We Live In A ‘Content-Free’ World

What happens when we create worlds for ourselves that are existentially ‘non-challenging’ is that we promptly fall asleep on our feet. This isn’t just something that is probable (or even very likely) – it is an inevitability. It happens every time…

 

An ‘existentially unchallenging environment’ is one in which everything is defined for us and if everything is defined, if everything is ‘in its right conceptual box’, then where’s the existential challenge in this? Everything just becomes an exercise in accounting.  Because there’s no challenge in the moment there is no ‘being present’; because there is no more than ‘what superficially appears to be there’ there is similarly no more to us than ‘what superficially appears to be there’. We are (pretty much) the products of our environment – when we adapt to an environment that is only skin-deep then the same becomes true of us, when the only world we know is a world that has no actual content then neither do we. This is because – in the absence of an effort in the direction of self-inquiry – we can’t help using our environment to define ourselves.

 

This tends to be a point we don’t immediately get – we’re only too used to realities that have already been defined for us, predigested realities, realities in which there is never any more than ‘what superficially appears to be’. Because of this it is hard for us to see that there is anything peculiar or untoward about this situation. The reason the ‘world of appearances’ is a peculiar one is because reality itself is not merely ‘an appearance’ and so we’re diverting from what is real without knowing it. Appearances are what we see and relate to but that is strictly our own affair – what we see or understand as ‘being real’ has nothing to do with reality, nothing to do the actual nature of reality itself. Appearances have a particular form to them – they have hard edges which we can focus on to the exclusion of anything else. We ourselves create these ‘edges’ and having created them we proceed to treat them as if they are the only important thing in life – we treat the edges that we’ve made as if they themselves are reality. The ‘edges’ that we’re talking about here come out of our thinking, needless to say, because thinking is all about edges, or ‘cut-off points for our attention’.

 

When ‘an edge’ equals reality then everything straightaway becomes flat. The world becomes flat – there’s no depth involved. Depth doesn’t come into it – the idea of ‘depth itself is lost. Where the edge is then that’s what’s real and behind that sharply uncompromising edge there’s nothing, nothing has been defined, nothing has been presented and that means that as far as we are concerned there is nothing. It’s as if we have turned up the focus on our focussing mechanism to make the image we’re seeing as sharp as possible; it’s only the mechanism (i.e. the conceptual mind) that does this however – this two-dimensional sharpness doesn’t exist in the world itself. The world itself has nothing in common with the image that is presented on a flat plane, as if nothing else existed but that flat plane.

 

If we take the time to relate to the world without the help of this focussing mechanism (and hitting a flat-plane representation with nothing behind it) then we will encounter this unfocussed phenomenon that we have called depth. Depth means that ‘the more you look, the more you see’ (as Robert M Pirsig says); reality reveals itself when we give it the space to do so, when we don’t hurry it along by ‘pressing for a conclusion’. If we press for a conclusion then we get the conclusion that we have pressed for and that’s all we get. We never go beyond it, we never get surprised. When we don’t ‘take charge of the process’ in this way then we keep on being surprised, we keep on seeing more than we thought there was to see. This quality of there being more in the situation than we initially perceived there to be constitutes what we have called ‘depth’ and depth is therefore the existential challenge that we have said designed environments don’t contain.

 

The essentially open nature of reality constitutes an existential challenge for us because of the demand that is being made on us to be present with a reality that has no precedence and which on this account we are not prepared to deal with. All we have is ourselves and this is a challenge because we not used to dealing with reality ourselves – we’re used to dealing with it with the help of external authority of the thinking mind, which is a collection of gimmicks and procedures and formulae that have been passed down to us, not ‘all on own’, which is what is required of us now. Life is making a demand and that demand is that we attend to what is happened right now, which has never happened before, rather than assuming that we know what is going on and moving on to the next (known) thing, which is what we usually do. The demand to attend to an unknown present moment is also the demand to attend to (or question) ourselves, and this is the one thing we never want to do. This then is the boon that the constructed environment bestows upon us – the constructed (or ‘designed’) environment bestows upon us the boon of not ever having to look at ourselves. Because the world we are relating to is made up of sharply-defined surfaces with nothing behind them so too have we become a ‘sharply-defined surface with nothing behind it’ and because there’s ‘nothing behind it’ we don’t need to examine ourselves. There’s no point because we already know everything there is to know. We are thereby protected from what Chogyam Trungpa calls ‘a direct perception of what is‘.

 

The question here is then, why is the challenge of having to examine who or what we are so very frightening to us? Why are we so very keen to run away from it? One way of explaining our ‘reluctance to examine things too deeply’ is to say that we simply don’t want the apple-cart to get upset. Seeing that the world is other than the way that we took it to be means that we have to go right back to the drawing board and that means a lot of hard work. It also means seeing that we have wasted a huge amount of time and effort on the wrong idea of who we are and what life is all about, and seeing this is in itself hard work. That is actually the hardest work of all! Everything we thought was wrong. Having to let go of everything we thought we knew and go back to the drawing board is the hardest work there is and so it is hardly surprising that we would want to run away from something like this. Faced with the two possibilities of either carrying on in our denial and ‘putting off the moment of truth’ for as long as we possibly can, and deciding to turn around from the road of denial and go back to start again it is clear what the easiest (and therefore most attractive) option is going to be…

 

We had this comfortable little illusion going for us there – we thought we had everything sussed out, we thought we had a handle on everything, when all of a sudden the rug gets pulled out from under us and we discover that we were only fooling ourselves. We’d been asleep, in other words, so now is the time to wake up. This is still puzzling however because when we wake up there’s a whole interesting world there to find out about and this has got to be the most exciting challenge ever! Why then do we react so badly to this challenge? Admittedly – as we have just said – we have to overcome our initial resistance to seeing the truth, but is this enough by itself to explain our tremendous antipathy to encountering ‘reality as it actually is’? The world that is made up of defined surfaces isn’t that great a world, after all; far from being in any way ‘great’ it is completely sterile, completely lacking in anything that can ever genuinely surprise us, and so why are we so very keen to stay in it, not knowing of any other world and not wanting to know either? Why do we refuse the richness of the non-conceptual mind in favour of the generic ten-a-penny two-dimensional pseudo-world that the thinking mind constructs for us? What the hell – we might well ask – is going on here?

 

What we’re really asking here is “Why is psychological work so very inimical to us?” Why is the existential challenge that is inherent in life itself something that we are just not prepared – under any circumstances – to countenance? The answer to this question is very simple – when we have identified with the mind-created self, which is the self that is constructed out of edges, out of hard-and-fast boundaries, then psychological work is a complete impossibility for us. There couldn’t be a more complete impossibility than this. Psychological work (or ‘conscious work’) means going beyond our boundaries and the mind-created self can’t do this – it can’t do this because it IS its boundaries. That’s the whole point of the defined self – that it can’t be what it isn’t defined as being! The defined self is only what it is defined as being and so it can’t ever go beyond these limitations (no matter how much pain and frustration they might entail) – going beyond its own boundaries is the same for the defined self as dying. To embrace the new is to let go of the old and the bottom line is that we just don’t want to do this – our resistance (or ‘inflexibility’) here is absolute…

 

As soon as we being to attend to the world around us we are challenged. Our idea of ourselves is challenged and that idea is sacred to us. That idea IS us. Our orientation towards life is totally based on this idea of ourselves – our interest is totally in the direction of ‘acting on behalf of this idea’, not ‘questioning it’. That would be going in the other direction entirely! There are two entirely distinct modes here – ‘doing mode’ and ‘reflecting mode’ – and if we’re in the first mode, the purposeful mode, then questioning ourselves doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s giving up or sacrificing the very thing that’s most important to us (the only thing that’s important to us!) because it’s only through unreflective purposeful doing that we can perpetuate the illusion of the controller, the illusion of the doer, the illusion of the purposeful self. The purposeful self only gets to exist because of the way it always defines itself by consistently relating itself / orientating itself to the sharply defined surfaces of the constructed world, as we said earlier.

 

‘Being asleep’ means that we have identified ourselves with a whole bunch of mental constructs. We can’t even differentiate between what we have called ‘the constructed world’ and the idea of who we are (i.e. who it is that inhabits this world) because each requires the other in order to carry on existing. The purposeful self and the defined world within which it lives are mutually conditioning phenomena – they are the two sides of the same coin. Inasmuch as I experience myself to be this ‘mind-created me’ I am going to have no interest in what lies beyond the sharply-defined representations of the world that the mind has created for me; not only am I ‘not interested’ in the reality that lies beyond my concepts, I am mortally afraid of it. I am never going to admit its existence, no matter how much pressure I am under. Admitting the existence of a reality that lies beyond my concepts is the same thing as admitting my own non-existence!

 

Our relationship with unconditioned reality – when we are identified with the defined self – is the relationship of fear. ‘Fear’ is relating by not relating – we don’t know what we are relating to because we aren’t relating to it, but at the same time we can’t help knowing about it for the very same reason, because we are so deliberately not relating to it. To consistently turn away from something is to orientate oneself towards it in a negative or reverse fashion so when we are afraid of the unconditioned reality (which is the world beyond our constructs) then our whole lives are based on fear, even though we can’t see it. Fear is what lies behind our rigid posture in life, our constant tedious tropism towards defined goals or definite outcomes, but at the same time we never look at why we are the way that we are. We have no curiosity towards ourselves; fear does not examine itself, after all – if I am afraid I do not want to see deeply into the nature of this fear! We don’t see what we are afraid of for what it is – we don’t see unconditioned reality for what it is, we simply know that we need to avoid it at all costs… If we saw that what we were so afraid of is actually reality itself, then this would tend to give the game away big time, and that’s what we don’t want!

 

It is because we don’t want the game to be ‘given away’ that we are so very fond of conditioned environments, environments that we have created for ourselves out of the thinking mind, environments which are seamlessly defined so that there is no radical mystery in them anywhere. To gaze upon a radical mystery would be to gaze upon the beginning of our own non-existence – the self-which-is-a-construct-of thought cannot afford to have any dealings with the Great Mystery which is reality! The constructed self is most emphatically not a philosophically-minded type of an entity – it is – as we have been saying – purely practical in its approach. It just wants to know what the goal is, and how it is to obtain it, and then it is happy. It is like a wind-up clockwork toy in this regard – we just have to prime it and then we can let it off to ‘do its thing’. Being wound-up clockwork toys, all we want is to ‘do our thing’! We don’t want to know why we are to do it – we just want to ‘get on with the job’, we just want for there to be nothing obstructing us in the fulfilment of our mechanical task. If something stands in the way of us going through our predefined routine then this is immensely irritating, immensely frustrating to us. There’s nothing worse!

 

‘Going through our predetermined routines’ equals being asleep and when we’re asleep we want to carry on being asleep. We don’t want to be disturbed. Beware waking up sleeping people, as Anthony De Mello says! They won’t like it, they won’t be happy with you. When we’re asleep we just want to whizz around and around and around on the tracks that have been laid down for us. We don’t want anything to get in our way. We just want to play our games. It is for this reason that we have created a world for ourselves that is made up entirely of defined surfaces, which is a world that has had all the actual content taken out of it…

 

 

Art: Sean Norvet

 

 

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‘Assertion Mode’ Versus ‘Reflection Mode’

When we are painfully caught up in neurotic distress it is very helpful to see that there are two distinctly different modes of awareness, which we can call assertion and reflection. The difference is that while one mode will free us from neurotic torment, the other will make the problem worse. We can explain these two modes very easily. In the case of assertion I am saying ‘This is true’, which is being specific, committed, and closed. In the case of reflection I am not saying anything, but my attitude is asking ‘What is true?’ Reflection is unspecific and open because I am not looking for any particular answer. Each of these two modes of awareness might be said to be linked to a different sense of ‘self’: in the assertion mode it is the purposeful self, which Krishnamurti calls the ‘self-image’, and in the reflection mode it is the spontaneous self, which we can call the ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ self.

 

The spontaneous self is easy to explain (in one way at least) because it is who we really are; here there is the free expression of our true nature. We don’t have to think about what we are doing or saying – it just comes out of us. The self-image, on the other hand, is the known self, the self that we deliberately project for the benefit of ‘an audience’ (which includes ourselves). Everything the self-image does and says is ‘calculated for effect’ – even if we don’t realize that this is the case. This is the self that we are conditioned to believe in and defend, and it is at the end of the day no more than an artificial construct. A curious and very troublesome property of this ‘image of ourselves’ is that we get caught up in it and take it very seriously indeed as if the well-being (or ‘integrity’) of the self-image were the most important thing in the world

 

We can explain this idea by saying that it is a bit like a position (or opinion) that we start defending in a conversation even though it doesn’t matter that much to us one way of another. At first we don’t really care if we are ‘right’ or not (our involvement is ‘playful’), but after a while a process sets in which means that we start to get invested in this position; from this point onwards it all begins to get very serious and ‘out of hand’. When this happens, I get caught up in all sorts of problems and difficulties that I didn’t really need to involve myself in at all. The effort (and subsequent suffering) involved is unnecessary because I am defending an unreal thing. I am defending something that only matters because I have said that it matters and I am getting so caught up in it I am forgetting that ‘it only matters because I say it does’.

 

We can in fact define neurosis in general as the situation where I am defending a false sense of self. The consequences of defending this ‘false self’ (or self-image’) are that all our efforts are in vain since even if we win we lose because it is not us but the false self that benefits. What is good for the false self is not good for anyone because the false self isn’t real, and so when we promote and defend the false self we have effectively become our own enemy.

HOW CAN I TELL WHICH MODE I AM IN?

If I want to find out which mode I am in, a good question to ask myself is therefore “What self am I serving?” If I am acting for profit (i.e. in order to benefit myself in any way) then it is the self-image that is being served. This is always the case when the underlying motivation is to obtain profit, or avoid loss. The two triggers of attraction and aversion always relate to the self-image (the managed or controlled self) because it is only this self which stands to gain or lose. Essentially, anything that helps to prop up (or support) the self-image is ‘GAIN’ and anything that threatens to show it up (i.e. damage it’s integrity or standing) is ‘LOSS’. The True Self, which is who we really are, has no fear of being exposed or damaged, and no hope of being vindicated or supported. It is what it is, and it needs no ‘spin-doctoring.’  Because it isn’t a pretence it doesn’t need to be propped up.

 

A good way to explain this is in terms of ‘the truth versus the lie’. The thing about a lie is that it can only survive if the truth is successfully covered up. If I tell a lie then I am invested in that lie, I am committed to maintaining it – I always have to be defending it or attacking other points of view (which comes to the same thing). The lie always needs propping up because it cannot stand on its own; I have to actively promote it because without my intervention it will be exposed for what it is. The truth, however, needs no propping up – it is called ‘the truth’ precisely because it stands up on its own, without any outside help.

 

The point here is that I do not need to assert that such and such is true; if I feel the need to assert the truth then that means that I have lost the truth, I have become separated from the truth! It means that I am now in fact defending a lie. This is the reason why the purposeful self can never truly find peace of mind, and why anxiety is never far away. From this we can see why assertion is not the way to find freedom from anxiety since if I am asserting then this is because deep down I suspect that what I am asserting is not really true at all. It doesn’t matter how vigorously I try to prop up my positive assertion – in fact the more energy I put into it the more I feed the anxiety. Asserting the positive only emphases the negative!

SPOTTING MY ATTACHMENT

If I notice myself maintaining or defending some position (whatever that position may be), then I know for sure that I am acting from the basis of the self-image, the false self. Or we could also say, when I notice myself defending a position, then this means that I don’t really believe it to be true myself!  Seeing this lack of honesty, however, is itself an honest act – which means that it is an act which the self-image is incapable of. The self-image isn’t interested in seeing the truth, it is only interested in promoting what it wants to be true, what it wants to be the case.

 

Seeing that I am defending (or asserting) straightaway gives the game away because as soon as I see that my position needs defending, then I know it is not true, and so I catch myself and don’t get caught up in the futile attempt to persuade myself that it is. I don’t get caught up in the defending because I immediately spot what I’m defending for what it is. So we can therefore say that seeing that I have to defend the false self weakens the false self since the truth is the one thing it cannot take. If assertion mode is where I promote and perpetuate the false self, then reflection mode is where I allow myself to see that this idea of myself is not who I really am at all.

 

This business of ‘seeing myself defending’ is clearly a very healthy and helpful process – when I see the falseness of what I am defending then I will no longer invest in it, I will stop putting my money on it because I know that it will not give me anything in return. This process means that I will gradually stop identifying with the false self, and this allows me to come back to being who I really am, which is the self that doesn’t have to be asserted or defined. The journey of dis-identifying with the false self – which is based on a whole load of stuff that I don’t even believe in – is the journey of psychological growth. Normally we see growth as the process in which we build up the image of who we think we are and so it can be seen from what we are saying here that genuine growth isn’t like this at all – genuine growth is where I see through who I thought I was, not where I keep on having to defend and prop up this false image of myself…

CONTROLLING EQUALS ASSERTING

It is important to understand that what we are talking about here is ‘noticing what mode of awareness we are in’ – not ‘changing the mode that we are in’. The reason for this is simple: if I try to change myself from being in the assertion mode to being in the reflection mode, this is in itself an act of assertion and so it cannot work. All that happens is that I get confused; I get confused between where I actually am, and where I want to be. As a consequence I get tied up in knots – always trying to solve my problem with the very thing that is causing the problem. I will be trying to control myself to stop controlling myself, trying to force myself to be free. This takes us back to our definition of neurosis because the self that I am trying to free is not who I really am; it is a fiction dependent on a constant diet of spin doctoring, so how can it ever be ‘free’?

 

What we are saying, then, is that we cannot change modes on purpose – all we can do is see what mode we are in. I cannot assert that I am in the reflection mode, or that I intend to be in the reflection mode because that is what I want to be true. What I ‘want to be true’ is a position that I have invested in, it is a lie that I need to maintain. The only truth is ‘what is’, not what I ‘want to be’.

 

Actually, I don’t need to change anything on purpose because the moment I notice that I am in assertion mode I am straightaway in reflection mode!

The moment I sincerely ask myself ‘what master am I serving’ then I am asking from the standpoint of the True Self because only the True Self is interested in the truth.

The false self cannot ever sincerely ask this question because it has a fundamental resistance to hearing the answer; assertion is all about not asking open questions – the principle of the false self is ‘keep moving because if we stand still for a moment we might hear something we don’t like’. The false self is pursued by a thousand demons, yet in reality its problems all stem from itself and its determination to not hear the truth; if it stood still for a moment it would learn that it doesn’t actually exist, and this in itself is no problem.

REFLECTION IS NOT THE SAME AS JUDGING

Asking myself “What master am I serving?” is not the same thing as ‘assessing my situation’. This is another mistake that we keep making. Judging is not reflecting because when I am judging I am providing my own answers. When I evaluate whether something is good or bad what I really mean is “Is it good or bad according to my likes and dislikes?” The point is, it is me who gets to say what is good or bad – I am in control, I am holding the reins. Of course, I cannot allow myself to see how I am ‘fixing’ the process of evaluation or I wouldn’t be able to say that it is objective. Therefore, I avoid seeing how I am secretly getting my own way by assuming that my likes and dislikes are objectively valid, i.e. that my way of looking at the world is the right way.

 

Finally, it must be stressed that we are not saying that reflection is good and assertion is bad (which would be a judgement, and therefore an assertion). Assertion is only a problem when we are too afraid not to assert. If I can stop and reflect from time to time then assertion is not a problem, and purposefulness finds its proper place within a context of ongoing questioning. When assertion and reflection exist together, then my purposeful behaviour is not ‘blind’ – it is not driven by fear (i.e. denial). When there is a balance between the two modes my activity does not stand in the way of learning and so I do not get stuck in static (or cyclic) behaviour patterns.

When I See That I’m Asserting Then I’m Reflecting

We have said that having an awareness that there are two mode of awareness, and being able to see which mode we are in, frees us up from neurotic conflict, which is where we try to make something be true that isn’t true. The cure is not to try to make that state of affairs not be so, but simply to see that we are trying to make something be true that isn’t true. In other words, the cure is being able to see when we are in ‘assertion mode’.

 

 

 

 

 

Mental Health Isn’t A Strategy

Collectively speaking, we have a very peculiar idea about what mental health entails, or should look like. What we see as good mental health isn’t healthy at all – it would be more accurately referred to as ‘a precarious illusion that we are obliged to spend our lives trying to prop up’. When we are able to successfully prop up this pain-producing illusion then we call this ‘being mentally healthy’ and when we can’t maintain the illusion any more then we say that this isn’t healthy and that we need help. Our idea of what constitutes mental health is completely back-to-front, therefore! We couldn’t get it more wrong if we tried…

 

We essentially think that good mental health comes about as a result of being in control of all the parameters, although we probably won’t see it quite as bluntly as this. Mental health isn’t having lots of coping strategies on hand however – it’s not about having a coping strategy for every occasion, or an answer for every problem. On the contrary, it’s about not having a need for any coping strategies, not needing a big bag full of answers. Whenever we hear any talk of ‘coping’ this means one thing and one thing only – it means propping up something that would otherwise be at threat of ‘going under’. This is like a country whose economy is going to pot and which needs a package of financial aid to keep it afloat. What we don’t ask ourselves is “What sort of ‘mental health’ is it that continually needs to be rescued, stabilized, or propped up?”

 

What we’re talking about when we use this model of mental health (even though it’s not really a ‘model’ as such because it’s not actually thought out through very thoroughly) is a nothing more than a state of dependency. By using strategies we’re creating a dependency on having to do X, Y or Z in order to feel better, in order to feel that we can ‘cope’. So perhaps I am anxious and you show me a way of deescalating the anxiety in some way – perhaps for example I am to take ten deep breathes or do ten minutes of progressive muscular relaxation. This sounds great to us, we never question this for a moment because it seems to us that we have found a way of dealing with the problem, which is exactly what we want. We now have ‘a strategy’ that we can use, we now have another effective tool to put in our ‘tool kit’, etc, etc.

 

It seems to our normal way of thinking that this is a good way of looking after our mental health. To have ways of managing our anxiety (or anger, or stress, or whatever) seems like the way to go. We’re very fond of this whole notion of ‘managing’ stuff – management’, like ‘regulation’, is a favourite word of ours. We use it all the time in the world of mental healthcare and we don’t see anything at all suspicious about it. We can’t see that the notion of ‘managing our own mental health’ is a very suspect one indeed – and yet we absolutely ought to be able to! We can’t be that lacking in psychological insight, surely?

 

The point we are making is this – if I have to engage in some kind of prescribed behaviour every time I feel anxious, or stressed, or angry, or whatever and if that behaviour affords me some sort of temporary relief from the anxiety (or whatever it is) then I have just made myself dependent upon this behaviour. With it, I get to feel OK; without it, I am definitely NOT OK! To say that I have to do X, Y or Z – whatever the strategy in question is – I order to bring the symptoms of anxiety (or whatever) under control is to affirm to me that ‘something needs to be done’ – I don’t feel OK and  so something needs to be done in order to feel OK. To feel that one needs to do something specific in order to feel OK is to have a dependency therefore and there is no way we can equate being in a state of dependency with ‘mental health’. We’ve just given away our autonomy to a mechanical coping mechanism and what’s so healthy about that?

 

I ever I have to do something in order to feel OK then this straightaway tells me that I am not OK until I do it. So the message is that ‘I’m not OK’. The message is that I’m not OK until I do what I need to do in order to feel OK. But clearly it’s not OK to be dependent upon something in order to feel OK!  So what then is this state of perceived well-being that I am striving after? It is a very obviously ‘conditional state of being’, which is to say, it is a state where I can say “I am feeling OK if….”  I am OK if conditions X, Y or Z have been met, are in place, etc. My mental health now ‘equals’ these conditions, therefore – I have now successfully externalized my mental health so that it is dependent upon external mechanical factors. If the external factors are working well then I’m well too…

 

When so-called ‘mental health’ is dependent upon conditions being met (or upon the procedures that will bring about these conditions) then this makes it into a very precarious, very brittle sort of a thing. This supposed state of mental health is not robust – it is not autonomous, it is not ‘sufficient unto itself’. It’s only OK when something outside of it, some extrinsic factor, makes it be OK. And yet if we had to say that mental health is anything, we would have to say that it means being autonomous. Without autonomy, we have nothing! We might have the superficial appearance of well-being on the outside, but for sure there’s nothing on the inside to back it up because if there was then we wouldn’t need ‘help’ from the outside. We could also talk about autonomy in terms of being self-organizing – self-organizing systems (like the psyche) don’t need to be organized from outside, if they are then this compromises their own natural process and when we disrupt or compromise the psyche’s natural self-organizing (or spontaneous) nature by relying on clumsy external mechanisms then we have fostered profound ill-health.

 

Our sense of being ‘well in ourselves’ can never be made dependent upon a special set of conditions otherwise we are going to make ourselves the slave to the need to maintain these conditions, which is exactly the road we have collectively chosen to go down – even though ‘choice’ is of course always the wrong word to use in relation to collective matters. By getting better and better at controlling our own environment (both physical and mental) we have lost our ‘resilience’, we have lost the robustness that the human race undoubtedly did used to have. Even in our own life-time, we can notice the difference – we’re less self-sufficient, we complain and go running for help for the slightest bit of discomfort, and this tendency is encouraged and fed by a political/economic system that thrives on our passivity. Who can deny this?

 

It suits the system to define mental health in the way that it does, therefore. If we are slaves to the need to the need to maintain a very specialized environment then this suits the political/economic system that prevails at this time because that political/economic system is at root the same thing as that ‘special environment’. There’s no difference. Collectively speaking, we’ve gone down the road of getting better and better at controlling the external world and this has gone hand in hand with the loss of that ‘inner life’ which has nothing at all to do with control. This ‘inner life’ is what mental health is all about, if it is about anything. What we have obtained for ourselves as a result of all this control, all this manipulation, isn’t ‘well-being’ at all – it’s a state of conditioned well-being and conditioned well-being is a different kettle of fish entirely.

 

‘Conditioned well-being’ is a phantom that we have to keep chasing. We have to keep working at it because it’s going to run away from us otherwise and leave us in the lurch. We can only have the prize if we arrange everything correctly, if we correctly ‘do the thing that we are supposed to do’. What we’re essentially doing is making our sense (or perception) of well-being dependent upon our own successful controlling, our successful ‘strategizing’, and this is a million miles from anything that we might call ‘mental health’. What we’re talking about here is actually latent anxiety and latent depression – its anxiety and depression waiting to happen.

 

What we’re essentially talking about here is conditional happiness in another guise. It is conditional happiness in a supposedly therapeutic guise! It’s no wonder we can’t spot the flaw in the logic with regard to putting all our money on coping strategies (or ‘tools’) therefore – our whole way of life is based on the unexamined belief that that happiness is conditional type of thing. Our whole approach to life, in other words, is based on the assumption that “I can / will be happy if…”

 

A lot is hanging on this ‘if’, therefore. An ‘If’ is a terrible thing to have to base one’s happiness on. Our approach to life might be based on the supposition that conditional happiness is a viable proposition but this doesn’t mean that it is! If this is our bed-rock assumption then things are simply not going to work out for us – not ever, no matter how much effort and dedication we put into it. Instead of happiness we’re going to have to make do with fantasies about happiness instead – that’s the best we will ever be able to do. In the same way, if our key assumption is that the state of good mental health can be obtained via some successful set of strategies, some system or other of management, then well-being will always be a phantom for us – a phantom that we can chase but will never catch up with.

 

Our ‘problem’ – which we can’t see to be a problem – is that we imagine that a feeling of ‘wellness’ within us can be obtained on purpose, can be brought about via some sort of purposeful action. This is our supposition, this is our assumption. But there’s a glitch here that we never seem to spot. The glitch is this – any purposeful action, across the board, is always going to come about as a result of perceived deficit. If we’re thinking in terms of taking purposeful action in relation to mental health (or some notion that we might have about mental health) then this action is always going to originate in a perception that we have regarding a lack of health, a deficit in health. If I need to do something in order to feel well in myself then clearly I am coming from a place of not feeling well. What we don’t appreciate however is that any action arising out of a perception of ‘things not being right’ with regard to how we feel in ourselves, or about ourselves, is only ever going to perpetuate that same feeling. For example, as Krishnamurti says, any action that comes out of fear (action which is the attempt to either escape fear or combat it) is fear. Any action that occurs in relation to ‘negativity’ (if we want to call it that) is that negativity. What we react to we perpetuate. ‘What we resist persists‘, as Jung says. Problem-solving isn’t the answer when we’re talking about mental health because what we call ‘mental health’ is about being not doing. Problem-solving is a decoy, as Mark Nepo says.

 

If there’s no ‘wellness’ to start off with, in other words, then no amount of manoeuvring can bring it about!  This might sound very pessimistic, very depressing, but it isn’t. The point is that wellness is always there. It never wasn’t there – we were just cut off from it. Because wellness (or Wholeness) was always there we don’t have to create it, we don’t have to bring it about by any sort of ‘skilful action’. Skilful action only confuses matters – it distances us even more from the peace of mind and the resources of strength and wisdom that are already inside us. If we are struggling to obtain something that we think we haven’t got then this only serves to reinforce the belief that we haven’t got it, that we have to do something to get it, that we have to search for it ‘on the outside’.

 

Western culture is all about searching for happiness or well-being on the outside. We don’t like to see it like this, but clearly it is true. Who can seriously argue that it isn’t the case that we always look for everything on the outside – like it or not, that’s the sort of culture we are. We have a fundamental belief that everything, including our own well-being, our own peace of mind, is to be found on the outside. We don’t trust our own spontaneous and wisdom either – we only believe what comes to us from outside of ourselves. This is what we call ‘education’ – absorbing stuff from the outside and then being examined to see if we have absorbed it correctly! And yet what an absurd belief this is – imagine thinking that our mental health, our wisdom and strength, our peace of mind, could be dependent upon things that we do, upon procedures and strategies that we have to enact correctly. Imagine thinking that our peace of mind ought to dependent upon external factors or conditions that we can supposedly control! What a terrible nightmare this would be if it were true; if it actually were true that we always had to be ‘managing our own mental health’. “Leave it alone and it will sort itself out” would be better advice. Let the muddy puddle alone and it will clear itself, as the Buddhist teachers say. ‘Let it settle itself’, says Tilopa. Don’t get stuck in the micro-managing, don’t get caught up in the nightmarish attempt to control the parameters of your own existence.

 

Our intrinsic well-being is something that can never be destroyed – it is not a conditioned reality that is dependent upon external factors. It is not something that I or society has ‘put together’ and which now has to be maintained. Anything that has been constructed needs to be maintained and once we start maintaining an illusion we are bound to keep at it forever, driven by the unconscious knowledge of what will happen if we stop maintaining, if we stop controlling. Feeling compelled to keep on maintaining and protecting an illusion, and feeling compelled at the same time to keep on validating what we’re doing, both to ourselves and everyone else, by (implicitly) saying that what we’re maintaining and protecting ISN’T an illusion isn’t mental health. It’s our Western version of ‘mental health’. It’s actually as far from mental health as it is possible to be…

 

 

 

The Mind Creates Problems That Need To Be Solved

What does it feel like not to be relating to life as if it were some kind of a problem, some kind of a puzzle that needs to be worked out? This turns out to be a very difficult question to answer – it sounds straightforward enough but it isn’t. If we ask instead what the world looks like when we’re not trying to get something out of it then this is the same thing – just about nobody knows! Very few of us actually care…

 

The thing is that we’re almost always treating life as if it were some sort of problem to be solved. Even if we don’t realize that we’re doing so (which we often don’t) we’re always trying to manipulate life so as to get some sort of benefit out of it. The puzzle is how to get the benefit! When we’re trying to get something out of life – which in one way seems very normal to us – then we are being goal-orientated and when we’re being goal-orientated (or purposeful) then the problem that we’re trying to find the answer to is simply “How do I achieve my goal?”

 

Even if we’re chilled out for a while so that we’re not, for the moment, trying to obtain a particular goal or enact a particular purpose we’re still – in all probability – treating life as a problem to be solved. Just as long as the thinking mind is engaged, just as long as thought has ‘its hand on the tiller’, then we’re problem-solving. Thought can’t do anything else but problem-solve. The problem that we’re trying to solve even when we don’t know that we are trying to solve anything is the problem of ‘knowing what reality is’. Or as we could also say, the problem we’re trying to solve is the problem of ‘how to be in reality’ (which is the same thing as ‘how to relate to reality’).

 

We’re constantly trying to work out what our relationship with reality is, even though the chances are that we don’t realize that we’re doing this. one realize that we don’t see it happening is because the process is happening unconsciously, in the background, as some kind of ‘low-level anxiety’, and another reason why we don’t perceive ourselves to be stressing out over the existential question of ‘how to relate to the world’ is often because we already imagine that we have hit upon the right way of relating. The mega-collusion that we call ‘society’ is very good at providing us with this particular illusion (i.e. the illusion that we actually know what life is and how we’re supposed to live it). Society tells us who we are and what life is all about and so – at a stroke – all the existential issues that would otherwise be troubling us are put to bed! That’s the big favour the social collusion does for us.

 

That this is the case is not immediately apparent to us. If someone were to come up to us and ask us if we knew what life was all about, or ‘what reality is’, the chances are that – unless we happen to be some sort of fundamentalist Christian – we will say that we don’t. We don’t consciously claim to know ‘what reality is’ but on a subconscious level we nevertheless tend to assume this in some way. Our rather prosaic and ‘matter-of-fact’ descriptions of the world imply that we do; our concrete thinking about things implies that we do. Our complete ‘lack of wonder’ – which is an inevitable consequence of the operation of the thinking mind, which as Krishnamurti says always makes everything ‘old’ – implies that we do…

 

Just as long as our thinking (or our language) is of this prosaic, literal nature then we are assuming a knowledge about the world that we don’t actually have. This is what thinking does, as we have just said – it assumes a knowledge that isn’t there! Without ever stopping to reflect on what we’re doing we’re ‘wrapping everything up’ with our thoughts, with our literal descriptions of the world. We’re ‘packaging reality’ with our ready-made concepts so that we never have to look at it and then we’re proceeding to get on with things on the basis that we already know what’s under the packaging.

 

When we do this we’re acting as if life were a puzzle that we have already worked out. We treating life as if it were a jigsaw that we have already put together. No pieces are missing. We’re still treating life as a problem only it’s a problem that we know the answer to. It’s a kind of ‘dead’ or ‘finished’ problem therefore. It’s a problem that we’re no longer interested in. It’s a closed book that we’ve already read. It’s a set of ‘confirmed assumptions’…

 

So our point is that we never – or almost never – know what life is like when we aren’t treating it as a problem. Either we see it as a problem that we need to solve but haven’t yet done so, or we treat it as a problem that we actually have solved. In the first case there is anxiety in the mix – either to a greater or lesser degree depending upon how many teeth the existential crisis is manifesting for us, or there is some sort of depression there because everything has already been worked out and there is no existential challenge left for us. The absence of any existential challenge to life might sound good but when we achieve this we have actually shot ourselves in the foot big time! We’ve been ‘too smart for our own good’ – when there’s no more ‘existential challenge’ there’s no more life!

 

When the problem hasn’t been solved yet there is always the anxiety that perhaps we mightn’t be able to solve it. There is the worry that we might not be up to the challenge. There is a type of motivation inherent in anxiety but it is a closed sort of motivation because all we want to do is to press for a conclusion and after this we simply don’t care. We never look beyond our goal, which seems to subsume everything in life within it. This equals ‘treating life as a finite game’ therefore – all we want to do is get rid of the irritation of not having won the game yet, not having solved the problem yet. We’re ‘end-gaming’. We’re very very serious, very very humourless about getting it all ‘done and dusted’. We really haven’t got time for anything else. We’re pushing for the conclusion…

 

Whenever we are looking at life in terms of ‘problem-solving’ we are in thrall to our assumptions. Either we’re trying to achieve something (or striving to avoid something) on the basis of the assumptions that we have made without knowing that we have done so, or we imagine that we have already achieved something on the basis of these assumptions that we don’t even know about. Either way, we never go beyond the assumptions that we don’t even know that we have made!

 

It is the relationship between us and our invisible assumptions (the things we have taken for granted without knowing that we have taken anything for granted) that lies at the root of the ‘problem-solving modality’ therefore. This relationship has nothing to do with reality ‘as it is in itself’ but only with reality as we lazily ‘take it to be’. When it comes to ‘reality as it is in itself’ there is no problem – there is no need to ‘win a game’, no need to obtain an outcome that will somehow make everything alright (or avoid a negative outcome that will be totally disastrous). There is no need for any of that. There’s no ‘issue’ that needs to be sorted out satisfactorily – the issues (or problems) only exist in our thinking. The thinking mind creates problems that need fixing; it is in the mind’s nature to do this.

 

Actually, when we are perceiving life as ‘a problem that needs to be fixed’ (or as ‘a problem that already has been fixed’) we are not living life at all – we’re living our fantasy of life, not life itself. We’re doing a dance with our own assumptions – the assumptions that we cannot see to be only assumptions. We are living in a world that is made up of our own unrecognized projections and so we are never encountering reality at all. To encounter reality (or ‘life as it is in itself’) we’d had have to look beyond our assumptions about it and this is the one thing that we never do.

 

Why is it that we always have to be working on some problem or other, or be fondly imagining that we have solved it, imagining that we have already ‘got there’? Why do we have to be having some agenda that we’re always orientating everything towards so that we’re either feeling optimistic/ euphoric because we feel that things are going to ‘work out’ (or pessimistic /dysphoric because we suspect that they’re not) or complacent because we believe that they have already worked out, that we have already ‘arrived’? Why is this? Why can’t be ever just ‘let things be’? Why can’t we ever stop making assumptions?

 

The answer to these questions comes surprisingly easily once we get this far into the discussion – it’s not hard to spot what’s going on here, under the confusing ‘smokescreen’ of the mind’s illusions. The reason always have to be orientating everything around an all-important agenda is because that agenda is us. We construct ourselves around the agenda, around the need to fulfil it. The assumption that we can’t get beyond, can’t see beyond, can’t let go of is simply ourselves. The conclusion that we’re pressing for (without seeing what it is we’re pressing for) when we’re trying for all we’re worth to ‘solve the problem’ is the conclusion that our idea of ourselves is real, is true, is valid.

 

This is why we always have to be relating to life as if it were some sort of problem – because we’re always looking at life (or the world) from the point of view of the game-playing self. The problem the self is trying to solve is itself! Everything is always a problem for the self because the self is itself a problem, so to speak. Why is the self a problem? Because it always needs validation, and if it doesn’t get this validation then it can no longer believe in itself as a concrete entity, and actual ‘thing in itself’ rather than just an arbitrary viewpoint or ‘set of assumptions’, which is what it is.

 

We validate ourselves by fulfilling our arbitrary agenda just as we negatively validate ourselves by failing to do this. There’s the euphoric excitement of thinking that we’re going to achieve the all-important goal and there’s the dysphoric excitement of thinking that we’re not, that this isn’t going to happen, and both the agreeable and disagreeable excitement have the function of defining the game-playing or concrete self, the self that hopes and fears. The euphoria that we love and the dysphoria that we hate are what perpetuate the mind-created fiction of the one who likes and dislikes, the one who strives for the goal, the one who wants to win and fears losing.

 

And even if there’s no immediate goal or puzzle on the horizon (and we’re just having a bit of ‘down-time’ from problem-solving or goal-chasing or game-playing) there’s always the problem of describing reality, defining reality. The reason it is so important for us to definitively describe or define reality is because in describing or defining reality we describe/define ourselves. ‘How to describe ourselves’ is the problem that we always need to solve – that’s how we get to exist, that’s how we get to feel that we’re real. We are describing everything from the point of view of the self after all, and this automatically validates that self, that viewpoint. That’s the trick that we’re involved with – we’re ‘tautologically self-creating’. We get to feel real by ‘defining ourselves in relation to a version of reality that we ourselves have created’, in other words…

 

This brings us to the real question, which is this –

Are we at all interested in seeing reality ‘as it actually is in itself’ or do we only ever want to know what it looks like from the redundant (or ‘tautological’) point of view of the unreal self?

 

 

 

 

The Trouble With Wanting

The key to finding peace of mind is to see the hidden contradiction behind the state of desire, i.e. wanting. Wanting keeps us in a particularly effective sort of prison, a prison of the mind, and the reason it is so effective is because it is always offering us a prize – a prize that it can never deliver. Another way to explain this is to say that wanting, once we respond to its provocation and turn the wanting into trying, inverts our way of seeing the world so that we perceive everything backwards.

 

This ‘inverted’ state of mind is sometimes called psychological unconsciousness, which is where we live on a very superficial level and don’t have any insight into our true motivation for doing things. One way to explain the ‘thinking inversion’ is by saying that when we are under the influence of wanting, our attention is distracted from the desire itself, onto whatever it is that the desire is about. Desire is a compulsion, and a compulsion that I am unable to obey makes me feel bad, but rather than seeing that the source of my misery and frustration is the actual wanting, I perceive the problem to lie in my lack of success in obtaining what I want. So, if I am craving a cigarette, and there isn’t one there, I say that it is the lack of cigarettes that is the problem and so I apply all my cunning and ingenuity to the task of correcting this problem. Where the inversion comes in is that I don’t see the wanting that has got a hold of me as the true culprit, the true author of my unhappiness – if I did then instead of using all my intelligence trying to obey it, I would turn my attention to the root of the problem.

 

The wanting is telling me that once I obtain the cigarette, then everything will be okay. The wanting only hurts when I can’t get what I want, and so along with the ‘stick’ of the discomfort there is always the ‘carrot’ which is the promise of relief from pain (plus the satisfaction that comes with fulfilling the desire). Therefore, the promise is that when I obey the compulsion successfully, the bad feeling will leave and everything will be fine. In other words, once I get what I want, then the wanting promises that it will quit the scene (since it is no longer needed) and there will be peace of mind.

 

This promise is in fact a deception, because the wanting has no intention of leaving me in peace. The truth is that wanting is insatiable, and no matter how much it gets, it will always want more. To take the example of the cigarette, if I give in to the craving and have a smoke, then of course the craving will leave temporarily, but the one thing I know for sure is that it hasn’t really gone anywhere, it is just biding its time until it is ready to appear on the scene again, even stronger and even more insistent than before. The wanting is like a playground bully, who says that if you hand over your lunch money he will not bother you again. Actually, if you give in once, he will be back again and again, until you finally stand up to him.

 

Another example would be a spoiled child – a child who is always given what he wants, and as a result is never happy, never satisfied. Although caving in to the child’s demands for this, that or the other may bring peace for a minute, the one thing that we know for sure is that it will not last because the more I give in, the more I spoil the child. It only ever gets worse – in all such cases, freedom never comes from taking the easy option.

THE PATH OF ‘NON-VIOLENCE’

‘Standing up’ to compulsions does not mean fighting them, or trying to keep a lid on them. If we do this then we fail to see the contradiction, and so all our efforts rebound on us. The contradiction arises because we want to get rid of the enemy, which is wanting. We want to stop wanting, which means that we are using wanting as a tool to get rid of itself. This is like using violence to get rid of violence – no matter what happens, violence is the winner. My tendency to be dissatisfied with my situation does not go away just because I am dissatisfied about being dissatisfied – on the contrary, it gets stronger and the underlying problem gets worse. It is tempting to fight, even though it is not really achieving anything, because at least then I can feel that I am doing something, at least then I can have the illusion of progress. Once I do start struggling though, I am lost because I lose all perspective, and I am no longer able to see how my efforts are rebounding on me.

 

The only way to ‘stand up’ to compulsions is the way of non-violence, which means allowing the compulsion to be there. Normally, we either obey it or fight it, and the motivation in both cases is to escape from the pressure which it is putting on us. We are unwilling to accept the pain and so we have to do something about it, one way or the other. Yet the pressure the compulsion is putting on us is pure bluff – it threatens us with all our worse fears, but if we are not provoked to react then we find that what we were threatened with never happens. The terrible consequences that I am persuaded will occur if I fail to react are only ever a mental projection, whereas in reality it is the consequences of reacting which are disastrous to me.

NOT DIGGING A HOLE…

Allowing the compulsion, the wanting, to be there is the same thing as ‘allowing reality to be exactly the way it already is’. This is not something we do, but rather it is an act of understanding, which does not seek to change anything. An example of this sort of thing would be a situation where I have said something stupid and hurt someone’s feelings. I am desperate to put matters right, and say something to try and make everything okay again, but I find that whatever I say only makes matters worse. I am ‘digging a deep hole for myself’. As we all know from experience, the only cure for this is to leave things as they are – this is the most helpful thing to do. I am driven by the urge to correct the situation, because I cannot face feeling the shame or embarrassment. By correcting the mistake, I think that I can ‘undo it’, make it as if it had never happened. In order not to go down this road, the road of continually trying to make it better whilst actually making it worse, what is needed is that should accept the pain that I have incurred. This means facing reality and seeing that bad feeling which I am having is unavoidable. What happens then is that I unconditionally accept the mental pain involved, which, as we have said, is not a deliberate action but something that happens naturally (or spontaneously) as a result of gaining insight into the situation that I am in.

BEYOND ACCEPTANCE AND REJECTION

Another way to try to explain the idea of ‘unconditional acceptance’ is by using the example of being forced to spend time with some people whose opinions I strongly agree with. If I argue with them, driven by the need to prove that they are wrong and I am right, then they are just going to argue back. There is no way that I am going to change the way in which they think about things, and all that is going to happen is that there will be bad feeling between us.  Once I see this, then I just ‘let it go’ – I allow them to be the way that they already are and as a result of this there is peace. The essential element of this is that I unconditionally accept the pain of hearing them voice opinions which I do not hold with.

 

This does not mean that I judge them as being ‘wrong’, and then smugly tolerate them, safe in the knowledge that I am ‘right’. That would be a deliberate act, or posture, on my part and as such it is artificial (or unnatural) and therefore it would require constant effort on my part to keep it up. Instead of accepting the people I am sharing space with conditionally (which is to say, on the condition that I know they’re wrong), I accept them unconditionally. No effort or artifice is needed for this, and so there is no strain involved. This is the attitude which is sometimes called ‘beyond acceptance and rejection’. The point about this is that there is no choice involved whatsoever – there am I, and there is the situation that I am in. It doesn’t matter in the slightest if I say YES to that situation or if I say NO to it; my acceptance or my rejection are both equally irrelevant, equally ‘beside the point’. To put this another way, I am free to see the situation being the way that it is, but I am not free to choose whether the situation should be that way or not.

 

We can see the principle of the ‘inversion’ operating here if we look hard enough. When I feel that my acceptance is necessary for the whole process, then obviously this makes me feel like a significant or important part of the equation. I am unconsciously assuming that I am somehow still in control, that I can accept what is going on if I want to. This is plainly absurd though – my likes and dislikes don’t come into it at all. The inversion makes me think that my ‘say so’ is the crucial factor, whereas it is of course reality that is the crucial, all-determining factor. Basically, I am suffering from a distorted or deluded view of things which is a kind of ‘self-importance’ where I think that it is me (or my relationship) with reality which matters, rather than seeing that it is reality as it is that matters.

 

The same distortion creeps in when I judge (or evaluate) something, when I label it as being good or bad, useful or not useful, meaningful or not meaningful. Although on the face of it I am being open to what is outside me, interested in what is going on, actually I am only interested on the condition that I get to have the final ‘say so’, i.e. I am only open to what is there on the condition that what is there fits in with my preconceptions regarding what it should be like. Conditional acceptance means staying in control, whereas ‘no conditions’ means ‘no control’. Unconditional acceptance, therefore, means seeing that my likes and dislikes are irrelevant, which straightaway puts them in their ‘proper place’. The instant I see this my mind is no longer inverted – I am no longer coming at things from an upside-down perspective and I stop thinking that it is my responsibility to ‘do something’ about what is happening.

AN ACCUMULATION OF WANTS

All of this is not to say that we should never listen to our needs, that we should ignore every want. This would obviously be totally ridiculous. Suppose I want to go to the toilet, or suppose I want to get up because I am sitting on a thumb-tack? Clearly I am not going to get very far ignoring these wants. These are adaptive wants, they are motivations which we need in order to function as living beings. However, having said this, we must point out that we are not specifically talking about non-adaptive compulsions such as effect us in neurotic conditions such as addictions, anorexia, anxiety and OCD, although these are plainly deadly enemies of our well being. Rather, what we are getting at is the idea that there is a ‘general tendency to be dissatisfied’ which causes us to be helpless slaves to the niggling urge to correct or improve our situation. This ‘tendency’ is the hidden thief which imperceptibly steals away our mental freedom; the worse thing is that it is accumulative in nature, which means that as time goes on it tends to steal more and more.

LEARNING TO ‘DO NOTHING’ UNDER PRESSURE

The tendency to be dissatisfied is there the whole time, undercover but never far away. To come face to face with it, all we need to do is to stop doing the usual stuff that we do – and wait and see what happens. One way to do this is simply to sit down on a chair (or, even better, on the floor) and refrain from all preoccupations or entertainments for a period or ten to fifteen minutes. Almost immediately a host of little annoying wants will appear like horse flies trying to goad us to react. The first will probably be physical in nature: I will start to feel uncomfortable and so I will want to stretch out my leg or shift my sitting position this way and that. Then there are the mental discomforts which dominate even when I am physically comfortable (as we can see when we sometimes lie sleepless in bed). These take the form of little worrying thoughts and concerns, potential problems that need to be considered, or just random preoccupying thoughts – each one of which will make their claim on my attention.

 

All these thoughts are wants: either they cause me to want to do something, or plan to do something, or work out something; generally, they all compel me to think about the world in their on narrow, claustrophobic little way. These little compulsions, clamouring as they do for a ‘slice of the pie’, eventually spell the annihilation of my mental freedom, which is the freedom not to be pushed around by every little (mental) itch that comes along. We think (or we assume) that we will become free from obeying these itches, because when we scratch an itch it tends to go away, and we get a bit of relief. This is dangerously short-sighted of us though because scratching an itch to get momentary relief from it means that we turn ourselves into ‘slaves of the itch’. We are ‘free to obey our compulsions’ – which is of course no sort of freedom at all. True freedom is not the freedom to do what we are told, but the freedom not to have to do what we are told, which is what we learn from doing the ‘doing nothing’ exercise that we talked about a minute ago.

THE STATE OF PASSIVE IDENTIFICATION

When we carry out the ‘doing nothing’ exercise we are generally surprised by the amount of distractions that we encounter; if we thought before hand that doing nothing was easy, we now learn that it is not! Actually, it is not strictly true to say that all these wants suddenly appear when I do nothing – the point is that normally when a little want comes along I am likely to just indulge it and so the compulsion in question remains quite invisible to me. The reason ‘acting out’ a compulsion makes it invisible is firstly because as soon as I obey it, the niggling pressure ceases, and secondly (and more importantly) because when I automatically act out a compulsion I identify with it. What this means is that I align myself with the pressure so that it feels as if it was me that wanted to do whatever it was, rather than the compulsion that forced me to do it. So I don’t say “I was compelled to switch on the TV”, I say “I wanted to switch on the TV”. It can be seen that this process of identification is the exact same thing as the process of ‘viewpoint inversion’ that occurs when we obey a compulsion. We can also say that that the state of passive identification which we have just described is the same thing as the state of psychological unconsciousness, which we defined earlier as a superficial type of awareness where we do not know what our true motivation for doing stuff is.

 

In a ‘superficial’ sort of a way, it might seem that I have solved the problem of dealing with my wants by automatically acting them out, but all I have really done is to make my problem invisible. Not only is it invisible, it has been given the upper hand and this hand grows a little bit stronger, and a little bit heavier, every day. When I take a break from my normal more-or-less unconscious (or routine) behaviour pattern I am privileged to get a glimpse of just how powerful and insistent my tendency to be dissatisfied really is, and this insight is not usually very pleasant. From one point of view (my everyday, inverted point of view) I simply see this experience as a pain in the butt, I see it all as a bit of a nuisance or annoyance – my reaction is to exit the experience as soon as possible, and never go there again. If I could, I would make sure that I never have to encounter such uncomfortable little gaps in my life; if I could, I would wallpaper them all over with unconscious (or unreflective) living.

DROPPING MY RESISTANCE

From the other point (non-inverted) of view, I would see this experience as a marvellous opportunity, a chance for me to drop my habitual resistances, my automatic reacting to wants, and regain my inner freedom. Being able to see the problem is not a bad thing (which is what I automatically tend to think), it is actually a great piece of luck because unless I can see the problem I cannot ever stand a chance of overcoming it. If I am willing to confront the ‘uncomfortable-ness’ of my exposed tendency to be dissatisfied, then the situation can change so that it is no longer my master. In order to stay in the discomfort zone of ‘not doing’ all I need is the insight to understand that it is pointless being dissatisfied with my tendency to be dissatisfied; instead of fighting against this tendency I unconditionally allow it to be the way that it is. As we have said before, this is not an automatic reaction (or a measured, calculated response) but a spontaneous and intelligent appreciation of things as they actually are.

THE PROLIFERATION OF NEEDS

On last point that we ought to consider is the constitutional difficulty that we experience in seeing ‘doing nothing’ as a solution, and putting this into practice. This has a lot to do with the type of society which most of us live in – we have to remember that a consumer society is bound to encourage the proliferation of wants because each want that comes along translates into a ‘product’ which can be sold, or a ‘service’ that can be marketed. This means that money gets turned over and profits get made, which is of course what keeps the whole show running. In a consumer society the more needs there are, the better it is for everyone. What would happen to the rat race if none of the rats wanted to chase after the glittering prizes any more?

 

The right to satisfy all of our petty needs is enshrined deep in our culture. You can have whatever you want – just so long as you have the money to buy it, that is! The ideal state is to be wealthy enough to buy anything we set our heart on, and yet the richest person (the person no one says “NO” to) is also likely to be the person with the least inner freedom. This is another example of our backwards way of thinking – we imagine that we can become happy by chasing our desires and the more we are able to satisfy our wants the better off we think we are. But in reality, there is no happiness or peace of mind to be had this way. Paradoxically, true freedom is not ‘the freedom to realize all of our goals’ (which equals ‘the freedom to successfully obey our wants), but freedom from having to have goals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being Possessed By The Reactive Mind

‘Reactivity’ is a curse from which we all suffer to some degree or another. Something or other (an event or something someone says) happens and instantly I am plunged into an overwhelming emotional and/or physical reaction. All of a sudden I am ‘not myself’ – I am plunged into a negative state of mind and am likely to say or do things that are not characteristic at all of my normal self. This sort of dramatic ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ type transformation really is the stuff of everyday life and yet – at the same time – it is nevertheless a very strange sort of thing to happen. After all, I am myself and so how is it that I can turn into someone different at the drop of a hat? How is it that a kind, fair-minded and humorous person can turn into an unkind, unfair and utterly humourless caricature of themselves? It is no wonder that the ancients used to explain the more extreme and long-lasted examples of this phenomenon in terms of demonic possession.

INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL PRESSURE

Reactivity is so much a part of everyday life that we don’t really think very much of it. We could in fact take the position that to react to what goes on around us is the same thing as ‘having an emotional life’ – we could simply say that ‘reactions’ are the same as ‘emotions’ and that if we didn’t react we wouldn’t be properly human any more. This is probably what most people would say, if you stopped them on the street to ask their opinions about it. On the other hand, we could also take the position that it is our freedom from reactivity that makes us human. We could say that when a person has no capacity to be in a challenging situation without ‘automatically reacting’, then they are not properly human. After all, if what I feel and think and do is merely the mechanical result of an interaction between ‘trigger’ and ‘conditioned response’ then where do I come into all this? I don’t need to be there at all – and in fact I actually am not there. All that is there is the habitual response – the inflexible and terminally unreflectIve robot that I have elected and empowered to take over the job of running my life for me.

 

 

In a reaction there is no trace of an autonomous consciousness, no ‘I’ which is independent of the world around it. This is like a person who always agrees with the prevailing opinion, who always thinks the same way as his or her companions. If I always agree with the people around me then obviously my opinion is not worth a damn. After all, I am bound to be continuously contradicting myself since I may support a certain viewpoint right now and yet be totally against it ten minutes later, depending on who I am with. My position is not autonomous, it simply depends on what is going on around me, and so I might as well not be there at all. After all, I am not exactly adding anything different or new to the situation.  It is easy to understand this argument with regard to a person who only reflects the views of others but less easy to see how it relates to cognitive or emotional reactions. The point is that when I react I automatically lose my autonomous or independent consciousness, and become totally controlled by something that is imposed upon me from outside. I am controlled by external mechanical factors.

 

 

What I am being controlled by has – we might say – an interior and exterior aspect. On the one hand we could say that I am being controlled by external events. If things go well then I am a happy person, if things don’t go well I am an irritable and angry person. I am therefore a puppet, not a true individual at all. I have no ‘autonomy’. Or to take another example – if everyone says I am wonderful I feel good about myself but if people look down on me I feel very bad about myself. Again, I am nothing but a puppet, waiting for others to pull my strings. I am a helpless bit of flotsam, bobbing up and down on the waves of arbitrary public opinion. I am always allowing myself to be defined according to ‘external pressure’.

 

 

On the other hand, it could equally well be said that I am being controlled by the ‘internal pressure’ of my thinking, and the pressure that this thinking is putting me under. This is what is something called ‘like or dislike’ – my thoughts (or my ‘evaluations’) tell me that one thing is good and another is bad and so I am then under pressure to obtain the one and avoid the latter. We don’t usually perceive this as ‘pressure’ (or as ‘being controlled by our thinking’) because we don’t see any conflict there – it is only when our thinking directly causes us distress that we start to realize that our thinking functions more as a dictator than an obedient servant. It is our thinking that causes us to react instead of responding with intelligence and sensitivity and it is therefore our thinking which is responsible for perpetuating our ongoing state of pain and confusion. We don’t actually see ourselves to be in ‘a state of pain and confusion’ and herein lies our problem. We are convinced – for the most part – that it is possible to respond intelligently and sensitively on the basis of rational thought. Yet the thinking mind can never be sensitive; thoughts are not sensitive, concepts are not sensitive, so how can the rational/conceptual mind be sensitive?

OUR THOUGHTS ARE ALWAYS AGGRESSIVE

Thoughts (or concepts) are like solid objects which have no flexibility to them – they are the shape that they are and that’s all there is to it. Our thoughts determine what the world looks like to us rather than vice versa; a particular thought, a particular concept will always make the world seem the same way! The thought or concept stays the same and we have to try to change the world to suit it. This is where the ‘like and dislike’ comes in – like and dislike is all about control and control is how we try to adjust the world (and ourselves) to our rigid or unchanging ideas about it. When like and dislike is all we know (which is the same as saying ‘when we have no actual sensitivity to things’) then we are forever trying to make the world be the way we think it ought to be and this spells nothing but suffering – naturally it spells nothing else but suffering since we are never going to succeed in this endeavour. And even if – hypothetically speaking – we were able to convert the world into a perfect copy of what we think it ought to be like, this would not be a good thing! Succeeding in getting things to be the way we think they should be (which is pure naked aggression) wouldn’t be a good thing because then the whole world would simply be an echo of our unexamined assumptions or prejudices and this would be a terribly hollow (or redundant) situation. That wouldn’t be ‘life’ so much as a horrible mockery of it…

 

 

Aggression always creates pain for us further down the line. ‘Reacting’ always creates pain for us further down the line – aggression and ‘reacting’ are one and the same thing. When we react we are ‘convulsively trying to get things to be the way that our thinking says they should be’. We are going all out to get things to be the way we think they should be because we are so threatened by the scenario of not being able to do so; if we can’t stay in control then this would be very frightening for us, very undesirable for us. It can be easily seen from the violent nature of our reactions that not succeeding in staying in control is simply unacceptable to us – not being able to change things in the way that we want to would be the worst thing ever and we cannot even bear to think about such a possibility. It is ‘bad’ and that’s all we know about it. The same thing goes for the desired outcome – the outcome that we are trying so convulsively to achieve is ‘good’ and that’s all we know about it. We’re not examining what we’re doing, we’re just doing it and that’s what reactivity is all about. It is when we get ‘taken over’ (or ‘possessed’) by mere mechanical impulses.

 

 

Reactivity doesn’t come from us, therefore – it comes from the thinking mind. The huge pressure we feel acting upon us, and causing us to do this or that before we even know what we are doing or why, has nothing whatsoever to do our own true nature. When we feel either very afraid or full of intense desire this has nothing to do with our own true nature; that is simply the ‘external mechanical factor’ either pushing us or pulling us. Our true nature shows itself when we are not being totally controlled by the thinking or reacting mind and it is marked by sensitivity rather than aggression. ‘Sensitivity’ is – we might say – the lack of mechanical aggression and the lack of mechanical aggression means that we are interested in the world for its own sake, rather than being interested in it for ‘what we might be able to do with it’, or ‘how we might be able to change it’. If I am sensitive to the world then I actually have a relationship with it; if I am sensitive to myself then straightaway I have a relationship with myself.  With aggression on the other hand there is never any relationship with anything – there is no relationship with the world and there is no relationship with myself! Aggression is a ‘terminal state of non-relatedness’ therefore and this is the state we find ourselves when all we know is reactivity.

LIVING THE MECHANICAL LIFE

Reactivity is a curse – it’s a curse because all it ever does is to cause us to suffer. Either we’re constantly struggling and straining to obtain something that doesn’t exist (but which is only a reflection of our own unexamined assumptions about the world) or we’re struggling and straining to avoid something that doesn’t really exist. What kind of a life is this, we might quite reasonable ask? Where is the dignity in this? And yet this is all we know, for the most part. Reactivity (or ‘like versus dislike’) is not seen for what it is by society – on the contrary, we are encouraged to act on the basis of mechanical attachment. This is what modern life is all about – being reactive, being insensitive, being psychologically unconscious. Anyone who doubts this need only look around at what is going on in the world.

 

 

Everyday life is all about playing the brutal and pointless game that we have been told we have to play and not ever asking ‘why’? This brutal and pointless game is what we call society, which is really nothing more than a system of mechanical (i.e. insensitive) interactions between human beings in which certain assumptions about what life is about get endlessly repeated. The mechanical versions of ‘who we think we are’ get promoted and rewarded, whilst any sign of the truth emerging is crushed underfoot. The ‘truth’ that we are talking about here is very easily explained – the truth that is constantly being covered up is that we are not who society says we are.  We are not who we are treated as being; we are not who are being pressurized to be! This is the most revolutionary understanding there is or ever could be, as Krishnamurti says.

 

 

Society (or ‘mechanical life’) is about one thing and one thing only – never examining what our assumptions about life are. If we were to examine our assumptions then everything would change all by itself – there would be no need for aggression, no need for violence. That’s the way true change always happens, after all. This type of spontaneous change is however the one thing we are simply not interested in…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Free Consciousness

We almost never know free consciousness in our everyday lives – all we know is the ‘trapped variant’ of it, the ‘distorted version’ of it. ‘Free consciousness’ is consciousness that isn’t attached to a story (or consciousness that isn’t defined by a story) and that hardly ever happens. All we ever know is ‘consciousness-with-a-story’ and this is a different type of thing altogether. It is a different type of a thing because consciousness-with-a-story is consciousness that is ruled by a factor that exists outside itself. It is ‘consciousness that always obeys an external mechanical force’. It is trapped consciousness.

 

It has often been said that how we feel depends upon how we perceive our circumstances. ‘There is nothing good nor bad, but thinking makes it so’, says Shakespeare in the second act of Hamlet. Another way of putting this is to say that how we feel is determined by how we think our story is going. No matter how we feel however (whether we feel good or bad, hopeful or worried, confident or afraid) this is not free consciousness. This is something else entirely – this is consciousness determined by an external factor, this is consciousness intertwined with an ongoing narrative structure. The crucial point we are making here is this: there is nothing the ongoing narrative can ever tell us – no matter how ‘positive’ it may sound to us – that can ever free us from the narrative…

 

We could also say that there is nothing the narrative (or ‘our thinking’) can tell us that can make us feel at peace. Peace comes from within, not from some factor that exists outside of us. Peace cannot come about because of the existence of rules that tell us that ‘we must be at peace’, in other words. We cannot be free because we are instructed to be free, or at peace because we are told to be at peace, or happy because our orders are to be happy and all the narrative can ever do is ‘instruct’ or ‘tell’ or ‘order’. Consciousness that is intertwined with the ongoing narrative of who we are and what is going on with our life can never be at peace therefore and this is a terrible thing to consider. It is a terrible thing to consider because – as we have said – the only form of consciousness we know is conditioned consciousness. Because it is the only form of consciousness we know we are prepared to ‘make do with it’ (we don’t really have any choice, obviously) and this means that we shall never know peace. And because we will never know peace, we will also never know joy or happiness since there is no way to know joy or happiness unless we can first know peace. Instead, we will have to make do with the conditioned version of freedom and peace and happiness (and so on), which is where the thinking mind tells us that we are free or unfree, at peace or not at peace, happy or not happy…

 

The external factor that is the mind-created narrative is our master therefore and as such it determines whether we are going to feel good about ourselves or feel bad. We are completely dependent upon this ‘master’ and this means that we are dependent upon illusion to feel good rather than bad, safe rather than unsafe, validated rather than devalidated, etc. Being ‘dependent upon illusion’ for how we feel about ourselves (or how we feel about life) is another way of saying that we are fundamentally disconnected from anything real. We only value illusion. Because we are fundamentally disconnected from anything real we cannot ever truly feel at peace, or truly happy, as we have just said. So not only are we dependent upon something ‘outside of ourselves’, we are dependent upon ‘something outside of ourselves that isn’t real’, and not only are we dependent upon something outside of ourselves that isn’t real, what that ‘external factor’ provides us with (instead of happiness and peace) isn’t ever going to be real either…

 

The mind-created narrative provides us with polarities – it provides us with the polarities of good and bad, right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, and so on. This ‘oscillation between opposites’ is what we have to make do with instead of reality. The mind-created narrative is always polar in nature – it can never be ‘not polar’. The narrative is polar because it is to do with the self that is the subject of the story and this ‘self’ is fundamentally polar. The self is polarity itself. Saying that the self is fundamentally polar is just another way of saying that it is fundamentally biased, prejudiced or ‘partisan’ in its outlook – it can never be non-partisan or unbiased no matter how it tries. This is what ‘self’ means – it means that there is an essential bias there! There is ‘me’, and there is ‘you’, and the two are not the same. There is ‘me’, and there is ‘everything else’ and the difference between the two is as big as any difference ever could be. This taken-for-granted difference between ‘self’ and ‘other’ is what fuels all my purposeful activity in the world. We might imagine that there can be such a thing as a ‘moral self’ which can behave in a fair and unbiased way but this is simply ridiculous – the self can be infinitely ingenious in the disguised that it puts on but what lies underneath the disguise never changes, as Alan Watts says. No matter what masks we wear, and how well we wear them, this is never going to alter the ‘wearer of the mask’, not by one jot. Pretending to be moral never makes us moral – actually, it has the reverse effect!

 

The fundamentally biased nature of the self means that the narrative which it spins around itself is always going to reflect this bias; that’s what makes the narrative interesting to us, after all. Saying that the narrative which we embed ourselves in is ‘polar’ means that it can always go in one of two directions – it can go in the direction of ‘things getting better for us’ or it can go in the complementary direction of ‘things getting worse’. Things can go well or they can go badly, as we all know. The polarity that we are talking about here is perfectly illustrated by our very great interest in this thing we call ‘luck’; luck comes in two basic forms, as we all know – there is the good type and the bad type! We never hear any talk about luck that is ‘neither good nor bad’… The capacity of our personal narrative to go in one of two directions totally fascinates us; it never ceases to soak up our attention. Yet what we’re fascinated with here has nothing to do with life (even though it may look that way) – what we’re fascinated with is ourselves!

 

The personal narrative might be endlessly fascinating but it isn’t real; it has nothing to do with reality. It is no more real than this thing we call ‘luck’ is. The narrative that we are so obsessed with can’t be real because it is at all times fundamentally orientated towards a central point which isn’t real – this central point (or pivot) being the concept that we have of ourselves. We are of course perfectly free to have a concept of ourselves, a concept of who we are, but that doesn’t mean that it actually exists. The very fact that it is us ourselves who have the ideas or concepts that we do have shows that they aren’t real – they belong only to us, like our facial expressions or hairstyles. Or to put this another way it is precisely because we are free to have ideas about who or what we are that these ideas aren’t real. These two things – the idea we have about ourselves and the personal narrative – are of course one and the same thing. The personal narrative is the self and the self is the personal narrative and so if one is unreal then so is the other. We can’t have a real narrative about an unreal self-concept! The personal narrative is as fascinating as it is to the self that is spinning it because that narrative is (of course) all about it and the narrative-spinning self is – quite frankly – fascinated with itself.

 

What we are talking about here is therefore a clear-cut case of 100% narcissistic self-engagement. There is no free consciousness here in this situation because there is no relationship with anything real, anything outside of the self. There’s nothing going on but ‘self-adhesion’ – the unreal self is compulsively engaged with (or obsessed by) its own un-owned projections. Whatever you might like to call this situation, the one thing we can be sure of is that it doesn’t have anything to do with ‘being conscious’. There is – it is safe to say – no prison as absolute as the prison of narcissistic self-engagement. It’s like getting a sticking plaster and folding it neatly in on itself so that it forms a sealed inert unit – a self-contained package that is forever sealed off from the world. This sealed inert unit is ‘us when we’re fully engaged, fully absorbed, fully fascinated in our own story of ourselves’. The glue that keeps us stuck to our own story of what is happening to us is, what did happen to us, and what might happen to us is ‘the glue of attraction/aversion’ and the key thing that we need to understand about attraction/aversion is that there is absolutely no freedom in it. Attraction-versus-aversion creates a completely compulsive, completely coercive situation – we are powerless not to chase what attracts us just as we are powerless not to run from what repels us.

 

And not only are we ‘powerless not to chase or run away from whatever either attracts or repels us’ we are also powerless not to believe that it is our own motivation that advises us to either chase what attracts us or flee what repels us. There’s no such thing as free motivation (or free will) in the realm of attraction/aversion, however. Not only are we ‘being controlled by something that isn’t us’ therefore, we’re also unable to see that we are being controlled – we’re unable to see that when we either like something or dislike it these reactions are not truly ‘ours’ but are forced upon us by the narrow coercive world that we have adapted to. The system tells me what I like and dislike, in other words, and I am so habituated to being told what to do by some external agency that I think it’s coming from me. The external set of compulsions (i.e. the mechanical system) ‘lives my life for me’ and I never know it. As we have already said, there simply couldn’t be a more absolute prison than the prison of involuntary narcissistic self-engagement – which is the situation that we’re all caught up in just as long as we’ve got a ‘story of ourselves’ running in our heads.

 

‘Free’ consciousness is consciousness that is not attached to a story, and this is the only sort of consciousness there is. Either consciousness is unconditionally free or it is not consciousness. When consciousness gets attached to a story, a narrative, a rational account of ‘what is going on’ then consciousness becomes identical with this story, this account. There is only the story then. We become the rational mind’s definition of us and we inhabit a world that has been created for us by the same rational mind that has defined who we are. We are never more than ‘our own thoughts about ourselves and the world’, in other words. The rule-based definitions are ‘who we are’ and ‘what the world is’ and ‘what life is all about’ become limits that we never go beyond, yet none of these definitions are true. ‘The story’ simply isn’t true, therefore. ‘The story’ is duality and duality is a construct of the thinking mind with all its opposing categories of  ‘right and wrong’, ‘winning’ and losing’, ‘existing and not-existing’, ‘me and you’…

 

If we wanted to know who we really are, and what the world really is, then the only definition we can ever have is a negative definition, which is to say, all we can ever say is that we are NOT what our thoughts say we are and that life is NOT about what the official story says it is about. The story – whatever it may be – is guaranteed to be false, and that’s the only thing we can know for sure. The ‘story’ regarding what life is all about (i.e. the central all-determining narrative that the rational mind (or society) keeps spinning) is always fundamentally distorted. We can see this very easily if we just consider that the whole point of ‘a story’ is that it is always belonging to someone. Life isn’t a story however precisely because it isn’t happening to anyone!

 

I think that life is something that is ‘happening to me’ but all that’s really happening here is that consciousness is being enslaved (or imprisoned) by an illusion. ‘All there is is life happening’, as Tony Parsons says. There is no limiting ‘story’, there is no ‘one to whom everything is happening to’,  and this ‘lack of a limiting story’, this lack of an ‘isolated ego or self to whom everything is happening to’ equals free consciousness….