Recycling Time

The everyday self, according to Joseph Campbell, is ‘a fraction that thinks it is whole’. The everyday self thinks or assumes that it is whole but it is all the same persistently acquisitive, persistently restless, persistently fearful of unwanted outcomes and this shows that it isn’t whole. If it was whole then it wouldn’t be the way that it clearly is. If it were whole then it could ‘rest in itself’ and it can’t ever do that. The defining characteristic of the everyday self is that it can never ‘rest in itself’.

So what does it mean to be ‘whole’? For a start, we can say that being whole is a non-polar situation. Wholeness is not a polarity. It isn’t made up of two opposing things – it doesn’t have a plus at one end and a minus at the other. It doesn’t exist in a continuum with right at one end and wrong at the other so it can’t flip over between the two. The fact that wholeness is not a polarity means that there is no ‘self’ to be found in it, everyday or otherwise. There is no self to be found in wholeness because the self can only really exist in relation to polarity.

The ‘self’ equals striving for the positive and fleeing from the negative. This is what the self is always doing – it can’t ever not reach for the one nor flee from the other. It can’t ever ‘not strive’. It’s always ‘purposeful’ in this way and it is through being purposeful that the purposeful self gets to exist. The self exists through its purposes and whether it succeeds or fails makes no difference. One way the ‘winner self’ gets to be created, the other way the ‘loser self’…

The everyday self constructs itself in relation to the struggle to achieve its purpose. And another way of putting this is to say that the self creates itself (odd though this may sound) via its grasping. Because of its grasping, the everyday self exists. There are two (apparent) things that come about because grasping – [1] equals the ‘grasper’ and [2] equals ‘the thing that is being grasped for’. The self is by its very nature perpetual grasping, in other words. Or we could say that it is perpetual fleeing, if we were to look at it that way around instead. The everyday self is ‘attachment’ in other words; there is no such thing as a self that is not a slave to attachment! That isn’t a situation that can ever come true for the self, seductive though that possibility might seem.

There is a ‘comforting illusion’ that goes with this grasping – the comforting illusion of how great it is going to be when we finally secure what we are grasping for (or the comforting illusion of how great it is going to be when we finally escape from whatever it is we are fleeing from). So could be said that we are ‘fractional beings in search of wholeness’ and in a way this is true, but in another way it is not true. It is not true because we have no concept or perception of wholeness, and so we can’t seek it. All we can ‘seek’ are our own projections.

What we are really doing is ‘chasing our own projections’, which is – as Alan Watt says – like a puppy chasing its own tail. We can never ‘arrive’ – when a puppy is chasing its own tail there is no ‘arriving’! We can never arrive at our projected destination because projections aren’t real; my projections are just my own fantasies and so I’m not really getting anywhere. There is no distance between ‘me’ and ‘my projected destination’ and so there is no journey, no movement, no prospect of change. There is only ever ‘fantasy gain’ and ‘fantasy loss’ – our hopes of gaining the prize are as vain as our fears of losing it.

Instead of saying that the self is ‘perpetual grasping’ we could also say that it is ‘a recycling of the old’. When we grasp we are always grasping for ‘the old’ after all – there’s no such thing as a ‘grasping for the new’. How can we ‘grasp for the new’ when we don’t know what ‘the new’ is? If we did know what ‘the new’ was then it wouldn’t be new, but only something that we are already familiar with. Grasping means ‘chasing our projections’ and our projections – by definition – are never new.

‘The new’ is essentially ‘that which we have no way of anticipating’ and it is also therefore ‘that which we have no way of gaining the advantage over’. ‘Gaining the advantage’ means knowing something about the situation that is going to arise before it arises so that it doesn’t take us totally by surprise. For a game-player to be taken by surprise is not a good thing; as James Carse says, the last thing a game player wants is to be taken by surprise and the self is nothing if not a game player. Being a game player means that we are always ‘looking for the advantage’, obviously enough! Gaining the advantage is called ‘winning’ and not gaining the advantage is called  ‘losing’ and that’s all we need to know about games.

The thing about this is that there is neither winning nor losing in ‘the new’; both winning and losing (or advantage and disadvantage) equals ‘the game’ and the game is always old. That’s the whole point of games. The point is that neither winning or losing is ‘new’ – both equal ‘the game’ and the game is always old. That is the hidden agenda behind all games – to avoid newness. As we have said, the self can only exist in relation to the polarity of yes and no, winning and losing, advantage and disadvantage, and so this is just another way of saying that the self is just a game, odd though this may sound. It is by pretending to ourselves – as we do in games – that ‘the old’ actually exists (and that there is no such thing as ‘the radical new’) that we create the illusion of ourselves.

Just as Krishnamurti says that ‘thought is always old’ so too is the thought-created sense of identity ‘always old’ and the thing about this is that outside of the creations of thought, there is no ‘old’….



The Movement Away From The Known

We can’t move towards Wholeness deliberately – nothing was ever more impossible than this! We can express this impossibility in lots of different ways, but they all come down to the very same thing. In terms of mental health, we can say that we can’t move towards mental wellness deliberately; in terms of meditation we can say that we can’t meditate purposefully (or that we can’t ‘become from free from the thinking mind on purpose’), and in terms of spirituality we can say that we can’t ‘become more spiritual’ because we want to, because we are deliberately making efforts in that direction (or in what we think is that direction). It’s the same principle that we coming up against in all of these cases, and if we can’t understand this principle then we can’t understand anything!


Alan Watts (speaking from a religious perspective) says that we can’t earn ‘the Grace of God’ on purpose, by dint of our efforts or hard work, by obeying the rules of the religion we belong to, or by trying as hard as we can to be ‘good and not bad’. We can’t do a deal with God to say “If I do everything you say you have to give me your grace!” It just doesn’t work like that, as we would see if we took a moment to think about it. Making deals doesn’t come into it. If I imagine that I can obtain God’s grace by doing a deal, by agreeing to do ‘X, Y or Z’, then what this means is that I believe, on some level or other, that I have some kind of control, as I have ‘negotiating rights’, and this simply isn’t true. Clearly it isn’t true – the very idea is ridiculous, as we would straightaway see if we looked into the matter clearly. If we really looked into the matter then we would give up all our games on the spot! We would give up trying to find ‘new and improved games’, which is what we are always doing. We would – in short – give up trying to manipulate the situation to our advantage.


We very rarely do see this however, and that’s the whole point. We don’t want to see it; we have immense resistance to seeing it. This principle is very simple to explain (nothing to be easier) but that doesn’t mean that we going to be able to find anyone willing to sit down and listen to us! Just try explaining the idea that you can’t become mentally healthy ‘on purpose,’ by effort of will’, to a trained professional mental health worker and see how far you get with it! You would be no better off than if you were trying to explain to a Jehovah’s Witness the idea that we can’t be saved just because we’re following all the rules that the organisation requires them to follow in order to be a Jehovah’s Witness. This is true for all religions – there is a great passivity inherent in all religious groups and this passivity derives from the belief that all we have to do to be saved is conform to the given structure. Our willingness to believe this – needless to say – is simply a function of our fear of having to take responsibility for ourselves – we want our ‘salvation’ to come from outside of us, as a result of our unquestioning compliance some external system. Do we really think that we can be saved by uncritically handing over responsibility to what is at root no more than a collection of dead mechanical rules? Can a machine save this? Or will it simply enslavement and abuse us?


Meditation demonstrates the principle that says ‘we can’t move towards Wholeness on purpose’ particularly clearly. Meditation is a very practical thing, after all. It has nothing to do with ideas or theories; we can’t bluff into meditation. Qualifications are of no avail. In meditation we are moving away from thought – we are opening up the space between us and our thoughts. That space was always there of course, we are just learning to appreciate that it is. This movement away from thought (which is also the movement away from the thought- created world) is what Krishnamurti calls ‘movement away from the known. This movement is meditation – is no meditation apart from this. Meditation (or ‘mindfulness’) can be explained in lots of fancy ways but this is all that it is – movement away from the known.


This happen to be a very interesting movement – it’s actually the only interesting movement; after all, as Krishnamurti also says, ‘the movement from one known to another is no movement at all’. This is very interesting movement but it’s also not a movement we can say anything about – we can only talk about the known after all. As soon as we talk about this movement we sabotage it therefore, as soon as we think about this movement we sabotage it, and when we practice meditation then what we discover is that we are constantly sabotaging ourselves in this way – we can’t help themselves, it’s a ‘reflex-reaction’ on our part. The movement away from the known happens all by itself – it starts happening just as soon as we stop interfering with it (which of course – as we have said – we very rarely do). When we are ‘practising’ meditation and we notice this ‘movement into the unknown’ then we straightaway get excited, we straightaway think about it. Biased mental activity occurs. The further the movement goes the more excited we get, and the more excited we get the more we think about it! This is because we are invested in this particular movement – that’s the whole reason why we’re putting so much time and effort into meditation after all – because we would like for this movement to happen. This is precisely the glitch however – the keener we are for this movement into the unknown to take place (i.e. the more invested in it we are) the less able we are to not get excited by it when it happens and, as we’ve said, when we get excited we think. It doesn’t really matter what we think  – just as soon as we start thinking (which is to say, just as soon as bias comes into the picture) then we find ourselves right back at square one!


The process only happens when we don’t interfere with it, when we neither want it to happen nor not want it to happen (which is of course the more common situation). The idea that we can – by deliberate act of will – ‘move away from the known’ is clearly nonsensical therefore. That’s the one thing we can’t do! But the point we are making here is that, when we practice meditation, we run into this principle all the time. It’s a basic fact of our experience when we are meditating. This is THE basic fact of our experience when we are meditating – the fact that we are constantly sabotaging ourselves, whether we want to or not. Who can disagree with this? Whoever has ever had any different experience to this? What we learn through the practice of meditation that ‘the movement away from the known’ doesn’t happen because we are making it happen or willing it to happen or in any way tricking it happen. What we learn as this is that this movement occurs despite our efforts, not because of them. When (or rather if) we do learn this then we learned the biggest thing we ever could learn – we have learned that we can’t move towards reality (or towards Wholeness) ‘under our own steam’, as an act of will.






Art: Sarolta Ban, from









Looking For Freedom Outside Ourselves

It isn’t just that who we are (or the way that we are) is in itself ‘good enough’, and so on this account we don’t need to be constantly striving to ‘better ourselves’ or ‘improve ourselves’ (and be constantly recriminating against ourselves if we can’t do so) but rather that who we are (or the way that we are) is our only possible means of liberation, our only possible way to freedom and happiness! We need look no further than the way we actually are – right at this very moment, in other words.


The chances are of course that most of us would immediately dismiss this bold assertion as being utterly nonsensical. How could anything be that easy? How could ‘being the crappy old way that we already are’ be enough to release us from our suffering? If nothing else, we would probably say, this will prove to be a recipe for total self-indulgent laziness. Another thing that we might say is that we know lots of people who already think that they are ‘fine just the way they are’ and that this complacent attitude of theirs hasn’t done them any good at all. People who think that they are great the way they are generally jerks, after all!


The first thing that we could say about these objections is that ‘accepting ourselves’ is not an easy thing at all – it’s actually the hardest thing we could ever do. Climbing Mount Everest is easy in comparison! The second thing we could point out is that people we might know who seem to think that they’re perfectly fine just the way that they are – and consequently make no effort at all to change – aren’t accepting themselves at all. They might seem to be but what’s really happening is that they have some kind of image of themselves which seems acceptable (or even pretty wonderful!) but which is completely illusory, completely unreal. They aren’t accepting themselves at all therefore – they’re accepting their illusion of ‘who they would like to believe they are’ and obviously this can’t be beneficial to anyone.


We usually don’t come anywhere close to seeing ourselves as we really are, never mind ‘accepting ourselves’. We have a concept about ourselves, an idea or image of who we are, and we relate to this instead. There is therefore a ‘gap’ between ‘us as we actually are’ and ‘us as we perceive ourselves to be’ and this gap tends to grow bigger and bigger with time. In this ‘image-based’ world of ours we ‘grow into the false idea of ourselves’ because that’s what we are presented with – we are given an identity that matches the type of world we happen to find ourselves in. This is convenient for sure when it comes to operating within that world, but still isn’t who we are. We have ‘convenience’ instead of truth, therefore, but convenience only goes so far.


Another aspect of this process is that we become more and more separated from the painfully ‘underdeveloped’ aspect of ourselves as a result of social adaptation and this separation grows bigger with time because the pain associated with that neglected part of ourselves can only ever grow as long as it remains neglected. In the consensus reality we get rewarded (or validated) for developing in line with what society requires from us, and disincentivized from developing our true nature, which has consequences that are beneficial from the point of view of society but profoundly ‘non-beneficial’ from the point of view of the individual. The pressure to adapt to the social world is the same thing as the pressure to turn our backs on our core nature and this systematic neglect causes pain that we don’t want to look at. It’s painful to see what we have done, in other words, and our keenness to run away from this pain means that the gap between us as we are and us as we’d like to imagine we are just keeps on getting bigger. The rejection of the pain that stems from betraying our true nature forces us and more into the societal world because this is the only place we’re going to obtain validation for the false ‘image of who we are’.


We might naively think that it’s a fairly straightforward thing to ‘accept ourselves’ but nothing could be further from the truth. If we could find it within ourselves to ‘be ourselves as we actually are’ then we have already – just in this humble act – done something completely tremendous. Our instinct is to go completely the other way and strain to achieve some ideal, some idea we have (or society has) about how we should be. Our instinct is always to do the very opposite of ‘just being ourselves’ and this is because we fundamentally believe that there is no good at all to come from ‘just being ourselves’. As we are (we believe) we are ‘unredeemed’; we are ‘awaiting salvation’. We might not know that this is what we believe but we believe it all the same – our ‘orientation’ is pointing fundamentally away from ourselves, and this is true for almost all of us. It’s the prescribed way to be…


What we are saying here is therefore that – on a subconscious level – we don’t believe that there is any great value in us being the way that we actually are. The way that we actually are doesn’t have any possibilities in it; it is disregarded, dismissed without even the slightest consideration. Our personal reality ‘as it is’ is dismissed as being intrinsically worthless (even though we don’t see ourselves doing this) and we are constantly ‘reaching out’ to somewhere else where we think the advantage must be. Everything worthwhile – we imagine – lies in ‘the realm of what is yet to be achieved’ (i.e. ‘the realm of improvement’) and this keeps us in a constant state of anticipation. Either we are hopefully anticipating the result that we want or we’re anxiously anticipating the result that we don’t want. We’re always ‘directed externally’ – our attention is always on whatever advantages or disadvantages might come from the outside.


This brings to mind Jung’s often-repeated quote ‘Who looks outside dreams; who looks within awakes’. Our ‘dream-state’ is to be hypnotised by the false perception that ‘how we are in ourselves’ can be either improved or disimproved by events occurring on the outside of us (or – as we could also say – by the erroneous belief that the possibility for change lies outside of how we actually are, within the domain of control). We all want to be happy and lead fulfilling lives and we imagine that this can be achieved by successfully controlling things – and by things we include ourselves. We might not be foolish enough to think that we can buy a happier or more meaningful state of existence but we do nevertheless have this deep-seated belief that if we try hard enough in the right way we can improve ourselves to become the sort of person we’d like to be. Essentially – as we have said – we straining towards some sort of mental image, and we imagine that this projected ‘image’ can actually become a reality for us. We’re looking for salvation ‘outside of ourselves’. We’re looking for freedom outside ourselves…


Isn’t ‘looking outside of ourselves’ what self-help books and online seminars are all about, after all? Isn’t this what therapy is all about? If I go to therapy then in most cases what happens is that I’m presented with a certain set of ideas and theories and techniques that I can use – with the support of the therapist – to improve my situation, to make it less painfully conflicted or blocked than it was before. That’s why I’m going to therapy, after all. This idea makes plenty of sense – it makes complete sense to us in fact. Whether it ‘makes sense’ to us or not makes no difference however because what we are trying to do is completely absurd! It is completely absurd because our orientation is all back-to-front – it is (as we have been saying) orientated away from ourselves and towards the ‘realm of improvement’. It’s quite natural that we should be orientated in this way – our state of being is a painful one after all, and the nature of pain is that it makes us want to move away from it!


It’s perfectly natural that we should be orientated away from pain (away from the way that we actually are) and towards the possibility of escaping this pain, but for this to be somehow seen as a legitimate therapeutic modality, for this orientation be actively encouraged by those whose job is it is to be of help to people who have suffering from ongoing emotional or psychological pain is something of an irony. No one should tell us or imply to us that we ought to ‘stay with the pain’, but at the same time it is not our job as mental healthcare workers to encourage people suffering from mental pain to try to escape from it, via whatever so-called ‘legitimate methods’ it is that we are supplying them with. If we do this then we are simply adding ‘delusion on top of delusion’; if we do this then we are adding a whole new level of neurotic avoidance to the mix – a ‘legitimised’ or ‘officially-correct’ or ‘societally-sanctioned’ form of avoidance…


The trouble is that we are being aggressive  either way – if I say to someone that they should ‘sit with the pain’ (because that’s the right or helpful thing to do) then this is pure counter-productive aggression on my part, and if I go the other route and say that it is their responsibility to do ‘X, Y, and Z’ and thereby work constructively with their difficulties so as to improve their situation this is still ‘pure counter-productive aggression’! I’m being violent either way, and ‘violence’ (i.e. ‘trying to force things to be the way we want them to be’) always adds to the underlying suffering rather than lessening it in any way. The root of the dilemma that we are in (both both as ‘the therapist’ and ‘the sufferer’) is therefore that we’re ‘hung up on making the right choice’. No matter what choice we go with we’re still trying to wrestle with the situation and change it from being the way that it actually is – either we try to making ourselves stay with the pain, or try to make ourselves get away from the pain. Either way we are at loggerheads with ourselves, either way we are having an argument with reality! Aggression always comes out of thought – if we are being aggressive or controlling with reality then this is always because we are ‘thinking about it’; it’s because we are trying to work out what ‘the right answer’ to our situation is. If this is what we doing then we will be doing it forever; we’ll be ‘doing it forever’ because if we’re trying to find out what the right answer is then this means that were stuck in our heads, stuck in our thinking, and thinking is never more than a crowbar which we are using to try to change things.


It’s so very hard for us to see this! If we could see it then straightaway we’d laugh at the utter absurdity of what we trying to do! We’re trying to use the ‘crowbar of thought’ to change the way reality is. We trying to use the crowbar of thought to change ‘the way things are right now’ to be ‘some other way’, and yet what is ‘thinking’ other than coming up with a particular way of describing the world to ourselves and then acting on the basis of that description? When we try to change ourselves (or control ourselves) we first have to describe (or ‘model’) ourselves, therefore. This, as we all know, works very with some things – technical understanding gives rise to the possibility of controlling what we understand – but we can’t turn this trick  on ourselves because (counter-intuitively, in this rational culture of ours) we cannot gain a ‘technical understanding of ourselves’!  We are in some way that we completely fail to see ‘our own blind-spot’; as Alan Watts says – the eye cannot see itself, the tooth cannot bite itself and the tongue cannot taste itself.


Nobody can control their own state of mind because controlling would only work if we first had a complete understanding (obtained from some kind of theoretical external viewpoint) of ourselves – which is something that we believe to be totally possible since we aren’t able to see the limitations of thought or the logical mind. The problem is this however – if it were possible for us to ‘completely understand ourselves’ from some external (or ‘abstract’) theoretical viewpoint then ‘who we are’ would be no more than a logical extension of that external, abstract viewpoint. This is what creates the blind-spot because who we really are – which is neither ‘external’ nor ‘theoretical’ nor ‘abstract’ – has now been left out of our calculations. ‘Who we really are’ has been forgotten about in the course of the rational game we are playing – the rational game we are playing and can’t help playing!


What we can’t see is that ‘what’s happening is just what’s happening!’ What could be simpler than this? This is actually too simple for us – we have to add the complication (or the ‘twist’) of thinking about it. We have to ask ourselves ‘what the right answer is’, or ‘what the right way to look at things is’, and this confuses us. This confuses us right from the word ‘go’ because it implies that there is such a thing as ‘the right answer’ or ‘the right way to look at things’ and that’s just plain nonsense. What’s happening is just what’s happening – our descriptions or deliberations aren’t necessary! When we try to shove thought in there, in order to gain some kind of advantage or foothold, all we gain is ongoing confusion and paralysis.


When we ask what the right way to be with ourselves is therefore what we are doing is adding another level of complication, another level of neurotic avoidance. We are banjaxing ourselves just as soon as we ask this question because we are approaching everything from the point of view of the thinking mind and, as we have just pointed out, this has the immediate and distinctly unhelpful effect of placing us ‘outside of ourselves’.  We’re stuck in some kind of disconnected (or ‘alienated’) abstract mental space. We are ‘on the outside looking in’, and who doesn’t know what this feels like? This is ‘neurotic hell’ in a nutshell, and everyone knows what neurotic hell is like…


The way the world is is the way the world is and the way we are is the way we are…  It’s as simple as that. If someone waves hello at us then they’re waving hello, if a dog barks then a dog barks, if a gust of wind blows your hat off then a gust of wind blows your hat off. If we’re happy then we’re happy and if we’re sad then we’re sad! This isn’t ‘fatalism’ or anything ridiculous like that (fatalism is just an artificial mind-created attitude, after all) – it’s just ‘being in the moment’ and the moment is only place we can be. There is no choice there; there’s no ‘right or wrong way’ in it! Instead of choice, there’s actual freedom. It’s a mark of our own colossal stupidity if we think that there is ‘a right way and a wrong way’ to be in the present moment!


At the very core of all our confusion is therefore this very profound inability that we have to understand what freedom is. We’re clueless about freedom, even though we keep on talking about it. We’ve got the wrong idea about it entirely. We have – very foolishly – confused freedom with ‘choice’ and ‘choice’ – as we have said – is just ‘thought trying to shoehorn its way into the picture’. It’s ‘the thin end of the wedge’. Choice after all can only exist between ‘known alternatives’; it can only be found within the realm of the rational mind. so if we can never really know ‘what’s going on’ (because the unfolding present moment is always fundamentally unknowable) then how can we ‘choose’? What kind of foolishness is this? What is this great ‘hang-up’ about control that we have anyway other than ‘the neurotic refusal to live life unless we can first ‘know’ it’??!


Bizarrely, we imagine that freedom is something that exists within thought, within the closed and artificial domain of the thinking mind, whilst the truth of the matter is that freedom only exists where there is no thought. Freedom is freedom from thought; freedom is freedom from ‘known alternatives’…


Art: Eduardo Martinez, taken from






Thinking is Suffering


Thinking is suffering, as Eckhart Tolle says somewhere. Thinking is all about problems and the search for possible solutions to these problems. This is all thinking is – over and over again. The unspoken assumption is that the thinking is ‘a means to an end’ – that once we find the solution then everything will be fine and there won’t be the need for any more wearisome thinking. The assumption is that once the solution is found then all will be well. We will then find peace. We’ll have arrived.


This however never happens. We all know very well that this never happens – if it did happens then we would all be going around in a Zen-like state of calm the whole time and we aren’t! Each ‘solution’ only ever leads on to another problem; each answer only gives rise to a clutch of new questions. All is never well – if it was then there wouldn’t be all this thinking going on and there always is all this thinking going on. The thinking is there because all is not well, because there is some sort of a problem somewhere, and so clearly we are never without problems. Things are never OK…


There is always thinking because there is always a problem, because there is always an issue that needs to be resolved. This state of affairs doesn’t necessarily seem like suffering to us however. It doesn’t seem like suffering because we generally feel that we are getting somewhere – we experience the thinking as taking us towards some kind of resolution. As Alan Watts says in one of his lectures, we’re always ‘almost there’; the resolution or prize is always there just around the corner and because of this (erroneous) perception we don’t experience the process of thinking as being largely (if not entirely) futile.


This isn’t to say that rational thought is always futile. There are of course instances where the thinking process is genuinely useful! There are in other words times when there are legitimate problems out there and where we are legitimately trying to solve them. During the day this only happens from time to time however – as we would easily see if we started observing ourselves and our thoughts, we think all the time and only a few of these thoughts are there because there is actually a practical need for them! Legitimate problem-solving happens only from time to time – it’s not the main business of the day. The main business of the day – which is where most of our attention or energy is going – is a project that we are not actually allowed to be aware of, an ongoing project which is consuming the lion’s share of the resources (so to speak) and yet which at the same time we are not allowed to see ourselves being engaged in.


Being engaged in a full-time project that we not being allowed to acknowledge ourselves to be engaged in it is a strange enough idea by itself but it gets stranger – we’re engaged on a full-time basis on a project that we’re not allowed to know about and which is actually completely impossible to complete. This therefore is definitely as recipe for suffering. This is the best recipe for suffering there ever could be! But WHAT – we might want to know – is this undercover project that we’re not allowed to know about, and WHY is it so impossible to complete? The project that we’re talking about here is (we might say) the project of maintaining our arbitrary way of looking at the world, our arbitrary way of ‘being in the world’, and the reason this task / project is impossible to complete is because nothing that is arbitrary can be kept going forever. Nothing that is arbitrary can be made permanent. Because the task that we are engaged in is impossible it isn’t really a ‘task’ at all – it’s simply a jinx. It’s a jinx that we can’t see to be a jinx. It’s a jinx that is disguised as a legitimate task…


And even if the so-called ‘task’ of perpetuating our particular way of seeing the world, our particular way of ‘being in the world’ were possible (which it clearly isn’t) it would still be a completely pointless thing to do. Why on earth would we want to perpetuate an arbitrary way of looking at the world, an arbitrary way of being in the world? Why on earth would we want to perpetuate or make permanent a particular limited pattern of thinking and behaving in the world when it is no more valid than any other way? Why would we want to spend all our time stuck in a particular groove when there are so many other grooves to explore? What we’re actually doing here is, in this not-allowing-of-any-other-possibilities, is artificially keeping things the same when they don’t really need to be kept the same. We’re repressing change; we’re repressing the natural way of things. We’re actually blocking the life-process itself and this has got to be a ‘suspect operation’!


It’s a ‘suspect operation’ because on the one hand it is impossible to do and on the other hand it causes an immense amount of pain and frustration because we don’t know that it is an impossible thing to do (because we don’t know that it is a ‘jinxed task’). We’re going against the natural order of things for no good reason at all – we’re going against our own true nature. This isn’t a ‘moral’ or ‘ethical’ matter we’re talking about here. It’s purely practical – it’s about not being absurd or ridiculous. Why after all would we go against our own true nature? Why would we act contrary to what our heart actually wants? The reason is of course that we’re not in touch with our true nature; we’re estranged from ourselves, we’re estranged from our own wisdom and intuition. We have been ‘cut-off’ from the source of wisdom and intuition that lies deep inside ourselves. As we have said, we don’t even know what we are doing! We don’t know that we are engaged on a full-time basis in the particular ‘suspect project’ that we are engaged in. We don’t know that the project is suspect and we don’t even know that there is a project! We’re committed to ‘the jinxed task’ without knowing that we are…


To go back to what we started off by saying, thinking is suffering and the reason thinking is suffering is because we are trying – with our thinking – to do something impossible without acknowledging that this is the case. Of course thinking can achieve real things (genuinely helpful outcomes) in the world and if the only time we were thinking was on this strictly practical ‘thinking only when we need to think’ basis then all would be well. Thinking would not necessarily be suffering in this case. It might be demanding and arduous but there would be a real result. But just as soon as we take the trouble to observe ourselves and our thinking we can’t help seeing that most of the thinking which is going on is not of a practical / helpful nature. By far the largest part of our thinking is simply a type of ‘restless grasping’. What we’re grasping for – whether we realize it or not – is a type of security that just doesn’t exist in the real world. We’re looking for a sense of security in relation to the arbitrary construct, the arbitrary way of looking at things, the arbitrary modality of being, that we have somehow (without actually meaning to) identified ourselves with.


One way of putting this is to say that we are looking for the validation of our particular arbitrary viewpoint or position. ‘Validation’ in this context means proving to ourselves that our arbitrary viewpoint or position is not arbitrary at all, and this very clearly is not going to be possible. We’re trying to prove that something which isn’t true actually is true. We don’t of course see that this is what we are doing – we are driven by a need that we don’t examine, a need that we never question, a ‘need’ that we just automatically go along with. If we were to be slightly more aware of what is going on we would see that we are being driven by a type of deep-rooted insecurity – we’re trying to make an uncomfortable feeling go away. This attempt to run away from an uncomfortable background feeling of insecurity is what is driving our thinking – it is the only thing that is driving our thinking. We neither know what this feeling is nor do we care to know – we just want to make it go away and that is that!


It is also the case that we may have (temporarily!) succeeded in feeling secure in the way that we want to. Security-seeking isn’t our number One motivation in this case; it has been put to one side for the time being. It has been forgotten about. But the thing about this is that just as soon as we solve the pain of the insecurity we incur a different type of pain which then needs to be fixed just as the first type of pain did. The one itch replaces the other. ‘Security’ contains a type of pain all of its own – the pain of suffocating boredom, the pain of sterility, the pain of ennui or meaninglessness, and the way we try to fix this pain is by looking for diversion, looking for distraction, and so this is another thing that will drive our thinking (if we are not being driven by the need to escape from our own insecurity). Both the need to find security (which equals ‘validating our particular limited pattern of being’) and the need to escape from the tedium or meaninglessness of this security once we have found it, (i.e. the need to distract or divert ourselves) come from the same root, therefore. The need to be continually distracting (or entertaining) ourselves seems harmless or normal enough to us but it comes down to ‘covering up the problem’; this type of thinking it is therefore facilitating a problem we don’t know about, it is perpetuating that invisible problem.


When we look into the matter we discover that almost all of our thinking is about compensating (or trying to compensate) for the irresolvable insecurity that comes with being identified with an arbitrarily limited way of looking at the world, an arbitrarily limited way of being in the world, whilst trying to make out that it is not arbitrarily limited. In very simple terms, we’re ‘shoring up the self-image’ (or ‘trying to shore up the self image’) – this basic (conditioned) need gives rise to a range of different types of thinking but they all come down to the same thing. They all come down to ‘trying to make something be what it isn’t’, trying to pretend something isn’t there when it is there, trying to make something better when ultimately we can’t make it better. It’s like scratching an itch to relieve the unbearable irritation it is causing us – the scratching may provide relief from this intolerable itch, but only at the price of making it worse later on.


We might be trying to solve some kind of thinking – the kind of problem that triggers our repressed feelings of existential unease or insecurity – or we might be trying to pleasantly divert or distract ourselves. We might be experiencing our insecurity via an urge to prove ourselves or compete successfully with other people in a similar mind-frame to ourselves; we might be struggling to be accepted or approved of within a specific social context and as a result be thinking either that we’re doing well or not doing well, thinking that we’re either on the way up or on the way down. We might be in some sort of a desire state and thinking about how great it would be to get our hands on the longed-for goal, or we might be thinking about what strategy would be best for helping us succeed in our aim. We might be in an angry frame of mind and thinking about how thoroughly rotten someone is and how they richly deserve for something bad to happen to them (or we might be thinking about all the ways in which we could play an active part in making sure that something bad happens to them). We might be in an envious state of mind and be thinking about how someone has got something that we would very much like to have, or we could be paranoid and be thinking about external forces are working against us. Whatever way we’re thinking it always comes down to the same thing however – we’re trying to get hold of something that it’s just not possible to get hold of, we’re trying to get hold of something that just doesn’t exist.


This brings us to one last way of looking at why thought is suffering, why to think is to suffer. We’re looking for ‘the good thing’ but the thing is that we are looking for the good thing because of the way we think that it will validate us. If it didn’t validate us then that wouldn’t be any good at all! It’s not really the external value we care about, that we’re interested in, but the way in which that external value will say something about us, do something for us.


We’re looking to validate ourselves, as we have just said. But the thing about this is that it just isn’t ever going to happen – we can’t ever be validated in the way that we want to be. We’re grasping for the impossible. The conditioned self (which is the problem-solving self, the analytical self, the thinking or rational self) can’t ever be validated because ultimately it just doesn’t exist. Ultimately therefore, our thinking is driven by the unreal conditioned self’s hunger to be real (in the sense of being ‘permanent’ or ‘non-arbitrary’), and this is the root cause of our suffering…









Escaping From Ourselves


How can the tyranny of a fixed repeating pattern ever bring itself to an end? The answer to this question is simply that it can’t. The pattern has no way to bring itself to an end – whatever the pattern does is the pattern and so there’s no way out from this. How can the pattern do ‘no pattern’? How can the pattern do ‘the absence of itself’ when everything it does is itself?


This is the key psychological insight. It is the key psychological insight and it is also the one thing we never see to get. Even our most highly qualified psychologists don’t get it. We are all suffering from the same type of mental blindness. We are after all always trying out new ways of ‘ending the pattern with that same pattern’ or ‘changing the pattern on the basis of that same pattern’. We never tire of looking for a ‘new, improved way’ of changing the pattern on the basis of that same pattern and we never give up the hope that one day we will find it…


The pattern that we’re talking about here is the pattern which is our everyday mind, the pattern of our habitual way of seeing things and doing things. This is the pattern that we’re stuck in, the pattern that we’re always trying to escape from (either consciously or unconsciously). It’s our very limited ‘way of being in the world’. Another name for this fixed repeating limited pattern that we’re always trying to escape from is the self.


Saying something like this tends to sound rather strange. It sounds strange because for one thing we don’t see ourselves as being ‘stuck’ in the self, and for another thing we don’t see ourselves as always trying to escape from it! This awareness would of course be incongruent with the whole general accepted idea of ‘the self’ – if I am who I am (which presumably I am) then how can I be ‘stuck’ in who I am? If I am always trying to escape from the self then this would imply that the self is in its nature ‘lacking in freedom’. If it wasn’t lacking in freedom then why would I need to escape from it? And yet who sees the self as being a ‘fundamentally unfree situation’?


A ‘fundamentally unfree situation’ is however exactly what the self is – the self is a pattern of perceiving, thinking and behaving that we are stuck with, it is a fixed and repetitive pattern of seeing the world that we can’t do anything about. How after all can we do something about the way we see the world? Suppose I don’t like the way I see the world, suppose that it is causing lots of difficulties for me, lots of problems for me, and I am trying on this account to change it. Any way that I try to change my way of seeing the world (or my way of thinking about the world) is inevitably going to be guided by that same modality of seeing, by that same modality of thinking. Whatever I do to try to change my way of seeing the world is that same way of seeing the world because I simply don’t have anything else to go on. This constraint (or ‘blinkeredness’) is the very problem in the first place!


What I understand the problem to be is a function of my way of seeing the world, just as my understanding of what constitutes ‘the solution’ to the problem is a function of my way of seeing the world. How can I escape from my way of understanding the world on the basis of this same understanding? How is this ever going to work? My way of seeing the world (or thinking about the world) is behind me, not in front of me. It’s always behind me. It’s my blind-spot. It determines me, I don’t determine it. If I get caught up in trying to change myself then I am as Alan Watts says like a puppy feverishly chasing its own tail…


This is why we are saying that the self is an ‘unfree’ sort of a thing. I might – in the general run of things – think that I am the boss, that I am the one who is in control, but how can I be the boss, how can I be the one who is in control, if something else that I am not able to see is controlling the way I understand the world? What kind of a joke is that? It is my pattern of seeing the world (or thinking about the world) that is really in control. The pattern is in control. As we have said, it determines me rather than the other way around and so how can I possibly say that I am free?


There are two basic ways in which we can (try to) get around this fundamentally ‘stuck’ or ‘unfree’ situation. One is to say that that we agree with the position that we don’t have any choice about so that the problem of us having no choice in the matter never gets to be highlighted, never gets to come to our attention. In this case I say that I am not controlled to see things in the particular rigid way that I do, but I actually want to see things this way. This is my way of seeing things and to hell with any other way! Or as we could also say, this way is the right way and all other ways are the wrong way. This ploy allows me to feel good about being confined to the particular pattern of being in the world that I am confined to – in this way my lamentable lack of freedom is turned into a virtue! I am validating my own unfree position…


This is like Robert Anton Wilson’s joke about the fiddler who torments his wife by playing the same note on his violin over and over again day after day, week after week, month after month. “Can’t you play other notes as well,” she finally asks in desperation, “like other violinists do?” Her husband snorts in derision. “Those other guys are still looking for the right note,” he answers, “I’ve found it…”


Validating our prison is one way that we have of solving the problem; the other way is to make ourselves feel better about being stuck by continually imagining that things are improving (or could improve for us if we play our cards right). This is ‘unreal escaping’. We make ourselves feel better about being stuck in the prison that we are stuck in by investing our hopes in plans and strategies to improve our situation, to upgrade our situation. This is of course something that we do just about the whole time – every time we get excited by some goal (or by the prospect of obtaining some goal) we are trying to ‘better our situation’. Anytime we hope anything we are investing our emotional wellbeing in the notion that we can better our situation. This sort of thing (having hopes about this, that or the other) is an inherent part of everyday life, after all. We wouldn’t see anything peculiar about it at all…


In one way we could of course say that it is perfectly legitimate to strive towards improving our situation. In order to stay alive and healthy in this world we have to keep on making goals to ‘benefit’ ourselves. This is a rather big part of life. This is ‘the survival game’. A lot of what we do is not orientated towards straightforward ‘survival needs’ however – there is another type of agenda that has crept into the picture (without us seeing that it has) and this ‘sneaky agenda’ can be seen in terms of ‘the need to assuage our unacknowledged existential insecurity’. If I am hungry because I haven’t eaten for 24 hours then this is a straightforward biological need but if I want to be seen in a particular fancy restaurant hobnobbing with the rich and famous then this is of course another thing altogether! If I need to get a place to live so that I can stay warm and protect myself from the elements then this is one thing, but if I want to have an address in a good neighbourhood then this also is another thing altogether.


Instead of saying that the ‘secret agenda’ that creeps in has to do with our need to compensate for our unacknowledged insecurity about who we are or what we are about, we could also say that it has to do with augmenting our self-image. We want to look good, both to ourselves and to others. Alternatively (and equivalently) we could say that the secret agenda is to change or improve our ‘inner state’, which is to say, the state of being that we happen to be existing in. Thus, if we are feeling some sort of ‘unconscious existential pain’ (such as dissatisfaction, insecurity, alienation, fear, loneliness, boredom, ennui, meaninglessness, frustration, sadness, etc) then this unacknowledged mental pain gets deflected onto our everyday goals, whatever they may happen to be, and it makes these goals ‘call out to us’ much more than they would otherwise do. It makes these goals ‘shine like gold’; it makes them especially appealing, especially attractive, especially motivating…


What we are talking about here is the most basic of psychological mechanisms, the mechanism in which –

the practical, ‘down-to-earth’ meaning of what we’re doing gets hijacked with another, unacknowledged type of a meaning – the type of meaning that speaks to our hidden insecurities, frustrations and fears.

What is actually happening here – as we would know if we paid proper attention to ourselves – is that we’re trying to remedy the unacknowledged pain of our inner hollowness by chasing after this goal and that goal in the outside world. We’re keeping ourselves constantly busy by ‘chasing after illusions’ in other words, and the reason that the illusions are as attractive to us as they are is precisely because we’re not attending to the pain of the hollowness where it really belongs. That’s why we’re seeing it (the pain of the ‘inner absence’ or ‘inner deficit’) where is doesn’t belong, in ‘reversed form’, as glitteringly attractive promises in the outside world. We’re attracted to the wonderfully seductive promise of our inner deficit being ‘magically made good’, only this is happening in an entirely unconscious way.


What we’re really trying to do here – when it comes right down to it – is to escape from the narrow dusty little pigeon-hole which is our way of seeing the world, our way of thinking about the world, our way of being in the world. When we try to ‘improve our situation’ what we’re really trying to do is to escape from the painfully narrow mind-set that we’re permanently trapped in. When we’re attracted to a goal, energized by a goal, motivated by a goal, then what we’re being attracted to, energized by, motivated by is the prospect of escaping from our habitual pattern of seeing things, our habitual way of being in the world, only the limited modality of understanding that we’re trying to escape from doesn’t – by its very nature – allow us to see this.


This is where the irony comes in. What’s leading us on and on, and keeping us forever glued to the narrow track that we’re running along on, is the lure (or ‘carrot’) that is continually being dangled in front of our noses by the over-valent purposeful mind. What’s causing us the pain (i.e. the narrow, concrete and impossibly rigid thinking mind) is the very thing that we using to try to escape from the pain, and so the same basic situation is perpetuating itself over and over again, with no end in sight. This is of course the way it is with all addictions – the cure is the very thing that brings about the need for the cure in the first place. The cause of the pain and the cure for the pain are one and the same thing. As Homer Simpson’s toast goes – “Here’s to alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”


The fixed and repetitive pattern which is the thinking mind is like an impossibly narrow corset into which we keep on squeezing ourselves. This is in itself only how thinking works (thinking being a narrow, logical sort of a thing, an abstract domain with no actual space or freedom in it, only the goal or solution that we are aiming at). When we’re caught in the situation of thinking all the time however, with one thought forever following on the heels of the next and then the next and then the next, then this means that there is never any space or freedom left to us…


This narrow, rigid way of being in the world (in which there is no space or freedom but only the hope of obtaining the goal) then becomes the only thing we know. It becomes the only reality we know – the only reality we are capable of knowing. We ‘identify’ with this narrow, rigid, constrained pattern of being in the world and we think that it is ‘who we are’. We protect it, we defend it, we promote it and feel good about it. We also feel correspondingly bad about it, but one way or the other we’re stuck with it. We can’t deliberately ‘bring it to an end’ and free ourselves from its pointless tyranny (which is ‘the pointless tyranny of the old’) because – as we have been saying – our attempts to free ourselves from the pattern simply embroils us in it all the more….


And yet this does not mean that we cannot become free from the pattern that we are so painfully (and pointlessly) stuck in. We just need to find the courage to see it for what it really is rather than constantly validating it to ourselves and others. We just need to observe the fact of our own constant self-validating, and this will straightaway give the game away! Similarly, we just need to impartially and compassionately observe the absurdity of our own constant ‘false escaping’, the constant ‘self-deception’ by which we keep on imagining that we can make our situation better by assiduously jumping through this hoop or that hoop, by doggedly chasing after this goal or that goal. Once we find the courage and the curiosity to see what is actually going on (the courage or curiosity to ‘see through the game’) then the prison dissolves all by itself. We don’t have to ‘do’ anything….

The Prison of Purposefulness


The cruellest prison we could ever find ourselves in is the prison of purposefulness. What could be crueller than this? The funny thing is though that we are more than likely to have very little (if any) appreciation of the truth of this statement. We don’t generally have the necessary perspective on the matter to appreciate just how inimical this situation would be. We don’t tend to have the imagination to see the sheer horror of ‘having to do everything on purpose’.


We don’t – on the whole – appreciate the freedom of not having to do everything on purpose! Collectively, we certainly don’t appreciate it – we’re full of talk about how great it is to be in control, how great it is to set goals for ourselves, how great it is to have this skill or that skill, skills which will allow us to be more effectively in control, more certain of being able to obtain our goals. There’s never any talk of how dreadful a situation it would be to have to be in control the whole time, to have to be doing everything ‘on purpose’ the whole time.


We don’t give this particular scenario very much (if any) thought, despite the fact that we are constantly pushing in this direction, despite the fact that we are constantly trying to maximize ‘being in control’. It’s as if we think that the place we’re trying so hard to get to (the place where we are in ‘total control’ of everything that happens to us) is something wonderful, something incredibly beneficial, something that is going to make us very happy indeed. We do think this. This is the message that is coming at us from all sides… There is never any talk about how dreadful a situation it is to always have to be in control the whole time, to always have to be doing everything on purpose the whole time. We are – as a culture – constantly harping on about how great it is to have an increased means of control, but we have no imagination at all for how thoroughly miserable a condition it is to be addicted to control, which is exactly what we are.


If we gave the matter any consideration at all we would have reason to question this assumption, question this message. We just haven’t properly understood what this much-desired state of ‘being totally in control’ actually means. What it means is that I can’t ever do anything, say anything, without first having to decide to do it, without first having to decide to say it, without first having to have the ‘purpose’ in mind. Nothing comes naturally, everything has to be thought of first, and then having had the thought I the next thing is that I have to turn it into action. This is essentially a sterile situation – nothing comes naturally and so I have to cover up for this ‘lack of spontaneity’ by inventing stuff, by cranking the handle of the purposeful mind! “Maybe I’ll do this, maybe I’ll do that”, I say to myself. We all find ourselves in this situation from time to time but it doesn’t generally last very long. But suppose I have to be like this all the time? Suppose nothing ever ‘comes naturally’? Suppose I can’t do anything without first have to decide to do it, without first having the idea to do it?


Clearly being stuck in the purposeful modality all the time wouldn’t exactly be a barrel of laughs. Everything is deliberate, planned, calculated. It is as if I’m reading life from a script. I am reading life from a script – the script of my rational mind, the script of my thoughts. If you saw me going around in this way you would notice it – you would see the purposefulness! I would appear wooden or mechanical, somehow lacking in grace or fluidity. If you were at all observant you would notice that something is amiss (or that ‘something is missing’). What would be missing is life itself – that little insignificant detail which we always leave out of our calculations when we are in purposeful mode!
Life isn’t something that comes out of a script. It isn’t something that proceeds from a formula, from a recipe, from a method. I can’t have the idea, “I know – I’ll go and live life!” and then follow up on this. I can have the idea alright but it won’t get me anywhere. It doesn’t work like this – I can’t live life on purpose because I’m can’t make life into a goal and the reason I can’t make life into a goal is because I don’t have the faintest idea what it is! Life isn’t something I can define or formulate. I can’t ‘plan to live life’. Or rather I can plan to live but when I do this isn’t living – it’s just the thinking mind’s version of living! It’s a very crude version of living. I’m grasping clumsily at something that always slips out of my fingers…


We can’t live life on purpose because life isn’t a construct of the mind. Or we could say that we can’t live life on purpose because – as Alan Watts says – life hasn’t got a purpose. To say that life has a purpose is to bring it down to the level of the purpose we have in mind for it, and our purposes are only dead mechanical constructs. What would life need a purpose for? That would be like saying that a small child ‘needs a purpose’. Only adults think that they need a purpose and that is because they are out of step with life, because they are living the thinking mind’s clumsy and graceless version of life. As over-rational adults we feel that we need a purpose because our ‘purposes’ are our substitute for life….


Purposes exist in the future and the future is a projection of the thinking mind. When we’re purposeful we’re living in a world that is entirely made up of ‘our ideas’, in other words. Life on the other hand is what’s happening now. When we let the thinking mind take charge of life and start planning it and regulating it and managing it and so on then we’re missing the present moment entirely. We can’t ‘manage ourselves’ to be in the present moment! We can’t control ourselves to be ‘in the flow of life’ because controlling automatically takes us out of the flow. Everything we think (and everything we do on the basis of thought) takes us out of the flow, and we think all the time! Thinking is there (either in the foreground or the background) almost continuously, like a TV in an adjoining room that no one ever bothers to turn off, and so how are we ever going to be in the present moment (given that the function of thought is to take us out of the present moment)?


Thinking is always trying to ‘take charge of the process of life’. That’s what it does. Thinking takes charge by being purposeful – by aiming at things it says are good and trying to avoid the things it says are bad. Its purposes are its own constructs and it doesn’t trust anything that isn’t its own construct. Thinking doesn’t trust uncharted territory because uncharted territory isn’t one of its constructs. Thinking doesn’t trust uncertainty because uncertainty isn’t a construct! Uncertainty means that the thinking mind has to let go of the reins and this is of course the one thing that it doesn’t want to do!


Even if we were to understand that controlling ourselves and being purposeful the whole time is not a fruitful thing to do (even if we wanted to embrace uncertainty at least to some extent on our lives) the thinking mind will inevitably try to take charge of this process. It will get excited about the idea – the same that it gets excited by all of its ideas – and it will try to put into practice this new project of ‘letting go’. This will become the new policy, the new concept, the new buzzword. I will think about it, talk about it, enthuse about it. Maybe I will read a book about it or go on a course. I will make plans to instigate letting go. But none of this will bring me any closer to the actual reality of ‘letting go’ – it will actually take me further away than ever because all of this mental activity is only serving to feed the thinking mind and this thinking mind is the very thing that stands between me and letting go!


Somehow – as always – the purposeful mind has taken charge and inveigled itself into equation. It has – as it always does – sneakily made itself indispensible for the process. “You want to let go of the thinking mind?” says the thinking mind, “Great, let me take care of that for you. let me handle that. Let me be the project manager…” This is like Krishnamurti’s joke:

You may remember the story of how the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street, when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket. The friend said to the devil, “What did that man pick up?” “He picked up a piece of Truth,” said the devil. “That is a very bad business for you, then,” said his friend. “Oh, not at all,” the devil replied, “I am going to let him organize it.”

The simple truth is that life begins when we let go of our thinking, when we let go of our goals, when we let go of our purposes, when we let go of our plans, hopes and dreams (loathe as we are to do this). Or as we could also say, life begins when we let go of our idea of it; when we no longer imagine that we know what it is, or what it should be. Whatever we may happen to think about life, the one thing we may be sure of is that this is missing the point! That’s just the thinking mind doing its thing. That’s just the thinking mind trying to name everything, define everything, explain everything, control everything. That’s just the thinking mind trying to ‘take charge’, as it always does….


Thinking strangles life. This is the point that we seem so remarkably resistant to seeing. We never seem to get it, no matter how much suffering thinking brings us. If you want to spoil life, just try thinking about it! Try regulating it, try controlling it. Try planning for it. Try deliberately trying to ‘do it’. If you really want to take every last bit of joy out of life, set about ‘managing’ it! If that’s what you want then place life under the jurisdiction of the grey bureaucracy of thought and you may consider the job done…


There is only one beneficiary when the thinking mind is placed in charge of life and that is the thinking mind itself. This is a question of ‘jobs for the boys’. Unnecessary admin posts are set up. Pointless hoops are created that we all have to jump through. Boxes are created that we have to get ticked. Policies and procedures are put in place that we have to satisfy. The entire unholy bureaucracy of thought is created and once this bureaucracy gets a hold then the one thing we can be sure of is that it’s never going to let go. Not voluntarily, at any rate. We might as well put Count Dracula and his cronies in charge of the Nation Blood Transfusion Service and expect him to voluntarily relinquish the post! We might as well expect the government to vote itself out of power once it has gained it! We might as well expect a multinational corporation to voluntarily disband itself and give all its ill-gained billions to the poor!


The reason we are so extraordinarily resistant to seeing the life-denying nature of the runaway thinking mind is of course because we are always seeing everything from its point of view. We’re not seeing things clearly at all – we’re seeing everything skew-ways! The thinking mind is – we might say – a bias and when we see everything from the point of view of a bias then we ‘can’t see the bias as a bias’. We can’t see the bias at all – it is profoundly invisible to us. It’s like a guy who is highly prejudiced about something – he can’t see that his prejudiced! He just thinks that he’s ‘right’! The distortion that thought introduces is always invisible to thought, therefore – thought necessarily assumes its own position to be the correct one. When we think about things everything becomes ‘black and white’ and the one thing we are guaranteed not to get is that the clear-cut ideas of ‘right and wrong’ don’t actually exist anywhere outside of our own taken-for-granted thinking mind…


Operating on the basis of an ‘invisible bias’ (a bias we see as being ‘normal’ or ‘right’) creates problems. It creates a whole load of glitches that we then have to try to solve by using the very same invisible bias that gave rise to them in the first place! This is what cybernetic pioneer Gregory Bateson was pointing out way back in the sixties. The more problems come about as a result of our overly rational approach to life the keener we are to vote for the rational mind to take on extra powers for itself in order to ‘deal with the emergency’. The bigger the problem the keener we become we place ourselves under the authority of this mind since fear makes us more gullible, not less! And if this sounds like a familiar story then this should come as no surprise since the macrocosm always reflects the microcosm – what goes on in the outside world reflects what is occurring on the inside. Society is – as David Bohm says – the faithful extension of the system of thought. It’s all the same thing; it’s all the one structure…


What we’re talking about here – in traditional psychological language – is neurosis. Neurosis is where the self-regulatory mechanisms of the thinking mind take over completely and proceed to choke the life out of us. The self-regulatory mechanisms take over and reduce life to a mere chore. There’s a whole bunch of rules and we have to follow them. Life becomes no more than an unremitting unforgiving ‘anxiety-driven’ routine where the only point is to ‘tick the boxes’ that we’re supposed to tick. Then – having done this – the system of thought finds us a whole new lot of boxes to tick. Either this or it’s the same old boxes all over again…


Who doesn’t know what this feels like? In our modern super-advanced technologically triumphant world the incidence of anxiety and depression is increasing all the time. The curve on the graph is going up and up and it shows no sign of slowing down, no matter how many antidepressants we might be taking! According to the World Health Organization depression and anxiety are set to eclipse all other chronic conditions (such as arthritis or cardiovascular disease) as the biggest cause of disability by the year 2050. There is a children’s joke – “If superman is so smart then how come he wears his underpants on the outside of his tights?” In a similar vein, we could ask, “If we’re so damn clever (and we certainly think that we are) then how come we are the most neurotic generation ever to walk the face of this planet?


Actually, of course, the question itself supplies the answer. It is precisely because we are so clever that we are heirs to such a weight of neurotic suffering. We have cleverness coming out of our ears but it doesn’t do us any good! It’s not that ‘cleverness’ is bad news per se, but simply that we can’t live life any better by being clever about it! Life isn’t a puzzle (or a problem) to be solved after all. And it’s not just that our much-vaunted cleverness isn’t doing us any good – it is as we have been saying the very cause of our suffering in the first place.


And true to the pattern that always prevails wherever rationality is involved, we try to cure the problem with the very thing that caused it in the first place! We try to ‘control’ our neurotic symptoms, we drone on and on about ‘managing’ them. We make a goal of not being neurotic. We purposefully set out to free ourselves from the burden of the neurotic suffering that has been caused by our out-of-control purposefulness in the first place. We’re using thought to try to cure ourselves of the sickness that is caused by too much thinking. In a nutshell – we’re trying to escape from the Prison of Purposefulness on purpose!








Trapped In The World Of Duality


When we strain to change our situation (when we make the mental effort to control the way that things are) then we ‘separate the opposites’. When we don’t strain to change things, then the opposites remain unseparated. When the opposites are (apparently) separated then a whole world opens up – the world of duality, which is the world of ‘plus-without-a-minus’ or ‘minus-without-a-plus’.


The perception of ‘plus-without-a-minus’ generates the agreeable mind-state of euphoria, which lures us on from ahead. The perception of ‘minus-without-a-plus’ gives rise to the disagreeable mind-state of dysphoria, which drives us on from behind, like a slave-driver with his whip.


Between the siren-like call of the euphoria beckoning us on from ahead of us and the fearsome whip-cracking of the dysphoria driving us from behind, we are caught on the wheel. How can we resist the siren-call of euphoria, or refrain from running away from the fearful threat of dysphoria when the very way our everyday mind works is to seek the one and avoid the other? It is as if our very constitution yearns to taste the honey-like sweetness of the euphoria and pulls back in dread from the poisoned needle of the dysphoria. It is as if the yearning and the dreading are embedded in us, encoded in us, programmed into us, so that we have no choice but to be deterministically driven this way and that in accordance with whatever external conditions happen to be prevailing.


The yearning for the sweetness and our dread of the sting is not really something that is embedded into us or written in stone in our very constitution, although this is what it feels like. The yearning and the dreading, the hoping and the fearing is written into the nature of the dual (or ‘conditioned’) self which is created when we strain with our thinking to achieve one outcome and avoid the other, complementary one.


This is what the dual self is – it is the yearning for the sweetness of the euphoria and the dreading of the bitterness of the dysphoria. It is made up entirely of wanting – the wanting to obtain the plus and the equal and opposite wanting to avoid the minus. This dual or conditioned self isn’t who we really are, it is simply a construct that we automatically identify with just as soon as we start straining to separate the opposites, just as soon as we start acting on attachment. When we strain to push the opposites apart we instantly bring into existence ‘the world of duality’ – we create the world of duality without seeing that we have created it, and then having created it we get trapped in it…


We get trapped in the world of duality because the only way of seeing things (or thinking about things) is in terms of one opposite versus the other. Seeing things this way is what creates the world of duality and this is also what traps us in it. Polarity is now our basic orientation and we can’t use this orientation to escape itself. We can’t use thinking to escape thinking. We can’t escape our black and white categories by using those same categories. We can’t wash away blood with blood!


The very word ‘escape’ is dualistic – as soon as we use the word we are thinking in terms of ‘escaping versus not-escaping’. We’re thinking in terms of ‘win or lose’. We want to win and we fear losing. We yearn to escape and we dread not escaping and so we’re caught on the wheel of duality – running, running, running, but never getting anywhere. We’re caught in the hamster wheel – the faster we run the faster we have to run. The faster we run the faster we get nowhere.


Running faster isn’t how we get off the hamster wheel! Striving to obtain one outcome and avoid the other complementary one isn’t going to get us off the wheel. Chasing one opposite and fleeing the other isn’t going to get us off the wheel because running after one opposite and fleeing the other IS the wheel!


That’s what straining to separate the opposites is – it’s a spinning wheel, it’s the wheel of samsara. Patrul Rinpoche explains samsara as follows –

The term samsara, the wheel or round of existence, is used here to mean going round and round from one place to another in a circle, like a potter’s wheel, or the wheel of a water mill. When a fly is trapped in a closed jar, no matter where it flies, it can not get out. Likewise, whether we are born in the higher or lower realms, we are never outside samsara.

The world of duality is a wheel and the self which orientates itself in terms of one opposite versus the opposite is running around that wheel. Our lot – when we are identified with the dual self (this self that is driven by the urge to chase euphoria and flee dysphoria) is to be forever imagining that by orientating ourselves towards the positive direction and away from the negative direction we are changing our situation.

Chasing after the plus and running away from the minus isn’t actually any sort of change at all though. It isn’t change at all because the opposites never were separated – they were only separated in our imagination! Plus and minus can’t be separate from each other anymore then ‘front’ and back’ can be – or as Alan Watts says – anymore than ‘buying’ and ‘selling’ can be. Like and dislike, euphoria and dysphoria aren’t really separate either. Who after all likes or dislikes? Who experiences euphoria or dysphoria? The answer to this not-very-difficult riddle is of course the dualistic self.


Liking is the front of the self and disliking is the back and there’s no distance at all between the two. When I think that I am going to get what I like then there is euphoria and when on the other hand I think that I’m not going to get what I like then there is dysphoria. Either way it’s all about what I like, or what I want, which means that it’s all about me. Like and dislike, euphoria and dysphoria couldn’t be closer and yet I keep on thinking that they are separate things. There’s no distance at all between them, but because I think there is the dualistic self keeps spinning around and around like a coin, showing first one face then the other in rapid succession…


When I don’t separate like and dislike then there’s no more euphoria and no more dysphoria. Instead, there is the release from the wheel of illusion, release from the trap of duality, and so instead of the endless sterile repetition of euphoria / dysphoria there is bliss, or ananda. Or as we could also say – when we don’t strain with the thinking mind to try to separate the opposites (which can never really be separated anyway!) then the world of duality never comes into (apparent) existence and so we don’t get trapped in it…

The Creative Universe

Van Gogh

‘Being in the world’ is a completely spontaneous thing – it’s not something we do on purpose, it’s not something we do as part of a plan. We don’t intend to ‘be in the world’ – we just are! Being spontaneous isn’t intentional and neither is this thing that we are calling ‘being in the world’.


This sounds like a perfectly acceptable kind of a thing to say. It is not exactly what we might call ‘controversial’ or hard to understand. On the whole, most people would probably be perfectly happy to go along with this statement. And yet there is a consequence to this that we really don’t tend to think of – a consequence that is very far from being acceptable, a consequence that is most definitely controversial!


The ‘controversial consequence’ that we are talking about here is this – if I am being completely spontaneous then what this means is that I am not there. We’d know this if we paused to reflect on the matter for a moment or two. As we’ve said, anything that is truly spontaneous comes out of us without deliberation, without calculation, without premeditation. That’s what we mean when we say that something is ‘spontaneous’! It means we didn’t intend it; it means that we didn’t say that it should happen. If we tried to intend to be spontaneous then we’d soon find out that this just isn’t how it works!


‘Spontaneity’ is another way of talking about creativity – if I am hit by a sudden burst of creativity and come out with some type of a thing (a poem, a story, a song, an insight, or whatever) as a result of this creative burst then it must be true that I have not intended whatever it is that comes along! Creativity does not come to order, as we all know. It is not an intentional or purposeful act. We’re doing it without knowing what we’re doing; we’re doing it without knowing how we’re doing it! We can go so far as to say that the degree to which I already know what I’m going to come out with is the degree to which it is not creative. To repeat what one already knows – and trot it out again for the hundredth time – is not creativity, it is simply copying! It is mere ‘data-retrieval’, which is what we tend to be taught in school. It’s a mechanical thing, not a creative thing.


When people say – as they tend to – that they did not personally create whatever it was that they had written or composed or thought of, or whatever, this is not false modesty, it is perfectly true! They didn’t personally create it. It just came to them – it simply arrived at the scene in a way that is perfectly mysterious, immaculately incomprehensible. Towards the end of his life the Buddha stated, in answer to a question someone had asked him, “I never taught a thing”.


It is not simply the case that what we call creativity involves material being transcribed from an ‘unconscious’ region of the mind to a region that is more conscious, thereby (apparently) surprising us – that wouldn’t be creativity either, it would just be ‘remembering something that one had forgotten’. Again, that is just copying, that is just ‘data-retrieval’. Creativity means that it is genuinely new, not just apparently new. It is an actual thing, not a mere trick of the light, not some kind of a manoeuvre. Creativity isn’t something that we can ‘explain away’, much as the rational mind – being thoroughly non-creative itself – loves to explain away stuff. Being fundamentally uncreative in its own nature, the thinking mind cannot really appreciate that there is such a thing. In modern scientific terms, what we are talking about here is emergence. An emergent pattern is one that is not inherent in the one that preceded it – it is not prefigured, there is no ‘causal mechanism’ that we can point to. It used to be thought – back in the days of the Mechanist / Newtonian paradigm – that nothing could ever happen without a cause. In this view, nothing can happen unless what is to happen already exists (is already ‘prefigured’) in a prior state of the system. ‘If it wasn’t already there, then it can’t come into being’, is the motto of the Mechanistic paradigm. The mechanistic paradigm isn’t ‘wrong’, it just doesn’t represent the whole story. As Fritjof Capra says in The Turning Point (1982) –

Each theory is valid for a certain range of phenomena.

On one level the universe is mechanical (or deterministic), but on another, subtler level, chance enters the picture in a creative way. This isn’t chance as we normally understand it, however (chance as the rational mind understands it) – it isn’t mere ‘randomness’ but something more akin to serendipity where an unpredictable fluctuation pushes the system onto a higher level of organization. Evolution is a perfect example of this. Evolution, according to Nobel Prize winning biologist Stuart Kauffman (1993),

…is not just “chance caught on the wing”. It is not just a tinkering of the ad hoc, of bricolage, of contraption. It is emergent order honored and honed by selection.

Another example of emergence is the Mandelbrot Set – a recently discovered mathematical object sometimes poetically known as ‘God’s Thumbprint’. The Mandelbrot Set isn’t something that can be coded for and then replicated any time we want by faithfully copying out this code. Even if the entire physical universe were to be turned into code it still wouldn’t be enough to code for the M Set – it wouldn’t even be enough to code for a billionth part of the M Set! The Mandelbrot Set comes into existence as a result of emergence not copying and that’s the only way it can come into existence. The universe itself supplies the information (the order) to create this object, via multiple iterations (i.e. feedback loops) carried out by a computer, not some all determining literal formula. To appreciate how the Mandelbrot Set isn’t something we could code for, all we need to do is spend a minute or two watching one of those YouTube videos showing a ‘deep zoom’ of the object under consideration. This isn’t a predictable orderly logical pattern – this is a monster! This is what emergence is all about and it is very clearly beyond the narrow remit of the Mechanistic Paradigm.

What we’re trying to show here in this discussion of ‘emergence versus logical/mechanical determinism’ is that the fixed formula, the causal agent, the ‘controller’ who gets things to happen the way he says they say they should happen isn’t as all-important as we like to think it is! That’s just our way of thinking about it. We attach an importance, a glamour, to the controller, to the so-called ‘causal agent’ (i.e. the one who gets things to happen) that just isn’t there. That’s just the way we want to look at things. That’s just the game we’re playing. It’s a convention we have adopted, without paying any attention to the fact that we have adopted it. Alan Watts gives the example of the way we say “It is raining” – the impression given by this sentence is of course that there is an ‘it’ there somewhere that is doing the raining (a causal agent). On reflection of course we know that this simply isn’t true. There’s no ‘it’ that is doing the raining! The ‘it’ in question is a made-up thing, it’s a ‘fictional hero’! Robert Anton Wilson, following Alfred Korzybski (inventor of E-Prime), accuses the much-abused little word ‘is’ of the same fault –

Standard English [statements] all implicitly or explicitly assume the medieval view that has been called “Aristotelian essentialism” or “naive realism.” In other words, they assume a world made up of block-like entities with indwelling “essences” or spooks or “ghosts in the machine.”… E-Prime recasts these sentences into a form isomorphic to modern science by first abolishing the “is” of Aristotelian essence and then reformulating each observation in terms of signals received and interpreted by a body (or instrument) moving in space-time.


Relatively, quantum mechanics, large sections of general physics, perception psychology, sociology, linguistics, modern math, anthropology, ethology and several other sciences make perfect sense when put into the software of E-Prime. Each of these sciences generates paradoxes, some bordering on “nonsense” or “gibberish”, if you try to translate them back into the software of Standard English.


Concretely, “The electron is a wave” employs the Aristotelian “is” and thereby introduces us to the false-to-experience notion that we can know the indwelling “essence” of the electron. …

Just as there is no ‘it’ that rains (and no indwelling essences such as might be assumed by the word ‘is’) we can say that there is no controller, no reified self or ego which sits proudly in the driving seat, pressing various buttons, pulling this lever or that lever, and viciously gunning the throttle whenever needed. The controlling self is a fictional entity just as the ‘it’ is, just as the ‘assumed indwelling essence’ is. There’s no noun, there’s only a verb. Where everything is flow, there is no ‘one who makes it flow’, no one who controls or regulates the flow, no formula saying ‘how the flow should go’…


When we say something like “Everything is the flow, and there is no rule saying that there should be a flow or how it should flow” then what we’re saying is that everything is creativity. We’re saying that everything is ‘a spontaneous happening’. There is no controller in it, no self. Action doesn’t come out of a plan, or out of someone who has a plan. But suppose we insist that there is a controller, that there is a concrete executive self that intends things to be this way or that. And actually we don’t have to go too far out on a limb imagining what this proposed situation might be like because it’s pretty much what we do all the time. We are always insisting that there is a concrete self that gets to be centre stage and say (like a sergeant major on the parade ground) what must happens and what musn’t happen.


We insist that there is a controller with all of our heavy-handed purposeful activity; we insist that there is a self with all of our heavy-handed literal statements about the world. Every time we get serious about something, driven by something, humourless about something then we are insisting on a reified or concrete self. This is what we’re at. This is our game – we’re insisting that the uncreative self and its world of goals and literal descriptions is real! But if everything is creativity, if everything is a spontaneous happening then what does this say about the humourless self with all of its heavy-handed controlling, with all of its concrete goals and dogmatic literal beliefs? If the essence of everything is ‘flow’, then where does this leave the static self and its purposeful behaviour output? How do we reconcile the repetitive uncreative block-like self (the self which actually has to deny creativity in order to maintain its tight grip on the proceedings) with a reality that is in its very essence creative?


This is a crucial question: if reality is at heart nothing other than pure creativity, pure spontaneity, then what does this say about the static self and all its self-referential endeavours? Putting the question this way of course gives us the answer on a plate – the static or abstract self and its endeavours are unreal. If reality is pure creativity, pure spontaneous ‘happening’, then the self and the world which it creates for itself are like a ‘photographic negative of being’ – the self and the world which it relates to constitute an absence rather than a presence, it constitutes ‘an absence which represents itself as a actual presence’.


This inversion of viewpoint is simply a matter of convention – we can look at the world from the POV of absence (from the POV of the static or abstract framework) or we can look at it from the perspective of being. We just ‘flip over’ into seeing the world this way and then once we have done this (once we have flipped over, once we have adopted this convention) then everything looks perfectly legitimate, everything looks to be ‘as it should be’. This is like one of those visual puzzles that we can equally well see both ways. It is like for example that familiar visual puzzle that looks like a young girl when seen one way and an old lady when seen the other. When we look at the image one way then we can’t for the life of us see it the other way, and vice versa. This is called ‘perceptual competition’ – the one view excludes the other.

two faces

What we have here therefore are two mutually exclusive worlds that exist side-by-side with each other and which – at the same time – are nevertheless the very same thing. So in the same way when we adopt the convention that says that the abstract framework is the way to look at things then the world of flow disappears from view, and when we drop the abstract framework then the world that the framework showed us gets revealed as being entirely unreal. We can look at the world from the static standpoint of ‘absence taken as being’, or from the perspective of being, and in this way it is as if there are two worlds existing side-by-side, two worlds that exclude each other…


This naturally enough tends to come across as a rather strange suggestion. And yet we can relate to it in an intuitive kind of a way – the statement “If we control we lack being and if we have being we don’t need to control” would resonate strongly with most of us on an intuitive level. We intuitively know that when we’re ‘hollow’ then we feel the need to control more (or be more emphatic in what we are saying) in order to make up for the lack of substance we can’t help feeling within. ‘Empty barrels make the most noise’, as the saying has it.


When we consider how we are controlled so regularly by desire in our day-to-day lives, how we are driven by this hunger and that hunger, so that it feels as if we are always trying to fill some hole or other deep inside us, then the suggestion that the everyday self is at root an absence rather than a presence doesn’t sound like such an odd one after all. Pioneer American psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that most of our day-to-day motivations are of the deficit variety, which is to say, they arise out of a deep-down sense that we’re lacking in something, and this sense of deficiency (which we aren’t really fully conscious of) is what is driving us in most of what we do. It drives our heavy-handed purposeful activity, our ‘dogmatism’, our ‘fanaticism’. We experience a deficiency and we need to make this deficiency good; we need – by effective purposeful action – to make it not a deficiency!


From the point of view of the biological side of things, this type of motivation is of course perfectly sensible – I am deficient in water so I need to drink; I am deficient in food and so I need to eat; I am deficient in a mate, so I need (if I am a sexual rather than an asexual organism) to find a partner, and so on. From a psychological perspective however (and this is something that we don’t tend to appreciate) D-Type motivation is not a helpful or practical thing. In our everyday ‘base-line’ mode of functioning we are very often driven by perceived deficiencies of one sort or another which – when we act on them – actually become painfully exacerbated rather than relieved!


For example, I feel insecure and I act so as to compensate for this sense of insecurity but this – as any psychotherapist could tell you – compounds and aggravates my deep-down insecurity. Or if I concentrate on amassing lots of money in order to compensate for my deep-down sense of ‘inner impoverishment’ then I find that I get more inwardly impoverished than ever! If I feel the need to exert power over others (which is a very basic motivation, as Alfred Adler pointed out) then establishing this power doesn’t make the need go away (for example, as hunger will go away when we eat enough) – it intensifies it. The more I control, the more I feel that I need to control. If I am angry and I act on the basis of that anger then the anger is fuelled, if I am jealous and I act out that jealousy, then the jealousy gets more of a grip on me than ever. Any unhappy inner state that I am in will be intensified by my acting it out, rather than just allowing it to be there. These are hungers that can never be satiated, these are itches that only get worse the more I scratch them!


The other possibility, says Maslow, is that we act out of being rather than deficiency – we act out of a sense of ‘overflowing inner sufficiency’ rather than a sense of ‘there not being enough’. We act out of our Wholeness, not out of our lack, our ‘partial-ness’. This is B-motivation, which is not a compulsive, driven sort of a thing as deficiency motivations always are. It is an expression of our inner freedom, not of our inner ‘lack of freedom’!


The reason we have inner freedom is simply because we are not insisting that we are ‘the reified controller’, the ‘one who says how things have to be’. We are stepping down from this position of ‘false authority’ – which we never really had in the first place. The controlling self-concept (the ‘me’) lets go of the power it never really had in the first place, and then our inner sufficiency is returned to us. We let go of the illusion of the self-contained executive self and we recover our essential being – we then become one with the Creative Universe…







The Gift of Anxiety


Anxiety is a very misunderstood kind of a thing. We see it as being a problem, when really it is a teacher! Anxiety is a teacher and it teaches us something very important – it teaches us who we really are!


Straightaway when we hear this there tends to be a problem and that problem is that we almost always think that we already know very well ‘who we are really are’, and so on this account we don’t feel that we need anyone or anything to come along and teach us otherwise. The very idea that we don’t already know who we are comes across as being ridiculous, it comes across as being totally absurd. This however is because we have made a rather big assumption which we’re just not paying any attention to. Somehow, in our culture, it is assumed that ‘knowing who you really are’ is something that comes very easily – as easily as falling off a log in fact. This must be the case since everyone we meet automatically ‘knows who they are’, regardless of how much work they might (or might not) have put into uncovering the mystery. The way we are brought up to see it is that knowing who you are isn’t a difficult thing at all, but simply a formality, the same way we might know our national insurance number or address. It’s not considered a big deal, no matter what the philosophers of olden times might have said to the contrary! Because we believe that knowing our true identity isn’t a big deal (and that everyone automatically knows it, so to speak), the notion that anxiety could have a valuable function in helping us to learn (or perhaps remember) who we are doesn’t really make a hell of a lot of sense to us, and this is putting it mildly!


The thing is that when I think that I know ‘who I am’ all I really know is what I have been told or conditioned to believe about myself and this – very obviously, when we state it like this – isn’t the same thing at all. Knowing ‘who you are supposed to be in a game’ isn’t the same as knowing who you really are – knowing who you are in the game is just a matter of learning a role, it’s trivial. Thinking that you know ‘who you are’ because you believe what you’ve been told isn’t just ‘not quite the same’ as knowing who you really are – it’s the very antithesis of this. Very obviously, believing you are ‘who you’ve been told you are’ prevents you knowing ‘who you really are’…


The reason that anxiety manifests as such an intractable problem to us is because is because we are already so very sure that we know who we are. Or we could say, the reason that anxiety is such an intractable problem is because the lesson that it is teaching us is one that we are extremely resistant to learning. This lesson is the lesson in life we least want to learn; we are – it seems – so very resistant to learning it that we would rather put up with any amount of suffering rather than do so! The more resistant we are to seeing the truth, we might say, the more of an absolute ‘negative’ anxiety will be experienced as being, and it is pretty much undeniable that we experience anxiety as an absolute negative – we experience anxiety when it comes as an out-and-out curse, a curse with no good side to it at all.


So the reason anxiety is such a problem to us is because we really don’t want to know who we are. This is why we suffer so much. It is in fact no exaggeration to say that the thing we are most reluctant to learn in life (and using the word ‘reluctant’ is putting it far too mildly) is who we actually are.


On the face of it this sounds very strange – how could it possibly be the case that the thing we are most resistant to learning is who we are? What kind of a crazy idea is this? This is – admittedly – not the kind of idea that we tend to come across very often (if at all) in mainstream culture. We don’t come across it in the study of psychology either – there are all sorts of models, all sorts of theories that will be covered in a course on the psychology of personality but the theory that our single greatest fear is discovering who we really are is not one that sounds immediately familiar. Actually, it sounds very unfamiliar – so unfamiliar in fact that we would be unlikely to take it very seriously! And yet as an idea it isn’t entirely unheard of – it has a powerful resonance outside of the mainstream theories of psychology. The philosopher Alan Watts has explicitly referred to this curious state of affairs (the state of affairs in which we don’t want to know who we really are) in his book The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, the thesis of which is that the Number One (unspoken) social rule is that we should not be allowed to have any clue regarding our true identity and that we should all collude in covering it up as much as we possibly can by taking up some sort of prescribed role. As Alan Watts says –

Our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing — with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized. The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.

The one thing we are never supposed to go into (on pain of total social exclusion) is the question of who we really are under the opaque façade of who we are conventionally supposed to be, who we are told we are, who we habitually understand ourselves to be. It’s not of course that anyone explicitly addresses the issue, or in any way acknowledges that there is or might be an issue, but rather its something that we all just take for granted – that we all are who we think we are, that we all are who we understand each other to be. The very thought that we might not be, the thought that there might be some sort of conspiracy of silence going on here regarding ‘who we really are’ (and what life might really about) sounds totally ridiculous. We’re far too adult, far too hard-headed to tolerate any kind of airy-fairy talk like that. That just sounds plain silly to us.


The thing about a ‘conspiracy of silence’ – if we agree for the time being that there might be such a thing – is that if we all agree to pretend that whatever it is doesn’t exist (or isn’t an issue), and then we also agree to pretend that we didn’t ever make such an agreement. This of course means that if you ever do raise the issue (if you ever do suggest that there might be an issue here worth raising) then people will simply look at you strangely – whoever you’re talking to will look at you with that particular look on their faces that lets you know that there must be something wrong with you for coming out with such strange stuff. You will be made to feel that you are being ridiculous, and on the wider scale of things, you will be excluded from any ‘serious discourse’. So even though Alan Watts wrote the book The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are the ideas in it never reached the mainstream and never gets mentioned in any course in social psychology. This, after all, is what happens when you try to bring up something that is taboo, something that has already been decided to be ‘not a subject’ or ‘not an issue’. No one takes any notice of what you’re saying.


What we have collectively done – and this is fairly obvious once we get to thinking about it – is to make a very big assumption about ‘who we are’ and about ‘what life is all about’, and then we have rushed ahead without ever looking back. We aren’t interested in questioning the assumptions that we jumped to on the outset, we’re interested in what happens when we proceed on the basis of these assumptions. Looking at the assumption undermines the whole exercise that we are collectively engaged in, and inasmuch as we are all committed to the exercise (which simply equals ‘the type of life that we are all busy leading’) we don’t want to go spoiling the whole thing. And anyone who does want to go back and start looking at the flimsiness of our ‘starting off point’ is going to be very thoroughly excluded from the public discourse. That is the game we are playing after all, and this is how the game works.


Sociologists Berger and Luckman made this key point in their work The Social Construction of Reality – the only way to create any social structure (and the idea of ‘who we are’ and what ‘life is about’ is a social structure) is to pull a few rules or stipulations out of a hat, and then do a kind of a turnaround and say that we didn’t arbitrarily arrive at the rules or stipulations in question, but that they were there all along. We say that the rules are self-evident, that they were always there, or perhaps that God appeared in the form of a burning bush and dictated them to Moses, or something like that. Whatever way we do it we make those rules, those stipulations unquestionable – we make it so that if anyone does question them then it becomes clear to everyone that the problem is with them and not the rules! This is a type of conspiracy – it is a conspiracy of silence regarding the flimsiness of the foundation regarding the collective endeavour that we are all engaged in, the collective story of what it is we are all about, what life is supposed to be, who we are supposed to be, etc. Really what we’re talking about here is game-playing – a game is where we pick a bunch of rules at random and then act as if they weren’t picked at random, as if the rules ‘simply have to be there’ and that is that. We have to pretend that we aren’t free to question the rules or else the game just won’t work. ‘Not questioning the rules’ is what games are all about!


So we can say that the conspiracy of silence that we have been talking about is a necessity if we are to have any social structure to work with, but the only thing here is that the structure in question then takes over and we get stuck in it – upholding the structure becomes more important than anything else, it becomes more important than our mental health, it becomes more important than our happiness. It becomes more important than anything even though it’s only a game, even though it ‘doesn’t really need to be so’! We get so stuck in the game that we lose sight of the only genuinely meaningful quest in life – which as the philosophers and mystics have always said is the quest to know ourselves – and this loss of meaning naturally has very major consequences for us. Being locked into a way of life that is essentially meaningless (as of course all games are, outside their own frame of reference!) and which systematically denies who we really are is – very clearly – not going to be good news for us in the long run!


So looking at Berger and Luckman’s theory of reification and the general theory of games allows us to see how it could be that we don’t know who we really are, even though this might sound like a rather peculiar idea on first hearing. It also gives us a strong indication that there are going to be major ramifications in terms of our mental health, in terms of our ability to be happy and creative; not being in touch with our true selves is – after all – not exactly a recipe for happiness and creativity! We have said that the discovery of what has been covered up (our true selves) is not a trivial kind of thing – it is not like we can read it in a book or get told about it by some highly-trained expert. On the contrary, it is the work of a lifetime – and no one else can help us if. If they do try to help us, that will only lead us astray. There are no easy answers when it comes to discovering what the truth of our situation is – easy answers are only to be had in games, where everything is standardized, where everything has to be what it is designated to be by the rules of the game…


The thing that is being ‘covered up’ by the game has to be covered up for the game to proceed, and yet the other side of the coin is that from our point of view – as the actual individuals we are rather than the mere players of the game – what is being obscured is actually the only thing that truly matters in life! The journey by which we discover our true individuality is a ‘path with a heart’, as Castaneda puts it. It’s the only genuinely interesting pursuit in life – everything else is just a diversion, everything else is just a red-herring! In our culture, however, no time at all is given over to this endeavour, and instead all sorts of other tasks and duties and ‘responsibilities’ are pushed upon us, to the point where anything else gets quite buried. This is not to say that there isn’t a practical side to life that needs to be attended to – there obviously is – but no matter how important the practical aspects of life are if these ‘practical necessities’ (or ‘responsibilities’) are used as a way of stopping us ever reflecting on what this thing we call ‘life’ is all about, then something has clearly gone very wrong. And this is precisely what has happened – it is hard to imagine how anyone could deny it! First of all there are the things we have to do in life in order to attend to our material needs and then there are the things we do to entertain ourselves when we aren’t working, or when we aren’t attending to the practicalities of life, but between ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ there simply isn’t any space for anything else. When we’re not busy doing what we have to do in order to survive we’re busy entertaining ourselves – we’re watching television, or shopping, or going out drinking. This is the prescribed regime. That’s what modern life is like.


Jung makes the point somewhere that whilst in India there exists a tradition in which one can leave behind the life of a householder in one’s later years and turn to a life of reflection and contemplation, there is no corresponding tradition in the West. On the contrary, once we are past the ‘productive’ years of our lives (or the years in which we are still young and good-looking) we are no longer considered to have much to do in life. We hear talk of the ‘golden years’ that are to follow retirement but this is merely marketing speak designed to sell us pensions and life-assurance policies. In reality, no value is given to the second half of life because underneath all our fine talk we don’t understand life to consist of anything other than purely ‘surface-level’ matters – we have no comprehension of any psychic process, any movement in the ‘inner life’ that is the deeper meaning of our lives in this world. We only believe in externals, in ‘the image’, which is the important thing in the first half of life. No matter what we might say, as a society we don’t place any value in the inner life at all. The term itself is all but meaningless to us. Our so-called ‘inner life’ is simply the generic outer life that we have internalized, the external script or picture that we have unreflectively gone along with.


There is of course a good deal of lip-service paid to ‘self-development’, to this sort of therapy or that sort of therapy, this sort of healing or that sort of healing, but almost always this comes down to fixing the socially-prescribed image that we have of ourselves – almost all of it comes down to what Alan Watts calls ‘social adjustment therapy’. We go off the rails, one way or another, and the expert clinicians are there simply to help us to get back on them again! In Psychotherapy East and West Watts writes,

Whenever the therapist stands with society, he will interpret his work as adjusting the individual and coaxing his ‘unconscious drives’ into social respectability. But such ‘official psychotherapy’ lacks integrity and becomes the obedient tool of armies, bureaucracies, churches, corporations, and all agencies that require individual brainwashing. On the other hand, the therapist who is really interested in helping the individual is forced into social criticism. This does not mean that he has to engage directly in political revolution; it means that he has to help the individual in liberating himself from various forms of social conditioning, which includes liberation from hating this conditioning — hatred being a form of bondage to its object.

According to Alan Watts, a lot of our mental ‘un-wellness’ comes from the inherent contradictions of having to adapt to a system, to a way of life that restricts or denies our true individuality, and forces us to become regulated and mechanical. Simply patching us up and sending us back out onto the front-line again hardly qualifies as ‘therapy’! In Health as Expanding Consciousness, Professor of Nursing Margaret Newman speaks of ‘linear interventionism’, which is where we – as doctors or therapists – attempt return people to where they were before they became unwell. In the case of physical illness we can see that there is a lot of sense in this – if I break a leg I want to go back to being able to go walking and running again; if I get appendicitis or malaria, I want to recover so that I can go back to living my life again, and so on. But even in physical medicine there is the question of considering what elements in or aspects of my life-style predisposed me to becoming unwell in whatever way that I did, which means that healing is not just a matter of ‘us getting better so we can go back to what we were doing before we became unwell’! This may not be the case with a broken leg, or with some infectious disease, but with all of the endemic ‘life-style’ diseases that we are suffering from (such as heart-disease or diabetes) ‘going back to the way we were before we got sick’ is clearly not the answer at all. But with neurosis the idea that we can be patched up and ‘stuck back in the trenches’ is itself clearly pathological. This is the type of thinking that leads to entrenched neurotic mental suffering – the type of thinking in question being where we can’t let go of a fixed pattern of doing things even though that fixed pattern is doing us harm…


It’s not simply the case that we are stuck in one particular pattern that happens to be dysfunctional and that if we switched to a different pattern we would be a lot better off – neurosis is an automatic consequence of holding onto any sort of pattern! As far as mental health is concerned, there is no such thing as good pattern, there is no such thing as a good system. Mental health is synonymous with having the personal courage to let go of all patterns, to let go of all precedents, and this is the one thing that society (which is itself a fixed pattern of thinking and behaving) will never support us in doing. The rules of the game do not have any provision in them to encourage us to not play the game – the rules of society are never going to encourage us not to take them as seriously as they are asking us to! Society is a system that (like all systems) is made up of unquestionable precedents and this means that the one thing it is never going to do is play fast and loose with these precedents. That’s just not how things work, as we could very easily understand if only we could see that all logical systems necessarily have to repress the individuality (i.e. the ‘irregularity’) of the elements that comprise them.

So if we define mental health as fitting in with the world-view of everyone playing the game called ‘society’ we can see that linear interventionism makes a lot of sense. It is the ‘only way to go’ if this is how we understand mental health. This way of defining mental health is however really just a way of approving of our own arbitrary way of doing things – I have a certain set of prejudices about ‘how things should be’ and so then naturally I will go ahead and define good mental health as ‘subscribing to these prejudices’! I am making my way, my pattern, my system into the standard by which all things should be measured. This is clearly a cheat though because no matter what set of biases I start off with I’m going to promote this as being ‘the mentally healthy way to look at the world’. Really, therefore, I am abusing the word ‘health’ because health no longer means anything apart from what I want it to mean. It simply means conformity to the pattern to which I happen to subscribe. It is like me telling you that you are ‘sane’ if you happen to agree with what I say, or if you happen to believe what I believe, and that you are ‘mentally unwell’ (or insane) if you don’t. This way of defining mental health is clearly quite nonsensical, as well as being distinctly sinister into the bargain…

In Finite and Infinite Games James Carse differentiates between ‘society’ and what he calls ‘culture’ –

It is a highly valued function of society to prevent changes in the rules of the many games it embraces… Deviancy, however, is the very essence of culture. Whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past, is culturally impoverished. There are variations in the quality of deviation; not all divergence from the past is culturally significant. Any attempt to vary from the past in such a way as to cut the past off, causing it to be forgotten, has little cultural importance. Greater significance attaches to those variations that bring the tradition into view in a new way, allowing the familiar to be seen as unfamiliar, as requiring a new appraisal of all that we have been- and therefore all that we are. Cultural deviation does not return us to the past, but continues what was begun but not finished in the past…

To say that deviance is the very essence of culture is no different from saying that ‘deviance is the very essence of individuality’, and so we can rephrase what James Carse says above and say that ‘whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past has lost all awareness of who they truly are.’ When we follow the script, and substitute the collectively-validated ‘external life’ that we have been provided with for our inner life (without us either seeing that this substitution has taken place, or understanding what that means to us) then the unique individual self has been replaced by the generic self, which is a self made up of nothing more than theatrical appearances. The generic self doesn’t have any actual content – it can’t have any actual content because it’s ‘an externality’, because it’s a theatrical performance and nothing more. The outer life is of course made up of externalities – that’s why we are calling it the ‘external life’! The inner life, on the other hand, has no defined features or aspects that we can talk about, or readily discuss in a public forum, but instead of having generically recognizable features that can easily be talked about it is full of actual content. Hence, Carl Jung says –

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.

When we dream, and live the external socially-validated life only, then what we gain in theatrical definition we lose in genuine content and saying that we ‘lose the content’ is just another way of saying that we lose the connection with who we truly are. What bigger thing could there be to lose than this? We worry about losing all sorts of unimportant, trivial things, but we never seem to worry about losing the biggest thing of all, which is losing our awareness of who we actually are. When we lose this we lose the heart, the core of who we are and as a result of this essential ‘hollowness’ we become slaves to this desire and that desire, this belief-structure and that belief-structure, all of which have the hold on us that they do because they promise to give us what deep-down we know we are missing. They promise to return to us our Wholeness, which we do not consciously see that we are missing.


Society itself is a belief structure that we cling to because it promises to remedy our inner deficit, and provide us – if we play the game well enough – with the much-sought-after social validation (often called success) which is the external substitute (or analogue) for ‘being who we truly are’. This is ironic because society is motivating us with the promise of remedying the painful inner deficit which it itself has engendered in us! It’s both the ‘cause’ of the sickness and the ‘cure’ at the same time, which is something that really ought to tip us off as to what is really going on here…


When we lose the core of who we are and have to go ahead on the basis of what Wei Wu Wei calls the self-concept and what Krishnamurti calls the self-image then we are at a disadvantage, even though we cannot directly see or understand what this disadvantage is. We’ve been ‘wrong-footed’ right from the start. We can talk about this disadvantage (or wrong-footedness’) in terms of loss of essential being – we have lost our essential being and have to make do instead with the theatrical ‘substitute for being’ – which is image or appearance. Some of the time we can get on like this just fine – if we believe the image to be the thing then we don’t see any problem. If we take the theatrical performance of the self-image to be the same thing as ‘who we genuinely are’ (as we almost always do) then we won’t necessarily feel ourselves to be ‘at a disadvantage’. But as we get removed further and further away from any connection with our true nature – from the well-spring of our being – we’re getting stretched thinner and thinner all the time. We’re getting into a sticky situation without being able to see that we are getting into a sticky situation.


As we ‘forget ourselves’ and caught up more and more with a false notion of who we are we end up in a very peculiar – if unappreciated – predicament. The predicament is that we have become ‘unreal without knowing that we are unreal’ and this is akin to having suffered a very serious accident without knowing that we have done so. We have suffered the most serious ‘accident’ of all, and yet we carry on blithely as if nothing had happened, getting caught up in one trivial issue after another. We’ve lost something without which we can’t really continue, and yet we haven’t worked this out for ourselves yet…
And yet there is a way in which this lost understanding can come to us, albeit a way that we cannot readily understand. We cannot see what has happened directly, in a straightforward way, but we can see it in an ‘upside-down way’, so to speak. When being is lost, then we don’t experience this loss of being, but we do experience the neurotic suffering that comes with it – all we need to do therefore is understand this neurotic suffering for what it truly is.


This isn’t actually a question of ‘doing’ – there’s nothing we can ‘do’ to purposefully regain our lost being. It is after all our unconscious attempt to regain our lost being (through all our surrogate purposeful activities) that keeps us trapped in our deficit condition. We just need to be aware of our loss of being, rather than automatically trying to correct it, rather than automatically trying to make it better. When we automatically try to ‘make it better’ all we’re doing is avoiding the awareness. The challenge isn’t to strive to become ‘more confident in ourselves’ (which everyone invariably says it is) – the challenge is to clearly see our lack of confidence and understand its root. The challenge is to fearlessly observe the reality of our situation. If we do somehow manage to become confident again (just like we used to be) all this would mean would be that we have managed to go back to sleep again, immerse ourselves in the dream again. The challenge isn’t to ‘go back to how we were before we became anxious’; the challenge isn’t to ‘go back to sleep’ – the challenge is to wake up!

The Thinking Trap


‘Doing something’ with our thinking so as to make it go away and stop troubling us is the same as ‘doing something with an issue so the issue will not be an issue any more’. Both of these endeavours have exactly zero chance of ever working, which is obviously a pretty important point to understand. We could waste a lot of time otherwise.


The problem with trying to get rid of issues is fairly easy to get to get a handle on. We can explain it like this –

My attempt to deal with an issue so as to ‘cope with it’ (or ‘get rid of it’, or somehow ‘put it back in its place’) is in fact part of that very same issue.

The issue is feeding off itself. My attempt to solve the issue is the issue. If there wasn’t an issue then I wouldn’t be trying to fix it, and – contrary-wise – if I am trying to fix it then there must be an issue there for me to fix. This is what Alan Watts is getting at with the following story –

Someone has told the story of meeting, on a train, a weird gentleman who took a bag down from the rack, opened it, extracted from his pocket a cabbage on the end of a string, and began to dangle it into the bag. Consumed with curiosity, the traveller asked what was in the bag and was told that it was a mongoose. “Well, why do you carry a mongoose?” “Alas,” said the gentleman, “I am an alcoholic and suffer from delirium tremens, so that I need this mongoose to keep away the snakes.” “But surely you realize that those snakes are only imaginary?” “Yes indeed,” he answered, “but so is the mongoose.”

If I say that something is ‘not real’, this is self-contradictory because if this something is not real then why am I going to the trouble of defining what is not real in the first place? After all, there are an infinite number of things that are not real and so why don’t I define all those unreal things too? Why am I not bothering to say that all those unreal things are unreal too? Surely all unreal things have an equal status and this being so surely I shouldn’t be taking any one of them more seriously than the rest?


The same is true for issues. If I say that some particular thing is not an issue then why don’t I mention all the other things that are also not issues? (Apart from that fact that it would take me an infinite length of time to do so since there are an infinite number of other non-issues out there to mention!) Obviously the other non-issues are not so much of an issue then. It is clearly more important to me that this so-called ‘non-issue’ should be said not be an issue, which clearly shows that it actually is an issue.


In point of fact as soon as I mention anything whatever it is that I have mentioned immediately becomes an issue by virtue of the mere fact that I have mentioned it, by virtue of the fact that I have thought it worth mentioning. There is absolutely no way out of this. No one can ever extricate themselves from this trap: if a billion super-evolved genetically-engineered geniuses wearing high-powered brain-amplifiers laboured for a billion years they still wouldn’t stand even the remotest chance of getting out of this one. After all – the very fact that they are trying to escape from something means that there must be something to escape from in the first place!


This same principle applies to thoughts: if I say that a particular thought is not real or not important then I have made myself a liar as soon as I say it. We do not need to say that unreal things are unreal (or that unimportant things are unimportant) and so just as soon as we do start saying something like this then it all becomes very suspicious indeed. In order to say that something doesn’t exist I first need to specify what it is that supposedly doesn’t exist, and that in itself is hopelessly paradoxical! I point my finger at something, dramatically draw attention to what I have just pointed at, and then – after going to all the trouble to do this – I say that what I have drawn attention to isn’t worthy of attention!


This can be best explained in terms ‘taking thoughts seriously’. If my thoughts are troubling me, then by definition I must be taking the troubling thoughts seriously. If I wasn’t taking them seriously – but rather just letting them flit freely through my mind – then there would be no bother, no trouble. In fact this is one way to define what we mean by thinking – a thought is a latent possibility (one of infinitely many) that for some reason I have started taking seriously. In Eastern terms, a thought is an attachment. In Western rational culture when people are troubled by their thoughts we advise them to follow certain prescribed methods to make these thoughts less of an issue, quite unaware of the paradoxicality (which is to say, futility) inherent in this.


On the crudest level of intervention this might involve shouting “No!” when we have the thought, or pinging ourselves on the wrist with an elastic band when the thought comes into our head again. Quite obviously, if am trying to get rid of a thought by some method this means that I am taking the thought in question very seriously indeed and the fact that I am taking it so seriously makes the thought more powerful not less. I might try to distract myself from the troubling thought by thinking about something else, or I might try to ‘put the thought back in perspective’ or modify it in some way to make it less troubling, but this is still taking the thought in question seriously. I’m just being a bit cleverer, a bit more sophisticated than I was when I simply said “NO” to the thought.


Again, anything I do to reduce or eliminate or otherwise control the thought is going to make that thought more powerful and as we have said there is absolutely no way out of this. How could there be? And even if I get ‘extra clever’ and deliberately try not to take the thinking seriously this ploy is itself serious. All ploys, all strategies, all methods, all deliberate approaches, are all by definition serious (which is to say, they are all – without exception – based on attachment).


Once we understand this properly then we understand that there is nothing to do, that all ‘doing’ is grim and humourless and desperately serious. All purposeful doing is attachment. What frees us is the light touch and anything deliberate is never light because anything deliberate is always ‘grasping for a goal’. To say that purposeful action always has a ‘serious agenda’ connected with it is the same as saying that purposeful action is always driven by the secret (or not so secret) fear of not achieving that agenda.


This all comes down to ‘the paradox of deliberately trying to become non-grasping’ (or ‘the paradox of deliberately trying not to be serious’). Deliberately trying to be non-serious is an utterly absurd endeavour. It is totally and completely self-contradictory; it’s simply a joke, and it is clearly seeing the absurd self-contradictoriness in what we are trying to do that straightaway makes us less serious.


Seeing the contradiction in what we’re trying to do means that we relax in our efforts. We loosen up and see the humour in the situation. Being less serious about what we are trying to do is the same thing as ‘gaining a lighter touch’ and saying that we have ‘gained a lighter touch’ is the same thing as saying that we have gained in mental freedom. We’re free from the perceived need to fight against, manipulate or control our thinking. We are free from the thought that we need to do something about our thoughts!