Coping Strategies Weaken Us

We talk about ‘tolerating discomfort or ‘coping with stress’ or ‘managing emotions’ very easily indeed in the field of mental health – terms like this roll off our tongues with the very greatest of ease. We’re positively in our element when talking about stuff like this. It all sounds so easy. But what exactly does ‘coping with difficulty’ involve however and how – in strictly practical terms – do we go about it? What is the correct way to go about ‘tolerating discomfort’? Just how do I ‘manage my emotions’? That’s what we’re all trying to find out – that’s where the ‘smart money’ is…


This is where it all gets very interesting and very ‘counter-intuitive’. We tend to think that there is some method here that we can learn, a method or technique which we can get highly skilled at in time. ‘Tools’ and ‘skills’ and ‘strategies’ are buzz-words in therapy – we think that they can be the answer to everything! This is not at all the case however and we can easily explain why. If there was some sort of method or ‘thing that we can do’ then presumably using it (as some kind of helpful ‘tool’, as we like to say) would make us feel less uncomfortable, less distressed. If this were the case however then we’d be escaping the discomfort, not getting better at tolerating it! And if the method in question doesn’t cause us to feel any better then why would we do it? Why would we bother to use it in the first place? The problem is that anything we do that actually reduces our level of discomfort or pain is addictive; we won’t be able to help ourselves from doing it every time we feel bad, in other words. It will become a urge, a compulsion, an ‘unfree sort of thing’. The problem with this is of course that any ways that we might find of escaping from pain or discomfort don’t really serve us. They don’t really serve us because every time we avoid pain on the short-term this means that we get it back even worse on the long term! We only need to observe ourselves carefully in our day-to-day lives in order to see that this is true.


Deep down, we already know this – it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that our whole lives are spent learning this particular lesson, although whether we actually learn it or not is another matter! We avoid – as is perfectly natural – our legitimate difficulties only to find, later on, that these difficulties are revisited upon us in an even more terrible form than before. Or as we could also say (if we wanted to put it in more general terms) we avoid insecurity and uncertainty in life and create a type of existence for ourselves where all life’s questions come with nice simple (i.e. black-and-white) answers. We want ‘rules’, we want ‘right and wrong’, in other words. We want to make life simple for ourselves by avoiding the central existential challenge of ‘not knowing what to do about our difficulties’  but – again – we create a new form of suffering as a result of our evasion – we create what is called neurotic suffering. Neurotic suffering is ‘the pain that comes when we don’t want to have any pain’. It is, to paraphrase Steve Hagen, ‘the insoluble problem we always meet up with when we don’t want to have any problems’…


We can see from this that ‘learning to tolerate the discomfort that arises as a result of neuroticism’ cannot itself be ‘a procedure or simplification’; which is to say, it cannot itself be conveniently made into ‘a matter of right and wrong’. The art of being able to tolerate difficulty has nothing to do with following rules! ‘Following rules’ is an evasion. Methods – by definition – are always a matter of following rules and so straightaway we can see that this just isn’t going to work (although in practice we don’t tend to see it because that’s not really what we want to see).


So the question that we want to ask now is of course, “If ‘distress tolerance’ (or ‘the capacity to tolerate discomfort/pain’) isn’t a method then what is it? What is it and how do we do it?” Even by asking this question we are going wrong however. It is a characteristic of the technologically-orientated culture that we live in that we imagine that the capacity to bear pain or endure discomfort must be something ‘outside of us’, i.e. that it must be something we ’do’. And yet how can the capacity to endure difficulty be something ‘outside’ of us, something we ‘do’?


Clearly our way of looking at things is distorted here. The capacity to tolerate difficulty is inside us, rather than being some tool or accessory that we carry around with us, rather than being some sort of trick or procedure that we have learned to roll out when necessary. Tools weaken us when it’s mental health we talking about – they weaken us because we put all the emphasis on developing strategies and learning new methods rather than developing ourselves. Our tools become more and more high-powered, more and more time and energy consuming, but we ourselves become more and more enfeebled, more and more dependent upon our instruments or tools, more reliant upon external protective factors.


This tendency to become weaker and more dependent is – as we have said – absolutely characteristic of our current way of life. We can say – almost with complete assurance – that human beings have never been less autonomous than they are now. ‘Autonomy’ and ‘mental health’ are two ways of talking about the same thing and so we may also make the statement that throughout our long history we have never been less mentally well! ‘Health’ and ‘Whole’ are words that come from a common linguistic root and – very clearly – ‘Whole’ means that we are complete in ourselves, it means that we don’t require a whole heap of external assistive factors (or ‘accessories’) in order for us to feel okay about ourselves.


It is our ‘modern illusion’ that having lots of tools (both of the physical and psychological variety) empowers us and for this reason we dedicate all of our resources to acquiring many tools as we can, unaware that as we do this we weaken ourselves more and more. ‘Weakening ourselves’ – in psychological terms – means that we become ‘less and less ourselves’. By making our supposing well-being more and more dependent upon external factors we are allowing ourselves to be increasingly defined by these external factors and this is the point that we seem to be all but incapable of understanding. By expressing things in this way we have made it possible to clarify what we were saying earlier when we made the point that ‘the capacity to tolerate difficulty or pain is something that is in us, not something that we learn to ‘do’. What we really should have said is that ‘the capacity to tolerate difficulty or pain IS us!


That capacity is actually ‘who we are’ – we ourselves are ‘the magic ingredient’ that we have searching for. When we are truly ourselves, in other words, then we will find that this ‘capacity’ actually has no limits. There is no limit to the degree of difficulty that we are able to work with – it’s just that we have to get rid of the illusions we hold about ourselves first, and that that is not something that we can learn on a ten day training course! The very notion of ‘being trained to reconnect with our true selves’ is palpably crazy – how can taking on stuff from the outside (i.e. ‘conforming to external dictates’) help us in any way to connect with our true selves? How can that come from the outside? Conforming to external pressures, external demands, external requirements has the exact opposite effect, and that’s where we’re going wrong in the first place.


Being able to tolerate difficult situations without succumbing either to the urge to break and run, or fight madly (and counterproductively) for all we’re worth, turns out to be a far more profound matter than we had ever imagined, therefore. Finding new tools, finding new coping strategies is a trivial thing; finding out who we truly are – on the other hand – is the biggest thing ever there ever could be! What could be bigger than this? What could be more significant or more important or more meaningful than this? The only way we are ever going to honestly meet the challenge of life is to meet it as we actually are, not through surrogates or ‘generic versions of ourselves’, not through tricks that we have learned from other people who themselves are not meeting life ‘head on’. Anything other than ‘meeting life head on’ (which is to say, without any safety nets, without any defences, without any ‘personality armour’) is an evasion and – as we have already said– any evasion that we may make is inevitably going to cost us dear later on.


The fact that we are so very keen on finding ‘coping strategies’, the fact that we are so committed to developing our ‘distress tolerance-techniques’, shows us something very important therefore. This emphasis shows that our commitment is not to reconnecting with our true nature. More than this, it shows that our commitment lies in exactly the opposite direction, which is not finding out! Difficulties, when they come along, do have some saving grace (albeit a saving grace that is usually very well hidden). This ‘saving grace’  – so to speak – is that through going through the difficulty, unendurable as it may seem at the time, can allow us in time to become more truly who we are. We lose some of the dross (or ‘falseness’), we let go of some of the ‘rubbish’.


But the other side of the coin is that when we protect ourselves from the difficulties that are coming our way by utilising all our defences, by utilising all our ‘evidence-based coping strategies’ we are at the same time hanging onto all of this rubbish. We’re actually protecting it. We’re holding on tight to it, as if it were the dross (i.e. our ‘false ideas’) that were the truly valuable thing here. And the truly astonishing thing is that this was our agenda all along – our aim was always ‘to avoid having to let go of the rubbish’. Our unacknowledged aim was always to stay asleep, in other words…






Taking the Mickey


Happiness is a funny sort of a thing. It’s a funny sort of a thing because despite the fact that happiness is (supposedly) so very important to us, we don’t actually know anything about it! We have ideas about it for sure, but these ideas have nothing to do with the actual reality. Even psychologists have odd ideas about happiness; especially psychologists, we might say! Anyone who studies happiness (and other states of mind) in a rational / intellectual sort of a way is bound to be wide of the mark; they’re bound to be wide of the mark because happiness is in no way a rational / intellectual sort of a thing. That would be like a respected academic professor delivering a lecture on humour – it’s not an academic we want for this job but a stand-up comedian! It’s no good talking about being funny; the guy actually has to be funny!


Where we miss the mark is by being serious about humour, or serious about happiness. Seriousness has no happiness in it, any more than it has any humour in it. Happiness is not in any way something that can be studied or ‘understood from the outside’. If you are happy yourself then you know all there is to know about it and if you’re not then all the study, all the intellectualization in the world isn’t going to bring you any closer. We even hear sometimes (from ‘the experts’!) that happiness is a mechanical sort of a thing – the result of endorphin molecules acting on brain cells. This truly is the most spectacular nonsense – how can a neuro-chemical ‘reward system’ ever give rise to happiness? How can there be such a thing as a ‘biology of happiness’, or a ‘neuro-anatomy of happiness’? If this were so then taking a drug such as heroin or morphine or methadone would make us happy and it doesn’t. Ask any long-term heroin user – the heroin buzz has nothing to do with happiness. It produces pleasure, that’s all, and pleasure is not at all the same thing as happiness. How could we as a culture be foolish enough to confuse pleasure with happiness? It says something about us that we talk about happiness in this mechanical way, as if it were something that could be pre-programmed, as if it were something that could be produced to order by manipulating molecules. We demean happiness by assuming that it is just part of our brain chemistry, something that evolution has put there in order to motivate us to play the biological survival game.


Happiness – as we would know if we had any wisdom in us at all – cannot be deliberately brought about, either by biological hard-wired programmes or by psychological means. There can be no such thing as ‘a method to make us happy’, for all that every charlatan under the sun is forever trying to tell us that there is. They are of course only trying to tell us that there is so that they can make a quick buck out of us, but the irony here is that they assume ‘making a quick buck’ will make them happy, and it won’t! There is no such thing as a method to make us happy any more than there is such a thing as a ‘therapy’ to make us happy. Happiness is completely out of our control, which for a control-based culture such as ours is a very hard thing to swallow. This is not at all what we want to hear – in fact we’re determined not to hear it, which is why we are so prepared to listen to all of the spurious ten-a-penny experts we have spouting nonsense on the subject at every available opportunity.


The simple (if unpalatable) truth is that the more addicted to control we are the less happy we are going to be. Addiction to control, addiction to the need to manipulate everything all the time, only brings about misery, in various shades and colours. The reason for this is because happiness is about letting go and the rational mind has nothing to contribute as far as letting go. It only gets in the way. Happiness – we might say – is when the thinking mind (which is all about ‘holding on’) has no involvement at all with what is going on. If the thinking mind has anything at all to do with what is going on then there will be no happiness. This is like the question of ‘how much involvement vampires ought to have in the management of the national blood-bank?’ – this is clearly a trick question because the only degree of involvement that works is no involvement! If the thinking mind gets any sort of foot-hold at all then you can forget it – its misery not happiness we’re going to get if we enlist the help of the thinking mind…


Everything thought touches becomes old, as Krishnamurti says. It becomes instantly old and there’s no happiness in the old. There might be nostalgia – but nostalgia is really just a disguised form of misery. Thought can’t help making everything old – that’s what it does, that’s how it works. Thought only registers data that that has been filed away in the appropriate mental category and nothing that is made up of mental categories can ever be new! The system of thought turns everything into a bureaucracy and bureaucracy is always the enemy of life. Life is after all a spontaneous process and the one thing bureaucracy is never going to tolerate is a spontaneous process. If the appropriate forms haven’t been correctly filled in then you can forget about it!


Thought creates a ready-made world for us to live in and everything in that world is old. There is absolutely no way that anything new (anything that has not been pre-programmed) can ever happen in the realm of thought. Not if we waited a billion billion years could this ever get to happen! This being the case – as we can plainly see it to be – how could we possible hope to obtain happiness via the mechanisms and pathways of thought? This being the case, why – we might ask – are we all sitting around patiently waiting for this to happen, for this to come to pass? Why are we listening so obediently to all of these so-called experts telling us about what happiness is and telling us what steps we need to take, what ‘helpful habits’ we need to be cultivating? All they are doing is selling us the system and there is no happiness to be had in the system. This is the one ingredient that’s not in it. No one ever got to be happy by going along with the accepted way of seeing things; no one ever got to be happy (or ‘mentally healthy’) by conforming to the system.


Naturally we can’t say anything (or know anything) about happiness. All saying, all knowing is done by the thinking mind and the thinking mind is the fly in the ointment as far as happiness is concerned. A bigger and fatter fly there never was – it’s practically the size of a pigeon! What need would there would there be to describe or define or in any way commentate upon happiness? When we are happy there is no need for analysis. Analysis both comes out of unhappiness and goes on to create further unhappiness. When we’re happy there’s no need to be saying anything, thinking anything. All thought, all analysis, all commentary is redundant. All descriptions or definitions are beside the point. Do you need someone to come and analyze a joke for you when you’re enjoying it? Descriptions and definitions are not just ‘beside the point’ – they unfailingly take us into the world of thought, which is a sterile world, a world in which nothing new can ever happen…


We keep on imagining that there can be such a thing as happiness within the world which thought has created (which is – generally speaking – the only world that we know). Everything in this world is a ‘mind-created image’ and there can a ‘mind-created image of happiness’ just the same as there can be a mind-created image of anything. In this ‘simulated world’ there can be a mind-created image of happiness and a mind-created image of ‘who we are’, and we can often enough put the two together and imagine as a result that we genuinely are happy, that everything really is rosy in the garden. This however is no more than just another fiction. Everything in the realm of thought is a fiction – fiction is what it is made of. Imaging that we can find happiness in this consensual mind-created world is like imagining that Mickey Mouse is a real person!


Every adult you meet lives in ‘the world of thought’. We all do. That’s what makes us ‘adults’ – the fact that we’re taking the socially-prescribed game seriously. This is what deadens our creativity and our spontaneity. That’s what cuts us off from our ‘inner child’. Entering into this world (without knowing that we are doing so) is part of what we call ‘growing up’; we all buy into ‘the world that thought has created’ and once we have bought into it it’s very hard to leave – it’s very hard to leave because we don’t know we’re in it! We’ve forgotten how not to be in it. We think that this is the only world there is, and that’s why we’re as miserable and cantankerous as we are…


Happiness is not a chemical any more than it is a mental image, any more than it is a reward for being a good organism, or a good consumer, or for performing appropriately in whatever socially-prescribed role we’ve been given. Happiness has nothing to do with evolution and ‘the survival of the fittest’ any more than it has something to do with the consensus social reality by whose rules we are artificially bound. The only way we can ever find happiness is by going beyond the game, not by learning to play it better! The only way to find happiness is by venturing beyond the consensus reality, which is the world that has been created by thought, and no one can tell us how to do this. This is what Joseph Campbell calls ‘the Hero’s Journey‘. How can we be instructed how to go beyond instructions? How can there be a rule telling us how to venture beyond the programmed world, the known world, which is the world of rules?








The Habit That is Me


Although it is possible to say something like ‘the ego doesn’t really exist’ (which in one way is perfectly true) a better way of putting it is to say that the ego is a habit, just like smoking or fidgeting or biting your nails is a habit.


‘A habit’ means that it doesn’t have to be that way – it’s just that way because somehow we have first started seeing things that way, and then carried on seeing things that way, and now that we’re further down the line it doesn’t even dawn on us that there is another way of seeing them. Therefore, it isn’t really correct to say that the habit doesn’t exist – we would be better off to say that it doesn’t ‘have to’ exist. Once a habit has been well and truly established it is rather ridiculous to say that it doesn’t exist because if we do say such a thing it will prove us wrong by repeatedly battering us over the head. It controls us so we can’t deny that it’s there. We can however say that a habit has a strictly provisional sort of existence.


Once a habit is in place not only does it ‘exist’, it pushes everything else out of the picture. It is very forceful and very aggressive and it gets its own way whenever physically possible. And even when it doesn’t get its own way it still makes itself known because if things don’t work out in accordance with the habit then there’s hell to pay. So even if the means of carrying out or enacting the habit is not there, that doesn’t mean that the habit isn’t. It is very much there as the hapless carrier of the habit can testify to – it is like a horrendously spoilt child who is going to whine and scream and sulk and generally create havoc until circumstances change and they get what they have set their minds on.


It is extraordinarily hard to see beyond a habit. If I have a long-standing habit of alcohol use then – even though I might say that I want to give up the drink – deep down I will wonder what on earth I am going to do instead if I don’t drink. After all, drinking is all I know, drinking is ‘me,’ and if I can’t drink any more then this will leave a huge void to fill – a void that for the life of me I can’t see how to fill. I only know myself as a drinker.


The point is that we orientate our lives around our habits; they give us our structure – as well as a reason (however trivial) for doing what we do. If I have been drinking for years and years then everything I think about is from the viewpoint of drinking. Even when I think about not drinking I am thinking about it from the point of view of drinking. I perceive the world through the eyes of a drinker – drinking is at all times my ‘bottom-line agenda’ and so naturally it underlies everything I think about. When you take drinking away from me you knock the stool away from under me because the type of thinking I have developed no longer makes any sense, or has any use, and yet it is the only thing I know.


The same could be said to be true with anorexia, just to give another example of a particularly vicious habit. Anorexia is such an all-consuming type of thing that the most frightening thought of all is how I can ever face life without it. If I lost my anorexia, then I’d have no problem to be concerned with – I’d have to face the world head on, I’d have to get on with life. I’d have nothing left to preoccupy myself with. The alcoholism or the anorexia might be killing me but at least if I stick with them I don’t have to face the unknown. Better the devil you know, etc. But even saying this isn’t really getting to the heart of the matter.


When I have a well-developed habit, that habit is supplying me with something very important: it is supplying me – as we have said – with a ready-made structure. It is supplying me with a pattern (or protocol) for passing the time, a framework for thinking about things, and a motivational system, all in the same handy package. It is supplying me with a whole way of life. If I am a heroin addict then this habit defines the pattern of my days: when I get up in the morning I know that I have to obtain the money to score, and then when I get hold of the money I then have to find a contact from who I can obtain some of the stuff. When I achieve these two steps I can relax in the knowledge that I have done all that I need to do within the context of the ‘addiction game’. The heroin isn’t just about the drug, it’s about ‘the game’, and ‘the game’ – in all its false completeness – is an unacknowledged substitute for life, an over-simplified version of life. The game of addiction provides me with the tracks and all I have to do is keep running around on them, following the circuit around and around…


Whilst a habit supplies me with a ready-made structure, it takes something away from me at the same time. This is like all deals that look good on the surface – we obtain the benefit that we crave at a cost, a cost that we wouldn’t countenance if we actually paid attention to what we were doing. A habit supplies me with a structure, but it takes away my autonomy at the same time. If I had autonomy then I would have the ability to think for myself, and so I wouldn’t need to be handed a ready-made pattern of living. But when a person is provided with a pattern of living, a code or protocol, then this pattern very quickly takes hold, and robs them of any ability to think outside the box.


The nature of the deal is that I get a ready-made system of how to live, a simplified pattern which substitutes itself for real life, which isn’t a pattern and can’t be dealt with by using ‘pattern-type thinking’. Life is ultimately threatening when it comes to our ‘need’ to have some sort of a safe, socially-prescribed routine to hide behind because its demands cannot be satisfied by following a pattern. The challenge life makes on us is to think for ourselves, to live our lives in an original and creative way and it is the fear of not being able to meet this challenge that drives us into our games. You may ask me to do anything – to get up at five in the morning and jog for six miles with twenty kilos in a rucksack, or to perform all sorts of strange religious observances to somebody else’s peculiar idea of God – but please don’t ask me to think for myself!


When I live according to a habit what happens is that the key assumptions or rules of the habit become the bedrock of my existence. No matter how arbitrary they might be, they are for me an ‘absolute given’. I will swear by them. After all, the habit gives me my structure, my reason for doing things, and the existential security implicit in this comes solely as a result of me taking the demands of the habit as being absolute rather than provisional. If I knew that I didn’t have to do what the habit wants me to do or tells me to do then this would totally take away my sense of security!


If I allowed myself to question the rules then they would no longer be a source of authority for me, and so I wouldn’t be able to base my life on them. Once the habit is in place, however, it proves itself to be extraordinarily aggressive – it doesn’t give us any chance to question it! It bullies and terrorizes us too much, and before long we are so busy trying to fulfil its demands that we simply don’t have the time or energy to question anything.


This is very much like being in the army – after only a small length of time we loose the ability to question orders. The only way to get by is to learn to obey instinctively, obey without thinking, obey automatically. The same is true for patients in long-term residential care – before long institutionalization sets in so that anything outside ‘the system’ appears very frightening and intimidating.  The real world appears very frightening and intimidating.


Our habits, along with our beliefs (which are ‘habits of thinking’) are the inner institutions which unfailingly rob us of our autonomy. The very thought of life outside the institution of our habits – as appallingly narrow, repetitive and utterly dismal as they are – terrifies us. The cause of such utter terror isn’t simply that we don’t know what to do to cope in the big wide world (the uncharted world that we have no handy formula for dealing with) – the cause of the terror is that we have no self other than the habit. The habit is the structure upon which I base my self; the habit provides me with the convenient framework within which I am to live my clock-work life…


The habit is me and I am the habit. If my way of thinking is based on my habitual way of existing in the world, then my idea of myself is also going to be based on this framework. Any sort of habit automatically creates a sort of ‘ghost-self’, which is to say, ‘the self who has the habit’. The habit creates the one-who-enacts-the-habit (or as we could also say, the game creates the game player).


When we say that having a ready-made pattern of doing things and thinking about things provides us with a sense of existential security, this is really the same thing therefore as saying that it provides us with the ontological security of the self or ego. This tends to sound pretty strange because we don’t generally connect the two things. All we are saying however it that if one lives in a regulated, mechanical and defined sort of way then the self which lives this life must also be regulated, mechanical and defined. An ordered and predictable pattern or modality of living creates an ordered and predictable ‘sense of self’.


But this is of course a circular argument – we could equally say that the ego – out of its fear-driven need to avoid uncertainty – loves to create an ordered and predictable system for itself to treat as ‘the world’. We need only to look around us to see that this is so. Rather than say that the self loves its habits, or that it is attached to its habits, or even that it is defined by its habits (all of which are true) we can turn everything around and say that the habits create the self. However odd it might sound, without the habits, there would be no self. We are after all – as we have said in the previous paragraph – using our habits to define ourselves. We create the habits and the habits create us; we create an orderly, predictable, regulated type of existence and that orderly, predictable, and regulated existence defines who we are…


Rather than saying that ‘the self creates the pattern’ or that ‘the pattern creates the self’ we might as well say that ‘the self is the habit’ (or ‘the habit is the self’). I don’t have to see myself as being ‘this particular, limited self’ and act accordingly – it doesn’t really have to be this way, that’s just a habit I’ve fallen into. It’s an aggressive, virulent habit that I can’t break free from. It’s not just that I can’t break free from it – I don’t even know that there is such a possibility. I don’t know that there is such a thing as ‘freedom from the self’. I couldn’t even begin to suspect it – all I know is that I have to try to keep on making things better for the self, keep on seeking advantage for the self, which is the Number One Rule of the game –  the game that I am playing without knowing that I am playing it…


We could of course ask just who it is that falls into the habit of being ‘this particular limited self’. Who is it that is so hopelessly trapped in the self? Who is it that is so very trapped, so very stuck, that it doesn’t even know that there is such a possibility as ‘being free from the self’? This is a awkward question to answer because the self can’t conceive of any other way of being in the world other than being ‘this particular or specific self’ (i.e. being ‘this but not that’ or ‘me but not you’.) There is another possibility but it is one which just can’t understand with the thinking mind, which necessarily operates on the basis of ‘this but not that’ (i.e. boundaries / categories or ‘either/or logic’). The problem is that the logical mind can’t understand anything that is bigger than its own categories!


The other possibility is a great deal bigger than anything the thinking mind could ever even come close to understanding, and this is the possibility of no boundaries. Even to call this state of affairs a ‘possibility’ is missing the point however; it’s not some mere ‘possibility’ that we’re talking about here – what we’re talking here is the Unitary State of Consciousness, which is the same thing as Reality Itself





Not Scratching An Itchy Nose


The key to finding freedom from compulsivity (which is where we very strongly feel that we have to do something!) is being able to hang out in our discomfort zones. It is the inability to hang out in our discomfort zones that makes us helpless slaves to whatever compulsion it is that comes along. A simple example of this principle is a person who cannot say no when someone asks him or her for a favour. Now it is of course good to do favours but it is not good if I help people out only because I am unable not to do so! Suppose that I am one such person. You ask me if I would mind looking after your three children for a couple of hours while you go off to see to some matter or other. On this occasion, let us say, I have stuff to do myself, and it would be very inconvenient for me to baby-sit. However, I know that if I say “no” then I will feel terrible – it might be that I will feel bad that I am so mean to you, or terrified in case you think I am an awful person, or frightened that I might be hurting your feelings by my rejection. I might feel guilty about not helping you – it is, after all, very easy to take on board someone else’s problems and then feel bad if we can’t do something to help.


It can be seen from this example however that my real concern is to do with not experiencing the pain of the guilt, or the pain of (possibly) hurting someone’s feelings, or the pain of being negatively evaluated by another person. Because I am so unwilling to experience the pain (or the discomfort) of not doing what you want me to do, I have to go ahead and say “yes”, even though saying “yes” is going to cause me a whole lot of trouble later on. I have no other choice. If I could find some way of saying “no” and avoiding the pain at the same time I would, but I am caught in a trap. Either I go along with what you want and put up with the inconvenience, or I say “no” and feel bad, and the thought of feeling bad makes me automatically take the first option. The cure for this situation is obvious enough – don’t be afraid of feeling bad. If I have no problem with feeling bad then I am not in a trap – I can say “yes” if it is not too inconvenient, or I can say “no”. In other words, I am free to say “yes” or “no”, I am not being pressurized. Normally, we think it is the other person (or the situation) that is pressurizing us, but it isn’t – it is our own unexamined refusal to experience discomfort that has us under pressure!


The example given above is a simplistic one, but the principle applies for all compulsions, without exception. Whether it is the urge to smoke a cigarette, the urge to lose my temper with someone who is annoying me, the urge to escape from an anxiety-provoking situation, the urge to feel sorry for myself – they are all compulsions and they all make me their slave purely because of my unwillingness to experience discomfort (i.e. the discomfort of not acting on the urge).


So now we have redefined the problem. Instead of saying that the problem is how to successfully obey the compulsion, or successfully fight the compulsion with an equal and opposite compulsion, we are saying that the problem is how to refrain from obeying and/or fighting. The problem is how to ‘hang out’ in the discomfort zone. In the most profound sense this is not a problem at all because there is nothing to be achieved that is not already there. I am already in the discomfort zone, and so I don’t have anything to do. In a practical sense, however, there is a problem because I don’t know how to ‘not do’. I am so used to automatically ‘doing’, automatically ‘reacting’, that I simply do not know any other way. Either I obey the urge, which is , or I fight the urge, which is . I don’t know anything else apart from oscillating between these two poles. Basically, I am trapped in reacting – either I react, or I react to my reacting. Either I say or to the original compulsion, or I say to my saying or , but whatever I do, it still inevitably comes down to or . So how do I escape my own automatic reacting?


There is a neat way of illustrating this predicament and that is the exercise of ‘not scratching an itchy nose’. All you have to do is wait until the next time you have an itchy nose and try out not scratching it. The first thing we notice is that the urge to scratch actually gets worse when we try to resist it – it dominates our consciousness, it becomes huge. What has happened is that we have made scratching/not scratching into a major issue, and as a consequence we have got sucked into an ongoing irresolvable conflict situation.


It is of course possible to sit there and deliberately not scratch, even though the itch has by now assumed unbearable proportions. The problem is though that the thing has already gone wrong because it has become such an issue – I have come to a virtual standstill because all my resources are going into fighting the compulsion, and the more I fight the more obsessively fixated I get on the little itch (which is by now not such a little itch). We intuitively know that the whole thing has become stupid at this stage and so what usually happens is that we just say – “The hell with it” and give the itch a scratch so that we can forget about it and get on with our lives. We know on some level that, even if we do successfully resist the compulsion, the victory is a false one because all we did was substitute another compulsion for the itch. In other words, I manage to not obey the ‘scratching compulsion’ by obeying the ‘compulsion not to scratch’, so actually I am still copping out. I am still scratching, only this time the itch I am scratching is the new itch which is the itch to resist scratching. I swapped itches, but I am still in the state of slavery to itches. I am still just an ‘automatic reaction machine’.


The point here is that it is totally and utterly impossible to defeat a compulsion by saying or to it. As soon as we do that we are lost, which is to say, as soon as we assume a deliberate posture with regard to the itch, we are reacting. Another way to explain this is to say that a compulsion is ‘an invitation to play the game’. If I say “Yes I will play the game” then I am playing the game, and if I say “No I will not play the game” then I am still playing the game, because by taking the compulsion seriously I have (without realizing it) accepted the terms of the game. The terms of the game are simply that the game by taken seriously, that the goals which are important within the context of the game should also be seen as important by me. Obviously, once I do that, then I am by definition playing the game!


We can also explain this by saying that the compulsion is a trigger – it triggers us to react, to do. It doesn’t matter what sort of reacting, what sort of doing, because as soon as we are triggered into doing we have got sucked into the game. The trigger is of no consequence if I do not react because nothing comes of it – if I do not ‘do’ then I do not make an issue of anything and so I do not get stuck in the issue, and so there is no problem, no conflict situation. Not doing – not reacting to the trigger – doesn’t mean ignoring the trigger (which is treating the trigger as something special), it means treating the trigger the same as everything else. In the terms which we have been using, saying and both means ‘treating the trigger as something special’. ‘Not doing’ can be expressed in terms of <?>, which is open, unprejudiced awareness. <?> is simply consciousness, or ‘seeing what is there’.


Going back to the ‘itchy nose’ experiment, what this means is that the way to do it is by just being aware of the itchiness, without treating it as anything special. Where I tend to go wrong is by thinking that I have to be ‘aware of the itchiness’ on purpose, which is a mistake because the awareness is there by itself. Seeing happens by itself, it is not something that we ‘do’. The crucial insight is that I cannot deliberately be in a state of open, unprejudiced awareness, because ‘deliberate’ always means prejudice. The answer is simply to be myself, but I cannot be myself on purpose because ‘being myself’ is not a deliberate stance – it is not a position in a game, it is what happens naturally when I am not making an issue of anything.


<?> is a kind of natural balance point that needs no energy input to maintain. If I say then I have to maintain it and if I say I have to maintain it. I need to be there, to be actively involved in ‘propping up the situation’. If I take up a position then I need to defend that position. We can explain what we mean by this by looking at the problem of low self-esteem.


Often when a person has low self-esteem they are advised to try to think more positively about themselves. In other words, they are told to take up a certain position with regard to the question of whether they are crappy or not. We can analyse this in the same way that we have been looking at ‘scratching an itch’. In the case of low self-esteem, the feeling of inferiority (or embarrassment/shame) is the trigger and reacting to the trigger (i.e. scratching the itch) takes the form of either [1] saying to it by saying that “I am a crap person” or [2] saying to it by saying “I am a worthwhile person”. Both of these reactions provide momentary relief from the pain of the itch, but both also exacerbate the underlying problem – both responses make the itch worse, i.e. they make the issue bigger not smaller. The helpful thing to do is to take no position on the underlying painful feeling of inadequacy or inferiority. Seeing it is all I can do, really.


We might say that the thing to do is to take an ‘unprejudiced’ position but this would be misleading, because (as we have already noted) any position that I deliberately take is inevitably going to be prejudiced. It has to be prejudiced because it (i.e. the attitude or position) arose in connection with an aim or goal, and goals are by definition prejudiced! On the one hand what we are saying here seems to be ‘hopeless’ because what we are saying is that it is utterly impossible to mentally manoeuvre ourselves so as to not have low self-esteem, if we do have low self-esteem. There is no way to put a helpful slant on it in order to ‘adjust’ away the inadequate feelings. This sounds bad, naturally. On the other hand, what we are saying is actually good news, because what we are saying is that we are already doing the right thing, before we even started doing anything. The ‘right thing’ is simply to feel the pain and not try to fix things so I don’t feel so bad. Going back to the example of the itchy nose, the point is that it is okay for the itch to be there – the itch doesn’t really need a response, it just feels like it does. As long as I don’t fall into the trap of thinking that ‘I need to do something about it’, then there is no problem. I don’t need to react, and I don’t need to act so that I don’t react. The situation is right just as it is.


We have used the example of an itchy nose and the example of low self-esteem. The principle applies across the board, as we have said – it doesn’t matter what the itch or compulsion is. In anxiety it is ‘the itch to run away’ (i.e. fear), in anger it is the itch to attack, or the itch to defend oneself, and in OCD it is the itch to check or correct. In all cases what is happening is that we are trying to avoid discomfort or pain, and by avoiding the pain we only succeed in making the underlying compulsion stronger, just for the sake of momentary relief.


The key is to not feed the engine of reacting, because when we stop feeding it the engine gradually runs out of steam, without anyone having to ‘do’ anything. One metaphor is that of the muddy pool. When a pond gets muddy no amount of stirring or ‘messing about’ will fix it to make it stop being muddy. The more we mess about with it the muddier it gets, because it is our attempts to clear the water that keep it cloudy. The cure is to leave it to be muddy, even though this might be annoying, frustrating or painful to us. Once we stop interfering the mud will unfailingly settle and the water will clear all by itself – it might take a while, but there is no way to rush it. There is nothing else to do apart from letting it alone. The exact same is true with the muddied pond of our thoughts and emotions. We cannot use thinking to clear an upset or distorted mind because it is thinking that made everything confused in the first place.


No matter how bad the discomfort is in our mind, if it is allowed (if it is left alone) it will return to clarity and peace. Even though this is a very simple remedy, it is still easy to get confused. It seems that we can’t help trying to ‘smooth out the wrinkles’ ourselves, and even when we understand the idea of ‘not doing’ we spoil it by trying to ‘do’ the ‘not doing’. Suppose I have a compulsion to scratch an itch. My original formulation of my predicament is to say that it is the pain of the itch, which I try to solve by scratching. My attempt to scratch is based on my desire to escape the pain. When I get a bit of insight I see that my predicament is actually my on-going attempt to ‘fix’ the itch, and my inability to stop fixing.


This is always the predicament when it comes right down to it. There is absolutely no way to deliberately free myself from automatic reacting, and my attempts to do so only serve to fuel the whole thing. This is the bottom line – I cannot escape on purpose, and if I think I can then that is only because I am psychologically unconscious. One way of defining the state of psychological unconsciousness is to say that it is pain avoidance which is so thorough that we do not even know that this is what we are doing. In other words, I believe that my motivation for acting is one thing, whilst actually I have a hidden agenda the whole time and that hidden agenda is to distract myself from seeing something that I don’t want to see.


When I am in the state of psychological unconsciousness I always believe that there is some way to ‘fix it’. Because of this belief, I am always on the move, never accepting the truth of where I am. Therefore, although the discovery that I cannot escape on purpose (become free from my mind on purpose) initially seems like bad news, actually it is a very helpful insight because it means that I am no longer unconscious. I am no longer avoiding the pain of seeing my true predicament, which is that I cannot really change my situation by deliberate action – and because I am no longer avoiding pain I am no longer feeding the engine of automatic reacting. Even though I can’t stop trying to fix, by seeing that my attempts to fix the situation are futile I am in the state of conscious frustration, and it is through conscious frustration that the engine of automatic reacting is drained of its terrible ‘dead momentum’. This is how we do psychological work.