Overthinking Life

When we think “How do I be in the world?” this jinxes us. As soon as we have this thought (or any variant of it) we are jinxed – we’re jinxed and we can’t back-track out of it again, no matter how clever we might get, no matter what tricks we might try. Once we start trying to solve this problem we can’t ever stop, in other words.

 

As soon as we think “How do I be in the world?” or “What is the right way to live life?” we are overthinking it. This is a simple enough point to make (it’s the simplest point anyone could ever make, actually) but it also doesn’t happen to be a point that we want to hear! It doesn’t make any sense to us, and even if it did make sense we wouldn’t how make use of it. We’ve already gone down the slippery slope and there’s nothing that we can (deliberately) do to get out of the trap. Deliberation is the trap, after all!

 

The reason we are so averse to hearing this message, or any variant of it, is because we are convinced on a very deep level that there is a right way to think about things, that there is a right way to ‘approach life’. This is so obvious to us that we don’t even need to go around saying it. The fact that we have never actually hit upon this ‘right way’ doesn’t seem to discourage us with regard to this belief in the slightest! We’re convinced that there must be a rational (or thought-based) way to approach life, so we keep on doggedly looking for it…

 

This is the snag in a nutshell – that we believe that there must be some special angle that we can cleverly utilize, some special ‘Get-out-of-jail-free’ card that we can play. It makes so much sense to us that we should be able to find the right angle, the right approach. Our whole way of life is based on this unspoken assumption; our very ‘modality of existence’ is founded upon this premise. Our ‘modality of existing in this world’ is based on thought and thought – by its very nature – is always looking for answers, always looking for solutions.

 

Of course, ‘looking for answers’ or ‘looking for solutions’ sounds like a very good thing to us – it sounds like an admirable attitude to have. It sounds right and proper, and the fact that it sounds right and proper shows us something important about ourselves – it shows us that we have become divorced from reality itself. The point is that reality itself is neither right nor wrong, neither this nor that, and yet – when we are in the grip of thought – we go around assuming that everything must be either one way or the other. Because we see the world in this polar (or ‘split’) way we are constantly analysing and controlling; analysing / controlling has, in other words, become ‘our way of being in the world’.

 

The whole world has to fit into our categories of good/bad, right/wrong, valuable/not valuable therefore and this is an absolutely crazy situation. How can we do this to the world? Why would we want to? What is possessing us? And if we do this to the world then this means that we are also doing it to ourselves; we’re going to try to fit ourselves into these categories as well – we’re going to be either good or bad, right or wrong, valuable or not valuable and this is equally crazy. The world has nothing to do with our absurd categories and neither do we, and yet we’re making our sense of well-being dependent upon how well be are doing at the task of trying to make everything (and ourselves) be the way we think it should be (whether this ‘way’ is absurd or not).

 

All angles – without exception – do this to the world and so if we’re coming at everything from an angle (as we almost always are) then we are imposing this false duality both on ourselves and the world. That’s what ‘angles’ do – they split the world into ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; that’s the whole point of an angle, after all. So one the one hand we feel that we are going to gain the advantage by ‘having an angle on things’ but on the other hand this cleverness of ours rebounds on us in a way that is not to our advantage at all! Our classifications end up classifying us, just as Carlos Castaneda says. The tool of thought very neatly ‘turns the tables on us’ and we end up being on the receiving end of the stick and catching a whack in the head rather than dishing one out, as we had intended to.

 

This doesn’t (as we have already pointed out) means that we don’t ever need to have an angle. That isn’t the point at all. It’s not that we never ever need an angle but rather that we don’t need to be ‘looking for the right angle’ on a nonstop basis. Specific situations arise in which we do need an angle (problems arise which do need a solution) but then once the matter has been dealt with one way or another the need is no longer there. Life itself is not ‘a problem to be solved’, in other words, even though we generally end up treating it as such. We end up treating life as if it were a problem to be solved because this is how thought works. This is what thought always does – thought always treats everything as a problem!

 

Thought always treats everything as a problem because that’s just the kind of phenomenon it is – it has to fit everything into boxes of its own making when stuff just doesn’t come ‘in boxes’, when life doesn’t come in boxes. More than this however, life becomes a serious problem to us when we have identified with thought and the products of thought. Life (very much) becomes a problem to me when I identify with the idea of myself that the thinking mind furnishes me with. The problem is really with life of course but with ourselves. The problem is with me, not the world! This is of course a classic example of how the conditioned mind always perceives the truth backwards – I say that the problem is with you, or with the world in general, but really the problem is in me.

 

The problem that we always need to be fixing (or trying to fix) when we have identified ourselves with thought (and the image of ourselves that thought provides us with) is that we’re always placing certain demands on life; we’re always wanting things to work out for us in a particular way, in our words. We have very serious ‘preferences’ – not just with regard to the way things work out for us, but with regard to what we unconsciously require reality to be. Being identified with thought means that we’re always seeing reality in a very narrow and stilted fashion – to us, this is what reality actually is and so we don’t see ourselves as imposing our own arbitrary brand of order onto the world around us.

 

The ‘problem’ that we’re trying to fix with our thinking is how to get reality to be the way we think it ought to be, therefore. We’re trying to twist things to be the way we assume they should be and we’re doing this without having the slightest awareness that this is what we’re doing, and this means that we’re locked into a never-ending series of problems, not just the one, because things are never going to inherently be the way that we unconsciously assume that they should be. This is an ongoing problem that we’re never going to solve because we’re looking at it all wrong – as we have said, the problem isn’t out there in the world but in ourselves and we’re never looking at ourselves. We’re only ever looking outwards at the problems that we ourselves have unwittingly projected onto the world. The problem isn’t that the universe doesn’t play ball, the problem is the fact that we are constantly trying to impose our absurdly narrow and stilted viewpoint onto it!

 

Trying to impose our own brand of order onto the world but not seeing that this is what we are doing (because we genuinely do think that this is the way reality should be) is the very essence of what is meant by the word ‘aggression’. This is aggression in a nutshell. When I aggressively try to correct a problem that I wrongly see as existing out there in the world (and all fixing, all correcting is ultimately aggression) then what I’m really doing is fighting against myself. I’m creating the problem and then I’m trying very seriously, very humourlessly to find the solution as if it wasn’t me who created the need for a solution in the first place. I’m fighting myself but I haven’t a clue that this is what I’m doing. I think that the ‘problem’ is out there, but actually it’s my own aggression (or my own ‘unconsciousness’) that’s the problem…

 

This is why any amount of thinking about ‘how to be in the world’ is ‘overthinking’! Thinking is good (sometimes) for small tasks, but not for the ‘big task’ (so to speak) of how to be yourself, or how to be in the world. Thought is no good for existential questions, in other words, only down-to-earth practicalities. Thinking is generally appropriate for practical matters but it most certainly has no applicability at all to any challenges of what we might call an ‘existential’ nature! Within this context, thought is simply unwarranted and painfully counterproductive aggression. We assume certain things to be true (without of course ever properly examining them) and then we automatically start trying to control the world on the basis of these unconsciously-made assumptions of ours. We automatically start trying to fix everything on the basis of ‘how we think it should be’. This is what ‘unconscious living’ is all about – it’s all about conflict, it’s all about us projecting our assumptions on everything without seeing that this is what we’re doing.

 

When we’re living this way (i.e. on the basis of thought) then we never see beyond the conflict, we never see beyond the struggle. Our own assumed reality is the only reality we know, the only one we have any awareness of, and so all we ever know of life is this constant fighting, this constant struggling. The only world we ever know is this unhappy ‘battleground’, this ‘conflict-zone’ of us unconsciously trying to impose our own patented form of order on everything (and everyone) we encounter. When the struggle seems to be going our way (which it never really is of course because our patented brand of order is an artificial construct that couldn’t survive a second on its own) we experience pleasure and satisfaction and feel that all is well with the world, and when we see that things aren’t going our way then we experience the reverse of this – we experience pain and frustration, anguish and demoralization and so on – and we feel that things are fundamentally not right with the world.

 

Another way of putting this is to say that when we’re in the conditioned or unconscious mode of existing in the world then we never see beyond ‘good and bad’, ‘right and wrong’, ‘like and dislike’. No other reality exists for us. No reality other than this false ‘polar’ one exists – we actually incapable (when we’re in the conditioned modality) of understanding how there could be any other way of looking at things than the dualist or polar viewpoint that is provided for us by the thinking mind. We completely fail to see that this duality is our own projection that we’re imposing on the world, and as a result we never ever see beyond the ongoing struggle or conflict that is us. By thinking at all (when it comes to this question of ‘how to be in the world’) we isolate ourselves from reality as it is in itself, which is infinitely serene, infinitely profound, infinitely harmonious. As the Buddhist teachings say, ‘the nature of all phenomena is perfectly tranquil’. The world we create for ourselves with our aggression however is not serene, not profound, not harmonious. It is – on the contrary – both utterly shallow and irredeemably conflicted. And just so long as we remain helplessly identified with the tool of thought, as we have already said, this is the only reality we are ever going to know…

 

 

 

 

 

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The Problem of ‘Sitting with Pain’

When we try to ‘sit with our own pain’ (as we often do try to do when we are involved in psychotherapy or mindful practice) we generally run into a problem. The problem with ‘sitting with our own pain’ isn’t just the pain itself – which is of course what we think it is – but our purposeful attitude to this whole business of ‘sitting with pain’. The problem is that we can’t be present with our pain on purpose.

 

Because we have the aim or purpose of sitting with pain this jinxes the whole process – we want to become more present with ourselves but we become more absent instead! It backfires on us every time. There is no way that being purposeful about wanting to be present with our pain isn’t going to backfire on us because purposefulness is ‘control’ and control causes us to identify with the ‘abstract controller’ (which is another way of saying that it stops us being present). This is the very same paradox of ‘self-acceptance’ that Alan Watts talks about. The thing about self-acceptance, Alan Watts says, is that the self we should be accepting (i.e. the non-accepting self) is the very same self that we are trying to get rid of…

 

There is a point at which we decide that we need to change the way we are and become self-accepting rather than self-rejecting or self-denying and it is at this point that a new and problematic twist gets thrown into the equation. We’ve complicated things by turning our back on ‘how we really are’ in favour of ‘how we’d like to be’ (or ‘how we feel we ought to be’) and this means that our so-called ‘act of self-acceptance’ is really just another act of self-rejection – the latest in a long line of ‘acts of self-rejection’.

 

The problem is that every form of purposeful action that we might engage in is a rejection. Every purpose is a rejection just as every goal is a rejection – every goal is (of course!) a rejection of whatever it is that has not been designated as ‘the goal’. Purposeful behaviour is rejecting behaviour therefore – we’re rejecting anything that interferes with (or stands in the way of) the achieving of the purpose that we have set so much store in. Purposeful behaviour is all about attachment (or ‘like and dislike’) in other words – it’s all about ‘vehemently rejecting or eliminating what we don’t like’….

 

This tends to sound a bit complicated when we try to pin it down in the way that we have just been trying to but this is really just a problem with language (or a problem with thinking, which is the same thing). In short, ‘accepting yourself’ means – if it is to mean anything – accepting the self that you were before you decided to accept yourself and ‘sitting with your pain’ means – if it is to mean anything – being present with yourself as you were before you conceived the notion of ‘sitting with your own pain’. ‘Self-acceptance’ means – in other words – being unconditionally with yourself as you were before you got any clever ideas in your head about changing yourself or adjusting yourself to be some special way!

 

‘Adjusting ourselves so as to be some special way’ IS the jinx that always flummoxes us – that’s the whole problem in a nutshell. We are always trying to adjust, modify or change ourselves so as to be some special way – we do this so automatically, so unreflectively, that we don’t even notice ourselves doing it. We’re always being aggressive to ourselves – we’re not letting ourselves alone, we’re not giving ourselves any peace. Being aggressive towards ourselves doesn’t bear any fruit; it doesn’t change us to be the way we want to be – this has never happened in the whole of human history and it never will! Self-aggression has never resulted in anything other than ‘an increase in suffering’ and never could. Jinxes never stop being jinxes; that’s the whole thing about ‘a jinx’ – that it unfailingly catches us out every time. The whole point of a jinx is that it will never come good for us, no matter how long we keep on trying to beat it.

 

When we automatically try to adjust ourselves, modify ourselves, change ourselves, all that happens is that we create a barrier, a gap, an obstacle. As soon as we try to change or adjust ourselves we create a gap between ‘actually being in the world’ and ‘our experience of what it means to be in the world’ and this gap spells one thing and one thing only – it spells suffering. The ‘gap’ equals suffering and the reason that the gap equals suffering is because it’s a gap between us and life. We are life – we’re not something that ‘possesses’ life or is aiming or planning to gain life or maximize life – we actually are life and so a gap between us and life is a gap that stops us being what we really are!

 

What more terrible thing could there be than a gap between us and life? If there is a gap between us and life then where we are isn’t life – it’s somewhere else. We’re stuck somewhere else in a ‘non-place’ that isn’t life and we’re watching life at a distance through some kind of distorting lens. We’re alienated, dissociated, dislocated. We’re seeing life darkly, as if through glass, as it says in 1 Corinthians 13:12; we’re not seeing it as it is at all.

 

This is how we almost always are – it’s the human condition. It’s the usual state of affairs for us because we’re always trying to adjust ourselves, modify ourselves, change ourselves. That’s the thing we do without even knowing that we’re doing it. To live is to be constantly trying to change oneself and the reason for this is that we’re always living via the thinking mind. The thinking mind is a tool for changing things, a tool for analyzing and solving problems, and the one thing it can never do is ‘leave things alone’! The rational mind can never exist in a state of peace with the world – it always has to be trying to evaluate it and control it. The rational mind is a device for evaluating and cataloguing and controlling and it can’t do anything else.

 

Life’s a scab and we’re forever picking at it, in other words, even though this isn’t the prettiest of metaphors. When we’re coming at it from the point of view of the thinking mind life is continually irritating us, or perhaps even causing us actual pain, and we’re trying to fix that but by trying to fix it we’re maintaining the gap that is causing the pain in the first place. Generally speaking the gap between us and life is fairly imperceptible – it doesn’t cause us any conscious distress or sense of disconnection. For the most part the sense of disconnection and alienation that it creates is invisible to us; we don’t know that it’s there and we will in fact deny that it is if asked. We are used to it; we assume on some level or other that this is what life is supposed to be like so we pay it no heed. We assume that we’re supposed to be ‘separate from life’; we don’t miss that vivid immediacy of life because we don’t remember ever having it and this ‘forgetting’ is concomitant with the conditioned state of being….

 

When we are suffering from neurotic pain of one sort or another then the ‘gap’ that we are talking about gets exacerbated and because it has become exacerbated it becomes visible. The ‘disconnect’ becomes more severe, more pronounced, more painful and so we do notice it. We notice it all of the time; we can’t get rid of it in fact and our attempt to get rid of it, or fix it, makes it worse. Our mind keeps on working away at the problem and this restless activity of the mind keeps widening the suffering-producing gap. We’re caught in a loop, in other words – we’re caught in the loop of the analyzing/evaluating mind.

 

The mind always is a loop, whether we’re aware of this or not, and we’re always trapped in it. It’s only when the loop narrows so that we can feel the pain that it creates that we start to gain the possibility of seeing that we’re caught in a mental loop; otherwise life is full of enough distractions and diversions to keep us from seeing that our situation is in any way ‘prison-like’. That’s what distractions and diversions are for – to prevent us from seeing that we’re in prison, to prevent us from noticing that we’re caught in a mental loop. We could quite easily spend our whole lives without noticing this…

 

What maintains the gap is us automatically reacting to the pain that is created by the gap. We don’t notice that we are continually reacting in this way – it’s so normal for us that of course we don’t notice it. It’s just regular life, as far as we’re concerned. We’re too caught up in this mechanism that is forever ‘feeding on itself’ to ever question what is going on here. It is – as we keep saying – normal for us; the mental loop of the thinking mind is ‘normal’ for us because it’s all we ever know. To be is to react when we’re in the unconscious mode of existence; we’re owned by the mechanical forces of analysing and evaluating and controlling when we’re in this mode – just so long as we’re unconscious we are a vehicle for these forces and nothing more.

 

We often hear that the way to work with this situation (i.e. the situation of being the unconscious pawn of forces we do not understand) is by ‘not judging’, ‘not reacting’ and all this kind of thing, but this is only half the story. It’s only half the story and because it’s only half the story it’s not really going to help us! Being told to ‘not judge’ is actually a very confusing message, despite the fact that it sounds so straightforward. The problem is that the self (i.e. the thinking mind) can’t ever ‘not judge’, can’t ever ‘not react’. This is the supreme impossibility for it – the one thing the self-mind can never do is ‘stop judging’! The reason that this is a supreme impossibility is because the self-mind is created by judging, is created by reacting, so of course this entity is never going to genuinely embrace not-judging. It might pretend to (if it thinks that there’s something in it for it), but that’s as far as it goes…

 

‘Sitting with our own pain’ is a joke as far as the mind-created self is concerned. The very idea of it is ludicrous – the thing or entity that is created by resisting pain is supposed to be able to ‘not resist’, even though unreflective resistance is its very life-blood. All that’s going to happen in this case therefore (when we only have half the story) is that we’re going to learn to resist in a camouflaged way – we’re going to learn to disguise our resistance by calling it ‘spiritual practice’, by calling it ’sitting with my pain’…

 

The ‘missing half’ of the message (which is the half that we in the West don’t seem to be so keen on hearing!) is that we’re not this beleaguered self that is trying (and failing) to sit with the pain. We’re not that self and we never were. The whole thing is a ‘false problem’ therefore – it would be a problem of we were this self but because we’re not there isn’t. There isn’t a problem and there never was one – there’s no one who needs to ‘sit with the pain’ just as there’s no one who needs to ‘do the spiritual practice’.

 

In down-to-earth terms what we’re talking about here could simply be called ‘having a sense of humour’ or ‘not taking things too seriously’ (even though it might seem flippant to say this). We see that the task we’re setting ourselves is impossible and so we don’t take it so seriously. How can we take it seriously if it’s totally impossible? ‘Being present’ is an impossible task – it’s an impossible task because it isn’t a task. It isn’t something to be achieved. When we do treat ‘being present’ as a task we find that the more we try to succeed at it the less present we become. It backfires on us. Being serious about a task that isn’t a task is a double-bind – we’re jinxing ourselves by trying. We’re already present so how can this be a task? ‘Trying’ creates the separate sense of self that wishes to be ‘not separate’ and it tries to be ‘not separate’ (or ‘not disconnected’) by trying even more and this is the mental loop that we’re all caught up in…

 

 

 

 

The Long-Cut

Everybody’s interested in the short-cut, but no one’s interested in the ‘long-cut’. So what’s the ‘long-cut’, we might ask? What is it and why on earth should we be interested in it? It doesn’t sound particularly interesting after all. Who would want to go the long way around things if there was a shorter and quicker alternative? That doesn’t sound very smart!

 

The ‘long-cut’ – we might say – is our life as it actually is, and as soon as we say this we can see why we might not be very interested in it. We might be interested in theory perhaps – in theory it sounds fine, as a kind of noble ideal – but in practice definitely not. In practice it’s a very different matter entirely.  In practice we are constantly trying to avoid our life as it actually is in whatever way we can. In practice, we’re always looking for ‘a short-cut’. In practice we are always looking for ‘something else’, something shinier…

 

‘Short cutting’ life means skipping over the difficult bits, the ‘not so good bit’, the ‘boring’ bits, the bits we don’t like and jumping ahead to the good bits, the interesting bits, the bits we do like. This is what M. Scott Peck means when he talks about wanting to eat the icing on the cake before we eat the cake itself. We do this all of the time of course – we try to separate the bits we like from the bits we don’t. This is what attachment means, and who amongst us is free from attachment (or ‘like and dislike’)? Our normal everyday way of relating to the world is in terms of attraction versus aversion, which Buddhists sometimes call ‘the mind of preference’. Some things we like and try to get more of whilst other things we dislike and try to get less of, which seems almost too obvious to point out. But what we don’t see is the automatic (or unfree) nature of this tendency – if we experience attraction to something then it is ‘automatic’ that we try to get more of it and the same is true in reverse for what we are averse to. The ‘judgement’ (good or bad) and the purposeful or goal-orientated action that follows on from this are all of one piece. ‘Judgement’ and ‘reaction’ are both aspects of the same mechanical movement and this mechanical movement is completely non-volitional, no matter what we might believe to the contrary.

 

What this means therefore is that there are parts of our life that we like and try to optimize and other parts that we dislike (or don’t particularly care for) and these we try to minimize as much as possible. We live in an uneven fashion – we ‘play favourites’, so to speak. This very pronounced tendency to favour some aspects of our life at the expense of other is what we have referred to as ‘short-cutting’; we’re actually impatient with life – we’re impatient with life precisely because we’re always trying to skip ahead to the good bits. Short-cutting is of course considered by all and sundry as a very sensible thing to do; we could go so far as to say that we see this as being what life is all about – separating the bits we like from the bits that we don’t like. With regard to life in general we call this ‘being positive’ or ‘being goal-orientated’ whilst with regard to our mental health we call it ‘self-development’ or ‘self-improvement’. We’re striving to optimize the good stuff, we’re trying to ‘actualize the positive’, etc, etc. This is pop-psychology in a nutshell; it’s also regular psychology in a nutshell too. Our clever so-called ‘therapies’ are patented ways of separating the good from the bad, the desired from the undesired – they are all ‘short-cuts,’ in other words. Naturally our therapies are short-cuts; inasmuch as a therapy is directed towards a goal it is a short-cut! Anything that is directed towards a goal is a short-cut and we in the West don’t really understand anything else. ‘Goals’ is all we get…

 

The question that arises here of course is ‘What’s wrong with ‘jumping ahead’ from painful states of mind to less painful ones, particularly if it looks like we can do something about it? What’s wrong with having this as a goal? Why would we want to stay in the pain?’ This is a hard thing to understand, and the chances are that we won’t be particularly motivated to want to try to understand it, either. Pain doesn’t cause us to be reflective after all, it causes us to act on reflex, it causes us to run away as fast as we can! We have a fear that deep there is some part of us that wants to wallow in the pain and so naturally we don’t want to encourage this type of unhealthy wallowing. The trouble with our reflexive tendency to want to skip the difficult or painful parts of our life is however that they are just as legitimate as the parts that we do like and so if we try to bypass them they’re just going to come back and haunt us. We’re then going to be caught up in continual avoidance, continual fruitless struggling, continual ‘running away’. Our regular ‘fixing’ approach to painful states of mind embroils us in a non-terminating game of ‘Whac-a-mole’ therefore – we keep on whacking the mole as hard as we can with the mallet whenever he pushes his nose up and then he immediately appears from another hole. We can whack the hell out of the mole on a full-time basis if we want but we’re never going to get anywhere by it!

 

The short-cut isn’t so much of a short-cut after all really – it only appears to be and that’s what keeps us tied into it. Playing the ‘Whac-a-mole’ game also drastically reduces our perspective on matters to ‘the next mole’ and then ‘the next mole after that’ so we not even going to be able to see where we’re going wrong. We won’t have any insight into what’s really going on at all. Understanding that continually whacking the mole on the head every time he turns up isn’t a fruitful approach isn’t a ‘pessimistic’ or ‘hopeless’ sort of a thing at all therefore, even though it will of course seem so from the perspective of the entrenched game-player. Seeing through the ‘short-cuts’ is actually a profoundly liberating sort of thing – it might seem negative to our regular goal-orientated state of mind but negative is actually the only thing that is ever going to work here! ‘Negative’ is good, ‘negative’ is liberating; it’s the not-doing that’s going to save us, not the doing…

 

Not one of the problems that we have in this world was ever solved, says Omar Khayyam, but this isn’t a pessimistic or despairing thing to say. Omar Khayyam isn’t loved and celebrated as a mystic philosopher throughout the world because of his gift for pessimism! The point is that we don’t have to do anything about these problems. The problems in question pertain exclusively to the conditioned state of being – they are absolutely inescapable just so long as we exist in the conditioned world, the conditioned state of being. The ‘problems’ and ‘the conditioned state of being’ are the same thing and we can’t have one without the other. We can’t have conditioned existence with the ‘snags’ that comes with it and yet we never give up the hope that we can do and this is where our blindness lies…

 

We spend all out time trying to ‘cure’ or ‘fix’ the conditioned state of being so that we can remain safely within it and yet not suffer from the snags that come along with it, the snags and short-comings that actually are it. If someone comes along and says to us that the snags and short-comings can’t be fixed then we won’t be very impressed. We won’t be very favourably disposed to them. We want to hear some nice positive technical fixing language, we want to be told that the impossible thing we want to achieve actually is possible and there are no shortage of experts will to tell us this! If someone like Omar Khayyam comes along and tells us that during our time in this world we are not going to be able to solve even one of our problems then we’re going to be downright pissed-off. We want positive messages, not negative ones and if someone with integrity comes along and tells us something helpful we’re going to want to string them up!

 

We completely fail to see the liberating nature of what they are saying, the liberating nature of the ‘negative message’, which is that we don’t need to fix the problems because they don’t pertain to who we really are but only to who we have artificially made ourselves to be. The snags and short-comings that we are railing against don’t exist in reality, only in the false ‘constrained’ version of reality that we have adapted ourselves to and taken as ‘final’. Any talk of the ‘short-cut’ of finding peace and happiness whilst still imagining ourselves to be who we aren’t, whilst still remaining in the falsely ‘constrained’ version of reality isn’t helpful at all therefore, but the very reverse of this. Samsara is made up of these ‘false rumours of short-cuts’!

 

Once we can clearly see that any hope we might be harbouring of one day ‘finding a short-cut’ is actually the root cause of our suffering then this leaves us with the ‘long-cut’. We come back to the long-cut, which was waiting patiently there for us all the time, after a life-time’s obsession with finding a short-term fix. What then is the long-cut, we might ask? What is the long-cut and how do we go about finding it? These are of course purely rhetorical questions when it comes down to it since the long-cut is, as we said right at the beginning of this discussion, ‘our life as it actually is’. We don’t therefore need to go searching for it, the way we might go searching for a ‘magic answer’ or ‘magic fix’ – we don’t need to go searching for it because it was there all along. We don’t need to learn any special methods to actualize this state of affairs; any cleverness or artifice is quite beside the point. Any cleverness or artifice is actually the very devil, any cleverness or artifice is actually ‘the short-cut’!

 

The ‘point’ – we might say – is not that the long-cut is hard to find but rather that we don’t want to find it. We don’t value it; it is worthless to us. Nothing is of less interest to us ‘as our life as it actually is’; nothing is of less interest to us than our life as it actually is because we’re always looking for something special, because we always looking for something glittering and attractive. We might of course come out with fine self-affirming statements about loving our lives or loving ourselves but we don’t really mean it – we love our ideas of life, we love our ideas of ourselves and this isn’t the same thing at all. The truth of the matter is that we love our distractions, because that’s what thought and ideas are. We love the games that we play. And yet even this isn’t really true – we don’t really love our games and distractions any more than an addict loves his addiction. We need it but we don’t love it. If something is compulsory, then how can we ‘love’ it? All we can do is adapt to it as best we can and say that we love it, but that is a far cry from actually loving ourselves or our lives. It is actually pure theatre – theatre that we feel obliged to buy into because we can’t see any alternative…

 

The long-cut doesn’t mean that we should be ‘appreciative of our lives’ or that we should ‘feel gratitude for what we have’ or anything like that – it doesn’t mean that we ‘should’ anything. It doesn’t even mean that we should be ‘authentic’ because as soon as we think we need to be authentic we cease to be so. As soon as we think we ought to be anything we cease being authentic, so it’s useless thinking about it. To ‘be authentic’ would be to accept that one is inauthentic rather than trying to change things. This is like the jinx of ‘being good’ – if I try to be good then I am automatically not good. I’m pretending, and pretending to be good isn’t being good. I’m actually being false if I try to be good! ‘Trying’ has nothing to do with it because ‘trying’ is just a reflex reaction to avoid what we don’t like. ‘Trying’ just means looking for a short-cut!

 

One good way of talking about the long-cut is to say that it is when we are not looking for results, therefore. This is the philosophy propounded in the Bhagavad Gita – one acts, and acts wholeheartedly, but one does not orientate oneself towards the result of the action. We don’t hang around waiting for the fruit of our action to drop into our lap, which means that there’s no possibility of satisfaction for the ego happening here. The long-cut isn’t actually going anywhere, in other words, and this is what is so hard for us to understand about it. The long-cut isn’t actually any sort of ‘cut’, long or short. Challenges arise and we respond to them, but this is not done for any sort of a reason, because it is ‘good’ or ‘right’ to do so, or anything like that. There’s no sort of model or theory to what we’re doing. In the most succinct terms, therefore, the point is that what we have called ‘the long-cut’ is simply us living our life as it happens. The long-cut is just ‘living one’s life’ in other words and to express it like this tends to come across as rather an anticlimax. It’s something of a let-down to hear this because we were expecting something special! We were actually wanting to learn something fancy but there’s nothing fancy here, nothing for the thinking mind to grab hold of. This may not be anything fancy, anything clever, but simply ‘living one’s life as it happens’ is all the same the greatest challenge that there could ever be. This is the ultimate ‘secret’ of everything; this is the fabled ‘philosopher’s stone’…

 

 

 

 

How Do We Disengage From The Mechanical World?

How do we disengage from the mechanical world? We concern ourselves with lots of questions, but rarely this. Very possibly, never this. The question of how to disengage from the mechanical world isn’t very high up on our list of priorities. Actually, it isn’t anywhere on our list of priorities; we’d concern ourselves with anything rather than this – how many boiled eggs we can eat in the one sitting perhaps, or which celebrities have been spotted with the telltale signs of visible cellulite…

 

We might not wonder how to disengage from the mechanical world but we do however ask ourselves how we might free ourselves from the unbearable neurotic misery that is created by our immersion in the mechanical realm, which is a closely related matter. Until we see that the neurotic pain that we are suffering from so dreadfully is caused by the situation of us being in thrall to mechanical processes we are never going to get very far in our efforts to help ourselves. We’re never going to get anywhere; we’re never going to find an answer. This is because there are no mechanical answers to the question of how to free ourselves from the sheer unholy misery of being immersed on a full-time basis in the mechanical world. There’s no ‘fix’ for this predicament.

 

The problem (or glitch) that we cannot recognize the mechanical as being the mechanical just as long as we are immersed in it – it’s all we know, after all. We just can’t spot it. Naturally we can’t spot it – we don’t have anything else to go on, we don’t have any perspective on the matter. When all we know is the mechanical world then there is no way we can recognize this world for what it is. Instead, we take it to be something else – although what exactly this ‘something else’ might be is another question entirely! When a simulation dreams of non-simulated reality its dreams of ‘non-simulation’ are every bit as simulated as everything else that it produces. When we dream of waking up there is of course no more ‘wakefulness’ in this part of dream than there is in any other part. Just as we can dream of anything at all but when it comes right down to it it’s still just ‘the dream’, so to the mechanical realm can simulate anything at all but no matter how hard it labours (no matter how sophisticated its algorithms might be) it’s never going to produce an unsimulated (or non-mechanical) reality.

 

Just as a non-mechanical system has zero means of relating to the ‘non-mechanical’ it also has no means of guessing or inferring that there even might be such a thing – as far as it sees the matter, what it knows is all that can be known and so the suggestion that there might be ‘something else’ is a complete non-contender. This suggestion can never be made. Just as long as we are immersed in the simulation the idea of ‘disengaging with the mechanical world’ can never arise therefore. When we are immersed in this world however then neurotic suffering is an absolute given; that we will suffer neurotically is an absolute certainty, just as it is an absolute certainty that a cart will always follow the horse that is pulling it, to use the Buddhist metaphor. This suffering is showing us (in a very practical way) that we are in a situation that is utterly inimical to our very being, even though we don’t recognize this as being so, and for this reason the curse is not really the unmitigated curse that we take it to be. Being unable to understand this message however – as we are when we are stuck in ‘mechanical mode’ – we do see this suffering as being a curse and we do our level best to get rid of it. All of our attempts to rid ourselves of the ‘curse’ of neurotic suffering fail however because we don’t understand the nature that we are trying (in vain) to free ourselves from…

 

Neurotic suffering is the suffering that comes about as a result of have no freedom. Without freedom we are compelled to ‘be what we are not’ because in our essence we are freedom. The mechanical world can be succinctly defined as ‘a world without freedom’. It can also be described therefore as ‘a world in which we are always being compelled to be what we are not’. In this world we can never be ourselves – that’s the one thing that we can never be. It’s not hard to see why the MW is a world without freedom – whatever happens in a mechanical system happens because it has to happen. Events happen because they have been instructed to happen by the constraints written into the system so if the events haven’t been specifically instructed to happen then they don’t. This is fine for the various components of a spring-driven watch or the parts of a car engine (that’s the only way a watch or a car engine can get to work, after all; they can’t work when freedom is allowed back into the situation) but it’s not fine for human beings. Lack of freedom is not fine for human beings at all!

 

The problem is however – as we have already said – that when we are immersed in mechanicalness then we can’t recognize the mechanical for being mechanical. We really don’t get it that the world which we have created for ourselves is a world without freedom. We don’t get it at all – we just can’t see the unfree nature of our situation and we won’t believe it if someone comes up and tells us. We will fervently deny it to the end of our days; we will deny it with our dying breath – “I am free”, we will say. We say this however because we are not free to see that we have no freedom. Our heartfelt claim that we are already free (our fervent and aggressive believing of this) is a symptom of our lack of freedom, a symptom of our conditioned inability to see the truth. The reason we aren’t free to see the truth is a very easy thing to explain – we aren’t free to see the truth because we live in a world that has been made by thought and thought is a mechanical thing. Thought proceeds by logic alone and there is no freedom in logic. The whole point of logic is that there is no freedom in it!

 

We simply don’t recognize that we live in a world that has been entirely organized by thought – to say that we ‘underestimate the role of thought’ is an understatement of the most immense proportions. We don’t relate to the world as it is in itself (or to other people as they are in themselves) but to our mental image of the world, our mental image of other people. Life comes as no surprise to us and the reason it comes as no surprise is because we already have it all figured out. We’re not surprised because nothing is happening to surprise us and the reason nothing is happening to surprise us is because we’re only ever seeing what we expect to see. We are only ever encountering what we already expect to encounter. The thinking mind has its categories and everything we see, everything we encounter, always matches these categories, always gets to be processed in terms of these categories. If it didn’t then we’d know about it – we’d know about it because we’d realize to our very great surprise that we really don’t know what’s going on. We’d be gobsmacked in a big way. When we realize on a very deep level that we don’t know what’s going on then this is called ‘being alive’, this is called ‘actually being conscious’…

 

Thought has overrun us – the servant is dictating terms to the master. Instead of using thought as and when it serves us we have unwittingly allowed thought to create a whole world for us and we have become immersed in this false world without realized that anything untoward has happened. We have been hoisted by our own petard, as the French say – we have been hoisted good and proper. It’s not just that we’re ‘thinking all the time’ (as people often say) – that doesn’t make the point properly at all. Rather, it’s that we have made everything in our lives to be subservient to thought and this is a very terrible thing. We don’t even have the imagination to see just how terrible it is. If there is something that doesn’t agree with thought, something that doesn’t accord with our categories, then that ‘something’ doesn’t exist. Unless thought gives its ‘say so’ first, then nothing gets to exist. As we have just said, the chances are that we don’t see the true horror of this situation; very possibly we don’t see anything wrong with it at all. We are after all perfectly happy – it would seem – to sit back and let the thinking take responsibility for steering the ship in this way. We certainly don’t seem to be very concerned with the situation. We might be concerned by a lot of things but we aren’t in the least bit concerned about letting thought be the undisputed master of our lives!

 

Despite the evident fact that we seem perfectly OK about thought being in charge of everything it isn’t really OK. It isn’t really OK because – as we have already said – there is no freedom at all in thought and because there’s no freedom in thought there’s also no freedom in ‘the world that thought has’. Thought has made this world for us to live in, and it compels us to believe in this world (we haven’t got the wherewithal to even start questioning it) and this world is fundamentally lacking in freedom. It is a very strange thing to observe that we are so happy to go along this world that we have been provided with – it’s as if we don’t care what uses are made of us by thought (or by society, which is its production). And yet deep down, we do care – we care very much. Deep-down we care and we know this because we are suffering – the suffering is our caring, it is our ‘not being OK about having no freedom. Neurotic suffering isn’t a curse in the way we take it to be therefore, it’s how we get to be aware of something that otherwise we would simply have no way of ever being aware of…

 

So the art of disengaging from the mechanical world has nothing at all to do with getting rid of this suffering, in whatever way we might try to do so (be it via therapy or via medication). Instead, it involves listening to it, and appreciating where it comes from. Instead of taking against our pain, and roundly condemning it as ‘an evil’, perhaps we can begin to relate to it a bit more respectfully, since to respect our suffering is to respect ourselves. Perhaps we can begin see the neurotic pain that we are experiencing in a more positive way (whilst at the same time acknowledging that it is pain and acknowledging that we would very much like for it to go away) and instead of a curse see it as ‘an invitation to freedom’…

 

 

 

 

 

The Simplest Things

The simplest things are the hardest to speak of. When we’re talking about ‘approaches’ that we take in therapy or ‘models’ that we have in psychology we have no trouble in finding things to say – we find it very easy indeed to come out with all sorts of highfalutin jargon! In no time at all we evolve a whole jargon-heavy language, full of catch-phrases and buzz-words. Yet we’re not really saying anything really – we’re prattling. We’re intoxicating ourselves with our own spurious cleverness. If we were actually saying something real then it would be a lot harder and we wouldn’t be able to use other peoples’ catch phrases, tawdry generic language that we have ‘taken off the shelf’. That wouldn’t cut the mustard…

 

The reason we love models and approaches, catch-phrases and buzz-words so much is of course because it gives us an angle. We’re desperate for an angle! We’re stuck without one; we feel that we absolutely do need one. Without an angle, what are we going to do? How are we going to proceed? It’s seems natural and perfectly reasonable that we should be looking for an angle because we’re coming at things from the point of view of the rational mind and this is just another way of saying that ‘we’re coming at things from the POV of wanting to change or control what is going on’. If the person I am working with is depressed then I am looking for a way of getting them to be not depressed; if they are thinking in an anxious or self-recriminatory way then I am going to be trying to change this anxious or self-critical way of thinking, and so on. That’s pretty much my brief as a therapist, after all!

 

We need ‘an angle’ because our intention is somehow to manipulate the situation and manipulation or control is simply not possible without an angle. Control and manipulation are second nature to us; more than second nature, it very often seems as if this is the only nature we know. Control seems like the answer to everything when we are in mental pain and if you try to say that it isn’t people aren’t going to take any heed of you. We don’t want to suffer, obviously, and neither do we like to see others suffer but this doesn’t mean that trying to manipulate what is going on as soon as things start getting painful is a good thing to do! Far from being ‘the answer to everything’, control is actually the root cause of our woes. It only takes a little wisdom to see this. Even a little wisdom is generally beyond us however – we have bucket-loads of technical means in our culture but no wisdom! Or if we do have wisdom (because it’s out there somewhere) it is rarely to be found in our experts. Expertise doesn’t require wisdom – wisdom comes out of the broader view and – generally speaking – we just aren’t interested in ‘broadness’ or ‘width’ of vision.

 

The thing about control is that it always distances us from whatever it is that we are attempting to get the better of. When we bring in control this always puts us at odds with the world, it always introduces a very troublesome glitch into the system, which is odd because the whole point of control is that it is supposed to benefit us, not jinx us! The reason control always puts us at odds with the world (and not the world but ourselves) is because it disconnects us – it necessarily disconnects us (and no one can reasonably argue that it doesn’t!) because control can only ever be instigated as a result of our theories about the world, our abstract models of the world. So first we represent the world to ourselves in terms of a handful of spindly abstract concepts and then the next thing is that we charge ahead on this basis and interact with the world as if our abstract model wasn’t an abstract model at all but an infallible guide to what’s really going on out there! This isn’t a genuine interaction at all therefore but rather it’s a type of hamfisted bullying that is taking place on the basis of this bizarre misrepresentation – a type of bizarre misrepresentation that exists in our heads but nowhere else.

 

‘Control’ has its rightful domain of applicability but this is not the psychological domain! It has its rightful applicability within the realm of the ‘non-complex’ – if I have to put up a fence or build a shed or dig a hole in the ground that is of the right size and depth then this is where control is needed. If I am surgeon performing a laparotomy then this is also a case where very precise control is required, if the patient is to stand any chance at all of surviving! In all such cases we can come up with a formal theory that holds water and then apply it to ‘the real world’ but when it comes to psychological matters we cannot come up with any convenient theory or model. No theory has ever been found that has allowed effective psychological control to be exerted or applied, regardless of what the text books might say. Changes may be effected alright, but only at the cost of a ‘rebound’ that wipes out any advantage we might think we have gained. The reason no model (no model which ever yielded useful results) has ever been found is because the psyche isn’t a machine. The psyche (i.e. who we are) isn’t a machine and if it isn’t a machine (i.e. if it doesn’t obey the dictates of linear or predictable logic) then there is no way that we can ever possibly model it…

 

How could we ever think that how we are could be something we could understand, just as we understand the internal combustion engine or a printed circuit board? The thinking mind always assumes everything to be understandable (i.e. amenable to being represented in its own non-complex terms) because if it doesn’t do this then it would be cutting the ground away from under its own feet. Unless the thinking mind assumes a universe that is fundamentally understandable in terms of logic then it is making itself redundant, it is doing itself out of a job. It only works if everything is understandable – if we had a situation where parts of the universe were understandable but these parts were embedded in a deeper reality which is itself not understandable then this would mean that nothing was understandable, not really. If a thing is to make sense to the thinking mind then the whole universe, from top to bottom, has to make sense. Otherwise its position is lost. We can’t see it, but the thinking mind’s ultimate agenda is always to ‘hang in there’ and avoid the fate of being made redundant and for this reason it will never admit (it never can admit) that the world or the universe isn’t just some kind of machine, and that we aren’t – in our turn – just complicated units of biological machinery, even though this puts us in an utterly preposterous position. And there is no more preposterous position than the one we find ourselves in when we claim to understand something profound about ourselves on the basis of the so-called ‘science’ of psychology’.

 

The truth of the matter – which we are very keen indeed to deny (for no batter reason than our inability to see through the malign influence of the runaway rational mind, which cannot bear to be knocked off its pedestal – is that the universe is infinitely complex, just as we are, being as we are part and parcel of that universe. This is no disaster, this is no defeat, this is no terrible thing – it just means that we have to put up with the thinking mind no longer being ‘top dog’, no longer ‘ruling the roost’. It wasn’t doing a very good job anyway! As a result of seeing things clearly (which is something we have been steadfastly resisting at every turn) we have to ‘put up with’ no longer living in a world which is basically an exercise in accountancy, where we have to spend all our time trying to make sure that every single thing can be neatly accounted for. Instead, we have to live in a world which in its essential nature is more like a poem or a work of art than a neat row of numbers in a ledger (or on a spreadsheet). This is the hardship that we have to endure if we can bring ourselves to come around to dispensing with the dubious services of the rational intellect and accepting the actual non-logical nature of reality…

 

When we live in a world of poetry then cleverness is no good to us! As Rumi writes:

No better love than love with no object.

No more satisfying work than work with no purpose.

If you could give up tricks and cleverness,

that would be the cleverest trick!

This whole drive to be clever, to argue mysteries away, to systematize our understanding of the world, is simply us trying to make our concepts and models relevant when they’ aren’t. We’re trying to force everything to fit our conceptual slots because – since we’re coming at the world from the basis of the thinking mind – everything has to be about these slots. The bottom line is that we’re always struggling to make the rational faculty relevant when it isn’t. When we’re dealing with infinite complexity (i.e. infinite inter-connectedness) then any attempt to systematize just traps us in delusion – the only way not to be trapped in delusion is not to try to make sense of things! Even though it may sound contradictory to say it, when we’re dealing with great complexity, simplicity is what’s needed. Simplicity works because it resonates without trying – if something is simple enough then it is whole, and if it is whole then it resonates with everything else that is whole. By not trying to say too much we say it all!

 

This is why the sparse verses of the Tao Te Ching work so much better than all the weighty tomes of Western philosophy. It is as if in the West our response to the surpassing complexity of life is to complicate things as much as we can. We go down the wrong road – we go down the road of hyperrationality. We throw a whole mess of technical jargon at the problem, we invent a whole new kind of ‘speak’ that creates the illusion that we ‘know what we’re doing’. This technical language owes its existence to one thing and one thing only – the premise that it can actually enable us to do something about to help alleviate the mental pain and distress that our clients are suffering from. If the people we are dealing with are anxious then the language validates itself on the basis of its ability to ameliorate anxiety; if they are suffering from depression then the terminology gains prestige from its promise to banish effectively the shadow of depression from our clients’ lives, and so on. What else could excuse this ungainly mass of specialized terminology, which is quite lacking in aesthetic or poetic virtue in itself?

 

Traditionally however, all of our psychological situations have been addressed by something else entirely – by wisdom rather than cleverness. Wisdom has an entirely different character to cleverness – it doesn’t seek to create its own highly specialized vocabulary, for a start! Wisdom can express itself in the simplest of terms; it can express itself in language that can be understood by children, in fact. That’s how we know that it’s honest – this is where its power comes from, not in its ability to impress, intimidate, dazzle or intimidate people. If we come across some common human situation like anxiety and we respond to it by pulling a lot of neologisms out of our hat then all we have succeeded at is in alienating the sufferer from his or her own experience; in Ivan Illich’s words, cosmopolitan medical civilization takes the experience of being unwell (or in pain) out of our hands and makes it into the property of the mental health professionals. Only they have the power to say what our situation is, and to know what to do about it, and their language is both controlling and jinxed.  [As we have already said, ‘Controlling’ and ‘jinxed’ go together when it comes to mental health!]

 

Anxiety (to to use this one example) isn’t what the medical authorities say it is, however. It isn’t something that needs to be understood in terms of some frame of reference that doesn’t belong to us, and which we are actually excluded from understanding because we haven’t had the appropriate training or education. If I am suffering from anxiety then ‘what it is’ is necessarily my own subjective experience of it; there’s nothing else it could be – anxiety isn’t something that exists ‘in the abstract’! It isn’t at all what you –with your technical terminology – frame it as being…Anxiety is actually a very simple thing – anyone who has ever suffered from anxiety knows what it is. Anxiety is the experience of anxiety and this is where the ‘answer’ (so to speak) lies – not in someone else’s complicated theories of it! Anxiety is not at all a technical matter, in other words – it can’t be transposed into some other (highly arcane) sphere, it can’t be converted into some riddle or problem to be solved.

 

The ‘answer’ – if we may continue to use that word – lies exactly in our subjective experience of what’s going on, not in some abstract, mind-moderated formulation or theory of it. In the simplest of terms, where we are when we’re suffering from anxiety is a very difficult place to be and the ‘answer’ is simply for us to be able to be there without feeling that we need to escape, without constantly feeling that we need to ‘press the eject button’. This could easily become a type of a theory but it isn’t – it’s an intuitive understanding of the situation we’re in. Furthermore, it is our understanding and not one else’s. What makes anxiety different from the everyday ‘non-anxious’ experience of being in the world is simply that in the non-anxious state of mind we somehow have the ability to avoid the existential challenge that lies in the present moment and so – because we always have the option of escaping – we don’t get anxious, even though anxiety is latent in our situation. We are constantly escaping without knowing that we are escaping (because not knowing that we are escaping is an essential part of the escaping) and so we perceive ourselves as not being anxious. Anxiety – in this case – can be linked with the failure of the mechanism which facilitates our imaginary escaping from the demand that ‘being present’ places upon us! Or to put this another way, it is because we can no longer flee reality with impunity that we are feeling anxious…

 

Anxiety – we might therefore say – is where we keep on trying to flee (or ‘solve the problem’) but can’t and this is where the suffering comes in. We trying to do something that we can’t do. Our comfort zones have failed us and so we now have to deal with the difficulty of being present in our own life without any of the usual convenient escape routes. The drug of escaping (and not being present in our own lives) is no longer available to us and so now we’re going ‘cold-turkey’ – anxiety is as simple as this. How then can the clever talk of some accredited clinical expert help us if this is the case? It is more than likely that their role of ‘clinical expert’ represents nothing more than their escape from being present in the reality of their own life – there are no experts when it comes to the question of ‘how to live life’, after all! No one can be an expert at being their own true self…..

 

There is no jargon for being present. There are no models, no theories. This is not something that someone else can advise us on  – just as Walt Whitman says in his poem Song of Myself that no one can ‘walk that road’ for us, so too must it be the case that no one can ‘be present’ for us. Being present in the actual reality of our own lives is the simplest thing there is, yet no one can describe it, nor tell us how to ‘do’ it….

 

 

 

 

 

The Twist

Life has a hidden twist in it. Or rather we should say that when we live life in the way that we always do live it, then it has a hidden twist (or glitch) in it.

 

The twist that we’re talking about here is very easy to explain – life isn’t purposeful and yet we nevertheless live it on purpose.  This involves ‘a twist’ because once we start living life on purpose then we can’t stop, we can’t go back. What’s more, we can’t see any way in which life couldn’t be purposeful – we’ve become incapable of seeing that it could be any other way. This means that we’re living life one way, as if it were one thing, whilst really it is another thing entirely – something that we really don’t understand and this puts a kind of ‘kink’ or ‘glitch’ in life that keeps tripping us up. We’re somehow ‘at odds’ with the basic nature of things and we can’t see it.

 

There are therefore two parts to this twist – one part is that we can’t go back to the way life used to be, and the other part is that we can’t understand how life could be any way other than purposeful. That has become incomprehensible to us – if we don’t live our life on purpose, deliberately, by design, according to our intentions, then how is it going to happen, we ask? Someone has to be in the driver’s seat, choosing what direction we’re going to go in, deciding what is going to happen next, avoiding problems that may lie ahead, making plans for the future, etc…

 

Both of these two parts make up one and the same twist of course – we’re stuck in ‘not being able to go back’ and we’re also stuck in ‘not being able to see that there is anywhere to go’. We’re caught up in living life purposefully and that’s that. It won’t happen for us spontaneously any more – if we don’t make it happen then it’s not going to. So now we’re in this situation where we’ve got this thing that we have to push around ahead of us wherever we go, like a rusty old supermarket trolley full of rubbish, and as soon as we stop wrestling it and struggling with it the thing goes off the track and ends up in the ditch. This is why as a culture we’re always banging on about ‘having a goal’ or ‘having a plan’. It’s also why we’re always talking about how great it is to be motivated.

 

‘Motivation’ is what gives us the energy and stamina to somehow keep pushing ahead with the old shopping trolley, uphill struggle though it is. It is the magic ingredient that makes it possible for us to keep the show on the road, and keep forging ahead to our Big Goal (whatever that might be) and with all the necessary (and usually very tedious) steps that lead up to it. We have to keep on ticking all the boxes until we hopefully get where we really want to get in life and finding the motivation to do this can be a challenge. It’s a challenge to do all the stuff that we’ve got to do along the way because we’re not really interested in that but we have to do it all the same and that’s why ‘motivation’ is such a magical word for us. It sounds good to us because that’s what’s missing! When faced with the artificial type of life that we’re supposed to be getting on with our natural motivation tends to depart and that’s why we have to go to motivational seminars and such-like nonsense.

 

There is something very terrible about all this talk of ‘motivation’ and ‘strategies’ and ‘tools’ and ‘goals’. It’s a horrible way of speaking. We shouldn’t have to be looking for ways to trick ourselves to stay motivated; we shouldn’t have to be using goals and targets all the time as a means of giving meaning to what we’re doing. Pretty clearly, something has gone badly wrong when we have to do this. What’s really going on here – loathe as we are to see it – is that we have had to substitute all of this goal-driven stuff, all of this ‘extrinsic motivation’, for ‘intrinsic motivation’, which is motivation that happens by itself. It’s as if the engine in our car has conked out and we have to get out and start pushing the thing ourselves instead. This will work fine if we’re going down a hill, or even on the flat if we’re strong enough, but once we start going up against a major incline we’re going to run out of steam very quickly. Then we’re in trouble because the car’s going to start rolling back down the hill again, in exactly the opposite direction to the one we want it to go in.

 

Replacing intrinsic with extrinsic motivation is going to prove untenable in the long run not just because its unremitting hard work with no actual joy or creativity in it, but also because the whole thing is inevitably going to reverse on us at some point or other. Our own will, as indomitable or as trusty as we might like to think it to be, is going to turn traitor on us and let us down. It’s going to start working against us instead of for us. It’s going to ‘flip-over’  – having been pushed one way as far as it will go the pendulum is going to reach its limit and go into reverse on us. It’s going to swing the other way. The fact that we can ‘achieve our goals’ is one thing and we’re very fond of trumpeting on about how great and wonderful and inspirational this is, but just as well known (if much less likely to hit the headlines) is the fact that we are forever undermining and sabotaging ourselves too. We are forever pursuing ‘perverse goal’ – goals that if we were in our right mind we wouldn’t really want to achieve, goals that are to our disadvantage rather than our advantage. This ‘reverse-current’ of our will-power is every bit as well known to us as the positive variety, it’s just that we don’t like talking about it so much.

 

This ‘reverse current’ of will might seem incomprehensible to us, it might seem like something that we ought to be able to ‘therapize’ away by coming out with lots of frothy psychobabble or ‘positive thinking’ (or possibly CBT) but we only think this because we don’t understand what we’re dealing with. We’re trying to ‘will away’ glitches that have been caused by our own wilfulness; we’re trying to deliberately iron out problems that are the result of our own pernicious ‘deliberateness’. What we’re actually coming up against here is the resistance that has been set up by the over-use of our rational will – this is what happens when we try to ‘rationalize life’ and make everything into a puzzle we have to solve, or task that we have to purposefully do. When life is made into a problem that needs to be solved or a task that has to be completed then resistance comes into the picture and then we find out (eventually) that we’re actually fighting ourselves.

 

As we started off this discussion by saying, life is essentially spontaneous in nature (i.e. it isn’t governed by rules) – it isn’t purposeful, it isn’t a movement that is on its way to a specified goal! As Alan Watts says over and over again, life isn’t something that’s done for a reason, in order to ‘get somewhere’ by it. The universe didn’t come into existence for a reason, it doesn’t exist in order serve our rational will. There’s no ‘plan for life’! Sometimes we hear talk about ‘God’s plan for us’ but this is the very same thing – it’s our own absurdly clunky rational thinking projected onto God because we can’t imagine anything else apart from ‘goal-orientated activity’. There always has to be a goal – where we are right now can never be good enough! There always has to be something missing, something that we need to reach out for. But all of this is quite ludicrous – we don’t live so that we can kill ourselves trying to obtain this, that or the other dumb concrete goal. To imagine that this is the case is to degrade life to the level of a game…

 

The ‘twist’ is therefore just another way of talking about resistance. The twist is what happens as a result of resistance – we’re resisting life happening the way it wants to happen by imposing our own brand of order on it. We’re trying to make life be the way we think it ought to be and we never see anything odd about this at all. We always try to make life be the way we think it ought to be simply because that’s ‘the way we think it should be’… We never look any further than this. That’s the end of the matter, as far as we’re concerned. We never look any further than ‘what we think’ – we never look any further than our own thoughts. What we have called ‘the twist’ is nothing other than our own resistance to life. When we strive to achieve a goal that we see as being good and wholesome that is resistance and when we perversely go against ourselves and ‘score an own goal’ that’s resistance too. It’s all resistance. Anything purposeful is resistance, by definition! We’re trying to achieve something that isn’t already the case and so by definition we’re resisting what is the case. Resistance is our basic activity – when we try to promote and further our ‘idea of ourselves’ this is resistance and when we ‘shoot ourselves in the foot’ this also is resistance. It’s all what we have called ‘the twist’.

 

Life itself isn’t twisted, we are! We are the twist, we are the glitch. We are the spanner in the works. This of course all sounds very negative (reprehensibly negative, in fact) to our rational-purposeful way of looking at things. No square-jawed, steely-eyed, high-profile motivational speaker is going to go along with this! The formulation of our predicament that we just presented here doesn’t give us a leg to stand on. It isn’t affirming for our concept of ourselves at all and that’s what self-help gurus, popular psychologists (or any kind of conventional psychologist, come to that) always offer us – affirmation for our idea of ourselves. affirmation for the self-concept is a lot like flattery – it might feel good at the time but it certainly isn’t doing us any favours in the long run!

 

Life’s a lot simpler without the twist. That’s like being a child again – life works with you not against you. With the twist – which we can’t see and don’t know to be there (since it is us) – complications and entanglements keep on piling up. Things don’t go smoothly, even though we will have periods when we think that ‘things are going our way’. The very notion of ‘things going our way’ is glitched however – life isn’t supposed to be going our ‘way’, it’s supposed to be going its way! Life isn’t supposed to be falling in line with some arbitrary mental construct (or idea) that we have come up with, and that we have put on a pedestal as if it were the most important thing in the universe. If that’s the way that we want to live life then we’re in for a bumpy ride and no mistake…

 

Ultimately, those bumps aren’t a bad thing though. They’re there to remind us of something – they’re there to remind us that life isn’t supposed to be purposeful! Or as we could also say, the ‘bumps’ are there to remind us that we aren’t really the idea that we have of ourselves. It helps to see that these bumps – our trials and tribulations – aren’t a bad thing. It helps because then we don’t take against them so much! We won’t hate them so much. Insight into the nature of things is always liberating – insight is always liberating because it shows us that everything is already in the process of sorting itself out. Everything is already in the process of sorting itself out and so there’s no need for us to intervene. ‘Insight’ is actually the mirror-image of paranoia in this way, because paranoia always shows us that something bad is happening and that we very much do need to intervene! Paranoia is ‘twisted insight’…

 

Insight shows us that we can’t do anything about being identified with the thinking self, even as it shows us that we aren’t really that self. We can’t do anything about our situation – if we try to then we just make matters worse. We pull the knot even tighter than it already is. The way that we are is the way that we are and that’s that! We are the way that we are but that’s OK because when we act as the purposeful self (as we always do act) then this creates a backlash which works – if we let it – as a reminder to remind us that we’re aren’t really this ‘purposeful self’, that life isn’t really this ‘deliberate’ or ‘forced’ thing that we have made it into. This isn’t a reminder to ‘do something about it’ however because as we have said there’s nothing we can do about it! It’s a reminder in the sense that it reminds us to remember something that we have always known, deep-down, but which we have nevertheless forgotten…

 

Knowing that everything is already in the process of sorting itself out means that we can ‘relax into’ whatever it is that is happening, so to speak. And if we can’t relax into what’s going on then that’s OK too because that too will sort itself out – all we need to do in this case is ‘relax into not relaxing’, therefore! Whatever level the tension or conflict exists on, we can relax into it being there and in this case, even though the twist is still there, and very much in painful evidence, we know on a very deep level of our awareness that it’s OK for the twist to be there because the twist ‘is its own solution’, so to speak. When we know that it’s OK for the twist (or glitch) that’s in life to be there (when we know that we don’t have to fight against it or try to fix it) then – curiously – knowing that stops the twist being the twist. We’re connected with our deeper awareness of who we are (the deeper awareness that knows that there’s no need to ‘do stuff on purpose’) and so there is no more divide. The twist only functions as a twist when we resist it – paradoxically therefore, if we allow it to be a glitch then it no longer is a glitch….

 

 

Image:The Birth of Venus (Audio Editor glitch) by Omletofon

 

 

 

 

 

Mental Health Is Not A Goal

The only type of ‘therapy’ that is worthy of the name is therapy that has no agenda, therapy that does not involve expectations or goals. The only type of therapy that is worthy of the name is therapy that is completely ‘non-coercive’, in other words. This is such an alien concept to us however – it’s far more alien to us than we imagine it to be because we simply don’t realize how coercive we are in our relationships both with other people and ourselves. We all function on the basis of the logical mind (whether we acknowledge this or not) and the logical mind is always coercive, always aggressive. It operates on the basis of the order which it takes for granted, and which on this it account projects or imposes upon the outside world and this is of course the very essence of aggression! How can imposing your own brand of order (a brand of order which doesn’t actually exist anywhere in the world other than in your own head) on the world not be aggressive?

 

This inherent coerciveness shows itself in our notions of what mental health consists of – mental health is inevitably seen as an ideal state and an idea state is something that we have to work towards. It’s something we have to define, make a goal of, and then take the appropriate steps to obtain. This tends to sound reasonable enough to us (since this is how it works with everything else, just about) but the point is that all of this business of ‘deciding where we want to be and then working towards it’ is aggression – we’re actually trying to coerce ourselves to be mentally healthy (because it’s an ideal that needs to be accorded with) and yet ‘coercing or manipulating ourselves to be mentally healthy’ is a contradiction in terms. It’s flatly self-contradictory in the very same way the phrases ‘fighting for peace’ and ‘legislating for freedom from bureaucracy’ are…

 

The state of mental health isn’t an ‘ideal state’ because ideal states are projections of the mind; they are pictures of ‘how things should be’ that the thinking mind has come up with. If we go down this road then we are trying to inhabit our own mental maps and our own mental maps are essentially uninhabitable, just an ideology is uninhabitable. The attempt to attain what we consider to be an ‘ideal state’ – which is something that we do all the time – is anything but conducive to good mental health. It’s conducive to a lot of things, but none of them are healthy. What it is conducive of are various socially-prescribed styles or fashions of unhappiness and frustration…

 

Mental health has nothing to do with obtaining goals or ‘being the way we (or other people) think that we should be’ – it has to do with the honesty that we can bring to bear on our actual situation and this is a completely different type of thing. Honesty is never aggressive or violent – it doesn’t need to be because it’s not about trying to change anything. Honesty accepts rather than rejecting; it comes with no agenda – it comes with no expectations or judgements with regard to the vexed question of ‘how things should be’. And the point is of course that we can never – in the normal run of things – separate ourselves from our thoughts or preconceptions regarding ‘the way things should’; we live out our whole lives within this matrix of expectations and how well reality accords (or seems to accord) with this artificial template determines whether we feel good or whether we feel bad, whether we say that life is going well or badly…

 

Of course honesty has nothing to do with expectations or agendas or goals or judgements or control or anything like that. All of this stuff is the business of the thinking mind and the thinking mind is all about projecting its ideals or assumptions out into the world. It never does anything else – it always measures the world in accordance with its expectations and then tries to change or manipulate things on this basis. That’s its job. Thought has its role and stating that all it ever does is ‘measure things against it expectations’ (or ‘chase ideal states’) does not diminish or invalidate that role. If I’m thirsty and I need a drink of water then the projected situation where I actually receive this glass of water is ‘the idea state’. If I’m cold and tired then being all warm and snug somewhere where I am able to rest is an ideal state, and so on. Practical goals and our consideration of how we might attain them is the very stuff of life, we might say, but this type of goal-orientation does not apply to mental health.

 

As we have already said, mental health is not a goal to be obtained, it is on the contrary purely a matter of relating honestly and clearly to the way that we actually are. Another way to put this is to say that mental health is when we are able to be ‘present’ with ourselves, instead of being ‘somewhere else’. It doesn’t matter what it is that we are to be present with, it just matters that we be present! This is – needless to say – no small matter. It’s no small matter because we’re all experts at not being present in our lives – we’re expert at not being present in our lives to the very same extent that we live in our dreams, in our goals, in our expectations, and this is a very considerable extent. Far from being a ‘small’ matter being present in our lives is the biggest challenge there is. This is what really matters, no matter what anyone else might tell us, not matter what society as a whole might tell us. How after all can ‘being present in our lives’ be outranked by something else? Suppose I have everything ‘right’ in my life – according to societal values – but I didn’t happen to be present in it, what good would this do? And yet we’re already being prevailed upon by the forces that act upon us to postpone ‘being present’ until X, Y and Z are taken care of; in practice there’s actually always something more important!

 

Being present is not something that is encouraged or promoted by our social milieu, by the humdrum everyday forces that are in operation all around us. It is not something that is ever promoted by the everyday mind, which is the mind that finds expression in society. On the contrary, we are constantly being told that achieving this task is the important thing, or that achieving that task is the important thing. Anything else is more important, when it comes down to it! There is always a task needing to be attended to and this is always ‘the important thing’. There is always a goal waiting to be achieved and this is seen as being where our well-being lies – in the successful accomplishment of our goals. The achievement of our goals (which is a spectacularly jaded formula which we nevertheless never seem to get tired of hearing) might well be seen as being where our wellbeing lies but this has nothing to do with being present.

 

All of the ‘humdrum forces’ that we have been speaking of operate by ensuring that we shall not be present. We won’t be present because we’re living in our goals, our agendas, our plans, our expectations, our ideas and this is not being present. This is ‘living at a distance from reality’, just as James Joyce says of one of his characters in his novel Dubliners that he ‘lived at a little distance from his body…’ This is also ‘living life on the never never’ because we’re always saying to ourselves that we’ll start living our lives when the ideal conditions that we’re controlling for come about, when they never will. Or if they do seem to come about, then before very long there will be another set of conditions that we need to bring about, another set of goals that we need to attain. The result of this is therefore that we’re always waiting to live but never living, as Alan Watts says, and there’s no way that this can be called ‘being mentally healthy’. How can always living at a distance from one’s life as it really is be mentally healthy?

 

There’s nothing wholesome or conducive to health about this business. There’s nothing wholesome about it because there’s nothing ‘whole’ about it – we’re living a fragmentary life, as Krishnamurti says – we’re living a life made out of fragments (or fractions) that never come together and this causes a malaise. More simply put, it causes chronic unhappiness, and then – because we’re unhappy all the time – we realize that we need therapy and because this therapy probably involves trying to achieve some kind of an ideal state we’re simply going around in circles. Mental health (or ‘being present’, if we want to call it that) doesn’t necessarily have to mean being happy but it does mean ‘being real’ and being real makes it possible for us to experience peace and happiness, which it is clearly not possible for us to ever experience if we aren’t being real. All we could ever know – at best – would be an unreal version of peace / happiness! What glitches us is that we are constantly straining for it; we are constantly aggressive, constantly striving, and even if we aren’t actively striving we’re possessed by the thought or belief that we should be striving, that striving is the right thing to do, and this too is striving, this too is aggression…

 

Aggression (in this sense of the word) ensures that we stay locked into a state of chronic unhappiness because there is no way that any genuinely wholesome states can ever come our way if we are constantly trying to feel better than the way we actually do. We want to be happy (or at least we think that we do) but that doesn’t mean that we want to be real and so because of our resistance to ‘being real’ (because being real or moving in the direction of being real doesn’t feel so good) we never get to feel ‘good’ in a profound or wholesome sense – at best we will occasionally feel ‘good’ in a superficial or image-based kind of a way, and this is really just a form of suffering. Anything superficial or ‘image-based’ is a form of suffering. Being ‘real’ means being present in the mess of what is actually going on, and who amongst us has the stomach for that?  It’s much nicer to live our idealized dreams and projections of who we would like to be, or think we ought to be; this is the sugar-coated version of reality that the thinking mind keeps presenting us with – the sugar-coating is only a tiny fraction of a millimeter thick, a couple microns perhaps, but it’s still the only version of reality we’re interested in. If it isn’t what the rational-conceptual mind is feeding us (or rather spoon-feeding us) then we don’t want to know. We will look the other way with all the stubbornness and obstinacy in the whole universe!

 

What we need isn’t more goals, more purposes, more methods to follow and more tasks to complete but the unconditional support to be the way that we actually are, and this is something that our mental health services are just not equipped to provide. Most of us can’t provide support for ourselves to be present in our lives, so how can we be supportive to others who are having such great difficulty being present with themselves? The crux of the matter is that our systems deny us our presence, which is the possibility of ‘us having an honest relationship with our own pain’. They are always pointing in the other direction, just as the thinking mind is always pointing in the other direction. All of the social systems that we have created have this characteristic – the characteristic of ‘denying us’, the characteristic of pointing us in the wrong direction, the direction that leads away from our own wellness, our own true mental health. This is always going to be the case with any system that we devise. That anti-health, anti-wholeness bias is inherent in all logical systems and this reason for this is very clear indeed, once we get around to letting ourselves see it – systems are of course all about organization (they could hardly be about anything else) and ‘mental health’ (or ‘wellness’) isn’t something that can be organized.

 

To organize something is to put it into the appropriate slots, the appropriate compartments, the appropriate boxes, etc. This seems in one way too obvious to be worth pointing out but at the same time we need to stress this point because we are so blind when it come to understanding that ‘organization’ or ‘regulation’ cannot be applied to people in the name of therapy, or in the name of promoting mental health.  ‘Managing’ ourselves with regard to stress or anxiety or anger or whatever emotional turmoil it is that we might be going through is a far cry from anything even remotely ‘mentally healthy’  – we shouldn’t even be allowed to use the word because we are so very far from understanding it! How can the thinking mind know what health is, what wholeness is? As a rational culture, we don’t actually know anything about mental health at all – we think that it has something to do with ‘according with certain standards or criteria’. We would like to devise an instrument or machine to determine it. We think that just about everything has to do with ‘according with standardized criteria’ – if it can’t be standardized (or regulated) we don’t take it seriously.

 

Mental health isn’t however about perceiving, feeling, thinking, or behaving in a particular way (which is what we think it is), it’s about being present in our own lives, as our lives actually are. It is as simple (and as difficult) as this. We don’t become present by according with criteria or rules (i.e. by ‘fitting into the prescribed framework that everyone else is trying to fit into’), we become present by honestly relating with what actually is not by trying to measure and arrange everything in accordance with our unexamined expectations, which is all the thinking mind can ever do! Goals and methods and expectations have no part to play here! Coercion to ‘be the way that we or other people think we ought to be’ has no part to play here….