Transforming Pain

The everyday self is a self which ‘reacts’ automatically whilst believing the whole time that it is perfectly free. This self is characterized by the fact that it cannot (of its own free will) endure pain; it can put up with a certain amount of discomfort if it knows that it will get something out of it, but this is strictly ‘conditional acceptance’. If at all possible the ‘reactional self’ will avoid any sort of discomfort and it is extremely clever at doing this. It can even pretend to accept discomfort, and fool itself that it wants to accept discomfort, simply as a ploy to avoid it. Actually, everything this reactive self does is conditioned by its need to avoid pain, and ‘pain’ can be understood to also include receiving information that it does not want to receive.

 

For this self (which we will from now on call the ‘false self’) finding out that everything it does is motivated by the need to avoid pain is itself pain, and so it will assiduously avoid this awareness. Similarly, the false self cannot endure to learn that it is in fact incapable of enduring pain, and so it will avoid learning this too, and persist in believing that it can do anything it wants. This self-deception constitutes the ‘false freedom’ of the false self.

 

Once we understand that everything the false self does is motivated by ‘self-interest’, then it becomes obvious why the false self must avoid pain. From its inevitably narrow and short-sighted point of view there can be no reason whatsoever to accept pain. In a fundamental way, accepting pain just doesn’t make sense to it, and its inability to understand why it should is, as we have said, the defining characteristic of its nature. To unconditionally accept pain is an irrational, unselfish and unpredictable act and the false self is always rational, always selfish, always predictable.

 

What we have said so far allows us to pinpoint the precise nature of our predicament and this understanding can be expressed in the form of two linked statements:

[1] We are faced with pain that we cannot evade.

[2] We are identified with (or trapped within) the false self that cannot do other than continually attempt to avoid pain.

Clearly, the only answer to this predicament is to disidentify with the false self, to free myself from it, and the only way for me to do this is stop refusing the legitimate pain of my situation. But this is exactly what I can’t do! How can I do this, when it goes so completely against the grain of the false self that I am trapped within?

 

This feels like an impossibility, but there is a way, all the same. The key to ‘switching over’ from the false to the true self is by allowing the difficult experience we are undergoing to connect us to others, rather than letting it isolate us in sterile self-concern. It is possible to do this simply by thinking of someone who we feel love or compassion for: as soon as I feel the spark of compassion for someone else, then instead of trapping me in myself, in my disconnectedness, the pain naturally has the effect of relating me to something that is outside of me. The moment this happens I find that my pain is no longer ‘my’ pain; it is simply pain – it is not special to me, or belonging only to me, rather it is the same pain that we all suffer from, it is universal pain, it is part of the universal experience of life that we all share.

 

At this point pain becomes interesting because it is relating me to life itself – from it I am learning about something real, something bigger than ‘me’. Because it has become interesting I do not have the automatic reaction of putting all my energy into trying to push it away, and when I am no longer try to fight it or push it away the pain no longer traps me in myself. The curious fact (that we never stop to discover) is that fighting pain creates a false self that cannot ever truly escape pain, and if there is no fighting, no attempt to stay in control, there is no self to be trapped in.

 

Feeling concern for someone other than myself instantly connects me to the True Self, and from the standpoint of the True Self (which is the absence of the ‘small’ or false self) pain is not something that has to be avoided at all costs. The True Self, which is the essence of who we are, is not afraid of pain and is not harmed by pain. The greater the difficulty, the greater the challenge, the more the True Self rises to meet it. This is because there are no limits to what it can bear and what it can do – the only limitations are those which arise due to our own lack of understanding regarding this fact.

 

When I relate to pain in a closed way (i.e. in an avoidance-type way), then the experience that I have as a result is ultimately meaningless and I am effectively cut off from Reality itself. This is a disastrous situation because when I am cut off from reality I am cut off from my own strength and intelligence and as a result I can bear nothing and understand nothing. All I can do is endlessly attempt to hide behind layer after layer of self-deception. When I relate to pain in an open way, then as we have said the experience is meaningful and I discover that I can bear more than I thought I could, and understand more than I thought I could. In fact, I become as the result of my experience more than I was.

 

By relating to my own pain, I become able to relate to the pain of others. By shouldering my own pain, I become able to shoulder the pain of others. This gives genuine meaning to my experience because not only am I changed by what I am going through, I am changed in such a way that I become more useful to others, more useful to life. This transforms my experience of pain from being a sad and futile attempt to escape the inevitable into a ‘noble venture’, an adventure which takes me deeper and deeper into Reality. The pain itself is being transformed into wisdom and compassion; by breaking out of the sterile bubble of my own self-concern I develop a keen appreciation of the situation of others, along with the motivation to use this awareness in the service of a higher cause.

 

Beforehand, my pain was pure persecution – it was wholly against me, wholly negative and wholly ‘going nowhere’. Now, it helps me, it is PRO rather than ANTI, and it takes me somewhere real – it actually makes my life mean something. The important thing to understand about all this is that we can’t turn the experience around intentionally. We cannot transform pain on purpose because the ‘purpose’ in question always belongs to the false self; if there is purposefulness then there is a secret agenda behind that apparently positive purposefulness, and that secret agenda is always the same, i.e. it is the agenda of the false self to maintain itself at whatever cost. Transformation from unreal (or ‘theatrical’) to real (or ‘dramatic’) only occurs when the false self’s secret agenda is dropped, which is to say, when we give up, on a very deep level, the attempt to escape or control the pain.

 

As we have said, the key to the whole process is to dedicate the experience that we are going through to a ‘higher cause’. This makes the experience precious, rather than worthless, and this is a tremendous turnaround. This has nothing to do with rationalizing what is going on (i.e. saying “I am doing X because of Y”); it is not our head that we are relying on but our heart. Instead of a ‘shrewd calculation of ways and means’ (as Oscar Wilde puts it), we are trusting our heart, and we are tuning into the heart-felt desire to free others from their suffering, which springs naturally and spontaneously from the heart when the head does not get in the way.

 

Freedom is not obtained for selfish (or rational) reasons; it is not for myself that I go through what I am going through – if it were only for myself, then I would not be able to go through it. The strength and inspiration that I need in order to undertake the Internal Task of self-transformation comes from outside of the false self. There is never any shortage of strength and wisdom, only a shortage of faith. As a Buddhist text says – the harvest is abundant, but what is not abundant are workers who are willing to bring it in!

 

When we are identified with the false self we cannot avail of this ‘harvest’ since the false self has no faith in anything outside itself. Because of fear, it only trusts its own cleverness, and this is its downfall. The false self has a very simple behaviour pattern: it chases pleasure and it flees pain, and the result of this short-sighted motivation is that it goes forever around in circles. The circle it moves in is a circle of frustration since the whole endeavour is an exercise in unreality, an attempt to have one end of the stick without the other.

 

According to Alan Watts this circle of frustration comes into being because of our constant endeavour to be permanently ‘one-up on ourselves’, when the fact of the matter is that we can only be ‘up’ half the time, and must spend the other half ‘down’. The false self wants to be the winner of its game all the time, but what goes up must also come down, and so there is no winning without losing. No sooner does it obtain what it was craving for, than it has lost it, and must start the whole process over again. Overall, this is a self-frustrating circle of activity because whatever gains we may seem to have made at one point are inevitably lost later on, bringing us back to square one with nothing to show for our trouble.

 

If pain is not rejected, but used as fuel in the way that G.I. Gurdjieff speaks of to propel ourselves on the journey to freedom, then it takes us somewhere new, somewhere we could not even have imagined. This journey into the unknown is the journey of life itself, and the meaningfulness of the journey is the meaningfulness of life. It is the self-cancelling circularity which makes the ‘life’ of the false self essentially meaningless, and it is the movement out of this terrible circularity that gives us back the meaning of our lives.

 

Beforehand, I was isolated from life as a result of my insistence on acting only for myself, acting only out of blind selfishness. After the turnaround has taken place I find that I am acting in the service of life, instead of acting against it, and so everything that happens to me from now on goes on to have positive, helpful consequence. From then on everything that happens to me is equally beneficial, as Ram Dass says, it is all ‘grist for the mill’. Even if absolutely everything goes wrong for me, I can still work with it – the overall process of becoming increasingly free (and becoming increasingly ‘useful’ as a result) is not jeopardized.

 

The basic idea is that when difficult situations come along, we can go down one of two roads. The easiest road (the one we take by sheer reflex) is to identify with the false self. If we succumb to the temptation to do this, then all we have done is to dig an even deeper hole for ourselves than the one we were in to start off with. This is extreme short-sightedness; it is like the idea of the ostrich which was said to bury its head in sand when danger threatens. By identifying ourselves with the false self we alienate ourselves from the reality of what is going on, and at the same time we alienate ourselves from the only thing that can help us – the truth. What a wretched, miserable thing this is, to be stuck indefinitely in a situation that I dare not face.

 

If we take the other road, then as we have said, even the most dreadful circumstances are workable. The other road is where we use the pain of our situation as fuel to propel us beyond the deadly gravitational field of the false self. The rule here is simple: the worse the predicament, the more fuel we are given.

 

 

 

 

 

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Accepting Our Own Non-Acceptance

One of the biggest delusions that we are up against when we start practicing mindfulness (and there are many) is the delusion that we can (and indeed ought to) ‘accept ourselves’. This erroneous belief translates into a lot of frustration, a lot of suffering. It is therefore crucially important to realize – before we move on to anything else – that accepting ourselves is not something that we can ever do on purpose.

 

The very idea that we can or ought to be able to accept ourselves (or accept anything else for that matter) is self-contradictory – if I am trying to accept myself then clearly the reason for this is that I am not accepting of myself and so what I’m actually doing here – as Alan Watts says – is that I am ‘rejecting my own non-acceptance of myself’. So what I’m actually doing isn’t acceptance at all – ‘its non-acceptance flying under the flag of acceptance’. The way that I actually am is not-accepting and rather than accepting this non-acceptance of mine and seeing it in an impartial or unbiased way I am rejecting it – I’m rejecting it because I’m trying to change it. What I am really doing here is ‘rejecting myself as I actually am’ and this is – of course – exactly what I normally do anyway. Nothing has changed therefore – I’m at my old tricks again (as usual) and yet I’m hoping that things will somehow work out differently this time.

 

Acceptance can never happen as a result of a deliberate action or strategy on our part. Deliberate or purposeful action always comes out of our thinking and anything that happens as a result of thinking always comes about as a result of our non-acceptance of the way things actually are. Thought can never accept and acceptance isn’t a thought! We only think when we are interested in changing the way things are – if we were happy with things being the way that they are then where’s the need to think, where’s the need to control? If we don’t want to change anything then where’s the need for a method or strategy? Leaving things as they already are doesn’t require any strategizing, after all. There’s no problem and so there’s no need to intervene. Things can be ‘left as they are’ and so where’s the need for striving? Thought isn’t acceptance. Thought is resistance and resistance is thought, and this is all we ever know, generally speaking. We are all ‘addicted to control’ and if there are problems we automatically assume that this is because we’re not controlling effectively enough…

 

‘Acceptance’ has nothing to do with control – the one is the antithesis of the other. We can of course try to control ourselves to accept – we can try to control ourselves to accept until we’re blue in the face but it won’t do us any good! It won’t do us any good because we’re caught up in a self-contradicting struggle; we’re in a loop – we’re trying to control ourselves to stop controlling. So what can we do then? How do we free ourselves from the self-contradiction of trying to ‘accept on purpose’? The key to this apparently impossible dilemma is simply to notice the way things are, and getting better at leaving a gap between us ‘noticing the way things are’ and our automatic reacting, our automatic attempt to ‘do something about the situation that we have just noticed’. We’re can’t create a gap on purpose because control (or purposefulness) always ‘closes the gap’ – purposefulness is all about closing the gap between the way things are and the way we want them to be. What we can do however is to take an interesting in noticing the process that is taking place when we ‘automatically react’. Normally we don’t ‘notice ourselves reacting’, we just react and that is it. All of our energy, all of our ‘interest’ goes into the reacting and there is none left over to notice anything!

 

There is always a gap there between the awareness of what is going on and our automatic reacting to it (which is our thinking) and so just as soon as we do take an interest in the proceedings we will sooner or later notice it. The noticing itself is the gap, when it comes down to it – whenever we are aware of something there must always be a gap because without a gap between the noticing and the reacting there actually isn’t any noticing! This means that we aren’t creating a gap but rather we are just taking the time to get in touch with our own awareness, the awareness that was there all the time. Our awareness is never not there – it is just hidden beneath all the thinking, beneath all the reacting, all the compulsive goal-orientated activity. Another way of making this point is to say that the ‘key to everything’ is simply to be open to the truth. We simply have to notice the truth of what is going on without needing to worry about either accepting or not accepting it. So instead me of trying to ‘accept myself’ I just see the truth of the matter, which is that I do not accept myself. I own up to the fact that I am not at all accepting of myself and so there is no contradiction here. There is no contradiction and there is no needed for any sort of straining or striving. ‘The seeing is the doing’, says Krishnamurti.

 

What is really happening here is that we are taking back our freedom not to have to be scheming and calculating all the time. Only we’re not ‘taking it back’ because we had never really lost it in the first place. We’re just reconnecting with it. Somehow what happens to us is that we get ‘taken over by our own cleverness’ (so to speak) and as a result of being ‘taken over’ in this way by the rational faculty we think that cleverness (or rationality) is the answer to everything. We don’t have anything else but our cleverness – it’s as if we are our cleverness, it’s as if we are the rational intellect, whilst the truth of the matter is that we are much, much more than this. We are far more than just our rational-computational faculty – what we really are is this ‘capacity to unconditional accept’ that we have been talking about. The rational mind is pure and simply a system of limitations, it is the ‘incapacity to unconditionally accept’, whilst who we are in our essence is unlimited. It could be said that the thinking mind is a structure, whilst who we are in our essence isn’t any kind of ‘structure’ at all but the space within which all structures exist. We are this ‘all-accepting, all-facilitating space’, not the events that happen within it…

 

It sounds peculiarly passive (and therefore irresponsible) to say that we are our true nature ‘accepts everything’ – that sounds to us like being a doormat, as the expression has it. But awareness doesn’t accept in the sense of ‘passively going along with things’, it accepts in the sense of not being afraid of anything. Whatever is there it sees unflinchingly, in other words; it has no ‘preference’ about what it sees. When we put it like this therefore we can see that being ‘all-accepting’ isn’t a sign of weakness at all but rather it is an indication of tremendous strength. Our true or inherent nature is this tremendous strength therefore – it is the quality of strength that doesn’t need to ‘do something about it’. It is our false ‘cleverness’ that always needs to be ‘doing something about our situation’, that always has to have tactics and strategies ready at hand; it is our cleverness or trickiness that is weak and which, because of its weakness, always has to ‘go along with things’. It goes along with its own need to control, its own need to ‘prop itself up’. The thinking mind accuses unconditioned consciousness of being weak when in reality it is completely the other way around! Thought is always resisting because it always has a position to defend; awareness on the other hand has no need to resist because it is not tied to any precarious position that it needs to protect.

 

If we think that we ‘have to accept ourselves’ then this impression or belief is coming out of weakness rather than strength. If I feel that I need to ‘do something about my situation’ then this feeling comes out of my weakness not my strength. It is coming from my false idea of who I am, not who I actually am! Resistance (and also fear) always comes out of a false idea of who I am! ‘How then do I overcome my weakness?’ I might ask. I most probably will ask this. But the glitch here is clear – as soon as I feel that I have to do something about my situation and try to act on the basis of this impression then I am acting on the basis of weakness. Trying to remedy my weakness is a manifestation of weakness just as trying to overcome my fear is a manifestation of fear. We’re only going around in circles here. I’m not making things better no matter what I do; I am making problems no matter what tack I take. I am compounding weakness with yet more weakness, I am trying to overcome fear with more fear and this is just not going to help me…

 

When we see this glitch everything tends to seem utterly hopeless. How can I possibly get out of this? Every time I try to do something about my situation I am acting out of weakness and if I try to do something about that then I am still acting out of weakness. And yet at the same time I can’t not react; I am powerless – it seems – not to try to ‘do something about it’. I am compelled to try to fix or correct my situation. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of cope here therefore. There doesn’t seem to be any scope – the situation shows every indication of being a dead loss! What’s ‘hopeless’ however isn’t the situation but our distorted understanding of it; what’s ‘hopeless’ is our proposed ability to purposefully get things to be the way we want them to be. That’s a ‘no go’ for sure but nothing else is. Everything else is working just fine, just as it always did, just as it always will do. The insurmountable problems only exist in our rational/purposeful understanding, in other words.

 

Who we are in reality isn’t the idea that we have of ourselves; who we really are isn’t the limited and brittle concept we have of ourselves and so it doesn’t really matter that resolving the problem in the way that the mind-created image of ourselves would like to see it resolved is a ‘no go’. That doesn’t matter at all. It seems to matter an awful lot when we are identified with the mind-created image of who we are but because the impression that the mind-created self has of the situation is entirely illusory, entirely without substance, the fact that we think that there is an insurmountable problem isn’t a genuine obstacle! It’s just the illusory appearance of an obstacle – it’s the illusory appearance of a problem that is taken very serious by the imagined idea of who we think we are. The view that the self-concept has of the situation is illusory (just as that imagined self is) and this brings us to the crux of the matter. The concept of ourselves which is who we think we are can’t accept anything unconditionally – it simply doesn’t have the capacity to do so since it itself is a ‘conditional’ entity. But this doesn’t matter because it was never up to this fragile sense of self to do the ‘accepting’ – only consciousness, which is who we really are, can unconditionally accept.

 

As we cease to believe so much that we are this narrow and brittle little ‘idea of ourselves’ our capacity to accept (or be present with) our situation increases. This ‘capacity’ increases because we’re not relying upon an illusion to do the accepting, because we’re not relying on an illusion to be present! Unconditioned awareness accepts everything because it is its nature to do so not because we are requiring it to do so, or because we are instructing it to do so, and this shows the essential difference between the self and awareness:

 

The self operates on the basis of being told (or instructed) what to do and its nature is to resist (or judge), whilst awareness does what is in its nature to do (without the need to be directed or controlled) and its nature is to be impartial to everything, just as the sun shines impartially on everything or just as the rain falls impartially on everything.

 

Awareness and the conditioned self ‘run on two very different principles’, so to speak.We often hear the definition of mindfulness or being mindful as ‘being aware of what is happening as it is happening without judging what is happening’ and this is fine – the only thing about this is that the self can never refrain from judging, any more than the rational mind can refrain from analyzing or classifying things. To ask the self not to judge (i.e. to require the self to ‘unconditionally accept’) is to ask for the impossible. But we can clearly see that the conditioned self can never ‘not judge’, and this is a basic psychological insight. This is something that we can ‘get’. When we do see this then it could be said that we are ‘accepting ourselves as we are’, or that we are ‘accepting ourselves for what we are’. But the point about this is that the self is not unconditionally accepting the self here (that could never happen, as we have said), but rather we are being aware of the self and its nature (without judging it for having the nature that it does have), which is a very different thing.

 

 

 

 

 

Being Alive To Difficulty

In Chapter 71 of the Tao Te Ching we read the following:

It is by being alive to difficulty that one can avoid it. The sage meets with no difficulty. It is because he is alive to it that he meets with no difficulty.

When we are not alive (or awake) to difficulties then it is of course a very different matter! When we are not awake to the difficulties that come our way then we automatically try to push them away, full of nameless fear at their approach. When we’re not alive to difficulties then these difficulties take on a particular oppressive character to us; as everyone knows, when we’re afraid of something and try to run away rather than steadily facing it then whatever it is that we’re running away from has hugely more power over us. The fears then become fully-fledged terrors. The oppressive nature of what we are trying to avoid is not an intrinsic property of the thing itself however but simply a reflection of our own avoidant attitude. We’re assuming that the difficulty is something terrible – the fact that we are afraid to look it in the face is the manifestation of our attitude, and when we perceive that difficulty or problem as being our actual ‘nemesis’, so to speak, then as we have said what we are deludedly perceiving here is nothing other than our attitude reflected back at us.

 

When we’re not awake then anything that comes along as a difficulty or problem that needs to be solved simply reflects back at us our own reluctance to wake up. We don’t want to wake up. Sleep is sweet, as Gurdjieff says, whilst waking up is very bitter. We don’t recognize that we are ‘reluctant to wake up’ of course because when we’re asleep we always see everything backwards. We don’t recognize anything for what it is – if we did then we’d be awake. Saying that we’re not awake is another way of saying that that we’re ‘closed down’ and being ‘closed down’ simply means that we only ever perceive the meanings that we ourselves have projected upon the world. We live in a closed world therefore – a world that is made up of our own unacknowledged or unrecognized projections. According to Jung:

Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face. In the last analysis, therefore, they lead to an autoerotic or autistic condition in which one dreams a world whose reality remains forever unattainable…

We live therefore in a personalized or tailor-made ‘private’ world that is made up of our own unconscious (or unexamined) attitude being reflected right back at us, as if it actually existed in the ‘objective world’. When we are in this shut-down state then the real world is hidden from us by ‘the wall of the imagination’, as Gurdjieff says here:

Man is immersed in dreams… He lives in sleep… He is a machine. He cannot stop the flow of his thoughts, he cannot control his imagination, his emotions, his attention… He does not see the real world. The real world is hidden from him by the wall of imagination.

Our ‘reluctance to wake up’ always translates into aggression. This reluctance is aggression. When difficulties come along then as we have said we automatically try to push them away and the force of this pushing is the tangible manifestation of the degree to which we do not wish to wake up! We don’t recognize what we’re pushing away because recognizing things for what they are is not what we want to do – we wish very much to not recognize them, our entire effort is very much directed towards not being aware of what is going on. ‘Not being aware of what is going on’ is the game that we’re playing; that’s the whole point of what we’re doing…

 

So because we don’t recognize our own aggression we automatically personalize everything – the difficulties or challenges that are coming our way get personalized as an attack on us (just as someone who disagrees with what we’re saying will be seen as attacking us when we are unconsciously identified with our position). The world gets split into two halves, two possibilities – either it is for us or against us! Difficulties take on an oppressive, persecutory nature for us and because they have taken on this nature we fight back at them all the more. We push them away all the more. This of course confirms our original aggressive attitude – fighting against challenges confirms them as being something that need to be fought against. Aggression creates enemies, in other words.

 

Aggression on our part that we aren’t aware of manifests as a hostile environment that we have to fight against therefore, and when we do have this distorted perception our automatic attitude of aggression is validated and this creates a self-reinforcing circle of illusion that we get helplessly caught up in. We get caught up in it precisely because we don’t recognize our role in it – we don’t recognize that it is our own belligerence, our own hostility that is hemming us in on all sides. Rather than question our fundamental aggression we assume it as universal principle, a basic rule of existence. It’s a dog eat dog world, we say, unaware that we are at the same time both ‘the dog that eats’ and ‘the dog that gets eaten’. As Wei Wu Wei says in Why Lazarus Laughed

When you give a shilling to a beggar – do you realise that you are giving it to yourself?

 

When you help a lame dog over a stile – do you realise that you yourself are being helped?

 

When you kick a man when he is down – do you realise that you are kicking yourself?

 

Give him another kick – if you deserve it!

Our reluctance to recognize our own projections is the same thing as ‘our reluctance to wake up’. To recognize our projections for what they are is to wake up. We could also say therefore that our reluctance to waking up is the same thing as our reluctance to seeing that we are asleep; needless to say, we don’t see or experience ourselves as being ‘asleep’ in daily life – we would, on the contrary, swear blind that we are perfectly conscious, thank you very much. If challenged on this point we would insist – most vehemently – that we are awake and that we do not live – therefore – in closed world that has been created by the simple expedient of ‘ignoring anything that does not match our expectations or assumptions’. Such vehemence is of course entirely characteristic of the unconscious or ‘shut-down’ state of being. We’re vehement (or aggressive) because we’re in a state of conflict with the truth!

 

We ‘close down’ (or ‘shut off’) by refusing to acknowledge any order of being other than the one we already know about. This is the trick to closing down – this is how we do it. As soon as we do this we straightaway fall asleep – the removal of any possibility of anything genuinely new ever happening is the definition of being shut down. We’re shut down to life itself, since life is always new. The removal of the possibility of anything genuinely new ever happening turns reality into a game and when we play a game without knowing that we are playing it we are ‘asleep’. All we ever do in this state is to recycle old patterns over and over again – that’s all we ever can do!

 

Even though we have shut down, and do not recognize any order of being other than the one we already know about, this does not of course mean that reality as a whole does not in some way ‘impinge’ upon us. This is – needless to say – inherent in the nature of reality. Reality, being real, cannot be ignored with impunity! So in very simple terms, what this means is that there is always going to be something to ‘rock the boat’, even though it goes against what we want to see happening, even though we have made this unquestionable rule that ‘the boat must never be rocked’.

 

This way of expressing things makes it clear just how ‘brittle’ our situation is – we have (implicitly) said that the only world there is is the world that we know and are familiar with. We have put all our money on this; without realizing that this is what we have done, we have ‘made a bet’ that this is the case. But evidence is always coming up showing that what we have taken to be true isn’t true, that the order of being that we know and are familiar with isn’t the only one, and so we have to fight against this evidence without seeing it as ‘evidence’. We have to do our utmost to ‘stabilize our boat’ and this ‘stabilization process’ means referring to the evidence that shows we have placed a bet on the wrong horse as ‘errors’ that need to be corrected. Instead of seeing that we are ‘wrong’, therefore, we make reality wrong.

 

‘Making reality wrong’ is a very brittle business, however. It’s a wretched business. We have placed all our well-being in the one basket and that basket is the basket of reality being wrong rather than us. We have made a rule saying that the boat mustn’t ever be rocked, that it is very bad indeed if the basket is rocked, yet the stability of the boat depends entirely upon our half-baked assumptions about reality being true. The stability of our bat depends entirely upon there being no order of being other than the one we know and are so deeply familiar with. Our sense of well-being in the world is thus always going to be under serious threat.

 

A sage is one who does not put all his eggs in the basket of ‘him being right and the universe being wrong’. A sage is one who doesn’t put any eggs in that basket – only a fool would do that! A sage is one who doesn’t mind his (or her) boat being rocked, in other words. Whether we live life in a brittle, aggressive way or in a peaceful and secure way depends on how we look at things, therefore. If I say that my way of understanding the world is the right way and that no other way exists then I am creating a world of brittleness for myself and a world of brittleness is a world of suffering. There are always going to be cracks appearing and I am (as a result) forever having to try to paper them over. Life very quickly comes down to this futile endeavour of ‘papering over the cracks’. There are difficulties and problems everywhere. This is what life is like when we are asleep, when we are closed down to reality itself. We engaged in a gruelling and fruitless ‘fight against the truth’, even though we are quite incapable of seeing this.

 

But we don’t of course have to make this rule that ‘my way of understanding the universe is the only way’ (or that ‘my way of being in the world is the only way’). If we don’t make this rule, if we don’t put all our eggs in this basket, then every time our boat gets rocked it isn’t bad news. Each time my boat gets rocked this means that I am learning something new and if I am ‘learning something new’ then this means that I am finding out that the universe is a bigger, deeper and more mysterious place than I previously thought it was. What could be a better thing to learn than this? What could be more exciting and thrilling than this? Of course, if I have put all my eggs in the basket of ‘the universe being what I say it is’ then the discovery that the world is a bigger than I thought it was isn’t going to be exciting or thrilling at all. In this case it’s not going to be the most wonderful discovery there ever could be – on the contrary, this discovery is going to manifest to me as ‘the most terrifying thing there ever could be’…

 

 

There Is No Such Thing As Useful Thinking

There’s no such thing as ‘helpful thinking’ as far as working with neurosis is concerned. There is absolutely no such thing as ‘a way of thinking that can help untangle us from neurotic patterns of thinking and behaving’. This is like saying that there’s ‘no such thing as useful thinking’ when it comes to telling the truth – if we have to think about it then we’re avoiding the truth, not telling it! Neurosis may be defined as the avoidance or attempted avoidance of pain that is legitimately ours (which is to say, pain that actually belongs to us). ‘Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering’, says Jung – it’s what we do instead of suffering. The reason neurosis is recognized as a problem is of course because as time goes on it has a way of becoming more and more painful itself, until it actually reaches the point where it is more painful than the suffering we were originally avoiding! This brings us to the nub of our argument – there is no such thing as useful or helpful thinking when it comes to neurotic patterns of pain avoidance (we may say) because thought itself is a form of pain-avoidance. Thought is therefore not the least bit of good when it comes to not avoiding our legitimate pain!

 

It sounds wrong to say that thought is itself a form of pain-avoidance – can’t thinking be used to solve our problems after all, and isn’t solving problems a way of meeting them head-on instead of running away from them? Isn’t solving problems ‘doing something about it’? Isn’t that a good thing? This is always a good source of confusion – we naturally feel that being proactive and tackling our problems before they can get the better of us is the healthy thing to do, the optimal thing to do, but this is simply not the case when it comes to legitimate pain. If legitimate pain is pain that actually belongs to us then solving this pain – so that it is no longer painful – is simply another form of avoidance. It might be ‘pro-active avoidance’, but its avoidance all the same.  Suppose I feel ashamed because I have done wrong to someone – is this pain that I should try to avoid? Or suppose I am grief-stricken because someone dear to me has died – is there a ‘right way’ to think about my loss to make the suffering I am going through more manageable? Is it by any stretch of the imagination ‘mentally healthy’ if I do find a way to rationalize either my behaviour in the first example or my loss in the second? Very clearly it is not in the least bit ‘healthy’, although we are course unlikely to see this so clearly at the time…

 

It sounds wrong to say that there is no such thing as helpful thinking when it comes to working with mental or emotional pain. Our whole emphasis – as a culture – is on trying to find the right way to think. Our whole emphasis is on managing emotions, managing stress, managing anxiety, and ‘managing’ means thinking about it. ‘Managing’ is all about skills and methods and tools and strategies and so on and all of this is thought. It’s nothing else but thinking. How can there be no such thing as helpful thinking? This amounts to heresy in this control-based culture of ours. But suppose that our problem is that the mind won’t stop thinking? Suppose that the thinking mind is on over-drive, that it is thinking about things too much? Are we to believe that there is some special kind of thinking that we can engage in that will calm the mind and bring a halt to the over-thinking? Are we to believe that by thinking even more than we already are doing we can bring order to this frantic mind of ours? Are we really to believe that thinking can in some mysterious way cure itself?

 

It doesn’t too much reflection on the matter for us to realize that there is something suspect about this assumption, something not-quite-right about this belief. Whatever thoughts we have when we are in an agitated frame of mind are themselves going to be of an ‘agitated nature’. Is it possible for an agitated mind to think a non-agitated thought? Is it possible for a fearful mind to produce a thought that is not fearful, or for an angry mind to engage in thinking that is not angry? Our thoughts are always going to be expressions of the state of mind (or state of consciousness) from which they arose; they certainly can’t be used to somehow ‘reach back’ and change the disturbed state of mind that gave rise to them. That is looking at things backwards. That would be a clear case of the tail wagging the dog!

 

What is needed – if there is to be any clarity – is for there to be actual awareness of the situation. Awareness is the helpful thing, not some specially indicated type of thinking. For me to start thinking about what the right type of thinking would be for the situation I find myself in would simply be compounding my confusion – this is just stirring things up even more. It is as if there is a corrupt police department and I am handing over the process of sorting out the problem to this very same department! Thought cannot cure thought – as professor of theoretical physics David Bohm says, the error in thought is a systematic one, which means that when we try to analyze the problem and then fix it, this very same error gets perpetuated and magnified. Our ‘blind spot’ – which is the blind spot (or entropy) inherent in all thinking – can only ever get bigger and darker than ever when we try to use thought to correct itself.

 

The confusion is only going to start settling when we can very clearly see that there is ‘no such thing as helpful thinking’ when it comes to freeing ourselves from the mess that was caused by our own thinking. Just as soon as we can see that there is no way for us to correct or fix the painful state of mind that we are in as a result of thinking about it then everything will slowly but surely start to settle down. And contrary-wise – if we don’t have this very clear understanding then nothing we do is going to help us. If we can’t see that there is no such thing as helpful thinking then it is guaranteed that everything we do is only ever going to compound our suffering. It is as clear-cut as this.

 

We can’t exit a mental state on purpose – we might very badly want to, but there is simply no way that we can do so. This is a very straightforward point to understand – there’s nothing fancy or intellectual about it at all – and yet in another way it is not so straightforward at all because we are so immensely unwilling to see it. There is no inherent ‘technical difficulty’ in grasping the point – a child could do so – but where there is a difficulty is in our willingness to entertain this possibility, our willingness to look at it. We could see it in a flash if we weren’t so resolutely opposed to seeing it but the whole point is that we are ‘resolutely opposed’ to seeing any such thing. We’d rather tie ourselves up in knots than see it – we do tie ourselves up in knots in preference to seeing this beautifully simple principle. We do this the whole the time, in fact – we do it on a regular basis. Tying ourselves up in knots in order to avoid mental or emotional pain (i.e. neurosis) is a characteristic human behaviour!

 

This immensely stubborn refusal to see that it is perfectly and sublimely impossible for us to change our mental state on purpose, either by our modern rational cleverness or by good old-fashioned forcing, is (of course) an attempt to help ourselves. By refusing to see that we can’t exit a painful mental state on purpose are essentially trying to help ourselves but the irony is that this infinitely obstinate refusal of ours to see something very simple is the cause of very great suffering – our attempt to help ourselves actually back-fires and brings huge suffering and misery down on us, and the more suffering and misery we’re in the more stubborn we get with regard to seeing that we can’t actually escape it. The whole thing is a trap, in other words. It’s an irreversible process – it just keeps on getting worse. We have started off going down this road that promises relief but actually delivers misery, and once we have committed ourselves to going in this direction it become progressively harder to question our original ‘choice’ (not that it was ever what we might call an actual conscious ‘choice’, of course, since the moment in question in all probability came and went far too fast for us to actually be aware of it).

 

Actually, it is the automatic, purely-mechanical attempt to ‘help ourselves’ that keeps us in the painful mental state that we wish to escape from. ‘What we resist, persists’, as Jung says. All of this – of course – makes a lot of sense. How can the automatic fear-driven reflex of wanting to fight against the pain, of trying to push it away or run away from it be expected to genuinely help us? This isn’t really a controversial point. We all know that the reflex attempt to fight or escape can’t help us really – the only reason we buy into it so very quickly is because we are afraid. Going with our innate wisdom exposes us to this fear, whereas ‘automatically going along with the comforting lie’ saves us from it – temporarily, at least! But even though buying into the reflex (and the comforting lie that goes with it) saves us (temporarily) from seeing that ‘we can’t escape from where we actually are’ it doesn’t save us from the pain of the neurotic torment that we are plunged into as a result of our automatic resistance to ‘what is’. Going along with the pain-avoidance reflex doesn’t save us from neurotic pain, it creates it.

 

‘Neurotic torment’ doesn’t necessarily have to seem like torment, not at first, anyway. It may seem just like normal, everyday life. Normal everyday life is a form of reality avoidance, after all – it’s a comfort-zone’. The comfort-zone of normal everyday has two components to it, we might say – one is the ‘comfort’ component (which we like, obviously) and the other is ‘boredom / frustration / despair’. All neurotic escapes start out with comfort, obviously – escaping from what we fear is by definition comfort and so when we automatically resist the reality that we don’t like, that we are afraid of, the first thing we feel is comfort. This ‘comfort’ is comfort because it is exactly what we wanted – it is like sweet honey to us and this honey is the lure that the neurotic trap is baited with. The sweetness of the relief from pain or fear is the ‘reinforcing mechanism’ for the behaviour; or as we could also say, it is the element in the mix that causes us to become addicted to the pain-avoidance routine.

 

The snag is that the place we’ve escaped to isn’t as great as it initially looks –  it isn’t actually great at all. It looked very good to us in the first instance because it represented ‘escape’ but if we had looked into the matter any deeper (which we didn’t, and don’t) then we’d see that we have been sold a dud. It is a ‘dud reality’ because it is completely sterile, completely lacking in any creative possibilities. Saying that the place which we have rashly escaped to is ‘completely lacking in any creative possibilities’ is just another way of saying that we can’t actually live there; there’s nothing there for us in the comfort zone – it’s like a bare prison cell. We can ‘hide out’ there, we can ‘pass the time’ there, but we can’t do any actual living there and that is why we have said that the other side of ‘comfort’ is ‘boredom / frustration / despair’.

 

Every time we automatically escape from a reality that we don’t want to be in we enter this cycle of ‘relief followed by boredom and despair’ and this unvarying cycle is what we have been referring to as ‘neurotic torment’. It is tormenting to be going around and around in circles, without ever getting anywhere new. There is never anything else other than this same cycle over and over again and nothing is ever going to change. And what’s more, just as long as we’re in ‘escape mode’ it is only ever going to get worse because (as we have already pointed out) the more ‘rebound pain’ we incur as a result of our automatic avoidance the more strongly the ‘reflex to escape’ kicks in. We try harder and harder to escape and the resultant ‘rebound pain’ increases proportionately…

 

If on the other hand we were to go with our ‘innate wisdom’ rather than ‘the automatic reflex to escape’ then we wouldn’t be drawing the endless horrors of neurotic torment upon ourselves. Innate wisdom doesn’t do this kind of thing – only unconsciousness does! If we were to be aware of what we are doing when we try to exit a painful mental state then we wouldn’t invest in the project so much, we wouldn’t place so much hope in it. We’d still be caught up in the reflex (because that’s the nature of reflexes) but the difference would be that we wouldn’t be ‘buying into it’ so much. What helps us, therefore (really helps us that is, rather than just ‘pretending to help us’) is to stay conscious of what’s going on – staying conscious of what’s going on simply means is that we don’t ‘hand over’ our awareness to the mechanical reflex. We don’t give away our responsibility to ‘the machine of avoidance’ which is our fear-driven thinking.

 

As we have said, it is fear that causes us to buy into the comforting lie that ‘the automatic escape reflex will help us’ – we’re actually believing something that is clearly dumb, clearly nonsensical but our fear pushes us into believing it because there is comfort there. Believing the comforting lie is the ‘easy option’. What helps therefore is to notice ourselves doing this – we pay gentle non-judgemental attention to ourselves ‘buying into the lie’ and as a result of this gentle non-judgemental awareness we see that the lie is a lie. And once we see that the lie is a lie then we can’t buy into it any more – not to the extent that we once did anyway. We will continue to have the tendency to go with the reflex, and ‘hope that it will save us’, but alongside this habitual / mechanical side of our nature there will be something else, something new in the mix – there will be the ally of our own ‘innate wisdom’, which fear was previously causing us to ignore…

 

 

 

 

No Pressure…

Pressure, in therapy, is always counterproductive. There’s no such thing as ‘helpful pressure’, no matter how much common sense may seem to indicate the contrary. We may define ‘pressure’ by saying that is when some force outside ourselves is making us do something. It is an ‘external authority’, in other words. It is an extrinsic motivating factor. Pressure is what creates society – it is the force that we find at work in the domain of our collective reality. It is what operates in families, relationships, friendship groups, organizations, nations – pressure is really all we know! Just about everything we do and everything we think is the result of pressure. Our perception of reality, of the world, of ourselves is the result of societal pressure that has been applied to us from the very earliest age. It is all ‘forcing’ via peer pressure and in the very same way what we fondly call ‘therapy’ is almost always just more of the same – it is simply an extension of the forcing-house which is society. It is the arena within which we enforce – yet again – our social programming, our unexamined biases, our deep-rooted cultural assumptions. What we refer to as ‘therapy’ is generally just an exercise in normalization, in other words – we’re putting people under moral pressure to be normal!

 

There is really no way any of us can do otherwise just as long as we ourselves remain unconscious of our social programming. How can I call myself ‘a therapist’ if I myself am just as hopelessly conditioned as my clients, if I myself am afflicted with the same unexamined prejudices? If I haven’t come to be in any way aware of the biases that inform my thinking, my perception of reality, then very clearly all I can ever do is enforce these biases on everyone I meet. This is a very basic principle: when I am ‘psychologically unconscious’ then all I can do is to unwittingly (or wittingly) apply pressure to everyone I meet to subscribe to the same assumptions about life that I do. More simply expressed: when I am unconscious then I want everyone to see the world in the same way that I do! The unacknowledged expectation that everyone should share our arbitrary viewpoint is what social interactions are all about; this is what all conflict is about. If we wanted a guiding principle by which to understand human history then this is it.

 

When we are unconscious pressure is all we know, all we are capable of knowing. The implication of the word ‘therapy’ is that there is the possibility of helpful change occurring as a result of it – there is the suggestion that there a possibility of us gaining freedom from our suffering-producing conditioning, freedom from the rules we follow without knowing that we are following any rules. There is the inference that we will – by some means – be enabled to discover our true, authentic selves! In socially-prescribed therapies however this just isn’t ever going to be the case. In any type of therapy that is generic in nature (which is to say, any type of therapy that comes from a template) this never can be the case. It never can be the case because the template IS the conditioning. The (psychological) theory here is that if we ‘do the right thing’ then the right result will surely follow. This theory however is the purest nonsense – there is (needless to say) no method to being one’s authentic self…

 

To go back to our original point: the reason pressure (or forcing) in therapy is always counterproductive is because it results in change (if indeed there is any change) that isn’t real. It results in change that is ‘convulsive’ rather than organic. The change – if there is any – isn’t happening as a result of a naturally occurring process but rather it is occurring as a result of what we can only call ‘artificial contrivance’. It suits the agenda of the thinking mind that there should be this change and that is all. That agenda might sound ‘good enough’ to us but – really – what does the thinking mind know? Rational understanding is only ever ‘skin deep’  – when we act of the rational or thinking mind we are acting out of our unexamined assumptions, we are ‘thinking our way through life’ rather than ‘feeling our way’. When we act out of our assumptions we are acting aggressively – we are acting aggressively because we defending a bunch of assumptions that we have made without realizing that we have done so. We’re ‘defending a fixed position’ and implicit in our defence is our blind refusal to look at why we think this fixed position is worth defending. What we are calling ‘aggression’ is simply activity that proceeds on the basis of fear, in other words. Action that comes out of fear isn’t sensitive, it has nothing to do with any interest in the world, any curiosity about the world – it is purely concerned with escaping from whatever it is that is challenging us and what is ‘challenging’ us is ultimately nothing other than reality itself…

 

The ‘fixed position’ that we are defending is the everyday mind with all of its assumptions, all of its prejudices, all of its conditioning. Every time we try to change things (in accordance with our ideas about how they should or should not be) then we are acting out of the fixed viewpoint which is the everyday mind. There is no way we can have ideas about ‘the way things should be’ without operating from a fixed (or ‘unquestionable’) position – if we questioned our viewpoint then we’d have to question our goals and if we questioned out goals then that would be the end of our goal-orientated or purposeful behaviour! Acting on the basis of our thoughts about the world, our beliefs about the world, is always aggressive. We are being fundamentally insensitive because all the emphasis is on getting things to be the way we want them to be, and none on questioning or examining the fixed position that we are taking on order for us to be having such clear-cut and inflexible ideas about ‘how reality should be’ in the first place! Thought itself is always aggressive, is always violent, as Krishnamurti says, and when we are unconscious we are perpetually acting on the basis of thought…

 

‘Sensitivity’ is a very different thing to the activity that comes out of the thinking mind – activity that comes out of the thinking mind is all about changing stuff on the outside, it is ‘the one-way arrow of control’. ‘Control’ –we might say – is another word for unconsciousness; the whole point of control, in the psychological sense of the word, is as we have just said that it deflects attention away from our assumptions onto ‘changes that supposedly have to be made’. Our attention I deftly deflected away from our assumptions onto the changes that these invisible biases cause us to see as being necessary. Control – as we keep saying – is aggressive – you have to dance to my tune whether you like it or not. You have to fit into my way of thinking and not vice versa. Everything has to give way to my way of thinking because my way of thinking is not open to questioning – there is no way it is ever going to be questioned and so the only thing we can do is try our best to fit into it. If we can’t fit into it then we’re wrong.

 

Is it possible, we might ask, to have a type of therapy where we are remaining open, remaining sensitive to what is going on? This would appear to be the best answer to the dilemma that we are faced with – the dilemma of ‘how not to be aggressive’. Any sort of control is aggression – as we have said – is always counterproductive when it comes down to having an honest relationship with oneself or others, which is what therapy is ultimately all about. No one can deny this, but what we aren’t so quick to see (or dwell upon) is the fact that controlling or forcing can never result in a relationship with anything. On the contrary controlling alienates us not just from whatever (or whoever) it is that we are controlling, it also alienates us from ourselves. An honest relationship is the only sort of relationship there is and where there is aggression – which is to say, the exercise of power – there can be no honesty.

 

Things are very simple when it comes to pressure – either there is pressure in the situation or there isn’t. It’s either one way or it’s the other; there is no middle ground. The idea that we can use some sort of pressure, some sort of external motivation to achieve some goal or other, and yet at the same time be open and sensitive to whatever it is might unfolding. What we are actually talking about here – when it comes right down to it – is something that the thinking mind calls risk. Risk is something to which the thinking mind is infinitely averse! We can explain the activity that comes about as a result of the rational-purposeful mind by saying that it is activity that is geared towards reducing risk as much as possible. We can define goal-orientated or purposeful behaviour by saying that it is behaviour that is directed towards eliminating (as far as possible) the risk of the goal not being achieved. Or instead of risk we could talk in terms of uncertainty and say that the activity which comes about as a result of the thinking mind is activity that is geared towards getting rid of all uncertainty. Ultimately, it’s not uncertainty with regard to anything in particular (i.e. in relation to any particular goal being achieved) that the purposeful mind is averse to but simply uncertainty in general!

 

All of this is really just going around in circles – we’re saying the same thing in several different ways. The rational-purposeful mind operates by identifying goals and then working towards them and ‘working towards obtaining a goal’ is of course the same thing as ‘working against the risk of not obtaining it’. But none of this has anything to do with therapy – it’s all just pure control, it’s all pure ‘uncertainty avoidance’. Therapy is the antithesis of ‘risk-avoidance’, as any psychotherapist will be happy to tell you. Therapy is not ‘trying to get what you want to happen to happen – that’s just the rational mind pursuing its perennial agendas…

 

Trying to secure the outcome that we want (and avoid any other unspecified) outcome is simply ‘conservatism’ and conservatism is nothing other than ‘a fear of change’ that has somehow been validated and made to look heroic rather than cowardly. Fear of change – needless to say – doesn’t really qualify as therapy! It’s something else entirely – it’s ‘hanging on’. What we’re afraid of happening is – as always – the unknown, and whilst the rational mind is superlatively good at avoiding the unknown, it is no good at all at helping us face it! The thinking mind, with all of its tools and strategies, has no useful role to play here. All it can do is ‘temporarily stave off the inevitable’, all it can do is hang on (for as long as possible) to the known, in stubborn denial of the ultimate futility of this endeavour. ‘Hanging on to the known’ isn’t an option when it comes down to it; it isn’t an option for the simple reason that ‘the known’ is a mind-manufactured illusion! It might seem like an option but that’s only because we’re afraid to see the truth. We’re invested in not seeing the truth. ‘Seeing the truth’ is what we’re fighting against…

 

 

 

 

 

Thought Is A Salesman

Thought is a salesman wearing a flash shirt and a cheesy smile. Thought is a salesman and what he is trying to sell us is security.

 

Thought always tries to sell us security – that’s all it ever does, over and over again. Thought keeps on selling and we keep on buying!

 

There is a problem with this, though. There is when it comes down to it a very big problem with this arrangement and that is that security (which is the product that is being sold) doesn’t exist.  We could say therefore that thought isn’t so much ‘a salesman’ as it is a conman.

 

What thought is busy selling us the whole time simply doesn’t exist. ‘Security’ – in the psychological sense of the word – doesn’t exist. When we say ‘security’ what we mean is ‘absolute validation for the arbitrary position we have taken in life’. As soon as we express it like this we can see where the problem comes from – what we’re (implicitly) asking for is a contradiction in terms.

 

We don’t of course express what it is we want as clearly as this and so the stark contradiction is never visible to us. The self-contradictory nature of what we are asking for isn’t visible to us and so we keep on asking for it – we keep on asking for it, yearning for it, and yet at the same time we can never have it.

 

We don’t know that what we are asking for is for our arbitrary position (or standpoint) to be absolutely and unreservedly validated for us by the universe. We don’t – in all honesty – see that this is what we are asking for. We have no understanding at all of what it is we are actually requiring in our automatic desire for ontological security. All we know (and this somewhat dimly) is that we are feeling painfully insecure and we want this painful feeling to go away and leave us in peace.

 

This requirement of ours for ontological security isn’t something that we have carefully thought out (or even thought out at all) – it’s simply an automatic response to the unsettling feeling that we are dimly or not-so-dimly aware deep down in the core of our being. This uncomfortable or unsettling feeling is niggling away at us, it is gnawing away viciously at our vitals (so to speak) and our way of running away from it is by looking for external validation.

 

This is of course where thought comes in. thought comes in – as we have said – by offering us this external validation. It offers us ways of getting what we so badly want. This is not to say that thought (or the thinking process) is bad or wrong n any way, simply that it causes no end of suffering and confusion for us when we use it in a way that it was never really ‘supposed’ to be used (so to speak). When we let thought perform a function that it is not legitimately able to perform, then this is when all our troubles begin…

 

The ‘correct’ usage of thought – so to speak – is when we use it to fix legitimate problems in the external world, the physical world around us. There are of course many times in the day when such ‘legitimate’ problems may arise. What to cook for dinner might be one example; how to find the quickest route from A to B in a city with which we are unfamiliar might be another. Locating my mislaid mobile phone or set of keys is another. All such ‘technical’ matters are legitimate problems for the thinking mind to be solving.

 

Alongside all these legitimate problems there is however one huge illegitimate problem and this is where all the trouble comes from. The ‘illegitimate problem’ is that we want to fix the world so that it can provide us with the sense of security about things that we so badly want (even if we aren’t necessarily acknowledging that this is the case). The illegitimate problem is the existential pain that we’re in, in other words. We want to find the remedy for the ontological insecurity that we’re experiencing but not admitting to experiencing and this is the illegitimate problem, the problem that isn’t really a ‘problem’ because it can’t ever be fixed. It isn’t a problem at all – it’s simply reality!

 

Very often when we think we’re trying to fix purely technical issues what we’re unconsciously trying to fix is this underlying ontological insecurity. We may think that the reason we’re trying to attain X, Y or Z is what we say it is, but this is really just a smokescreen. We’re wanting something else really – something that we can’t ever have! When we are trying to solve insoluble problems (that aren’t really problems at all therefore) under the guise of solving regular or legitimate issues then this brings huge stress and anxiety down on our heads and we don’t know why. This is of course what we refer to as ‘neurosis’ or ‘neurotic fixing’.

 

Our trouble – as we have already suggested – is that we seem to be functionally incapable of seeing the root cause of all of this neurotic suffering. It’s not just that we seem to be functionally incapable in this regard, we actually are incapable. We’re incapable of seeing what the root cause of our insecurity is just as long as we’re operating on the basis of the rational mind. The reason for this is that it is the rational mind (and the fact that we are identified so solidly with its constructs) which is responsible for the insecurity we’re suffering from. The thinking mind is the cause of all the trouble, not the solution!

 

Why – we might ask – is the thinking mind the cause of our ‘unfixable insecurity’? The very simple answer to this question is that the thinking mind is always ‘insecure’ in itself because it presents a view of the world to us which is very far from being the whole picture whilst at the same time implicitly making the claim that this is view is exclusively (or ‘exhaustively’) true. A false claim is being made therefore and it is naturally quite impossible to make a false claim without on some level being fundamentally insecure about what is being claimed! We may compensate for our insecurity by being aggressively assertive and overtly sure of ourselves but this aggression does not make our insecurity any less!

 

A classic example of this sort of thing is dogmatism – when I am being dogmatic I am not any the less insecure for being so overtly confident in my assertions. On the contrary, my insecurity is visibly manifesting itself in the form of my aggression, inflexibility and obstinacy, all the characteristics we associate with dogmatism. We could say that our aggression and inflexibility is our way of compensating for our insecurity (and this is of course perfectly true) but it is also true that our aggression, our forcefulness, our rigidity is our insecurity, made plain for everyone to see. To be certain of something is to be insecure!

 

The self partakes fully in thought’s fundamental insecurity. How can it not when it is a construct of thought? What makes the self the self is the certainty it embodies – the self is ‘this but not that’. ‘This-but-not-that’ is the very essence of what it means to be the self. But if the self is this unyielding dogmatic assertion that I am ‘this but not that’ (as it is) then this straightway makes it heir to a fundamental, irreducible, irresolvable anxiety. The self equals ‘identification with a boundary that doesn’t exist’ (except according to itself) and this means that it is always going to be afflicted with the demon of insecurity, the demon of ‘secretly (or not so secretly) doubting what it itself proclaims so loudly’…

 

Saying that thought is a salesman is not quite the full story, therefore. Thought is a salesman and it is always trying to sell us little ‘sound-bytes of security’ in this quintessentially uncertain world but it is also the author of this insecurity at the same time. In this, thought is just like Duff Beer in The Simpsons, which is the cure and the cause of our woes at one and the same time. Thought (or rather ‘the unwise use of thought’) creates the problem at the same time as promising to fix it so that the more we depend on thought to shore us up and make us feel (however temporarily) OK, the more prone to anxiety and insecurity we become…

 

We’re really just going around in circles because if thought (which is fundamentally insecure in itself, as we have argued) is responsible for creating our idea of ourselves, our understanding or ourselves, our reassuringly concrete sense of ourselves, then how can we use thought in order to remedy the insecurity that thought is itself the cause of? We’re using thought to correct the problems that arise from (unwisely) using thought and this is causing us to spin. This spinning is being created by thought, is being aggravated by thought, is being perpetuated by thought, so when the next thought comes along fresh off the assembly line and offers us some kind of plausible ‘quick-fix’, some kind of ‘failsafe remedy’, are we going to believe it?

 

 

 

 

Being The Compassionate Witness Of Our Own Lives

The most helpful thing we can do for ourselves – and in the long run the only ‘helpful thing’ we can do for ourselves – is to be the compassionate witness of our own lives.

 

This doesn’t tend to come easily however. Normally we try to be the ‘fixer’ or ‘improver’ of our own lives and when this doesn’t work, when this doesn’t bear fruit, we turn into the blamer, the critic, the judge of our own lives. These are the only two possibilities we know, generally speaking. Either we try to improve or fix ourselves, and believe that we can do so (if we try hard enough) or we are condemnatory to ourselves for not being able to fix ourselves, for not being able to improve ourselves as we are clearly supposed to. Either we are busy putting ‘positive moral pressure’ on ourselves to change, or we’re busy putting ‘negative moral pressure’ on ourselves for not changing. Either we’re ‘encouraging’, or we’re  ‘punishing’…

 

There is a third possibility however – one that does not involve pressure, either of the positive or negative variety. One thing that is very hard for us to see is that any sort of pressure is non-therapeutic, non-helpful when it comes to mental health. ‘Pressure’ means aggression when it comes down to it – it means ‘the application of force’. I want things to be different to the way they are and I am going to use methods and strategies to ensure that the change I want to see comes about.  This goal-orientated approach is fine when we are effecting change in the outside world, but it is entirely counterproductive when we apply it to the inner world of our thoughts and feelings. The outside world is very different from the ‘inside world in this respect’. Whilst in the external world skill and force can make helpful changes (for example when chopping wood or building a house) it is absolutely impossible to find peace and happiness through either skill or forceful effort. We ought to see this clearly perhaps, but somehow we just don’t.

 

All we need to do is to reflect on the matter a while – how can the exercise of force ever be expected to bring about inner peace? How can I pressurize myself to be ‘at peace’? Obviously I can pressurize myself to be at peace but equally obviously this is never ever going to work! This is like ‘forcing myself to be free’ – if I am being forced to do anything then this is the opposite to being free. It’s like having a rule that says ‘There must be no rules.’ Really what we’re talking about here is a self-contradiction that – when we’re under enough pressure – we can’t see to be a self-contradiction. Because we can’t see the contradiction, because we can’t see the paradox in what we’re trying to do, we keep on banging our head against a brick wall and all we ever get for our efforts is a very sore head…

 

Equally, we can very easily see (if we reflect on the matter for a moment or two) that there is no way to bring about inner peace by cleverness, by artifice. Cleverness just means coercing things to go the way we want them to go and whilst this – again – generally works just fine in the outside world it doesn’t work for the inner world of our thoughts and feelings. If I have managed to obtain some sort of peace of mind via cleverness, via cunning or artifice, then the one thing we can be 100% sure of is that this so-called ‘peace of mind’ isn’t the genuine article. It’s going to give way at some point or other and peace of mind that gives way when it is pushed too far isn’t peace of mind at all – it’s just a comforting delusion that we have temporarily bought for ourselves. Peace that is brought about by cleverness isn’t peace at all – really, it’s just ‘trouble in disguise’. It’s mental suffering waiting to happen. ‘Manufactured peace’ is actually mental suffering waiting to be unleashed on me when the time is right. So what we’re saying here is that peace which I bring about by my own efforts or my own cleverness is actually the very opposite of peace – it’s ‘phoney peace’ (or ‘make-believe well-being’) that has to be maintained and coaxed along in case it collapses on us.

 

When we talk about ‘cracking up’ or ‘having a mental breakdown’ this is what we are talking about. We’re talking about having our comfort zone collapse or disintegrate on us. We’re talking about the illusion of peace and well-being that we have invested so much time and effort in falling to pieces all around us. We’re talking about the cracks in the structure we had cobbled together getting bigger and bigger, wider and wider, until eventually it starts to look as if everything is going to fall down them. Sometimes we might even have dreams of cracks appearing in our house, or we might develop anxiety about ‘things going wrong’ or ‘things falling apart’. What we’re really frightened of is our comfort zone failing us, and what we are calling ‘our comfort zone’ is simply the mind-created version of peace or well-being that we have put in place of the real thing. So it’s not just that comfort zones always bring anxiety, our comfort zones ARE anxiety. These are two different words for the same thing!

 

Our comfort zones (which is to say, the illusion of mental health and well-being that we have bought into with the aid of society) were created in the first place by ‘fixing’ and when they start to go wrong (as they always do in the end) what we find ourselves doing is trying to fix them. “How do I fix my failing comfort zone?” I ask. Only I don’t phrase it exactly like this because I don’t see what I am trying to fix as a ‘comfort zone’. I see it as my life, or perhaps ‘who I am’. When we gain a bit of insight into what’s going on however we see that the idea of ‘fixing’ our failing comfort zones is ridiculous – ‘fixing’ didn’t work in the first place (because it never could) and so now I’m trying to ‘fix my fixing’ in the forlorn hope that repeating the mistake will somehow makes things better… And then – when my fixing of my fixing starts to come undone at the seams – presumably I am going have to start fixing my fixing of my fixing, and so on and so forth. This is what Carl Jung called the via erratum, the ‘way of error’.

 

The way of error is when we start to think that we can bring about our own mental well-being by our own efforts. Essentially, it is when we think we can successfully hoist ourselves up in the air by our own shoe-laces! It is when we think we can get ourselves out of the hole our thinking got us into by using that very same thinking. (And as Einstein is often quoted as having said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”) From a psychological perspective, we could say that ‘when we neurotically try to avoid the pain cause by own neurosis we make an even worse neurosis.’  We are attempting to avoid the fruit of our own avoidance, and at the same time allowing ourselves to hope that this secondary avoidance is somehow going to work where the first avoidance didn’t! Yet another way of explaining ‘the way of error’ is to say that it is when we keep on having to tell new and ever more inventive lies to get out of the trouble that was caused by the first lie. Clearly this road – if followed – is not going to take us to a good place…

 

Jung contrasted the via erratum with the via veritas, the ‘way of truth’. If we think about our last definition of the via erratum as ‘a lie that keeps on multiplying and growing new heads’ this makes a lot of sense. No cleverness is needed, no forcing or no coercion. All that is required is that we refrain covering it up, and let the truth come to light (as it is going to anyway). So we see our avoidances for what they are, instead of avoiding seeing them for what they are, which is what we usually do. We own up to the lie, instead of telling a new one! We can also talk about the via veritas in terms of being the fearless yet non-judgemental witness of our own lives. Being the compassionate witness of our own lives means not avoiding seeing what is going on – whatever is going on, we see it. Our normal approach – as we have said – is to straightaway try to ‘fix’ or ‘improve’ what is going on. We can’t bear to be with ourselves and so what we do is to leap straight into ‘fixing mode’ (or ‘avoiding mode’). ‘Fixing’ and ‘avoiding’ are the very same thing when it comes down to it – both come out of the very same motivation, which is fear. Being the compassionate witness of ourselves is the only thing that isn’t driven by fear. This is the only way of relating to ourselves that isn’t fundamentally aggressive. As Pema Chodron says:

The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.

Pema Chodron talks a lot about cultivating the virtue of fearlessness, which is completely different from aggression – aggression being nothing other than the active aspect of fear. Our normal approach to ourselves when we are experiencing a lot of mental suffering – as we started off by saying – is to either try to fix ourselves, or to recriminate viciously against ourselves when we find that we can’t do this. It is very easy to see why self-recrimination isn’t going to help our mental health, but it isn’t so easy to see why striving to change or improve ourselves isn’t a helpful thing. Yet both ‘striving to fix or better myself’ and ‘blaming myself for not succeeding at what was never going to be possible in the first place’ are branches from the very same tree. It’s the same thing, the same impulse in both cases – it is ‘self-aggression’.

 

Once we start to see our self-aggression, and compassionately understand it for what it is, then it straightaway starts to melt. The self-aggression straightaway starts to lose its punch, its power, its ‘viciousness’.  Aggression only works under cover of ‘darkness’ (or ‘unconsciousness’) – once we bring the light of gentle, non-judgemental awareness to self-aggression then everything starts to change. Things soften up; the iron cage that is enclosing us so tightly and so painfully starts to ease up slightly and we find that we can breathe again. A bit of space comes back to us; space in which we can simply ‘be’. This life-giving change doesn’t come about as a result of ‘doing’ however – it doesn’t happen because we followed prescribed steps or used methods to make it happen. It happens by itself, quite naturally, no force needed, just as a muddy puddle clears all by itself when we stop stirring it about with a stick…