We Can’t Hang Out’ On Purpose

One of the basic ideas in all anxiety management classes (and ‘anxiety management’ is not actually a very nice term) is that of challenging the avoidance of situations that provoke anxiety in us. This is fine as a far as it goes but we need to understand that ‘challenging’ isn’t really a purposeful thing in the way that we always assume that it is. If we don’t understand this then we are simply going to go around in circles. The point is that challenging isn’t something that can be done intentionally (i.e. as part of a strategy) because when we challenge intentionally then this too becomes ‘an avoidance’. This isn’t the easiest thing in the world to understand but we can get to it in easy stages. Avoidance is without any doubt at the very heart of anxiety because as soon as we avoid we automatically reinforce the belief that the situation in question is dangerous enough to be worth avoiding. We don’t stick around to see what is really going to happen, we just get out of there, and the instant sense of relief conditions us to do the very same thing next time. It is easy enough to see how this works: if I stay in the situation I feel bad, and if I avoid I feel relief, so what am I going to do? It’s a no-brainer, really…


What has happened when I get stuck in a pattern of avoidance is that I have created a mental barrier that corresponds to a ‘no go’ zone in real life. Every time I avoid going to the supermarket (for example) I reinforce the original belief that something terrible is going to happen to me if I stick around, and eventually the force of this belief may become strong enough to make me feel physically sick if I even think about going there. What is worse is that avoidance creates a precedence: if I have ’solved’ one difficulty by avoidance then I am more than likely to solve the next problem that comes along in the same way. Eventually I am going to be retreating on all fronts and the whole of life will be a ‘no go’ zone. So where does that leave me? In the end even my one ‘safe place’, whatever that is, will become threatened – just because I have ignored the bigger problems in life by ‘over-simplifying’ my interaction with the world, that doesn’t mean that my life will now be problem-free. On the contrary, smaller, pettier problems will unfailingly arrive to take the place of the old ones, and all the anxiety that used to attach itself to the original problem, will proceed to attach itself to the new one.


The point here is that the anxiety hasn’t actually gone away, and that it will always find something to associate itself with. It doesn’t matter how trivial the issue, the anxiety reaction will be just the same. This is a phenomenon with which we are all familiar – a tiny little difficulty completely upsets me, a minor inconvenience elicits a disproportionate physical and mental reaction. We know it is ridiculous to be worried by such a small thing, but this knowledge doesn’t help us. At this stage we might try to simplify our lives even more, so that there is less and less that can ‘go wrong’, but this doesn’t work because we can never control our situations 100% – that is a law of the universe – and the frantic attempt to do so is a one-way ticket to neurotic hell.


We see this, and so we decide to start challenging our patterns of avoidance – all well and good. Let us say that one of the situations that I have been avoiding is going to the high street and buying something in a shop. Let us also say that this is not my ‘Number 1 fear’ – it is quite low down on the list and so it is a realistic thing for me to try to challenge this avoidance. So what do I do? Well, because I am challenging the avoidance, I make a goal of doing the thing I don’t usually do, the thing I don’t want to do. I grit my teeth, I set my jaw firmly, I bite the bullet and I head off out the door. In my head there is only one thing, and that is the goal which I am determined to attain. What this means is that the whole time I am making my way to the shop, I am (in my head) there already! In my head I have already arrived…


It is true that there is a delay between me first getting the idea in my head, and that idea finding its fulfilment in reality. It is also true that I am very much aware of the discrepancy between ‘goal’ and ‘attainment of goal’, but because I am aware of this discrepancy, the whole time that this gap is there I am trying single-mindedly to close it. I only want one thing, I am only interested in one thing, and that is to make reality match my idea of it. Because I am only interested in the ultimate goal, I am not actually present as I make my journey to the shop; my body is there but I am ahead of myself, only concerned with getting where I am going – touching base. This is – again – a thing that we are very familiar with when we are suffering from anxiety – it is the phenomenon of ‘always skipping ahead’.


What this means therefore is that as soon as I do touch base I then have a new goal, and that new goal is of course to get back home as quickly as possible. There is no moment of freedom, no moment of rest, no release. I never let up on the unwavering control, not for a second, and so the whole process of ‘living in the future’ is repeated until I do get back home. When I get home I can relax (possibly), and I might even feel good about having achieved my target, but just how satisfactory is this?  Obviously it is a step in the right direction, but at the same time there is no doubt that the whole procedure is a bit of avoidance in its own right! What I have been avoiding is the ‘here and now’ – it is not good enough to be there in the shop and in the high street in my body because if my awareness is elsewhere (or willing itself elsewhere, which is the same thing) then the anxiety is still dictating the terms.


If I rush from goal to goal, then that is anxiety. That is anxiety in a nutshell. If I am in one place, and I make a rule in my head saying that I should be in another place, then that is anxiety. The only thing that isn’t anxiety is being in the place that you are, and not wishing you were somewhere else! What we are talking about here is this thing called ‘hanging out’. The day I really reverse the insidious process of avoidance is the day I hang out. ‘Hanging out’ means being present with no agenda and this is easier to talk about than to do because I always have an agenda. I can’t ‘hang out on purpose’, because if I am there with a goal in my head (even the goal of hanging out) then I am not really there – I am (as we have said) in my head, planning, wishing, wanting, controlling…


I cannot have an agenda to drop my agenda, because then that is still an agenda. I am there in one place (the place of having an agenda), and I want to be in another place (the place of having no agenda). I am making a rule in my head that ‘something should happen’, and this is anxiety all over again. I’m skipping ahead. So what do I do? The answer is simple, but it doesn’t come easily. The answer is to be in the place that I am already in, which is ‘wanting to be somewhere else’. So, if I am ‘not hanging out’, then I ‘hang out in not hanging out’. This means that I don’t try to force myself to be elsewhere – I don’t make a rule saying “This is not good; this is not the right place to be”. Wherever I am, that is the right place to be. It has to be! It must be right because I am there, and I can’t be anywhere else anyway, no matter how hard I try. Mental straining is always futile and when we start to see that it is always futile that means we are actually present. Normally, we’re not ‘present’, we’re not ‘conscious’, and that means that we don’t see that the straining is futile.


Experiencing fear is one thing, and being anxious is another. Fear is when I don’t like being in a place, but I know that I am there – I am present in it, in other words. Anxiety is when I am running away from my fear – which means that I believe (on some unexamined level) that it is possible to escape if I strain hard enough. Thus, all my effort goes into ‘straining to do an impossible thing’, which is what creates anxiety. I am not orientated towards reality – I am orientated towards my goal of how I would like reality to be.  This is why goals are useful when it comes to working with anxiety; goals mean that I want to be somewhere else (obviously enough!) and so how is this supposed to help me with anxiety? Having goals (or ‘relying on methods’) always feeds back into the anxiety, naturally enough, and it is easy enough to see this – if we are actually interested in seeing it.


The purposeful mind really isn’t the right man for the job here. The purposeful mind isn’t the right man for the job because it’s always ‘skipping ahead to the future’ and this is what creates the anxiety in the first place. It’s the purposeful mind’s job to be skipping ahead – very obviously that is its job – so we can’t blame it for this! ‘Purposes’ exist in the future, after all – they certainly don’t exist in the present. There are no goals in the present; there never could be any goals in the present. There’s nothing in the present but ‘hanging out’ and we’re not hanging out for a reason. We’re not hanging out in order to achieve or obtain anything.


This might seem like a rather simplistic point to make but it isn’t – when we see that there are no goals in the present and that the present is the only place we can find relief from anxiety (because there is then no rule saying that we have to be somewhere else other than where we are right now, which is the cause of anxiety) then our orientation naturally starts to shift. The orientation is no longer directed outside of ourselves to some ‘result’ we would like to see happen. We absolutely can’t shift our orientation on purpose but when the awareness comes to us that goals equal anxiety (which society will never tell us because it is based on goals) then we will naturally let go of our goals, to some extent. ‘Letting go’ isn’t a thing that can be made into a goal; ‘letting go’ comes only from awareness and awareness exists only in the present moment…








Using Anxiety as a ‘Cue’

Anxiety is never about what it appears to be about – this is fairly obvious since what we are anxious about doesn’t generally warrant the worry that it is evoking in us. If the situation that we are anxious about did warrant the degree of concern that we are feeling then this wouldn’t be anxiety – it would an appropriate, healthy response to a difficult situation.


So the whole point about anxiety is that it is a disproportionate reaction to what is going on; we all know this – as anxiety sufferers we know this only too well – but the thing is that it just doesn’t help us to know this! It actually makes us feel worse not better, obviously enough…


This shows us that the anxiety isn’t really what the anxiety itself tells us it is about.  There is a displacement going on, which means that we are seeing something ‘in the wrong place’. The anxiety really belongs somewhere else and what this means is that we’re wasting our time when we allow our attention to be ‘diverted’ in the way that it is. We’re simply chasing red-herrings and that’s not going to get us anywhere!


If I’ve lost something in one place there’s no point in looking for it somewhere else, after all! That’s definitely a bad road to go down. The helpful thing is to use the anxiety as a cue to draw our attention to the fact that there is a displacement going on here – when we feel anxious about something then straightaway we realize that there is this displacement occurring, therefore. To be aware of this is helpful because we are now in a better position to feel the feeling where it belongs instead of where it doesn’t belong. When we know we looking for what we’ve lost in the wrong place then this is very useful information – it’s useful information because it frees us up from the thankless (and pointless task of ‘looking for what we’ve lost in the wrong place’…


This isn’t a method for working with anxiety because it’s not setting out guidelines as to what we should ‘do’. What it is however is a way of using anxiety as a cue to remind ourselves that we are getting our attention tied up with red herrings so when we receive this cue or reminder we can stop ‘going down the wrong road’. The cue does nothing more than ‘bring about awareness’, and it is awareness that we need because anxiety works by hoovering up our awareness! The awareness that we are being ‘misdirected’ is itself all that it takes to bring us back to ourselves so there is no question of having to follow any kind of a method, or utilize any kind of a strategy, which are mechanical responses that can only bring about more anxiety.


When we receive the cue that reminds us that we are having our attention misdirected then we have our attention back again, so to speak, and so all we need to do is to ‘come back to ourselves’ (or ‘check in with ourselves’) to see what is really going on with us. The anxious mind always points our attention away from us (like a person throwing a stick for a dog to run after and bring back) we are usually more than happy to oblige by chasing after the stick as fast as we can! As the Tibetan sage Milarepa says –

When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick: every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.

When Milarepa advises us to be like a lion rather than a dog running after sticks the whole time what he is suggesting is that we ‘come back to ourselves’ rather than looking outside of ourselves. It is important to realize that ‘coming back to ourselves’ isn’t a method – there is no method to come back to ourselves, there is no way this can be achieved via some sort of tactic or strategy. Methods can be used to distract ourselves, it is true (and as a culture we have developed a huge arsenal of them) but there’s no method for un-distracting ourselves! All that’s needed for un-distracting ourselves is awareness – when we are aware that we are distracted then we are straightaway un-distracted. No ‘doing’ is needed – or as the Buddhist teachings say “There is no need for expedient means”.


This is of course the very same principle we come across in meditation; when we are practicing meditation we don’t force ourselves to ‘come back to the present moment’ – if we did that then we wouldn’t be meditating! Instead, we notice that we have drifted away from the present moment and as soon as we notice this we are straightaway back in the present. It’s the awareness that does it, not forcing or effort or will-power. As soon as we notice that we’re ‘away’ we’re back ‘home’ again! The moment we see that we thinking then we’re not thinking – we’re observing that we’re thinking and that is awareness.


When we are using anxiety as a cue we’re not coming back to our breathing however (which is a specific focus), we’re coming back to noticing ‘how we are in ourselves’, which is an open-ended sort of a thing. Another way of putting this is to say that we’re noticing how we are feeling – we’re tuning in to the deeper emotional core of ourselves, even if only momentarily. We started off by saying that when we anxious our attention is being distracted away from where the issue really is. The anxiety is a dodge, in other words. It’s an automatic avoidance mechanism. The question is therefore, “What are we dodging?”


The simplest way to answer this is probably just to say that are dodging ourselves. Anxiety – we might say – is the thinking mind’s ‘last-ditch attempt’ to distract our attention from the place that we don’t want it to go! Instead of being ‘with ourselves’ thought is sending us off on endless wild goose chases, and who can deny that this is what anxiety comes down to? Even if we do solve the problem that is troubling us a dozen other problems will pop up more or less immediately and if we don’t solve it (as is very likely) then we are going to be worrying over it endlessly in the forlorn attempt to solve it. Perhaps if you go over it a thousand times it will somehow come right, thought says. What else can it say after all – it has no other tricks up its sleeve, only thinking, thinking, and more thinking. It’s only got the one product and so it will keep on trying to sell it to us…


In essence anxiety is the attempt to solve an insoluble problem and that is why we can never get to the end of it, that’s why we can never cure anxiety with thinking – anxiety just feeds on itself then. We could say therefore that all the worries that crop up for us are ‘surrogates for something else’ and so the real question is ‘what is it a surrogate for?’ An existential philosopher would say that we are running from the pure irreducible uncertainty of life; this is an ‘insoluble problem’ – obviously enough – because there is nothing that we can do about the irreducible uncertainty of life. It’s irreducible, after all – that’s the whole point!


The fact that life is irreducibly uncertain isn’t actually a problem, however, – being uncertain is what makes life life! Saying that ‘life is uncertain’ is just another way of saying that it is always unfolding in an unpredictable way – ‘unfolding in an unpredictable way’ is what makes life life. What other type of unfolding is there, anyway! The new unfolds, day by day and moment by moment, and this is what life (or reality) is all about – obviously enough! Why would we be so afraid of the ‘unfolding of the new’ when the unfolding of the new is the very essence of life itself though? What – we may ask – is the big problem here?


‘The unfolding of the new’ doesn’t sound so dreadfully bad after all – it actually sounds rather marvellous. The ‘old’, on the other hand, rapidly becomes very tiresome if not to say oppressive, as we all know very well. Who doesn’t know this? It’s one of those basic things that we learn that we learn in life. Even if it’s not something we can always put in practice we all nevertheless know that it isn’t healthy to be forever holding onto the old, or holding onto the past. We are – generally speaking – perfectly aware of that…


One way to explain why we so very easily become ‘afraid of the new’ (or ‘afraid of what we can’t control’, which is the same thing) is to say that we become so used to our ‘defensive position’ that it become the whole world to us. It’s all we know and we trust it because has always protected us in the past (or so it seems). We trust it because we know nothing else. This isn’t to say that our protective posture (or ‘protective mechanism’) hasn’t protected us in the past – quite possibly it has done. The thing is thought that when the protective posture ‘becomes the whole world to us’ then we always end up in the situation where what we are defending ourselves against is life itself and this – of course – is a terrible dead-end.


We’re trapped in a terribly difficult situation when what we’re defending ourselves against is life itself. It’s not just a ‘difficult’ situation, it’s an impossible one.  It’s an impossible situation because life is all there is and if life is all there is then how can we defend ourselves against it? When we identify totally with our defensive position then this is the very same thing as ‘being institutionalized’ – we’re utterly dependent on the structure that imprisons us and so we will defend it to the end. To lose it seems like the worst thing in the world, even though of course it isn’t. It’s not doing us any good any more so how can it be such a terrible thing to lose it?


The insight that it is a healthy thing to relinquish our defensive position doesn’t mean that we can just go right ahead and ‘let go’ (just because this is the helpful thing to do). We could go right ahead and let go if we were free to do so but the whole point is that we aren’t. We’re caught up in the logic of a long established defensive reflex, after all. This defensive reflex has become our only way of seeing the world, our only way of understanding the world. We’re going against the grain; we’re going against what seems to be our own better judgement. We’re rebelling against ‘who we are’, so it seems. The point is however that it isn’t who we really are and this insight is the key to everything. We’re not really this tense and frightened ‘defensive posture’ – we’re always more than a posture, no matter what type of posture that might be. Obviously, we’re more than just ‘a posture’!


To talk about ‘letting go’ in connection with anxiety is facile in the extreme – there is no way that we can let go as an act of will. We can only let go when we let go of all ideas of letting go (which means that it isn’t ‘us’ letting go at all). We can’t intend to let go because ‘intending’ is holding on to a goal; we can’t let go on purpose because a purpose is a goal and – as we have just said – goals are only goals because we are hang onto them. What we can do however is use the anxiety as a reminder to check in with ourselves. We’re not checking in with ourselves as a way of getting rid of the anxiety (much as we’d like to get rid of it); that would be an act of aggression and aggression feeds anxiety rather than getting rid of it. When we turn our backs on the reality of our situation and fixate our attention on ‘surrogate problems’ and try to fix them then this is aggression. The aggression is born of the pure desperation that comes from trying to do an impossible thing. Our aggression is the inevitable ‘waste-product’ of our attempt to safeguard the shaky belief that we have in our illusory ‘fixing’. So instead of being aggressive towards our anxiety or being fearful of it (which results in ‘the aggression of running away’), we appreciate its role in reminding us to come back to ourselves. We appreciate it (in a natural or genuine way!) because the truth is that we wouldn’t remember to come back to ourselves otherwise. The pain of anxiety reminds us. We are now seeing anxiety as a ‘help rather than a hindrance’ therefore and this means that we’re not being aggressive. We’re just noticing ‘how we are’, that’s all, and that is a peaceful act rather than a violent one! Learning not to be aggressive may not sound like very much but it’s the most useful thing we could ever learn – learning not to be aggressive is actually the key to everything…








Making Peace With Anxiety

There are two ways of approaching anxiety – one way is to approach it with a whole bunch of tools and methods and ‘skills’ (which is of course the aggressive way) whilst the other way is with gentleness and tolerance, and no attempted ‘forcing’.  The first way involves learning some method that we have to put into action when our anxiety levels rise; the first way involves the tool which we call the rational-purposeful mind, in other words. The second way does not occur via the thinking mind at all, it involves us just being ourselves amidst it all (which is admittedly a lot harder than it sounds). We don’t have to bring in any tools, any gimmicks, any foreign artifacts.


We are not therefore trying to learn some new trick that we didn’t know about – which would be daunting and put us under a strain – but rather we’re learning to bring a part of ourselves into play that we really don’t value very much, or don’t respect particularly. In fairy-tales this corresponds to the motif of the youngest brother who is generally regarded as a bit silly or soft and not really up to much; all the smart money is on the oldest brother who is single-minded and quite ruthless in pursuit of his goals. In the stories it is however the ‘silly’ or ‘soft-hearted’ younger brother who succeeds in the question rather than his hard-headed eldest brother who invariably falls flat on his face. [See for example the Celtic story of The Five Sons of King Eochaid.]


The part of ourselves we value and automatically rely on in a crisis is the ‘older brother’ of the rational-purposeful mind – it’s rather as if we’re walking around with an angle-grinder or a Black & Decker drill the whole time and if any challenging situation arises then this heavy-duty tool is what we use. But when it is anxiety that is challenging us then this heavy-handedness is only making things worse. ‘Using tools’ to further our will is only making things worse. All that aggression (all that ‘fixing-type’ energy) simply gets bounced back at us and feeds right back into the anxiety-cycle. Trying to fix anxiety is not a good thing to get into! What we’re looking at here is a positive-feedback process therefore; anxiety is quintessentially a ‘positive-feedback’ process where we are constantly reacting to our own projections, our own evaluations, our own calculations and expectations.


The whole time that we are alive in this world however we also developing the other side of our nature, whether we realize this or not. We develop this side of our nature just by growing as people, not by learning anything. More often than not, it happens that we develop the gentle, non-judgemental and ‘non-fixing’ aspect of ourselves via our relationships with other people, or perhaps with animals, and so we always have this non-aggressive side of ourselves to call upon. We just need to value this core part of ourselves, and trust it, which is something that society as a whole does not teach us to do. Society teaches us to rely on our ability to manipulate or control situations skilfully and ‘push on ahead regardless’, so to speak. Society teaches us to be competitive, self-assertive and goal-driven, etc, which a way of being in the world that inevitably backfires on us.


The difficulty comes about because when we are challenged we automatically put the rational-purposeful mind in charge which – as we have said – just makes matters worse.  This is just like voting a right-wing government into power because we are frightened by some crisis that is going on and some charismatic (or at least half-way charismatic) politician tells us that he knows what to do in order to. He never does of course – that’s just a ruse to get into power. Far-right politicians never make things better – as history shows! Since when did putting a far-right politician in power ever improve the situation? When anxiety comes along there is no quick fix and so the self-assured dictator which is the purposeful mind – with all of its recipes for ‘fixing’ the situation – isn’t the right man for the job.  We’ll ‘buy into it’ for sure because that’s what we always do, but it won’t get us anywhere. We buy into it because we’re afraid, and nothing good ever came of that…


The way to change our aggressive attitude to anxiety is to see that the pain and distress we are experiencing is trying to tell us something and that it is not just an ‘error signal’ informing us that something is ‘wrong’ with our brain. If we can take this idea on (even a bit) that is very helpful in itself because our attitude changes by 180 degrees – what works is befriending the anxiety, not turning it into the enemy (even though it very much feels like an enemy). Physical pain serves a function and so does the mental variety – if we just move to ‘squash it’ then we’re not going to learn anything, and if we don’t learn something then we’re not going to change, obviously enough. We’re going to carry on the same. ‘Stopping the pain’ is not good therapy, even though it is of course what we all want.


What ‘befriending anxiety’ comes down to is establishing some sort of relationship with ourselves as we actually ARE (i.e. the ‘anxious us’) and having a relationship is essentially a two-way thing, as we know from interpersonal  relationships. If I have a genuine relationship with you then this means that I’m not just ‘telling you what to do’ the whole time, which is what we do with ourselves when we are anxious or depressed. When we are anxious or depressed we tell ourselves do (or think) things in a different way and then when that doesn’t happen (and it doesn’t) then we blame and condemn ourselves (which is still not a relationship). This is very much how we get on with ourselves when are anxious – we don’t have a relationship with ourselves but rather we are pathologically alienated from ourselves. Needless to say, this doesn’t go anywhere – it’s a dead end if ever there was one!


Once we see things like this then it becomes apparent that the key thing is establishing a relationship with ourselves. It’s not just the ‘key thing’, it’s the only thing. The question then becomes, how do I establish a relationship with myself?’ The best way to think about this is – as we have just said – to think about how we form relationships with other people, so we can ask ourselves how we go about doing this. This, of course, turns out to be a very interesting question – what we learn fairly quickly (most of us, anyway) is that there is no ‘magic formula’. We might like for there to be, but there isn’t. People might of course try to sell us a magical formula with regard to forming relationships (for example, ‘How to make friends and influence people’) but that’s only because they’re trying to make money out of us. That’s only because they have spotted a niche and they are moving in to exploit it, not because they have any useful to pass on or genuinely want to help anyone.


What we learn – some of us perhaps quicker than others perhaps – is that there are no shortcuts, that there are no fast ways to get where we want to be. If we try to push for the ‘relationship’ to happen faster (or if we try various tricks and gimmicks to get the desired results) then the other person is probably going to smell a rat very quickly and steer well clear of us. We’ve obviously got some kind of agenda going in this case. And even if our manipulation is successful, which it sometimes is, that just makes us into a ‘successful manipulator’, not ‘someone who is successful in their relationships’! Actually, of course, it doesn’t make sense to talk of someone who is ‘successful in their relationships’. It’s impossible to success to be ‘successful’ in a relationship because we are not trying to achieve anything – if we are not trying to achieve anything how can we be successful? If we were trying to ‘achieve’ or ‘get something out of the relationship’ then there would be no genuine relationship; it would just be a case of us ‘seeking the advantage’ as always. It would be nothing more than a game in other words. A true relationship can only come about when neither party is trying to obtain anything as a result of it.


We can apply exactly this same principle to the business of ‘us trying to cultivate a relationship with ourselves’ – if we are trying to get anything out of this relationship then it’s just not going to happen! Doing it on purpose doesn’t work. Relating honestly (or sincerely) with ourselves is thus both an easy thing and a hard thing at the same time – it’s easy because it’s the most natural thing in the world and, as a result, it ‘happens all by itself’, and it’s hard because there is absolutely nothing we can do to push for it to happen, just because we want it to. There are no methods or instructions for ‘how to establish a relationship with ourselves’; there is no theory or model to tell us how to do this. We can’t do it purposefully; we can’t do it via the agency of the rational-purposeful mind. We can’t do it via the agency of the rational-purposeful mind for the simple reason that this mind never did anything without a reason. If the rational mind does something then there always has to be some sort of goal, some kind of ‘advantage’ that is to be achieved. Thought can never do anything in a non-calculating way because it is – by its very nature – ‘a calculation’!


There’s no getting away from the fact that ‘not being aggressive’ presents a major difficulty for us, for the reasons that we have all ready gone into. When we are under pressure, when we being challenged in a significant way, then we automatically turn to the thinking mind for help; not turning to the ‘reflex mind‘ for help goes very much against the grain with regard to how we have been coping with difficulty all of our life. It doesn’t come naturally to us. This is a very different type of difficulty from the difficulty of having to learn some ‘artificial method’ and put it into practice however. [And all methods are ‘artificial’ when it comes to mental health – if we have to go around using methods to feel okay the whole time then this can’t be very mentally healthy, after all!] It’s not something foreign to us we have to learn after all – we are simply relearning to be ‘the whole of ourselves’, after having forgotten what this feels like, or rather, after forgetting that there even is such a thing as the whole of ourselves. So although it might seem like an impossible task to come back to the whole of ourselves once we have been trapped in the narrow realm of thought, it is at the same time a perfectly natural process. There is no process that is more natural than this.


Perfectly natural processes don’t have to be forced as artificial ones do; in fact the whole difficulty lies in getting out of the habit of forcing everything to be the way that we think it ought to be. There is a place for ‘forcing things to be the way that we think they ought to be’ – that’s just another way of talking about purposeful action, after all – but it most certainly does not apply to mental health. Mental health means – if it means anything – that we are ‘whole and not fragmented’ and there is no way that the part or fragment which is the rational mind can get us to be whole via its purposeful or calculated behaviour! It doesn’t want to anyway – what the thinking mind wants to do is to extend its rule as far as possible in all directions. What the thinking mind always wants to do is be ‘the boss of everything’ – it’s all ‘in a good cause’ of course but, but this is what it wants. It doesn’t trust in anything else; it neither trusts nor believes in anything else. The trouble is that the very great tendency of the TM to run things its own way, no matter how narrow that way might be, isn’t ‘in a good cause at all’ – it’s only ‘in its own cause’. It’s only in the cause of what it – quite honestly but also quite deludedly – ‘understands to be a good cause’. The TM always thinks it knows best, in other words.


It is easier to explain things this way than merely talking about ‘observing yourself’ or ‘not judging yourself’ because that can sound rather clinical if it is not put across carefully. It also sounds like something we can do on purpose, which is very far from being the case. We all instinctively realize the helpfulness and healthiness of having a two-way relationship and having a relationship with ourselves is the very opposite of trying to control or fix ourselves.  We are actually being interested in ourselves in this case, we’re interested in being ourselves, even though the way we are is painful and doesn’t feel at all right to us. But if we can respect (in some small way) the overall healthiness of the process (i.e. if we make peace to some degree with the unwanted pain and distress of the neurotic symptomology) that straightaway changes our attitude so that we do become interested.


Even if we are only a little bit open to seeing the process as being ‘healthy’ (i.e. not seeing ourselves as ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’ or ‘broken’) that means that we’re not fighting against ourselves in the total way that we were before. We will still fight against ourselves because that’s our reflex, but we won’t be buying into what we’re doing so much and it is this ‘disidentification’ with thought that changes – by ‘non-violent’ means – the balance of power between us and the tyrant of thought. Thought then becomes something useful, in this case. This might be said to be the ‘esoteric’ meaning of Exodus 4:3:

And the LORD asked him, “What is that in your hand?” “A staff,” he replied. “Throw it on the ground,” said the Lord. So Moses threw it on the ground, and it became a snake, and he ran from it. “Stretch out your hand and grab it by the tail,” the LORD said to Moses, who reached out his hand and caught the snake, and it turned back into a staff in his hand.

A snake or a dragon is a very familiar way of referring to the thinking mind or ‘lower self’ (see ‘Rumi’s dragon’) – when it rules the roost then it is a terrible monster indeed and no one can stand against it – it will devour everything in sight. When it is in its proper place however then it is immediately transformed back into the staff of righteousness…










Strategizing Causes Anxiety

There are no effective (long-term) strategies for anxiety. If we can’t understand the truth of this simple statement then – very clearly – we just don’t understand anxiety! If we can’t understand that strategies and techniques and ‘tools’ aren’t the way to go then this can only mean that we don’t have any insight into anxiety at all…


The thing is that when we start looking for security we automatically create anxiety and what are ‘psychological strategies’ other than the attempt to somehow organise better security for ourselves? The very existence of a strategy implies that we have some kind of control over the situation, and if we allow ourselves to believe that we have some kind of control over a situation then this belief of ours equals ‘security’, obviously enough. From a psychological point of view, ‘control’ is always a paradoxical type of thing. It is paradoxical because controlling creates the necessity to control – from the psychological point of view control is an addiction, in other words. It’s an addiction because once we get into the habit of controlling ourselves then we will immediately become scared to stop doing whatever it is that we’re doing. Controlling is now where our sense of security (even if it isn’t working particularly well) comes from and to give up sense of security (however illusory it might be) is extraordinarily hard for us. We have to learn to trust the spontaneous process all over again and regaining that trust is a slow and painful process, with many relapses along the way. Relearning trust doesn’t happen without risk-taking and the fact that we are anxious in the first place doesn’t exactly predispose us to taking risks. By relying on strategies we’re feeding the anxiety, therefore.


When we start ‘managing’ ourselves with strategies then we’re going down the wrong road – we’re going down the road of reinforcing our distrust in the natural process of the psyche spontaneously organizing itself, without our so-called ‘help’. We prove to ourselves that we are right to control because – as we have said – once we start controlling at all then we create the perceived need to carry on. Fear then sets in, and the prospect of what might happen if we ‘let go’ the reins fills us with dread. It might be naïvely argued that if we are suffering from anxiety then we are right – in one specific way at least – not to trust ourselves, and that the presence of anxiety shows that we need to learn some kind of anxiety management technique or strategy. But since anxiety is ‘the tendency to distrust the natural uncontrolled order of things and look for some kind of security instead’ – arguing that going along with this tendency and opting for strategies rather than tolerating risk is going to actually help things doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s like saying that taking more of the drug we are addicted to is somehow going to cure our addiction.


The point that needs to be understood here that any kind of deliberate movement on our part in the direction of perceived security automatically creates the spectre of fear, which will make us even more keen to move in this direction. The logic is self-reinforcing: why else would we be trying to move in the direction of increased security unless we’re trying to escape something, after all? What else would our motivation be? Why do we try to move in what we perceive to be the direction of ‘increased security’ unless we are afraid of ‘insecurity’? As the ancient Daoist texts say, to create one opposite is also to create the other. The moment beauty is born, ugliness enters the picture; the moment ‘good’ is born, ‘bad’ comes into play. How is it we not able to understand this?


The ‘mutual identity of the opposites’ (which is of course another way of talking about paradoxicality) means that believing in ‘security’ automatically causes us to believe in the complimentary opposite, which is ‘insecurity’ – it’s impossible to have the one without the other. If we want to believe that there is somewhere to run to, somewhere where we will be ‘safe’, then we also have to believe that there is something to run from. If we want to believe that there is a safe place then we also have to believe in the possibility of a place that is unsafe, a place that is dangerous and that we need to run away from. Trying to move in the direction of safety means that we have chosen to believe that there actually is such a thing, and that’s how the game of anxiety (which is a game that we can’t ever deliberately exit from) starts.


To say that strategising is not helpful when it comes to anxiety is really just to say that any purposeful activity, of any type whatsoever, can be of no help when it comes to finding freedom from anxiety. All purposeful activities are based on moving towards ‘the desired opposite’, after all. We can’t have purposeful activity without first identifying a purpose or goal, and that purpose or goal can only exist in relation to its opposite. Winning can only exist in relation to losing, success can only exist in relation to failure, and so straightaway we are engaging in the game of ‘seeking one opposite and shunning the other’. Purposeful behaviour (which is to say, ‘making and chasing goals’) cannot in any way help us when we are anxious therefore. Saying that one opposite is the ‘right’ one and that the other is the ‘wrong’ one just fuels our anxiety; attachment to the right way and fear of the wrong way is anxiety – purposeful activity can never get rid of the spectre of ‘wrong’, after all!


At the same time seeing this, it also helps to realise that we can’t help trying to move in the direction of what we perceive to be ‘increased security’. That’s how the mechanism of the conditioned self works, and we can’t fight against this nature. If I start saying that the thing to do is to stop chasing security then ‘not chasing security’ is my new security and so what has changed? It’s the same old game all over again. The conditioned or mechanical self is always chasing security of some sort – as we have just said, it can’t help doing this. This means that we can’t hope for the conditioned or mechanical self to start behaving in a helpful way; we can’t expect it to behave in any other way than an anxiety-creating way. We can’t expect it to stop being purposeful in everything it does. This is a very helpful thing to see because it means that we will no longer tie ourselves up in an impossible struggle the whole time – the struggle of trying to get the rational-purposeful self to behave in a way that is not going to fuel our anxiety. We can now understand this self and what makes it tick, and the part of us that understands the rational-purposeful self and its mechanical ways is not the ‘rational-purposeful self’. The part of us which either identifies with the conditioned ego or fights against it IS the conditioned ego and the part of us which understands this ego is not that ego. Insight is the key when it comes to anxiety therefore – that’s what frees us, not strategizing!








At The Heart of Anxiety

At the heart of anxiety there are two conflicting things, two conflicting beliefs. One belief is that we absolutely have to be ‘in control’ in order to live well and the other is that we aren’t actually able to be in control in the way that we believe we have to be.


It can be seen therefore that both of these ingredients are necessary in order there to be anxiety – either one on its own would not be enough. Moreover, we can also say that out of these two conflicting beliefs, one is essentially true, and the other essentially false, and this is somewhat unexpected perhaps since we don’t generally like to say that there is any truth in anxiety! We prefer to see it as being without any basis in reality. We prefer to see it as being wholly ‘irrational’, as the phrase goes.


The ‘untrue belief’ is – obviously enough – that we have to be in control in order for life to be in any way OK for us, whilst the unshakeable suspicion that we have that we actually aren’t able to be in control in the way that we think we need to be is indeed founded upon a perfectly true (if unwanted) insight. It is 100% true that ‘being in control’ – when it comes right down to it – is not something that we can safely rely on!


‘Control’ is essentially an illusion, albeit a comforting one. In our day-to-day living there are lots of things that we can be in control of, and regularly are of control of (all of our deliberate actions are instances of control, after all) but this is – as a rule – only the case in the smaller aspects of life. We can and do exert control over lots and lots of trivial (or relatively trivial) issues in life – such as what brand of toothpaste to buy in the supermarket, or what T-shirt to put on in the morning, but with the big stuff (for example the question of whether we are still going to be alive in a week’s time) we have to admit that the notion of control is essentially meaningless.


With regard to something as basic as our own state of mind during the course of the next few minutes we would have to admit that we aren’t in control. Who – apart from some self-deluding ‘positive thinker’ perhaps – can claim to be in control of their own state of mind? Life itself is inherently ‘insecure’, in other words and wisdom – as Alan Watt says – lies in honestly relating to this inherent uncertainty rather than fooling ourselves that we are (or ought to be) in control’.


It is however very easy indeed to be lulled into the false security of thinking that we are in control or that we could be in control if we were clever enough or determined enough. To fall into this lazy way of thinking about things is the easiest thing in the world – unless you happen to be suffering from anxiety, that is! It is true that when anxiety sets in we tend to lose all our confidence in our ability to control the small things in life satisfactorily, and – in one sense – this perception of ours isn’t true because these are things we have been doing all our lives. It’s the big things that we can’t rely on more than the everyday small things. The reason for this skewed perception of ours is however undoubtedly because we have been working so hard to repress or deny any awareness of the inherent uncertainty relating to the big picture in life, with the result that this insecurity comes out in the realm of ‘small things’ instead. It gets ‘displaced’ to where it doesn’t rightfully belong…


This is always the way – if we deny something in one place then it simply pops up on another! If we deny or repress our insecurity with respect to the ‘Big Picture’ then it pops up in the ‘Small Picture’ which is made up of the details of our everyday lives. And the point here is that we do repress the awareness of our insecurity with respect to the Big Picture – it’s not just that we ‘repress our awareness of our insecurity in relation to the Big Picture’, we repress awareness of the Big Picture full stop. We simply don’t think about it, or if we do think about it then this is a very rare thing. If we allow ourselves to be aware of the Big Picture then that’s precisely when our insecurity strikes us, after all! Alan Watts says somewhere that a philosopher is a kind of a ‘professional village idiot’ whose job it is to gawp in wonder at the most commonplace things in life, the kind of things that the rest of us are much too sophisticated to take any notice of. It’s not just a philosopher’s job to be a professional village idiot and gawp at the world however – it’s all of our jobs really! We were born to be philosophers of this type and as children, this is what we were.


To put this very simply, if we aren’t gawping in wonder at this world of ours and there’s something amiss! Our basic situation isn’t something that we can afford to be blasé or sophisticated about – it really isn’t. What is our basic situation after all? We can’t actually explain what our basic situation is, we can’t even begin to articulate it – this business of ‘existing’ that we take so much for granted (and who doesn’t take it for granted?) is an unanswerable riddle and anyone who claims to know the answer to this riddle simply talking out of their hat! We have various formulaic answers or stock responses to the question of course but they are only there for the sake of stopping people from asking questions; they certainly are there for the sake of providing a meaningful answer! We might think that we know all the answers (as most adults do) and walk around with all of our child-like questioning ‘laid to rest’ but all we have done in this case is to delude ourselves. All we have done in this case is to delude ourselves in the way that practically every human being always does delude themselves. We have accepted a convenient so-called ‘answer’ for the sake of ‘shutting down the questioning process’.


That is one way of dealing with the problem of ‘the riddle of existence’. In conventional religion this is very often what happens – we tell ourselves that it is ‘God’s will’ (or that ‘God made it that way’) then we are able to put the mystery of existence to the back of our minds and become blasé about it. We never think to ourselves that perhaps it isn’t God’s will that we become complacent and dull in our attitude to life! Surely God has got nothing against us existing in a state of wonder, after all! It’s only us who have an aversion to that. In modern times we are inclined to use science for this purpose and imagine that science has ‘answered all the big questions’. ‘Science has replaced religion’, as they say. To think that science has got rid of the perplexing riddle of ‘why there was something instead of nothing’ is ridiculous though – science is about asking deep questions it is true, but it is not and never was about providing concrete answers to enable us to stop questioning, which is what we want to do! The most common way of dealing with the problem of life’s inherent and irreducible ‘mysteriousness’ is however simply too busy ourselves with the ‘everyday mundane tasks’ of our lives and never think beyond them. This is what almost all of us do – we ‘concern ourselves unceasingly with the trivial’! We completely forget to ask ‘deep questions’, in other words; we forget to be the natural philosophers that we are and as a result we become ‘somnambulists’, we become ‘sleepwalkers’ shuffling towards disaster.


There is absolutely no doubt that almost all of us go around being profoundly ‘incurious about the Big Picture’, so to speak. It is perhaps not sufficient merely to say this – we go around completely oblivious to it! As far as we are concerned there is no Big Picture, there is only what is in our heads at the time, and what is in our heads at the time is unfailingly trivial, is unfailingly superficial. We live in a superficial world, after all! Every day we are bombarded with superficial messages; on all sides we are constantly being invited to absorb ourselves in trivial concerns. That’s just the type of world we live in; that’s just the type of world we have created for ourselves. We live in the type of world that coerces us to be constantly preoccupied with trivialities and this emphasis on the small at the expense of the big’ is hardly going to help our mental health any! This obsession with the Small Picture is actually distorting the nature of what it means to be a human being. We’ve turned into shoppers and nothing else!


We run from the Big Picture of what it means to be in this world out of our fear, out of our existential insecurity, because deep down we know that there is no answer to this question. This is forever ‘left open’ – no one can ever tell us what life is all about (although plenty will try). One thing that we do know for sure however is that there is no such thing as ‘investing 100% in running away from what we fear’ without what we fear reappearing somewhere else in disguised form. Any psychotherapist can tell us that! For this reason therefore, we might expect to see ‘mental health issues’ arising when we close ourselves off from reality ‘as it actually is in itself’, and retreat into our private narcissistic bubbles as our superficial society encourages to. Of course we would expect to see problems arising in this case! When we sleep all the time then we will have bad dreams, when we sleep all the time then our sleep will be a disturbed one.


If we reflect on matters in this way then this will bring us face-to-face with another with riddle, and that is the question of why more of us aren’t suffering from anxiety, or from some other sort of neurotic disturbance. How do some of us ‘get away with it’, so to speak? How is it that some of us seem to be able to exist quite happily within the sterile confines of our ‘private reality bubbles’ and yet not be ‘disturbed in our sleep’? Even when this seems to be the case however, the strategy of ‘submersing ourselves in the trivial’ is not exactly the best plan we could ever come up with – being wholly consumed by things that don’t really matter to us (except insofar as they allow us to safely distract ourselves from ever seeing beyond them) is in itself a state of profound suffering! And if we do find that anxiety is knocking on our door, then what helps is not treating this as a manifestation of pathology (as society says it is), but seeing it as an invitation to open our doors and widen our experience of what it means to be in this world. In the end everything depends upon our attitude – it’s not ‘what we do’ or ‘how we think about things’ that matters but whether we trust (or are at all interested in) what we do not and cannot know, or whether we see it as a threat…


















The Formulaic Approach To Anxiety

There is a huge amount of misinformation and obfuscation about anxiety going around – the self-help section in any bookstore in town is pretty much guaranteed to be full of it. All of our approaches to anxiety suffer from the fault of being far too superficial; they suffer from the fault of being ‘superficial to the point of being entirely useless’ – and this is a rather curious thing. Why do we feel compelled to treat anxiety in this way? Why can’t we just be straight-up about it when this would obviously be ‘the helpful thing to do’? Why are we always so damn trivial when it comes to ‘the psychology of anxiety’? Søren Kierkegaard, writing over a hundred and fifty years ago, was able to take a ‘non-trivial approach’ to anxiety, so why can’t we? What’s wrong with us?


The ‘misinformation’ or ‘obfuscation’ that we’re talking about here comes down to the idea that if we are anxious and we do ‘X’ – whatever the hell ‘X’ might be (and it could be anything at all) – then this will help us. We are given the idea (in a very authoritative way) that there is a formula that can be used to free us from anxiety and although the formula in question may vary from authority to authority (as is usually the way) the idea that there is, or should be, a formula is constant. We are always being told that there is a formula, that there is ‘a thing that we can do’ or ‘ a method we can follow’. This is ‘misinformation’ because it’s simply not true – anything we deliberately do in order to ‘free ourselves from the anxiety’ is the anxiety, and if we can’t see this then we can’t see anything!


There is a very good reason why – culturally speaking – we seem to be so insistent on spreading this facile ‘formulaic approach’ to anxiety and that reason has to do with what Alan Watts calls ‘the taboo against knowing who you are’. The idea that there is a societal taboo against knowing who we are sounds very strange to us – we all go around after all constantly saying who we are, making confident and definite statements about our identity. Aren’t we just delighted with all the labels that we have accumulated saying ‘who we are’? Isn’t that what life seems to be all about – proudly saying who we are, and what we are all about?


All of that takes place in our public life, however – this kind of ‘identity-affirming’ stuff is no good at all when we are thrown back on ourselves and have to relate to what’s really going on with us. Labels and designations aren’t going to provide any satisfaction or validation here, obviously. So straightaway we can see that there are two domains here – there is the domain of public life which is the theatrical world of how we are seen and how we want to be seen and there is the inner world that is not on display for everybody else and which is not a ‘mere societal construct’. The taboo that we are talking about is the taboo about against knowing anything about this inner world therefore. It’s not just the case that this is something that we know we mustn’t bring up in polite conversation, but rather it is a world that we are not supposed to give any credence to at all. It doesn’t take too much in the way of philosophical reflection or introspection to see that we live in a world that is very much all about ‘the outside’ and not at all about ‘the inside’. Who could possibly deny this? One would have to be very foolish indeed to say that this isn’t the case!


Our everyday life is therefore dedicated to the ‘outer man’ or the ‘outer woman’ – this is unquestionably what our culture celebrates, to the complete exclusion of any other more profound type of life! We celebrate ‘the generic life’ (which is the life that ‘doesn’t really belong to anyone’) when it comes right down to it. It doesn’t belong to us and so whatever we do or don’t do is of no consequence outside of this theatrical realm. It’s all pure time-wasting, in other words! It’s ‘time-wasting’ because it’s not about what matters to us as the individuals we are, but rather it’s about those concerns and interests that are foisted upon us by the ‘overvalent generic mind’, if we can put it like that. The ‘overvalent generic mind’ puts thoughts into our heads a thousand times a day and we then think that these thoughts are ours, and if this isn’t ‘time wasting’ then what is? We have become ‘the tool of thought’ rather than vice versa. The ‘outer life’ is that so-called life which intrudes upon us from morning to night and which is basically selling us issues to ‘take seriously’, issues ‘to worry about’ that are actually completely and utterly spurious. In our normal state of being we are unable to spot these thoughts for what they are and as a consequence we spend most of our waking hours being preoccupied by them, one way or another.


In psychiatry we talk about ‘intrusive thoughts’ – which are distressing thoughts or ideas that burst in on us – and it could be said that all of our everyday thoughts are like this, albeit to a lesser degree. It could be said that our whole culture (the ‘positive’ or ‘defined’ world that we have built up around ourselves) is like this – it is ‘extrinsically originated’, forceful, brash and entirely ‘lacking in soul’. It’s all appearance with no content, action with no poetry, mechanical motivation or impetus with nowhere real to go to. This is the world of the glossy image with nothing behind it, the world of the pretence that has long since left reality far behind! To understand this is to understand something very important about anxiety: anxiety, on an essential level, has to do with defending an image of ourselves, defending a ‘role’ we are playing but which we don’t know ourselves to be playing, rather than defending or securing who we are behind all that. We don’t know who we are behind the role or act – all of our awareness is hooked onto the coat-hanger which is the rational mind’s concrete version of us.


When we allow ourselves to be defined – and therefore ‘narrowed down’ – by the profoundly unpoetical rational mind (which is the same thing as allowing ourselves to be defined and ‘narrowed down’ by society, society being an extension of that mind) then we gain in terms of how certain (or ‘solid’) we feel our existence to be, but we lose in terms of how real we feel. Instead of real we feel ‘solid’, and this is the trade-off that we are making. As a result of making the trade-off ‘solid/definite/concrete’ substitutes itself for real, which thus comes to mean the same thing to us, even though it isn’t at all. Solid/definite/concrete is not the same as ‘real’ because none of these terms have any application whatsoever to reality. Reality as it is in itself becomes unknown to us therefore and we trade on ‘concreteness’ instead, trying to squeeze whatever good we can out of it.


This is where the problem lies however because – ultimately – we can’t squeeze any good out of the concrete because there is no good in it to be squeezed out! There’s nothing there at all actually, either ‘good’ or otherwise. There’s nothing in an image, nothing in an act, obviously. That’s why an image is called ‘an image’, that’s why an act is called ‘an act’. What we do get out of the concrete surrogate for reality is (of course) ‘a sense of ontological security’. This sense of security substitutes for reality, in other words, even though there is no such thing as ‘security’ in the real world. What we’re doing comes down to a trick therefore – we get intense reassurance from the ‘concrete representation of reality’ and we like that a lot (obviously) but the other side of the coin is the ‘negative reassurance’ that occurs when we find ourselves face-to-face with a concrete representation of reality that we don’t like. It cuts both ways, in other words. It’s impossible to obtain the good feeling that we like from the concrete representation of reality without at the same time putting ourselves directly in line with a corresponding bad feeling that we don’t like which can just as easily be supplied for us by the conceptual mind. ‘Definite’ always comes in two flavours, we could say – either positive or negative, either ‘definitely like’ or ‘definitely don’t like’, and it can’t come as one without also coming the other. This is abundantly clear once we take the trouble to reflect on the matter.


So the first thing we can see from all this is that opting for the security of the concrete representation of reality that the thinking mind provides us with sets us up for an endless sequence of up-and-down, pleasure and pain, hope and fear. We go ‘up’ only to be taken ‘down’ again later on and yet we see ‘up’ as being the best thing ever! We see ‘up’ as the best thing ever, but really it’s just ‘down’ in disguise. Another way of expressing this is simply to say that ‘attachment brings suffering’ which is a very familiar formula to any student of Buddhism or Vedanta. If we look deeper into what is going on here we can also gain an important insight into how anxiety arises. We don’t just have the euphoria/dysphoria cycle to contend with in unconscious living, we also have fundamental anxiety! One way to look at anxiety is to say – as we did earlier on – that it comes about as a result of us defending the image or idea of ourselves. Although the image is very definite (and therefore reassuring for us in an ‘ontological-security sense’) it is at the same time entirely hollow, entirely lacking in any actual reality. Although we can’t directly see this (we can’t see it because we are, as we have said, taking ‘definite/concrete’ as an indication of the presence of reality) we nevertheless have an indirect awareness of this disconcerting lack of reality, this disconcerting lack of any genuine basis, and this indirect awareness is what we call ‘ontological insecurity’.


In the normal run of things we don’t perceive ontological insecurity as being what it actually is (i.e. we don’t perceive it as a ‘grasping for a type of reassurance that just doesn’t exist in the world’); we don’t perceive this at all but rather we perceive it ourselves to be ‘striving positively after legitimate values in life’. So, is to give a very simplistic example, we could build a seven foot wall all around the house because we feel that there is an actual danger out there rather than because we feel inherently unsafe in ourselves. Being orientated to concrete goals appears to be meaningful stance to us not because of our insecurity or uncertainty about life in general, but because of some supposed ‘positive value’ that exists in the goals themselves. When we displace our insecurity effectively then the anxiety inherent in our situation will not show itself; as long as we can ‘trick ourselves effectively’ via this displacement mechanism we will not feel anxious, in other words. The thing about self-deception however is that when any awareness at all does start to come back into the picture (which it is bound to sooner or later) then we will start to feel ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘unsettled’ in a very particular way, we will start or feel uncomfortable and unsettled in that ‘very particular way’ that we call anxiety.


When we are anxious and we try to solve anxiety by carrying out some action (no matter what that action might be) then the essential nature of what we are doing is in no way different from what we do when we engage in everyday unconscious displacement activity – we’re ‘trying to get away from what we are afraid of’ in both cases! The only difference is that in the second case (which is where we try to ‘manage’ our anxiety) then we know that we are anxious but at the saying time we are still legitimizing our activity by saying that we are ‘doing something positive’, so to speak. We are not running away from something that we are afraid of; we are on the contrary striving to fix a problem that needs to be fixed. The thing about this however – as we have just said – is that there is no essential difference in what we doing. We are only imagining that there is a difference! If it was the case that it were possible for is to ‘do something’ (i.e. for us to purposefully enact some specific type of behaviour’) that would reduce our levels of anxiety in a long-term way, then what we are doing would of course be ‘entirely legitimate and above board’. It would be legitimate in this case but the only thing is that there no way that ‘doing something to get rid of the anxiety’ is ever going to bring about the result that we are looking for! Just as ‘running away from the fear is the fear’, so too is ‘trying to overcome the fear’ nothing but that same fear.


The only ‘legitimate’ stance we can take with regard to fear is no stance, just as the only legitimate (or ‘helpful’) response we can make to anxiety is not to make a response. If we do make a response then no matter what tour responses is it will be the response of the narrow, fragmented sense of self that we think we are, and since it is this narrow, fragmented (or concrete) sense of self that is at the root of our anxiety, doing this is not going to help us any! To act on behalf of an illusory, suffering-producing ‘concrete image of the self’ is to perpetuate that self, and not only is it perpetuating this self, it is of course also perpetuating the suffering that comes with it. All that is needed for us to grasp this is to understand that we are not at all we think we are, and that it is possible to be absolutely convinced that we are this concrete sense of identity, and yet for this not to be true at all! This very simple insight is all that’s needed for us to be free from anxiety!


Of course, this ‘simple little thing’ that we need to grasp just happens to be the most unlikely thing that we are ever going to see. People can understand all sorts of intellectually challenging stuff, but even the smartest professor in town won’t understand this. The man or woman with the highest IQ in the whole country won’t understand this point! Yet even though there is an intellectual element to this awareness (which can be discussed and analyzed by the thinking mind) – what we’re talking about here is a very practical, down-to-earth thing rather than any sort of high-flown ‘attainment’. When we say that someone is ‘kindhearted’ or ‘generous’ or unselfish’ (or whatever word we might want to use) this obviously isn’t something that happens as a result of a particular intellectual understanding that they have developed about themselves or the world. It comes about, on the contrary, as a result of their actual genuine nature showing itself. It’s a natural as a tree putting out leaves. This is what in Buddhism is sometimes called ‘the good mind’ – the good mind being the mind which is naturally concerned with the well-being of others rather than being exclusively concerned with its own advantage.


This almost inevitably sounds like an issue of morality, which in turn automatically jinxes it for us. We are so used to being bombarded with messages that tell us to be good and not bad, unselfish rather than selfish, kind not mean, patient not cross, virtuous and not sinful, and so on, that we have become completely numb to it. We switch off when we hear it. The problem arises – as P. D. Ouspensky says somewhere – in the fact that we are never told how we might go about following these lofty moral instructions. Our ‘moral development’, so to speak (and this seems to be particularly true in the Christian world) consists of us being given rules and then being put under pressure to obey them. ‘Successful obeying of the rules’ is what is needed if we are to satisfy the overarching moral code. This is a complete jinxes us however because – as we have already indicated – the narrow or concrete sense of identity cannot become ‘wider’ or ‘more inclusive’ as a result of following rules or procedures. Anything we do on the behalf of the ‘fragmentary-or-isolated self’ perpetuates that self. We cannot ‘redeem ourselves’ as a result of our own willed actions, no matter how hard we push ourselves.


Anxiety is in inevitable corollary of living life on the basis of the concrete identity which is ‘the act we put on without knowing that we are’. We’re trying to prove a point that can’t be proved; we’re trying to say that we are what we aren’t! Because of the ‘switchover’ that has taken place when we accepted the rational mind’s dubious offer of ‘ontological security at any price’, ‘certainty’ is seen as being synonymous with reality itself (as we have said) and so we are effectively ‘wedded to certainty’. Being ‘wedded (or addicted) to certainty’ means that we are ‘trapped in the vibration,’ it means that we going to be going up-and-down, up-and-down (with respect to the perceived well-being of the concrete self) forever. It also means that at the very heart of things (at the very heart of ‘he unconscious life’ there is always going to be this terrible anxiety – the anxiety that comes from saying that ‘the unreal is real’ and basing the whole of our lives upon this flagrant inversion of the truth. The concrete sense of self, for all its ‘obviousness’, is a castle built in the clouds, and there’s no way that we can inhabit it in the firm belief that it is built upon solid ground, without incurring anxiety. Anxiety is simply ‘the truth that we are repressing’ coming back at us in a very disturbing way. We absolutely can’t control or rationalise our way out of this predicament, there is no ‘logical exit route’ out of the trap. There’s more to us than mere logic however, and when we tap in to the ‘Wider Reality’, into ‘the reality has not been produced by the conceptual mind’ (which we never have much interest in), then we find something there can help us in an entirely illogical (or ‘irrational’) way!



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Relating To The Present Moment

Nothing the thinking mind does or can do is any help in freeing us from anxiety. We can’t think or strategise our way out of anxiety. We can’t utilise any ‘tools’ to help us overcome it – the reason for this being that the attempt to overcome (or ‘solve’) anxiety is itself anxiety. Trying to solve (or fix) anxiety always ‘feeds right back into the loop’, therefore. It tightens the loop and makes it more painful.


Anxiety = ‘the runaway fixing activity of the mind’ and if we try to fix this runaway fixing activity then we just spin the wheel of the mind even faster! If we try to figure out what’s going on (= ‘analysing the problem’) then we just spin the wheel faster. Any activity of the thinking mind always spins the wheel faster. There’s a huge iron fly-wheel spinning around and around and any attempt to fix the problem which is this ‘spinning flywheel’ just puts more momentum into that wheel.


When we ask the thinking mind to help us, and ‘hand over the reins to it’ then this means putting even more momentum into the wheel. The wheel is the thinking mind when it has got too much energy in it – how can we ask the runaway fixing mind to ‘fix the problem’ when it itself is the problem? How can we use the thing that creates the problem to solve the problem?


We have a dependency upon the everyday rational mind that we just don’t want to examine. We have a lifelong habit of using the thinking mind to feel good about things, to give ourselves a sense of validation or security. Everyone has this habit, and the point here is that when we do this we’re using the thinking mind for a job that it was never meant to do. The thinking mind can’t do this job – it can’t be used to validate ourselves, to make us feel good about our  situation, to provide us with a sense of security or meaning.


The reason for this is that the thinking mind always operates outside of the present moment (either in the future in the past) and only the present moment is real. How can we get a sense of security or well-being or meaning out of something that isn’t real, out of something that is only a conjecture, therefore? The sense of security, or sense of well-being, can only ever be as real as the place that it is coming from and ‘psychological time’ (which is where thought is operating from) is not real. It’s only a ‘conjectural reality’, as we have just said. It’s a guess, it’s ‘a shot in the dark’.


We are hanging our sense of well-being on a cobweb if we use the thinking mind to get a sense of validation and orientation from. We’re looking in the wrong place. Even when it seems to work well and we feel okay or secure as a result of our thoughts about ourselves and the world, this is only really ‘a disaster waiting to happen’. There is always a crisis waiting in the wings and the reason for this is that the thinking mind is like a sword – it has two edges to it not just the one. Because it has two edges it can ‘flip around’ from one edge to the other at the drop of the hat. The same is true with the thinking mind. The thinking mind can make us feel ‘good about things for an unreal reason’ and it can also make us feel ‘bad about things for an unreal reason’. It can do this just as easily. If we hand over our power to it (so that it determines how we feel) then it can devalidate us just as readily as it can validate us.


Why would we want to hang our ‘well-being’ or ‘peace of mind’ on a cobweb? Why would we want to attach it to something is treacherous as thought? How ever did we get into this situation of ‘feeling good about ourselves as a result of what we think’, rather than in connection with what is actually real?


One reason is of course because it’s easy – there’s an immediate result. If I anticipate a positive outcome and allow myself to believe (on some unconscious level, of course) that it’s ‘in the bag’, then straightaway I feel good, then straightaway I obtain the euphoria that I’m looking for. This is basically cheating, but who cares? It works on the short-term anyway, and that’s all we care about. ‘Easy’ is a very big reason, therefore! ‘Easy’ accounts for a lot of what we do…


The alternative is not easy. If we don’t look for our sense of well-being in the future or in the past, then this only leaves the present moment and the present moment is a tricky place for us to get a grip on! There is no security in the present moment, in other words. Of course there’s no security in the present moment – the present moment is undecided, it’s uncertain. The present moment is ‘the unfolding of the new’ and we can’t say what it is that is going to unfold. We can’t anticipate it, in other words; we can only ‘hang in there’ and see what happens.


The ‘present moment’ is a tricky customer therefore – it doesn’t allow us any sense of security. We can’t take anything for granted. We can’t doze, we can’t fall asleep on the job. All we can do is stay with it; all we can do is stay open to the uncertainty of the moment that is unfolding and so ‘security’ (in the context of actual reality) simply isn’t the thing. There’s no such thing as the security we’re looking for.


This doesn’t mean that there is no possibility of experiencing well-being or peace of mind, however! There is a different type of well-being to be had out of relating to the uncertainty of the present moment and this is the well-being that we get from relating directly to a ‘non-conceptual reality’, which is actually the only type of reality there is. The well-being we get from relating to the non-conceptual reality is just another way of talking about ‘the well-being of being alive’, since relating to the unfolding uncertainty of the present moment is what ‘being alive’ really means. There is no other type of ‘being alive’!


When we derive our ‘sense of ourselves’ from our thoughts, from the thought-created world, then we’re not properly alive at all. We’re not awake. We’re in a dream. We are in a state of ‘psychological sleep’, as all the meditation teachers over the centuries have told us! We’re ‘lost in the world of our own unconscious assumptions’, we are living in ‘a mind-produced image of the world’, not the real thing. We are living in Jean Baudrillard’s ‘Realm of the Hyperreal’, which is ‘the menu not the meal’…


As Anthony de Mello puts it –

Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence.

The present moment is a flowing stream and so there is no possibility of security here! Thought – on the other hand – creates ‘fixed structures’ and so there actually is the possibility of security to be had here. There is the possibility of a ‘sense of security to be had here but this so-called ‘security’ cuts both ways, as we have just said – it is euphoria-producing to the exact same extent that it is dysphoria-producing. Euphoria doesn’t come from ‘relating to reality’ but from relating to our ‘rigid ideas about reality’, from relating to our ‘plans for reality’, and dysphoria (or ‘negative euphoria’) is simply the flip-side of this. Our thoughts about reality can make us feel good when we shouldn’t be feeling good, and they can also make us feel bad when there is no real need for us to feel bad, as every sufferer from anxiety knows!


What helps when we are anxious is not more thinking therefore. That’s the very last thing we need! Trying to ‘manage’ anxiety just makes it worse. What helps is not relating to the fixed structures that thought has created (i.e. our ideas about the past and the future), but relating directly and simply to the unfolding of the uncertainty of the present moment. We won’t obtain a false sense of security this way (the false sense of security that puts us to sleep, as Anthony de Mello says) but we will get back a sense of being alive, a sense of being awake. This teaching has been around for a very long time – it’s not some newfangled gimmick! As we read in the Dao De Jing (which was written over 2,500 years ago in ancient China) –

It is by being alive to difficulty that one can avoid it. The sage meets with no difficulty. It is because he is alive to it that he meets with no difficulty.







The Spectre Of Anxiety

Anxiety occurs as a result of the thinking mind projecting limits on everything and the thinking mind always projects limits on everything!


This is what thinking is of course, thinking is that process whereby we impose limits or boundaries on the world – if we didn’t do this then there wouldn’t be anything to think about! This it’s only when we have partitioned something off within boundaries or limits that we can think about it; it’s only when we have defined something that we can think about it, in other words.


No imposed boundaries means no thinking therefore, and thinking is how we gain purchase on the world; it is how we orientate ourselves in such a way that we can make ‘rational decisions’ as to ‘what to do next’. When there are no ‘defined things’ – and therefore no defined outcomes or goals – then it has to be the case that we are not able to make any rational decisions at all. This brings us back to the first point that we made, which is that anxiety occurs purely as a result of the limits which the thinking mind projects on everything. Clearly, if the possibility of making logical decisions exists, then so too does the possibility of making the wrong decision! The polarity of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is inherent in the idea of a decision, after all – whoever heard of a decision without the possibility of right versus wrong?


What we’re really talking about here is control and control is all about right versus wrong. Control is ‘getting the right thing to happen rather than the wrong thing’! There’s a psychological component to this, of course – the psychological component in question being that it feels good when we are able to bring about the right outcome and not-good when we can’t. There’s a feeling of security and self validation when we get the right thing to happen, and the converse is of course also true when we can’t.


Moving one stage further into ‘the psychology of control’, we can say that what happens with all of us is that we get habituated to the feeling of ‘being in control’ (or ‘being inherently able to control’) and we derive an important sense of well-being from it. The sense of being in control’ is the same thing as what Albert Bandura has called ‘perceived self-efficacy’ and perceived self-efficacy is generally seen as a very healthy thing – it is seen as ‘a thing we all need to have’. To consider perceived self-efficacy (or the sense of ‘having the ability to be in control’) as a healthy – or indeed, essential – part of our psychological make-up is seriously deluded however! The reason we can say that it is a delusion to see PSE as being ‘mentally healthy’ is because PSE (or the sense of ‘having the ability to be in control’) is, at root, the very same thing as anxiety.


A sense of being control may not feel like anxiety, but that’s because it’s latent anxiety. It’s anxiety that hasn’t yet been manifested. Perceived self-efficacy is ‘anxiety waiting to happen’ and the reason we can say this is because – ultimately – it is no more than a comforting illusion! At times, we will indeed be able to get things to happen the way we want them to, but this does not mean that we will always be able to do so. It doesn’t mean that we are guaranteed to be able to do so – it doesn’t mean that we can ‘bank on the fact’, which is exactly what we do do, every day of our lives.


Perceived self-efficacy is, when it comes down to it, nothing more than ‘an expectation’, and – what’s more – it’s an unwarranted expectation and so going around basing our sense of well-being on an unwarranted expectation is not in any way a manifestation of mental health! This isn’t a sign of good mental health – no matter what anyone may tell us – but rather it’s ‘an accident waiting to happen’. It’s not mentally health we’re talking about here but ‘us setting ourselves up for a fall’!


When we use this illusionary (although comforting) sense of ‘being in control of what’s going on’ in order to build up some sort of a concept of ourselves, some sort of an idea or image of ourselves, then we doing ourselves no favours at all, therefore. What we are actually doing is that we paving the way for the creation of a concept of ourselves that is based on the suspicion or fear that we – in some fundamental way – aren’t able to can control effectively. This is – we might say – the ‘anxious’ self-image, and whilst the ‘confident’ side of the self- illusion is one that is acceptable to us, and highly approved by everyone, the other side of the illusion is one that is correspondingly unacceptable to us, just as it is unacceptable to society as a whole. We promote the one type of illusion, and try to ‘cure’ the other, therefore!


This attitude of ours is of course quite laughable. What kind of a thing is it where we – in all seriousness – value one aspect of an illusion whilst regarding the other, complimentary aspect of the same illusion as a regrettable error that needs to be fixed? The fact that we, as a culture, take this approach says an awful lot about us, and what it says is not in the least bit complimentary! Our problem is that we have somehow been railroaded into thinking that the only possible way that we have of deriving a feeling of ‘well-being’ about ourselves is through our assumed ability to control successfully, when this is not in the least bit true. Well-being does not come from the ability to control!


Suppose we weren’t able to build our sense of ourselves on our ‘perceived self-efficacy’, on a spurious or illusionary sense of ‘being in control’? What would happen then? How would that work? This turns out to be a very interesting question indeed and it leads us to consider the possibility of an entirely different way of being in the world. Instead of deriving our sense of identity from our assumed ability to control effectively, we could make the experiment of seeing what it feels like when we aren’t trying to be in control the whole time, which is the same thing as ‘making the experiment of seeing what it feels like when we are free from ‘the ever-present need to control’.


This isn’t necessarily as easy as it might first sound, of course. Once we get caught up in this business of deriving our sense of identity from our belief in our ability to control effectively (which is easy to do) then we find ourselves in the situation where we need to keep on controlling in order to retain this sense of identity. This is the classic ‘lobster pot’ scenario, therefore – it’s easy to get in, but very hard to get out again. It’s a classic ‘Hotel California’ scenario – we swan in with the greatest of ease and then the next thing is that we stuck there forever! This being the case, then, we had better hope that we like the furnishings in our room because if we don’t then that’s really going to be just too bad! If we don’t like the furnishings then unfortunately we’re just going to have to get used to them…


This really is an exquisitely subtle trap – once I have constructed my sense of identity, my ‘sense of who I am’, in relation to my perceived ability to control, then no matter what I do I’m not going to be able to extricate me myself from this sense of identity. I’m not going to be able to extricate myself since whatever I do, it is always going to be ‘just more controlling’. Or if we put this in terms of thinking (which comes at exactly the same thing) then we can see very clearly that if my sense of identity is derived from my thinking, then no matter what I do I’m never going to be able to escape this thought-created identity. I’m never going to be able to escape this thought-created identity because whatever I deliberately (or ‘purposefully’) do, I do on the basis of my thinking. I can’t escape my thinking with my thinking, in other words.


Not constructing ourselves on the basis of our presumed ability to control (or on the basis of thought, which comes to the same thing) requires a subtlety that we do not ordinarily possess. Thought and purposeful action are the same thing – the latter being ‘the extension into the world’ of the former – and as we become adults (and get embroiled in the adult world) we very quickly learn to put all our money on thinking, all our money on controlling. This is ‘the sickness we become infected with’, so to speak. We learn to construct ourselves on the basis of our presumed ability to control, and since our ‘presumed ability to control’ comes entirely out of our thinking, entirely out of our thoughts about the world and ourselves, all we are doing, as ‘rationally-minded adults’, is setting ourselves up for anxiety.


The way out of the pernicious trap that we have created for ourselves by our unwise reliance on ‘thought as the basis for our sense of well-being in the world’ is for us to start exploring the subtle aspects of ourselves, the subtle aspects of what it means to be in the world, and this comes down to voluntarily experiencing our vulnerability (which is of course the true state of affairs). The socially approved and validated illusion is that we are ‘effective controllers’ (which necessarily means that we are not vulnerable, since the whole point of being ‘effective controllers’ is that by succeeding at this we shall not be vulnerable), and it is, as we have said, precisely because this ‘invulnerable status’ of ours is an illusion that we have set ourselves up to be anxious. It is the out-and-out lie that we tell ourselves about ourselves ‘being in control’, and the fact that we have based our sense of identity on this lie, that creates the menacing spectre of anxiety, and so all that is needed is for us to cease to rely on this pernicious illusion!


Something curious happens when we do this, when we withdraw our belief in the illusion of this thing called ‘perceived self-efficacy’, and that is that we find that we aren’t defining ourselves at all. When we don’t base our sense of who we are on the belief that ‘we are in control’ (or on the belief that we need to have this ‘essential ability’ to control) then we aren’t actually constructing any sense of identity at all! We don’t aptly need a sense of having this ‘defined identity’ when we not being governed by the ever-present need to control; we don’t actually need to say ‘who we are’ in this rigid, humourless, rule-based way. The reason for this is very simple – just as soon as we stop projecting limits on the world (which – as we have said – is what thinking is) then at the same time we discover that we are no longer projecting limits (or boundaries) on who we are. When we stop imposing limits or boundaries on our actual nature then we are free – we ‘free from definitions’ on the one hand, and we’re ‘free from anxiety’ on the other hand, since it was only being defined in this way that was causing us to be anxious in the first place.








Getting Off The Conveyor Belt

How do we start to be mindful, how do we get started being mindful for the first time when the practice of mindfulness (whatever that might be) is not something with which we are culturally familiar? Even the intellectual understanding of what is called ‘mindfulness’ is rather elusive; never mind actually putting it into practice. The great difficulty is that we keep thinking of it as a task, as something to ‘do’. We always think of everything as a task, and this is because we are always operating out of our thinking mind; we’re always seeing everything as a problem, in other words! As soon as we start thinking in this way then we automatically tense up in preparation for the act of ‘achieving some outcome or other’. We might not know what the outcome or result is supposed to be, because we are not familiar with it, but we tense up anyway in expectation of having to do something.We can’t help thinking that we have to ‘do something’, and this puts us under pressure…


This ‘tensing up’ is a habitual sort of thing – we are always doing it, it is the main thing we have to do in life, or so it tends to seem. We have to tense up in preparation for doing something, in preparation for ‘making something happen’… Life appears to be a series of problems or challenges, one after another after another, sometimes with hardly any break between, or even perhaps no break between them. If this is so (if life is a never-ending series of problems with scarcely any break between them) then what this means is that life itself is interpreted as a problem – and this is not an unusual situation. In everyday language this situation – where life itself becomes the problem – is known as generalized anxiety.Because we see life as ‘a problem to be fixed’, we become vulnerable to deep-seated doubts about our ability to do whatever it is that we are supposed to do (even though we don’t really know what this is).


The more we identify with the thinking mind the more we see everything as a problem because this is the only way the thinking mind can relate to things! It’s a ‘problem-solving machine’ and so that’s what it does. The rational mind is a machine for fixing problems and if we identify with it then that’ll turn us into a machine too!  We will become more and more mechanical, more and more rigid in our thinking, more and more ‘brittle’ with regard to surprising or unwanted outcomes. More and more of us are suffering from anxiety disorders in recent times for the simple reason that our technologically-orientated culture compels us to ‘identify with the thinking mind’. Our rational-technological culture forces us into a position of automatic congruence with the mind-created image of ‘who we are’ and this ‘confusion of identity’ can only ever lead to anxiety, in the long run…


Saying that we tend to relate to life itself as a ‘task’, as something we have to ‘do’, is the same as saying that we habitually tense up (mentally, and sometimes also physically) when we are confronted with any challenge at all. We tense up because we have to change something from the way it is into some other way. We have to take personal responsibility for doing this. If I do have some sort of physical task, such as lifting up a heavy weight, then of course this makes sense. Similarly, if I have to work out something, solve some problem or other, tensing up mentally (which is to say, concentrating) makes perfect sense. But tensing up in the fact of life itself, as if life itself were a heavy weight to be lifted, or a problem to be solved, takes us into the realm of anxiety.


When we are anxious it is this chronic unrelieved ‘tensing up’ that causes us all the distress, all the suffering. We don’t see this however because we think that it is whatever problems or  issues we are faced with at the time that are the source or origin of our distress, and so we try to solve them as quickly as we can so that we can be free from it. This only makes matters worse however because trying to get rid of all issues the minute they arise exacerbates the underlying chronic unrelieved tension, and it is this chronic unrelieved tension that is the true author of our suffering. Try to solve innumerable tasks and issues just drives the tension up a notch. The logic behind the attempt to eradicate all problems is of course that when they are all gotten rid of we will at last be able to relax, but experience shows that this never ever happens. There are always more issues piling up for us to attend to – life is a never-ending conveyer belt of problems and issues and tasks and jobs and ‘general responsibilities’.


We never obtain that longed-for relief as a result of frantically solving problems, sorting out tasks and attending to issues or responsibilities because the real source of the pressure isn’t in these problems, tasks, issues and responsibilities but in my ‘attitude’, so to speak. My ‘attitude’ is one of high-alertness, of maximum vigilance and tension. But we can’t say that this attitude, this constant unremitting underlying state of inner tension is ‘the problem’ because saying this simply adds more fuel to the fire. If we treat the constant unremitting underlying tension as the problem that need to be fixed or solved or otherwise dealt with then this just makes us tense up even more, in readiness to deal with the problem. Trying to do something about this inner tension only causes me to tense up all the more, and so if I was ‘feeling the pinch’ before I will be feeling it twice as much, three times as much, a hundred times as much. The more I try to do something about the tension the tenser I get and the tenser I get the more I feel that I have to do something about the situation! I’m caught on the treadmill of runaway thinking and I don’t know how to get off…


The reason we find ourselves in this trap is because we don’t have any other possibility of relating to difficulties other than trying to fix or solve them (or if we can’t do this, wishing or hoping that we could fix of solve them). This ‘lack of any other possible modality of relating’ is after all what lies behind the anxiety in the first place. All we know is the modality of ‘trying to change the way things are’ (or – failing this – of wanting or wishing to change the way things are, and feeling that we ought to change them even if we can’t, even if it is a practical impossibility for us to change anything). This is the modality of doing.


The possibility that we are missing when we are anxious is the modality of being. The possibility that doesn’t seem to be available to us (that we are in effect blind to) in anxiety is the possibility of being the way that we are rather than changing (or rather constantly trying to change) the way that we are. There is a reason for us being blind to this possibility. After all, in anxiety all we are is ‘straining’ or ‘striving’ or ‘trying’. Everything that we are is caught up within this constant massive effort that we are making. Everything that we are is subsumed within this habitual or automatic constant attempt to change things, or fix things, or escape from things. This is the essence of the situation – being subsumed in this way in ‘doing mode’ so that straining and more straining is all that we know. We are reduced to this – if straining or tensing up inside doesn’t work then the only option that is left open to us is the option of straining and tensing even more.


This chronic inner straining or tension is very much like a muscular cramp or spasm – once the cramping ‘takes hold’ then there is nothing we can do to avert the process. We just have to wait for it to ease up in its own time, acutely painful though it may be. Obviously if I ‘tense up’ against the cramp in any way this only exacerbates the underlying situation. The same is true for the mental cramp of generalized anxiety – anything I do to try to make it go away only adds to it. Even telling myself not to be anxious makes me more anxious – after all, telling myself not to be anxious, trying to ‘talk away the anxiety’, is me tensing up against the anxiety. Since the anxiety is nothing more than chronic ‘tensing up’ anyway, how can this possibly help? Even wishing that I wasn’t anxious is a form of tensing up – it is a form of resistance, and any resistance to anxiety always exacerbates that anxiety.


So what we need to learn is how to refrain from tensing up. What we need to learn is how to not resist the fact of our anxiety – which is itself nothing more than a huge mass of chronic automatic resistance. Our automatic reaction is of course to try to deliberately refrain from tensing up, to deliberately – by act of will – try not to resist. Needless to say this doesn’t work because anything I do deliberately is resistance, anything I do on purpose, as an act of will, is ‘tensing up’. I can’t do ‘not doing’. I can’t deliberately get out of ‘doing mode’. I can’t ‘not do’ on purpose because ‘on purpose’ means straining and tensing and striving and trying and wanting and hoping. So what is the answer? How do I get back from ‘doing’ to ‘being’?


The first step is not to try to stop trying, to not resist our own resisting. Instead of trying not to try, of trying to stop trying not to try, and so on (which is of course a road that never comes to an end) I give myself permission to be whatever way it is that I am just for five minutes. This is a small beginning but it is also a realistic one because this is always a possibility – I give myself permission to be whatever way I actually am just for this short space of time. Any longer would be asking too much. Any longer (in the beginning, anyway) would translate into ‘pressure to perform’, pressure to be a certain way, and that would be counterproductive. We don’t want to turn meditation into yet another task…


After giving myself permission to be the way I am for five minutes I can then begin to be mindful of the way that I am (whatever way that is). So I sit there (or lie there), close my eyes if I can and gently start to notice what is going on for me. The chances are that I will notice myself being tense, that I will notice myself automatically straining to change myself, or to change my situation. This is like noticing that my muscles are locked into a spasm or cramp. Noticing this inner underlying chronic tension is synonymous with feeling the pain of that tension – just as noticing a physical cramp is synonymous with feeling the pain of that cramp. At this point I remind myself – if necessary – that I have given myself permission to be whatever way I am and ‘the way that I am’ is ‘being tense’. So just for the next five minutes I can allow that tension to be there, having given it permission to be there, and also having given permission of the pain of the tension to be there.


Allowing myself to be tense means gently noticing that I am tense – I bring my attention to the pain of the tension and give that pain permission to be there, just for a few minutes. This is like touching something very gently with my finger – I touch it but I don’t try to push or apply pressure. I am just acknowledging that whatever I am touching is there, just by ‘tipping off’ it very gently with the outstretched tip of my finger. In the same way when I notice my underlying inner tenseness I just bring my attention (which is to say, my awareness) to it very gently, acknowledging that it is there without trying to change it in any way. This is a very gentle and undemanding exercise, but it is also highly significant because it is the beginning of what we have forgotten how to do – it is the beginning of ‘being mindful’, the beginning of the practice mindfulness. We’re learning something very challenging; we’re learning how to stop always treating life as ‘a task’, or as ‘a problem that needs to be solved’. We’re learning how to get off the non-terminating conveyor belt of the thinking mind….







The main difficulty with anxiety is that we generally try to solve it in ways that make the problem worse; we use exactly same approach that was responsible for generating the anxiety in the first place. The idea that there are some ways of tackling a problem that only make the problem worse is quite familiar to us and we can give a few common-place examples of what we might call ‘counterproductive problem-solving’ to illustrate the point.


[1]   Screaming at a crying child to make it stop crying.  This is something that most parents would know about!  If I as a parent am stressed out and feel that I can’t take any more, the strongest impulse is to yell at the child to shut up. Experience shows that this usually only upsets the child more, and so it cries more. It is a method of curing the problem that makes the problem worse – like trying to put out a fire by throwing petrol on it.  The same principle also holds true for grown-ups too of course: if you are upset and I shout at you to “stop worrying”, this is only going to upset you more.  Trying to solve the so-called problem of ‘you feeling pressurized’ by putting pressure on you not to feel pressurized is classic counterproductivity.


[2] Trying to solve embarrassment by ‘acting normal’.   This again is something that we can all relate to.  Suppose that I find myself in a social situation and I am acutely embarrassed for some reason. Being embarrassed means that I feel that everyone can see what an idiot I am; in addition to this, having everyone see that I am embarrassed is itself highly embarrassing! My knee-jerk reaction to finding myself in this situation is to make a tremendous effort to appear perfectly normal and at ease. This is counterproductive because it is my self-consciousness, and my preoccupation with what everyone else is thinking about me, that has made me anxious in the first place, yet here am I now focussing even more on ‘how I look’, and ‘how other people see me’.  To be at ease is to have no worries, and yet here am being very worried about the fact that I am worried. Obviously, the state of being ‘unworried’ (which is how I want to be) cannot be achieved by worrying (which is what I am doing). The more I try to correct the situation, the worse it gets – I am going about things in completely the wrong way.


[3]    Being ‘non-suspicious’.  A similar example would be trying ‘not to look suspicious’. Suppose that I am passing through customs and it suddenly occurs to me that I ought to look nonchalant and not at all suspicious. This is an absurdly foolish course of action because, as everyone knows, nothing looks as suspicious as someone who is trying not to look suspicious!  A person who had nothing to hide would not give a damn whether they looked suspicious or not, and therefore all I have done is to demonstrate that I must have something to hide, which is exactly what I did not want to do…


[4] Over-preparing for an exam.  This is a fairly familiar example of counterproductivity:  most people get anxious about exams and the tendency is for us to try to placate the anxiety by making every effort possible to minimize the chances of doing badly. If taken too, far, this natural reaction (which is really, as we have said, an attempt to get rid of the anxiety by ensuring that the thing we are anxious about could never happen) has the reverse effect – it makes us do worse not better. If I stay up half the night revising and trying to figure out what the exam questions might be, and leave home extra early to make sure that I don’t miss the bus, the chances are that by the time I sit down to actually take the exam I will be in a terrible state. Basically, I will be putting far too much pressure on myself to do well, and as a result my performance will suffer. This is similar to over-rehearsing for an interview – if I go over what I think is going to happen two hundred times, then when it happens in reality I am going to be a burnt-out wreck!


The above examples are easy enough to understand, but the way in which our reaction to anxiety is also counterproductive is possibly a little bit harder to see. Example 4 actually touches upon this: the point was that by making the goal of ‘doing well’ so important to us we actually sabotage our chances. Whenever stuff gets that important, it gets impossible, because the consequence of failure becomes so frightening to us that we seize up.  There is a phrase “failure is not an option”.  This is supposed to resonate with confidence and iron-determination, but in fact, if one listens to it with a ‘psychological ear,’ it is not hard to detect the undertones of desperation. The hidden message of bravado is fear; in fact bravado is nothing else but unacknowledged fear – what we are talking about here is ‘denial’ since failure is always an option whether one admits it or not. And if I say that ‘failure is not an option,’ and subsequently this refused option comes to pass, then what sort of situation am I in now? Inflexibility is not a strength, on the contrary, it is setting oneself up for disaster.


The root of anxiety is refused fear, or, to put it another way, ‘fear of fear’. Straightforward fear itself is not the same as anxiety, anxiety is when we try to problem-solve fear by trying to make sure that the fear-provoking situation can never happen. I make it very, very important that fear should not happen, and so, unwittingly, I have made fear into a far worse problem than it would have otherwise been. When anxiety comes, we try to problem-solve that too, not seeing that the anxiety stems from problem-solving fear in the first place. So, I am experiencing anxiety and my automatic reaction is to avoid the anxiety, to deal with it, to push it away, to neutralize it. I want help doing this, if possible. Ideally, I would like a powerful high-tech weapon to zap the anxiety with and blast it out of existence. I may expect this weapon to come in the form of pharmaceutical drugs, or possibly high-powered therapy of some sort. Maybe somebody could hypnotize it away, or analyze it away!  What I don’t see is that all of this is reinforcing the anxiety-generating idea that a certain possibility has to be avoided at all costs. If I invest so heavily in defending myself, then obvious the enemy that I am defending myself against must be truly terrible. And yet, the enemy is ‘me trying to defend myself’ – it is my defensive manoeuvres (otherwise known as ‘avoidance’) that constitute the actual problem, and so if I go on to instigate even more frantic measures to ensure that the feared eventuality never happens, I have actually created yet another level to my nightmare. I have taken it to a new level.


This is a phenomenon known as ‘positive feed-back’ – what this basically means is that ‘the worse it gets, the worse it gets.’   In other words, I notice myself deviating from the track that I am on, and so I correct. However, if my so-called ‘correction’ is actually counter-productive, then things start to go badly wrong, because my ‘correction’ causes me to deviate even more from normality, which causes me to panic and correct even more drastically, which causes even more deviation, which in turn makes me correct even more drastically than I did the last time…!   Positive feedback is the mechanism behind the ‘anxiety spiral’ which leads to a full-blown panic attack. Worry feeds off worry, anxiety feeds off anxiety.


So far we have illustrated the idea of counterproductivity and we have gone on from there to apply the concept to anxiety.  The reason anxiety is so hard to shift, we have said, is that we tend to apply our old, counterproductive thinking to it. This is easy to point out, but much harder to do anything about for the simple reason that when we get anxious or stressed we automatically resort to ‘reflex’ behaviour. For example, if a poisonous snake lunges to bite my hand, I pull back without stopping to think. This is the right thing to do under these circumstances – if I hung around to consider all the possibilities then I would get bitten for sure. This is a case where a deeply engrained habit (or reflex) can save my life! Anxiety is different, though, because it is my habit of reacting automatically that creates the anxiety.  In this case, the poisonous snake is my ‘tendency to avoid,’ and therefore automatic avoidance is like trying to put out a fire by throwing petrol on it.


Panic makes us go back to old ways of dealing with problems – it constricts our sense of freedom, it reduces the ‘spaciousness’ of the present moment so that we feel that we have no time to examine what is going on. Instead of looking at what is actually happening, we react – and this is our downfall.  To get from the place where anxiety is a problem, to the place where anxiety is not a problem is done by dropping our old thinking. Albert Einstein has said that “You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created that problem” and anxiety is a bit like this. We need to look at things in a new way. This sounds perfectly straightforward, but there is one unnoticed little snag which trips us up, and that snag is that we cannot manufacture the new way of thinking out of the old way. Anything we manufacture out of the old thinking is also the old thinking, because there is an unbroken thread of logic which connects everything. It is this thread of logic which holds us back.


The way we break the thread is to stop having expectations about the future. The key is to stay in the ‘here and now’ and allow things to unfold as they do, without us attempting to second-guess them. Normally we are orientated securely in our thinking, and we think we know what sort of things are likely to happen next, in any situation. We have preferences over what is going to happen next, we are not ‘even-minded’ about it all; in other words, we always have an agenda. Our agendas are constructed upon our old way of thinking, and for this reason the old way of thinking gets carried forward into the future – our thinking goes ahead of us! There is only one way to drop our agendas and that is to stay in the present moment: the future is made up of our thoughts and expectations; the past is likewise made up of thinking and memories. It is all connected with the same thread, and so it is all the same structure, the same pattern.  Right at the heart of everything, though, is the reality of ‘here and now’, which is a totally different kettle of fish because we don’t construct it with our thinking. The here and now isn’t a memory, and it isn’t an expectation. It isn’t an idea at all, it is the actual reality. All we need to do to drop the pattern of our thinking is to come back to where we are right now.


This is not to say that having an agenda is bad news, and that we would be better off without them. On the contrary, there are times when it is helpful to have an agenda (as shown by the example of the striking snake); at other times it is not. It all comes down to knowing when it is helpful to have an agenda, and when it is helpful to drop it. This, needless to say, is not always easy to see. We can, however, take a few more examples to make the general idea a bit clearer. For instance, if I need to get to work at a specific time, and I don’t have my own transport, then the agenda of ‘catching a bus’ is a very useful one. Therefore, I look up the time of the buses in the time-table and I plan to leave the house in time to be at the bus stop when the bus I need passes by. But suppose I am late for some reason, and I see the bus pulling off down the road? Well, in this case it is useful to drop my agenda to catch the bus. This sounds very simple, but what tends to happen in practise is that I don’t drop my agenda. Even though it is an impossibility, I am still attached to the idea of being on that bus. This is where counterproductivity can come in: trying to catch a bus when it is travelling at speed is counterproductive, since I am liable to suffer an unpleasant accident of some sort. Even if I don’t physically try to get on the bus, being mentally attached to the idea of the bus is still highly counterproductive because that is going to put me in a bad mood, and therefore the inconvenience of being late for work will be compounded by the fact that I am in a foul humour!


Another example that we can use is the example of ‘appearing normal’. In everyday social situations it is useful to have the agenda of ‘appearing normal’ – in fact this agenda is usually unconscious because we do it automatically.  There are rules governing social interactions and in order to interact effectively we need to observe these rules. If I go into the supermarket wearing only my underwear and barking like a dog I am probably going to get taken away by the police and therefore I will not be able to shop effectively. But suppose that, due to circumstances beyond my control, I find myself unable to behave normally. Perhaps I have been overcome by grief and I am crying uncontrollably, or perhaps I am feeling very anxious and I cannot talk to people. In cases like this it is helpful to drop my agenda to appear normal. After all, it is ridiculous for us to try to have our emotions under control all the time – we are not robots! To try to insist on looking normal at such times is counterproductive because the extra pressure that we are putting on ourselves will make us feel worse than ever.


The problem is that when we get anxious we hold on very tightly to our counterproductive belief, and because of this we are less likely than we would otherwise be to see that the belief is not helpful.  Instead of seeing that our agenda is only relatively important, we think that it is absolutely important. The option of ‘dropping the agenda’ is completely forgotten about, and our actions become compulsive. We insist upon the impossible, which is asking for trouble!


There is an unexpected principle which comes up here, and that is the principle which says ‘you cannot make a goal of not being anxious’. You can want to be ‘not anxious.’  You can attend an anxiety management course, and maybe one day you will not see anxiety as an issue any more. But what you can’t do is get from position <A> of ‘being anxious’ to position <B> of ‘not being anxious’ by will-power and determination. It is not possible to become ‘non-anxious’ on purpose…


This statement tends to seem quite outrageous – it threatens a deep-down belief that we all have, a belief in our own problem-solving ability, our own cleverness. A lot of the self-help literature that is commonly available promotes the message that we can transform ourselves by the power of our own minds, by self-affirmation and positive thinking, and so on. The idea is that we can escape anxiety, if only we tried in the right way – in a logical, positive way that some highly-qualified expert is now going to tell us about. The implication is that if you are anxious or depressed, it’s because you aren’t really trying, and yet the problem in anxiety is that we try too hard. Anxiety-sufferers aren’t people with no will-power, quite the opposite tends to be true.


It is not hard to see the flaw in the ‘positivist’ argument.  ‘Not being anxious’ is the state of mind where you don’t care whether you are anxious or not. It doesn’t matter to you.  It is not an issue, it is completely irrelevant. That is what ‘not being anxious’ means – that you don’t have an issue with stuff. It doesn’t mean that you have an issue with something or other, but you have cleverly manipulated the situation so that it doesn’t seem to stress you out as much as it used to do. That isn’t freedom from anxiety – that is denial!  Freedom from anxiety is much, much simpler than that: freedom from anxiety is when you don’t have defend yourself because it doesn’t occur to you that there is anything there to defend yourself against! There is no longer a battle going on. Another way to explain it is to say that ‘not being anxious’ is the state of equanimity, of not caring. The idea that I can arrive at such a state deliberately is totally absurd. It is the classic example of counterproductivity – I am trying to be in the state of not trying, I am making a goal out of not being goal-orientated, I am hungry to be not hungry. Basically, it matters very much to me that stuff should not matter. What all of this actually comes down to is the supremely counterproductive endeavour of ‘trying to be spontaneous on purpose’.


What we have just done is to draw attention to a paradoxical element within the theory of what we shall provisionally call ‘radical anxiety management’ (although the phrase ‘anxiety management’ is not a helpful term when it comes down to it because it implies control and trying to control anxiety is like trying to put out a fire by adding lots of petrol). ‘Paradoxical’ means that there is something very confusing there, something we can’t make sense of within our existing way of thinking. This forces us to either [1] drop our old way of thinking, or [2] invest heavily in ignoring the paradox.  If I want to ignore, then instead of radical anxiety management, I go for trivial anxiety management, which is where I get to keep my old pattern in a somewhat modified form.  I adjust it, but I don’t scrap it. In trivial anxiety management there are no paradoxes to challenge me, there are just a set of instructions which I have to follow.


The awkward paradoxical element in the rationale behind radical anxiety management which seems to mess everything up isn’t actually a bad thing at all, it only looks like a bad thing because we don’t want to let go of the security of our thinking. We want to have a nice, dependable structure to hold on to when things get tough; we want a formula that is guaranteed to get us through anything that life might throw at us. The trouble is, there is no such thing! There is no way to second-guess life. Rather than face up to this truth, what we do is to ignore the fact that our model no longer works (that our theory no longer holds good), and press ahead anyway. Our behaviour is ‘ignore-ant’ because it is based on ignoring facts that we don’t want to see, and this is of course what we have just been talking about in the section on ‘counterproductivity’.


The only way not to carry on getting bogged down in endless counterproductivity is to obtain insight into the paradox. Obtaining insight is something only I can do, or only you can do; no one can do it for us, and no one can tell us how to do it. Insight can’t be obtained through instruction or through copying – on the contrary, it arises spontaneously, unpredictably. The answer to challenge of the paradox is simple; what the paradox is doing is to throw back responsibility onto the person confronting the paradox. I cannot hand over responsibility to a formula, or a theory, or a procedure, or a skill, or an expert or helper, I have to let go of all these supports and do it myself! Autonomy means being independent, it means not being reliant upon a crutch of any kind. Anxiety, on the other hand, might be characterized as being a dissatisfied state of mind where one is constantly craving an impossible dream of security; it is a ‘clinging’ mentality – I am continuously looking for something solid to grasp hold of, something beyond myself. A straight-forward, non-paradoxical (i.e. self-consistent) treatment rationale is just the sort of thing I am looking for: if you as a therapist present me with a sure-fire method I will cling to it as hard as I can, and therefore you will actually be encouraging the clinging (or anxious) side of me. And anyway, as we have said, there are no ‘sure-fire’ methods!


What sounds like terrible news to start with (there is no such thing as security) turns out to be a liberation. A toddler will be terrified to be left on its own, away from the reassuring presence of its parents, but when the apron-strings have been cut there is a whole new world of freedom out there, just waiting to be discovered. When we do not let go of our need for security, we become stunted by dependency – trapped in the prison of our ‘secure place’.  Increasing autonomy is simply another way of talking about personal growth, and saying that there is no method or procedure to help us gain autonomy is the same as saying that we cannot grow on purpose, because the type of change takes place as a result of purpose is not growth, but adaptation, and adaptation (as Gregory Bateson has said) is just another name for dependency. We do not grow through positive thinking, but only through dropping our old patterns of thinking and this ‘outgrowing’ is a spontaneous process, rather than a willed process. It happens, like happiness or peace of mind, despite our efforts in this direction and not because of them!


To sum up, anxiety occurs as a result of us trying to find a security for ourselves that isn’t there. Another way of putting this is to say that anxiety is our automatic, unreflective rejection of a profound type of freedom, a freedom that we can’t avoid because it is intrinsic to our nature. We unconsciously want to hold on tight to an over-simplified or ‘black and white’ version of the world, a limited and defined version of world that we see in terms of ‘security’ but which does not exist outside of our imaginations. And if it were it to exist, it would be no more than a prison, a fundamental lack of freedom – an absolute obstacle to any change or psychological growth. To see that the security which we instinctively crave is impossible and that it wouldn’t do us any good even if we could achieve it is the essential first step towards freedom from anxiety. Everything else follows on from this key insight. When we realize that there is nothing to cling onto, then we will naturally stop putting so much effort into clinging, and the less effort we put into clinging the less anxious we will be. Anxiety is nothing other than clinging to something we can’t have, after all. We can’t have what we’re clinging onto (or rather attempting to cling onto) because it simply doesn’t exist…