We Can’t ‘Do’ Change

We can’t ‘do’ change – that’s an absolute impossibility! ‘Change that we do’ is always purely for the sake of shoring up our sense of identity and ‘shoring up our sense of identity’ is not change. It’s ‘entrenchment’, it’s ‘digging in deeper’, obviously…

 

Any ‘change’ (so-called) that I might myself enact is merely ‘me asserting myself’, in other words. I’m trying to ‘get things to happen the way I want them to happen’ and this is never going to involve any sort of genuine change. That’s just controlling. Genuine change can only happen when I give up trying to be in control – controlling means ‘holding on to my basic assumptions’, after all, and holding onto my basic assumptions is never going to get me anywhere different! The instinct or urge not to let go almost always predominates – even when something in us wants to let go and ‘give up the constant controlling’ there is almost always another, stronger part that doesn’t.

 

We are aware that change will come if we do relinquish control, the only thing being that we automatically assume that this will be change of the unwanted type, and so in this case it seems much better than to us that we should be ‘stuck’ rather than letting things actually get worse. We feel that we are on the edge – potentially – of some kind of catastrophic change, and this is therefore what keeps us locked into our frozen (or ‘defensive’) posture. Things are not good but we know that they can quickly get a lot worse if we let go of whatever control we have, and so it’s ‘stalemate’.

 

Our perception in this regard – however strong – is in error however. From a psychological point of view it is always ‘staying the same’ that is the most painful thing. Or we could equally well say that it is ‘trying to stay the same when we know that – ultimately – this is not going to be possible’ that is the most painful thing. We are fighting against something bigger than us in this case, and we’re also fighting against our own awareness into the bargain, and what could be a more uncomfortable situation than this? Who would want to be locked into this position?

 

What genuinely helps is not any type of effort that we might make; as we have already said,  any sort of effort that we make is only the fixed identity asserting (or trying to assert) itself and the aim of the fixed identity asserting itself is always to resist change, the aim is always to keep things the same. It’s consolidation it’s all about, not radical change. The fixed or static identity is a conservative force; the static identity is only the static identity because it resists change, after all! Even more to the point, the ‘stalemate’ defensive position that we were just talking about actually IS the static identity – the two are the very same thing, they simply can’t be separated!

 

 

This is – needless to say – a very different way of looking at identity to the one which we usually have. To our everyday way of understanding things, our identity is the most important part of us – it’s ‘who we are’ and so of course it’s the most part important part of us! This is a misapprehension however; it is something that we automatically accept as being ‘obviously true’, even though we could very easily see that it isn’t so ‘obviously true’ at all if we were to actually look into it. The ‘static identity’ as a defensive posture; it’s what happens when we hold on’ to ourselves, when we hold onto the status quo. When we truly relax then – as we can easily notice if we took the trouble – we can see that we are not this fixed, unyielding sense of identity at all. We’re not a ‘fixed thing’ (and why we want to be) – we are a fluid process, and what’s so hard to understand about this? There are no fixed things in nature, only fluid processes, so why should we imagine that we are any different?

 

When we relax (and stop holding on so tightly to ourselves) then we come ‘back to ourselves’, we ‘relax back into ourselves,’ so to speak. Only the funny thing here is that we are not just relaxing into ourselves, also relaxing out of ourselves. When we are stressed or very focused on something then the world narrows down until it is no bigger than what is stressing us or what we are focusing on. No one is going to argue about this! But alongside this narrowing or shrinking of our subjective world there is also a corresponding narrowing and shrinking of our sense of ourselves – the two shrinkages go together, naturally enough. When more perspective comes into the picture then we can see that the world is a bigger place than we thought it was and we can see that we are more than we thought we were too…

 

The problem is however that we are so very used to our more ‘clenched’ or defensive modality of being in the world that we actually think that this is who we are. Alan Watts says that in normal everyday sensors identity is actually nothing more than a knot of ‘chronic tension’ that we assume to be us. If the ‘knot of chronic tension’ were all of a sudden to go away then this would feel very strange to us – even though it would be a great relief at the same time, much as it is a relief when a cramped muscle finally eases up! The idea of letting go of his knot never occurs to us however and, in fact, it’s not just that letting go of the knot never occurs to (as a idea of something that might perhaps be beneficial) but rather that we go the opposite way entirely – we nurture and take care of the knot (or of the ‘fixed identity’) as if this were the only thing that matters in life.

 

‘Taking care of something’ is usually a good thing but in this case our ‘care-taking’ is working against us since we are supporting the very state of affairs that is causing us pain. We are sabotaging the health or well-being of the greater part of ourselves for the sake of the ‘well-being’ of the knot of tension that we have short-sightedly identified with. Really, therefore, we are caught up in a dilemma that we can’t actually see. We can’t ‘have it both ways’, but we want to! What we want is to be identified with the fixed identity (so that we can use it to serve as the centre of our world, to serve as ‘an unquestionable reference point’) but at the same time not to have to put up with the pain that comes from this fixed sense of identity. When the Buddha stated in his First Noble Truth that ‘existence is suffering’ it was the conditioned existence of the fixed identity he was referring to.

 

Our dilemma is that we are caught up in a blatant self-contradiction – we want good mental health and the cessation of all neurotic symptomology (of course) but we also want to hang tightly onto the cause of all that neurotic suffering. We don’t see this self-contradiction at all and this is why we are so very caught up in it. Instead, we are always searching for this ‘mythological creature’ – the mythological creature which is ‘the happiness and fulfilment of the static sense of identity’. We are searching high and low for this strange mythological beast – we are absolutely convinced that it must be out there somewhere so we never tire of searching for it, we never tire of inventing strategies to catch it.

 

As it happens, the fact that the fixed sense of self can never find the happiness and peace that it is searching for is in one way helpful to it – it is ‘helpful’ because it is this searching that keeps the game going. Deep down there is no dilemma; deep-down there is no ‘self-contradiction’ at all because our allegiance is – for the most part – ‘all the one way’ – our allegiance is to the fixed identity and its continuation, no matter what the price. Ultimately, this is a problem for us because the fixed sense of identity (this knot of chronic tension) doesn’t exist ‘in its own right’. Obviously knot of tension doesn’t exist ‘in its own right’ – it’s only knot of tension, after all! The fixed or static sense of identity has the same type of existence is that of a wrinkle in a tablecloth – it’s there in one way because we can see it but it’s not there in another, profounder way. If it was a bump in a carpet instead of a wrinkle in a tablecloth that we were talking about we could even trip over it and hurt ourselves! The wrinkle or bump still doesn’t actually ‘exist’ however because if we were pull it taut then there would be no trace left of it.

 

We get around the problem of ‘the static sense of identity not having any actual existence in itself’ by keeping ourselves forever preoccupied trying to find a ‘peace of mind’ that we can never attain; by keeping ourselves busy hunting for a happiness or sense of completion that will never be ours. This is ‘the paradox of happiness‘ – we can never be happy until we stop looking for happiness! Looking at this another way, we could also say that the paradox of happiness is that the happiness of the one who yearns and strives after happiness, is actually comprised of the absence of that ‘yearner’, that ‘striver’…

 

This ‘solution’ of ours does not change the fact that our commitment to the fixed identity is also our commitment to suffering. When we succeed in perpetuating the fixed identity we are also succeeding in perpetuating the root cause of our suffering, and so this doesn’t really help us any! We’re only clinging onto pain, after all, no matter what strategy we try. The emotional and mental pain that we are struggling against only ever grows as we struggle against it. Why wouldn’t it – it feeds on our resistance, after all! Sometimes – perhaps a lot of the time – there might be no visible sign of this pain, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t ‘stacked up somewhere’, waiting to manifest itself. If we imagine that we have successfully fought against the pain and gotten rid of it then this only makes matters worse – by ‘fighting successfully against the pain’ we have only affirmed the reality of ‘the winner of the game of pain-avoidance’, which is the static identity that has caused the pain in the first place. By ‘fixing the problem’ we have only reaffirmed the existence of ‘the fixer’, who was the original cause of the problem that needed to be fixed…

 

When the suffering that is inherent in our situation becomes too much for us then – naturally – this brings us to the point where we can clearly see the need for some major change and this is of course a crucially important insight on our part. The problem arises however when we try to bring about this change ourselves, as a result of the effort of will, as a result of our own cleverness or determination. This of course means that we have automatically turned our situation into ‘a problem that needs to be fixed’, and this – as we have just said – means that we going around in circles.

 

We can’t ‘change things on purpose’ as we started out this discussion by saying. We can’t ‘do’ change – change can’t occur as a result of our ‘purposeful output’. We can change things ‘on the outside’ – I can organise things this way or that way, I can put up a shelf on the wall I could not put it up, I can mow the lawn or not mow the lawn, there is scope for all sorts of purposeful activity, but this shouldn’t confuse us into thinking that we can change ourselves to. When the static identity tries to change the situation all it is really doing is imposing its own ideas of what that change should be, and the static identity’s ‘ideas about what the change should be’ are itself. The static identity is its set of ideas. The identity is trying to assert (or promote) itself but this just isn’t change! That’s not change at all, it’s just ‘the same old story’…

 

 

It is extraordinarily helpful to understand this. Normally we very strongly feel that we should be doing something to get ourselves out of the situation we are in and so if we can’t (which we won’t be able to in any real way) then we blame ourselves and feel guilty about it. We have already ‘failed’ – or so it seems – to be feeling so bad in the first place, and then we have ‘failed again’ by not being able to do something about this situation. All that responsibility (which is actually ‘false responsibility’) is weighing heavily on us and it’s turning into guilt and self-recrimination because we can’t fix the problem when we are convinced that this is what we should be doing. What helps us in this situation is to see that we aren’t this not of tension, that we aren’t this fixed sense of identity. We can’t get rid of a knot of tension by ‘making it into a problem’ and fighting against it, after all! Blind aggression isn’t really going to help us here…

 

 

 

Image: Great Buddha of Kamakura, taken from gaiijinpot.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dropping Aggression

All we know is aggression but because we don’t see our aggression for what it actually is, we just we just see it as the normal way of being in the world. We don’t have any other modality of existence, we don’t know of any other modality…

 

‘Aggression’ means ‘trying to get things to be the way we want them to be’; on a deeper level, it means ‘imposing our own way of seeing things on the world without acknowledging that we are doing so’.

 

This sort of basic aggression is invisible, therefore – it forms the backdrop for everything, it’s the baseline for everything we do. It’s the baseline we work off. Any attempt to say to tell us that we are fundamentally aggressive, that we live in an aggression-based way world, will be met with honest incomprehension. Nobody will know what we talking about.

 

To not be aggressive is the ultimate ‘radical action’ therefore, even though it isn’t an action, strictly speaking. There’s nothing more radical, nothing more revolutionary, than ‘non-aggression’. Non-aggression changes everything, whilst aggression (even though the whole point of it is to make changes) changes nothing. Nonaggression freezer; aggression locks us into the very situation that we are fighting against.

 

This is illustrated by the Buddhist story of Prince Five-weapons, as related by Joseph Campbell. The Prince in the story adept in the use of five weapons, as the name of the story implies, but when he encounters the forest ogre known as ‘Sticky-hair’ he quickly discovers that none of them are any use to him. Everything sticks to this ogre (his name is Sticky-hair for a reason) including his two feet and his two fists, when he uses them as weapons. When both arms and legs are firmly stuck to the ogre’s hair, he uses his head as a last resort and then this get stuck too. He’s stuck to the ogre in five places!

 

Prince Five-weapons then has the insight that whatever he does to fight the ogre is always going to be turned against him, and the results of this insight is that he has a change of attitude that allowed him to practice non-aggression instead of aggression, and this transforms the situation in that his own aggression is no longer being turned against him. In modern psychotherapy parlance non-aggression is sometimes called ‘radical acceptance’ – we are no longer seeking to change the situation, either overtly or covertly, but instead we are wholeheartedly surrendering to it. We are assenting to it one hundred per cent, with no reservations; we are surrendering to it peacefully, with an open heart, not as a tactic, nor as an act of despair. This interpretation doesn’t entirely seem to tally with the last part of the story because in the story Prince Five-weapons tells the ogre Sticky-hair that the reason he isn’t afraid (which Sticky-hair is understandably worried about) is because he has an ultimate weapon in his belly – a thunderbolt which will tear the demon to pieces. This is no ordinary weapon however: in Tibetan Buddhism a thunderbolt means the Vajra (or Dorje) which is a battle club made of diamond. This diamond club sumbolizes ‘immutable wisdom’ or the power of enlightenment to see through illusion. According to Barbara O’Brien writing in thoughtco.com:

The term vajra is a Sanskrit word that is usually defined as “diamond” or “thunderbolt.” It also defines a kind of battle club that achieved its name through its reputation for hardness and invincibility. The vajra has special significance in Tibetan Buddhism, and the word is adopted as a label for the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism, one of the three major forms of Buddhism. The visual icon of the vajra club, along with the bell (ghanta), form a principal symbol of the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet.

 

A diamond is spotlessly pure and indestructible. The Sanskrit word means “unbreakable or impregnable, being durable and eternal”. As such, the word vajra sometimes signifies the lighting-bolt power of enlightenment and the absolute, indestructible reality of shunyata, “emptiness.”

In terms of the symbolism of Tibetan Buddhism we can say therefore that the thunderbolt weapon is not ‘aggressive’ in nature. It sounds odd to say that a tremendous weapon like this is not aggressive but the truth doesn’t threaten anything, and it doesn’t try to change anything. The only thing that is threatened by the Vajra weapon is illusion, and illusion isn’t there in the first place! The difficulty we have is in seeing how not wanting to change anything’ can result in the situation being totally transformed. In the case of demon Sticky-hair, we would be very much inclined to say that Prince was actually defeated, since he could not overcome his opponent by force of arms. What self-respecting ogre is going to be put off by us not fighting it, by us not opposing it with every means at our disposal? In the real world – surely – the ogre is going to walk all over us. The ogre is going to eat us for breakfast. Isn’t that the way that things work in this world? If we are aggressive enough then we will be triumphant whilst the weak and the timid and the inoffensive will have to put up with being eaten…

 

The ogre in the story is essentially ‘an inner demon’ however and to not be aggressive towards our own inner demons (but to unconditionally allow them to be what they are, and see them for what they are) is not cowardice (or ‘giving in’) but the ultimate act of courage. Who wants to come face to face with their inner demons after all? No one wishes to get intimately acquainted with their inner demons, and so what we do instead (by ‘default’, so to speak) is to deny their existence and thereby allow them to possess us. As Jung says, very few of us have the courage to own up to the darkness that is within us, and as a result this darkness is rejected (or ‘split off’) and becomes an autonomous agent that gets to walk the streets unchallenged, free to work evil in the world.

 

Non-aggression doesn’t just radically transform our relationship with the demon(s) that possess us (by making that relationship conscious rather than unconscious), it radically transforms our understanding of ourselves and the world. It radically transforms everything, in other words! The essence of aggression, as we have already said, is that it is ‘us imposing our own way of seeing things in the world without knowing that we are doing so’. Because we are imposing our own viewpoint on the world without knowing that we are doing so we are very effectively trapped it; we are trapped in a viewpoint that we do not know to be a viewpoint and this is what our ‘unconscious aggression’ does to us. It backfires on us in a big way, in the biggest possible way, and we never know it. We are the ‘prisoners of our own device’; we have checked in but we can’t check out…

 

Why are we so very quick to be always imposing a framework on the world, we might wonder? What is it that causes us to do to do this? Why do we always have to contextualize everything within an artificial context? The best way to answer this question is simply to say that it is due to our ‘insecurity’ – we are insecure and so we impose our own familiar way of seeing things on the world. We are insecure and so we project our ‘automatically assumed framework’ on the world, and so we only see things within the terms of this framework, this context. When we impose our old familiar way of looking at things on the world that makes us feel secure – it gives us a feeling of ‘being in control’, a sense that we are ‘playing a game that we know about’. When we project the same old predictable ‘framework of meaning’ onto the world then that makes us feel secure – nothing is ever going to radically surprise us because we are always going to be ‘explaining the new in terms of the old’.

 

We are protecting ourselves against the new (or the unknown), in other words – we are maintaining our own narrow way of understanding the world and this is aggression pure and simple. We’re not allowing things to be what they actually are, but instead we are covertly forcing them to be that way that we unconsciously want them to be. We’re doing this without admitting that we are doing this – we’re saying that ‘we aren’t doing anything’! We’re imposing our own brand of order, our own brand of ‘commonsense’ on the world. We do this by squeezing the whole universe through our narrow concepts, through our narrow ideas, through our narrow mental categories. If something doesn’t fit our unexamined expectations then we don’t give it the time of day. There is therefore an all-out war going on – there’s a war going on between the meaning we want, and everything that disagrees with this meaning, anything that undermines our preferred way of seeing things.

 

This is ‘fundamental aggression’ – this is the aggression we engaging in every single day of our lives without ever knowing that we are. This is the ‘invisible aggression’ that we are engaging in every second of every day of our lives, just about. This is the fundamental aggression that forms the very basis of our lives – it’s our baseline and so we never look at it. We never question it or remark on it. We don’t understand that there is any other way of being in the world – to us anything else simply means ‘defeat’ or ‘losing’.

 

And yet as we have been saying, all this visible aggression rebounds on us; it backfires on us with a vengeance. It’s not benefitting us at all really; quite the reverse is true – we’re ‘shooting ourselves in the foot; we’re ‘scoring an own-goal’.  We’re ‘self-harming’, so to speak – we’re self-sabotaging in a big way. We’re limiting ourselves cruelly and pointlessly without owning up to the fact that we are – we are putting ourselves into an airless sterile conceptual box and stubbornly pretending that the box is the whole world. We are suppressing our innate curiosity about what the world would be like if we left it alone and didn’t impose our own private meaning on it. We’re far too afraid, far too insecure to see what would happen if we did that. We can’t even allow ourselves to see that this is a possibility! That’s what aggression is therefore – it’s simply ‘fear in disguise’.

 

When we talk about ‘trying to get things to be the way we want them’ to be this is what we’re talking about – this is control in a nutshell. This isn’t to say that there is anything wrong or unhealthy about control because clearly control has a vital part to play in life. We can’t just let ‘everything go to hell’! Control has a very specific domain of applicability however, which is to say, it’s good for some things but not for everything! When we have to control everything then – as we all know – this is profoundly unhealthy. We never apply this principle to the question of ‘how we perceive the world’ however; if we did then we’d see that ‘controlling the way that we see or understand the world without admitting to ourselves that we are doing so’ is the most ‘unhealthy’ thing there is? What could be unhealthier than ‘limiting ourselves for no other reason’? What could be unhealthier than ‘limiting ourselves because we’re afraid and don’t want to see that we’re afraid’? We can say that ‘non-aggression is the ultimately revolutionary act’ therefore because it marks the ending of this pointless limitation…

 

Image – Golden Vajra at Swayambhunath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

 

 

 

The Branch That Denies The Tree

‘Arrogance and anxiety are co-arising with the conditioned self’, says Tilopa. Which would we prefer?  Is one any better than the other? Clearly not – if arrogance is ‘setting ourselves up for a fall’ then anxiety is ‘the fall’! Is setting oneself up for a fall any better than the fall itself? Hardly! The only reason we might think that it is would be if we fail to see what exactly it is that we are doing, which actually happens to be the case…

 

What we don’t understand is the nature of this arrogance – the ‘arrogance’ that Tilopa is talking about implies rather a bit more than we usually understand by this word. We could perhaps explain this use of the word ‘arrogance’ by saying that it is when we are ignorant of our source. We’re like a twig that denies the reality of the branch it stems from, or a branch that imagines itself to be the whole tree.

 

Even to say this – even to say that we are ignorant of our source – sounds obscure to us. ‘Source’ – what ‘source’, we ask? We see ourselves as being self-contained units, not extrusions of some higher reality. We have no conception of ‘a higher reality’ – necessarily so since if we can conceive of it then it is of the same order of reality that we already know about. We don’t admit that there is a higher order of reality than the one we can conceptualize (or rationalize) and this is precisely this that is causing us all our problems!

 

Our basic understanding of ourselves is as ‘the rational agent’, so to speak. ‘The rational agent’ is the one who decides, the one who chooses in accordance with his or her rational picture of the world. The choices we make are therefore extensions of our logical understanding of the world – it’s all the one thing. So we see ourselves as ‘the one who makes the decisions’, ‘the one who is in control’. I am ‘the unequivocal author of my own actions’ – ‘the source of my own doings’. This perception of ours isn’t as obviously true as it might seem to us however; the understanding that we have of ourselves as ‘a self-contained unit or rational agent’ is itself only any artifact of the rational mind, the mind that (necessarily) operates by putting everything in tightly sealed categories. It’s not a universal truth, just a conditioned picture of reality.

 

It’s not too hard to see through the illusion that we are self-contained units. Whenever we are being creative we can easily sense that we are not the source, but only the channel! It is very clear in the case that I am not ‘the one who creates’ – the flow of creativity comes from beyond me, it comes from a place that I cannot see or lay claim to. There wouldn’t be any ‘flow’ otherwise – it has to come from outside of me. What flow could there be when it is my necessarily circumscribed ‘idea of myself’ (or ‘category of myself’) that is the (so-called) source? What we would be talking about in this case isn’t flow – it is on the contrary just pure naked aggression! Anything that isn’t creativity is aggression.

 

‘Arrogance’ and ‘aggression’ are therefore two perfectly interchangeable terms. There is a joy in creation that can’t be found in aggression, no matter how (apparently) successful that aggression might be. Even when we completely get our own way there’s no real joy in it – we might think that there is but there isn’t. We might think getting our own way makes us happy but it doesn’t. Actually, ‘completely getting our own way’ is a form of suffering – it is nothing else but loneliness and alienation in disguise! No one really wants to get their own way, we only imagine that we do. To completely ‘get one’s own way’ is to lose all contact with reality; it is to be sealed off in a sterile, separate universe of self and this is a ‘stuck’ rather than a ‘joyful’ situation…

 

There is no joy in controlling but there is something else, some ‘substitute’ for joy, when we are acting as if we ourselves are the source, the true author of what is coming out of us. Instead of joy we experience what we might call ‘personal gratification’ – the sense of self that we are clinging gets to be validated and this validation (of the false idea of ourselves is very sweet to us! It tastes sweet but ultimately it turns out to be very bitter indeed, but we don’t know that at the time. Vindication for the false (or ‘shallow’) idea of ourself tastes sweet but there is a grim penalty to be paid later on because we have been seduced into being untrue to who we really are. The validation – as overwhelmingly attractive as it appears at the time – is leading us astray…

 

This is not to say that ‘arrogance’ (in the sense that we are using the word) is in any way some kind of moral failing, or ‘sin’ that we are committing – we have simply become disconnected and as a result of this disconnection we have ended up feeling that ‘it’s all up to us’ and that whatever our situation might be, it is our responsibility to do something about it. We end up feeling that we have to do something about it! We start buying into terminology such as ‘fixing’ or ‘coping’ or ‘problem-solving’ because it sounds empowering, but really we’re just alienating ourselves even more. These are all ‘arrogant’ ways of speaking, ‘arrogant’ ways of looking at the world and so we are just making our situation more difficult for ourselves. We’re making the situation more difficult for ourselves because we’ve put ourselves in the impossible position of thinking that all the answers have to come from us.

 

When we feel that we have successfully ‘fixed’ or ‘coped with’ or ‘solved’ the difficult situation that were in then this is gratifying for us – the rational (or ‘closed’) idea that we have about ourselves gets validated because we feel that we have ‘won out’ against all the odds. This is the good feeling of ‘being a successful controller’, the good feeling of ‘being a winner rather than a loser’. This is the best feeling our culture knows of – to be ‘a winner’ is the ultimate accolade as far as we are concerned! Really however – as we have just said – all that’s happening here is that we are setting ourselves up for a fall. We have been suckered by the sweet feeling of having our idea of ourself validated into going down a road that leads only to more and more suffering. We’ve actually committed ourselves to this road so that when things get rough we have no other option other than to invest even more in controlling, even though it is this reliance on controlling that is the root cause of our problems. This is the via erratum that Jung speaks of – the ‘way of error’.

 

As a result of going down this road we see no other way other than ‘the way of controlling’ and so if we can’t control the situation well enough then very great trouble is going to be in store for us. ‘Not being able to be a successful controller’ equals ‘very great trouble’ and this is anxiety in a nutshell! Everything hangs on how good I am at controlling – I can either ‘do well’ and my sense of self gets validated, or I can ‘do badly’ and my sense of myself gets painfully devalidated.  Naturally enough, we don’t complain just as long as things continue to go well for us. No one complains about success! Just as long as things continue to go my way I am receiving pleasurable validation for my illusion of myself as ‘the competent controller’ but sooner or later this honey-coated illusion is going to let me down – sooner or later this cherished illusion of mine is going to backfire on me very nastily and then I am going to start complaining…

 

Being the controller upon whose actions everything depends is a very isolated place to be in when things start to go wrong and our attempts to control are no longer working for us. This is a very profound form of suffering so we are very likely to be complaining about it! Anxiety is the inevitable result of believing that we are this ‘reified self’, this self which is by its very nature fundamentally disconnected from the rest of the universe, so that we feel that we feel that we have to be always fighting against the world (or ‘getting the better of it) in order to maintain our integrity. As we have already said, we get seduced into this unenviable position by the euphoria that comes with being ‘a successful controller’ – we really do think that we have this power to assert our will upon the world and so when we discover that this so-called power was only an illusion (because the self which wielded it is an illusion) the distress and fear that come with this discovery is so much the greater. The more we enjoyed ‘being in control’ when things seemed to be going well the more cruelly we suffer from the inevitable reversal. The ‘reversal’ of which we speak is inevitable simply because we have linked our well-being with a fictional thing – the brittle idea of who we are which has been created for us by the thinking mind. Things can never work out for us in the way that we blindly hope because we’ve ‘put our money on the wrong horse’.

 

It’s not just that we don’t know how reverse the process of identification with the reified (or ‘conditioned’) self but rather that we have no way of seeing that this isn’t who we are. The suggestion that we aren’t the conditioned self simply doesn’t make any sense to us – it makes zero sense to us. We don’t know what it means to say that we have become ‘disconnected from our source’ – we have ended up forgetting about our source, just as the twig forgot about the branch or the branch forgot about the tree. We have forgotten about our source and as a result we’ve become confused into thinking that we actually ‘are our own source’. This is what the ancient Greeks knew as hubris (or hybris).

 

‘Anxiety’ and ‘believing that we are this separate reified self’ (the self which sees itself as being but one ‘thing’ in a world made up of infinitely many other ‘things’) are forever inseparable. The reified self is ‘an anxiety-producing illusion’ and so as long as we are operating on the basis of believing that ‘this is who we are’ then anxiety is going to be our constant bed-fellow. We’ve been suckered into this situation by the nice feeling that arises as a result of our (imagined) successful controlling but once we’re caught on the hook then it all turns against us and the euphoria reverses into dysphoria. We then experience the ‘nasty’ side of the illusion. We have lost our freedom to ‘be otherwise’ at this stage – we’re locked into the game we started playing and now the game has become real. We’re stuck with the limited reified self, which sees the world world in terms of itself! We’re locked into the pointless merry-go-round of this self’s life. Our freedom ‘not to play the game’ has become invisible to us, inaccessible to us and as a result we have to take the illusion-based highs along with the equally ‘illusion-based’ lows, the euphoria along with the dysphoria. That’s all the conditioned self is at the end of the day – it’s a ceaseless cycle of pleasure and pain, hope and despair, both of which belong to a self that we aren’t!

 

 

 

 

 

There’s No Therapy For Life

The most counterproductive thing we can do with regard to our own emotional pain and mental suffering is to get ‘clever’ about it – which is to say, the most counterproductive thing we can do is to think about it! When we hear about ‘not thinking about our emotional pain’ we are very likely to take this to be the same thing as denying our emotional pain but this isn’t the case. Denial starts with a thought, it doesn’t come out of anything else other than our thinking. Everything else that happens afterwards comes out of that original thought, and therefore is that original thought. That original thought never goes away therefore – it might be unconscious, it might be buried deep, but it will continue nevertheless to have an enormous effect on our everyday lives. The more unconscious the thought (i.e. the more deeply buried it is) the more it will determine the course of our lives.

 

We place far too much reliance on thinking as a way of dealing with our difficulties; our reliance on thinking is of course just a manifestation of our desperate hope that we can escape from the difficult situation that we’re in. ‘Thinking’ equals ‘our attempt to escape’, in other words – it’s the same thing. We are all great believers is escaping – we call it ‘problem solving’ or ‘finding solutions’ and the very sound of these phrases make us feel better! We immediately feel better upon hearing phrases such as these because by using then we have legitimized escaping and made it seem both possible and the right thing to do. As soon as we hear the word ‘solving’ or ‘fixing’ we know we are barking up the wrong tree! Because our thoughts are more powerful the more unconscious they are the helpful direction to go in is the direction of bringing consciousness to these thoughts and this is not a ‘doing’, not a ‘goal-driven activity’. ‘Goal’ is a code word for ‘escaping our predicament’ after all so whenever we find ourselves being orientated towards some outcome or other then we should beware of this because we’re actually running away from our life.

 

Consciousness has no goal, just as life has no goal. Goals are solutions and solutions are fear. Solution-focussed therapies are fear-based therapies therefore and the search for solutions (or belief in solutions) is the sickness not the cure. The root of the sickness – we might say – is that there are parts of our life that we are fundamentally opposed to living. We REALLY don’t want to live these parts of our life and we never question why we don’t want to live them. We don’t question or examine our refusal or resistance and the more caught up in the resistance we are the more unconscious we become. Very quickly we become totally unconscious and our activity becomes nothing more than a reflex that has been triggered, an all-powerful reflex that has been ‘ruling the roost’ for a very long time. This is the time-honoured ‘reflex of trying to escape’!

 

When we come across part of our life that we don’t want to live then this is where all the ‘thinking’ comes in. This is what all the thinking is about – skipping over the unwanted bit of our life is ‘the goal’ and the thinking is our attempt to find an effective way of doing this. Escaping from the bit of our life that we don’t like is our ‘clever plan’. Solution-focussed therapies are – we could therefore say – ways of facilitating us not to live the parts of our life that we don’t want to live, that we have resistance to living. They are our way of ‘being clever about things’! It’s not that we actually see things like this, of course. We don’t see ourselves as wanting to pick and choose over which parts of our life we want to live and which we don’t want to live (as if we had the choice!) but rather we see the bits of our life we want to get rid of as being wholly negative and worthless, as deserving zero attention or care or interest on our part. Labelling an experience as being absolutely negative is of course the perfect justification for wanting to eliminate or escape from it – this part of our life is ‘a fault’, ‘a mistake’, ‘an error,’ a ‘bad thing’, and so naturally we don’t want to have anything to do with it. That goes without saying…

 

The logic behind this ‘rejection of the negative’ is extremely plausible, extremely convincing – we never question this way of looking at things for a moment. This way of looking at things EQUALS not questioning. ‘Thinking about things’ equals not questioning. There is a snag in this logic however – a glitch that we are always going to be unconscious of when we are busy dividing life into the parts we like and want to keep versus the parts we don’t like and want to get rid of. The glitch arises out of the fact that we CAN’T separate or divide life according to our preferences – this is just not a possible thing we can do and when we try we get caught up in the glitch. Life always comes as a whole – it’s all of one piece and we abstract only the elements that we like or find enjoyable. It’s all life, to paraphrase what Kurt Vonnegut says in Breakfast of Champions, there’s no part of it which isn’t, no part which is ‘something else other than life’.  All that’s happening when we reject one part of our life as not being worth living is that we are exercising prejudice, but that prejudice is entirely ours – it does not represent or correspond to anything in reality. That’s a glitch that comes out of our attitude, not out of life itself.

 

When we try to eliminate or escape from a part of our life that we have automatically labelled as unacceptable what happens is that our tactic rebounds on us. Resistance is always going to rebound on us! It can’t not rebound on us – all that’s happened is that we have put a kind of twist in things to make life even more difficult for us than it was before e started rejecting it. By refusing to live part of our own lives we have created a twist (or glitch) that we just can’t get past. What do we imagine happens to the unlived bits of our life, after all? Where do we imagine they go? Unlived life is still life whether we like it or not and because it is still life it has to be lived sooner or later. All that has happened when we reject it is that we have put it ‘on hold’…

 

There is more to it than just this, however. ‘Unlived life’ changes the way it subjectively appears to us – it becomes dark, it becomes subjectively hostile or threatening. It manifests as an enemy that persecutes us. The ‘demonic’ character of the life that we have rejected isn’t a property of that unlived life itself however – it’s simply a reflection of our own aggression. Aggression – as Chogyam Trungpa says – can be seen as a ‘refusal to communicate’. There’s no communication in the situation and this refusal to communicate gets reflected back at us as a terrible hostility. Our own refusal to communicate gets reflected back at us as the demonic quality that we are either trying to fight or run away from; fighting or running away doesn’t help the situation however because both fighting and running away equal ‘not communicating’! The demonic, persecutory aspect of our environment is really nothing other than our own attitude, our own aggression mirrored back at  us but we perceive it to be something that exists independently in the world around us – something that can be successfully eliminated if we try hard enough!

 

When unlived life takes on this persecutory nature that makes us resist it all the more, in other words, and this is the ‘glitch’ that we have been talking about, the glitch that we can’t help getting caught up in when we are living unconsciously. The rejected parts of our life take on the appearances of ‘avenging furies’, as M. Scott Peck says in The Road Less Travelled and the more we run (or the more we fight) the more furiously these demons (the demons that have been created by our rejection) pursue and terrorize us. We are at war with ourselves and we cannot win! Aggression is the same thing as ‘the absence of communication’ because we are always projecting our own meaning, our own categories on whatever is happening to us. We are perpetuating our own closed viewpoint, our own fixed framework of interpretation in everything we do and this means that there is zero possibility of communication. If we reject one part of our life as it unfolds then we reject all of our life. This has to be the case – if life is ‘all the one’, if it cannot be conveniently subdivided, then we cannot reject any supposed ‘part’ of it without rejecting all of it. It’s all or nothing, therefore. And the moment we start ‘picking and choosing’ which bits of life we want to live then it’s going to be ‘nothing’ rather than ‘everything’, therefore! This is the inevitable result of exercising ‘the mind of preference’.

 

Trying to pick and choose, trying to ‘get clever about things’, is the root cause of our sufferings, not the cure for it. That’s how ‘backwards’ we have got everything! If we saw things clearly then we would see that we don’t need a cure – as we have already said, what we fondly call ‘a cure’ or ‘a solution’ is simply our hoped-for escape from the parts of our life that we don’t like, the parts of our life that we have automatically rejected. There is no solution (or ‘therapy’) for life. Interference or control or manipulation is only going to multiply our woes – it’s only our fear that is driving this control, this interference, after all. It is not ‘therapy’ we need therefore but simply the willingness to live each moment of our lives exactly as it unfolds

 

This is what Pema Chodron calls ‘the fearless heart’. This panoramic fearlessness is also symbolized by ‘the lion that looks in all four directions at once’ – the Lion of  Ashoka that has been adopted as the state emblem of India. Rather than our customary one-sided ‘rational approach’ (which is based on always having plenty of clever strategies at our disposal), all that is required therefore is for us to live our lives ‘consciously rather than unconsciously’. We aren’t partisan, we aren’t mean-minded, we don’t exclude anything. And if we find ourselves rejecting or resisting life as it unfolds (as of course we will do), then we bring consciousness to that rejection, that resistance, too! That automatic resistance, that ‘attempted manipulation or control’, that ‘running away’ is after all as much part of life as anything else…

 

 

 

 

 

Being The Compassionate Witness Of Our Own Lives

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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