than this.
What this means is that I can now see the world as my own private ‘state of the art’ gymnasium which contains absolutely everything I need in order to reach peak fitness! No one can deny this – no one can deny that the world contains unlimited difficulties and challenges! A regular gymnasium costs money to subscribe to and even when I am a paid-up member I may not be able to make time to visit it. I probably won’t go even half as much as I intended. I might only go once and waste my subscription money! But when the arena of everyday life is my gymnasium there is no charge and I am in it 24 hours per day! What a fantastic opportunity for training! The opportunities for benefit are immense – in fact the opportunities for self-transformation are more profound and more far-reaching than we are capable of realizing.
This is very ironic really because as we have said when annoying, frustrating or difficult situations come along I am invariably aggrieved and complain vigorously about them. Here I am being presented with top-quality opportunities to ‘work out’ and increase my inner strength, and what do I do but complain about it? There is no pleasing me! An impartial observer would have to conclude that I am fond of my own weakness and want to hang onto it at any cost. I of course do not tend to see things this way because I think my refusal to change or learn is ‘strength’. Perversely, I see my ability to stubbornly resist growing, to resist extending myself, to resist developing inner strength as being a worthwhile form of strength in itself!
In conclusion, when I wilfully and aggressively assert or hold on to what I want, and stubbornly fight against or refuse what I don’t want, this can appear to be evidence of strength on my part, but really it is weak (or ‘false’) strength. It is the outward appearance of strength that covers up my inner weakness. If I ‘cover up my inner weakness’ then what this means is that I am too afraid to face the truth of this weakness. If on the other hand I am able to allow myself to be afraid or hurt or vulnerable, then this apparent ‘weakness’ is actually a sign of inner strength.
Psychologically speaking therefore, if I am not afraid to be weak (i.e. vulnerable) then I am strong.