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….

 

 

 

 

 

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Counterproductivity

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!

FIGHTING FEAR

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.

LETTING GO OF THE THINKING THAT CREATES 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.

DROPPING AGENDAS

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.

WHEN TO LET GO

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!

YOU CANNOT MAKE A GOAL OF ‘NOT BEING ANXIOUS’…

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.

EQUANIMITY

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’.

RADICAL ANXIETY MANAGEMENT

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!

SECURITY VERSUS FREEDOM

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working With Anxiety

There is no such thing as a ‘technical fix for anxiety’. There can be on the short term, to be sure, but only at the price of ‘aggravating the original problem and causing it to rebound onus even more painfully in the future’. The so-called ‘technical fix’ isn’t any kind of ‘fix’ at all therefore, it’s only a postponement.

 

The only thing that can really help with anxiety is gaining perspective, and a gain in perspective doesn’t come about as a result of any technical procedure or methodology that we might engage in! Technical procedures only ever reduce our perspective; the ‘problem-solving approach’ only ever reduces our perspective. The reason for this is nothing if not obvious – by going all-out to ‘fix’ a problem we automatically reaffirm the importance, the centrality, the validity of that problem! We ‘narrow things down’…

 

Anxiety – we might say – is where problems or issues get ‘blown up out of all proportion’. This might seem like a rather childishly simplistic or ‘non-technical’ way of talking about anxiety (i.e. it may not sound fancy enough for us) but it is all the same an excellent, down-to-earth definition of what it means to be anxious. Things bother us that really oughtn’t to bother us, and not only did they ‘bother’ us and completely disturb our peace of mind, they put us through the ringer. This is no small inconvenience we’re talking about here –  if anything that comes into our head is liable to get blown up out of all proportion (and as a result cause us maximum distress) then life very quickly becomes all but impossible. We run into a brick wall.

 

Saying that things get ‘blown up out of all proportion when we are anxious’ is of course just another way of saying that anxiety comes out of our ‘lack of perspective’. Who could possibly argue with this? And what this means – as we have said – is that they cannot be any such thing as a ‘technical fix’. This ought to be obvious to us but somehow it isn’t – in this excessively rational world of ours we fondly imagine that ‘technical fixes’ are the answer to everything. We fondly imagine that control is the answer to everything, so that if only we can get good enough at controlling (and have the right strategies at hand) then all our problems will be at an end.

 

When we try to solve something then as we have said this automatically reaffirms whatever problem it is that we are trying to solve as being important, as having the status of ‘needing to be solved’. The issue in question undergoes a shift and becomes ‘absolutely important’ rather than instead of just ‘relatively important’, which is its true status. Fixing immediately narrows our focus, narrows our sense of perspective, and so the anxiety around the issue in question gets aggravated rather than lessened and there is no way that this cannot be the case! This is always, always, always what happens when we try to control.

 

When we try to fix (or solve) anxiety then we doing the most unhelpful thing we could ever possibly do! Straightaway we are losing perspective – straightaway anxiety is becoming a bigger and bigger issue, straightaway everything is becoming very ‘black-and-white’, which is another way of saying that they are only two possibilities for us – either we ‘fix’ the anxiety (which is that ‘good outcome’) so we fail to fix it (which is the ‘bad outcome’). Black and white thinking lies at the very heart of anxiety, at the very heart of neurosis. Black-and-white thinking actually IS anxiety!

 

The only thing that helps to ‘loosen the knot of anxiety’ is perspective, and there’s no technical fix for this, as we keep saying. They can’t be a technical fix for the increasing of perspective for the reasons that we have just gone into. The very idea that there could a technical way of increasing perspective is utterly absurd, utterly ridiculous. Perspective is what we get when we aren’t trying to control. We’d have to be suffering from a chronic lack of perspective not to see this! What this term ‘perspective’ means is that we’re not being hemmed in by any biases or prejudices; it means that we have lots of possible different ways of seeing or relating to the world, and as soon as we start thinking in terms of ‘defined outcomes’ and ‘specified ways of obtaining these outcomes’ (i.e. strategies’) then we end up with only the one way of seeing things. We end up with only the one way of seeing the world and this is the ‘black-and-white way’, the polar viewpoint which says there is either ‘winning’ or ‘losing’, ‘getting it right’ or ‘getting it wrong’.

 

This view of things (which equals ‘the fixing view’ or ‘the controlling view’) is the very epitome of an unfree state of mind, even though we can’t generally see it as such. We don’t see this black-and-white state of mind as being ‘unfree’ (and therefore ‘suffering-producing’) because we are so hypnotised by the prospect of the so-called ‘positive outcome’. We think that if we obtain the positive outcome then everything will be OK. We think that if we can just ‘tick this box’ then we will finally be free, then we will finally be at peace. This is completely and utterly untrue however – this belief is actually what is stopping us from being free, stopping us from being peace. What’s stopping us from being free is our black and white way of seeing the world, and straining after a defined outcome (or goal’) is not going to take us out of our black-and-white thinking! Straining to obtain the goal is only going to aggravate the problem yet further, as we keep saying.

 

When we try to ‘solve anxiety’ what we really trying to do, unbeknownst to ourselves, is ‘solve life’ and the reason we say this is because ‘life’ (or ‘reality’) is a state of unconditional open-endedness, which is to say, it is ‘the unbounded state in which there are an infinite number of possibilities, none of which have been decided upon yet’. Trying to ‘solve life’ isn’t a good road that to go down, obviously enough – it isn’t a good idea to treat life as ‘a problem that needs to be solved’! ‘Solving life’ means ‘narrowing it down to manageable proportions’; it means restricting it so that there aren’t so many different possibilities in it any more. ‘Solving’ life means closing it down, in other words, and this is what we are constantly trying to do with all our black-and-white thinking, with all our busy-busy goal-orientated activity.

 

When we reduce life down to ‘only the one possibility’ what we’re actually doing is turning it into something that isn’t life. This is our solution to life’s existential challenge – to hide away in our beliefs, our routines, our narrow way of interacting with the world. This solution – as any psychotherapist will tell you – is no solution at all when it comes down to it; it is no solution at all because instead of actually helping ourselves we are creating extra problems! By ‘running away from openness’ we are actually creating problems that aren’t really there; we are ‘reducing our perspective as a means of making things better for us’ and yet this lack of perspective – as we have said – is the root cause of all our neurosis, the root cause of all our anxiety and existential dread. Closing down life (i.e. ignoring it, or ‘living it only on our terms’!) creates all our problems rather than solving them.

 

This discussion is all very well, but what we really want to know is how to go about regaining the perspective that we have lost. What can we do to help ourselves when ‘straining for outcomes’ isn’t the answer? The very first thing that we need to know – and understand very clearly – is that ‘methods’ and ‘strategies’ and ‘procedures’ aren’t going to be of any help at all. This is a tremendous thing to understand – we are all so very convinced that controlling is the answer to everything that it takes an awful lot to shake this monumental belief! When we do see this then it naturally happens that we stop investing so very much in control, and this eases our anxiety straightaway. A precious bit of perspective comes back into the picture, like a ray of sunshine falling in a dark cave. We’ve come back to ourselves a bit.

 

It is the unexamined belief in the power of controlling to fix all our problems that fuels our anxiety – trying to control is ‘adding petrol to the fire in the misguided attempt to put it out’. When our absolute unquestioned allegiance to (or investment in) control as ‘the way to go’ has had a dent put in it then our ‘mechanical reacting’ no longer has the vicious force in it that it used to have. There’s still plenty of force there, there’s still plenty of momentum, but is not the same – the ‘dark spell’ that kept us trapped in this business of ‘blind mechanical reacting’ is now been broken and as a result things can only get better. What helps anxiety is not to compulsively try to fix it (or fix the particular problems that we are worried about) but to ‘practice staying in the present moment’ and this is not a strategy.

 

There is a ‘simple rule of thumb’ that we can apply here. There are (we might say) only two things that can be going on with us at any point in time – either there is ‘trying to control’ or there is ‘staying in the present moment’. When we ‘try to control’ then we are reaching out for defined goals, defined outcomes, and this is reducing our perspective on things and creating black-and-white (i.e. compulsive) thinking. Our attempts to control engenders anxiety in other words and this is the ‘basic equation’ that we need to remember – “the attempt to control equals anxiety”. There is no controlling involved in staying in the present moment – the present moment has already been obtained, after all! It’s already there! All we need to do is ‘notice what’s happening, no matter what is happening’ and there is no controlling in this. This is called ‘being in the world’ and this no controlling involved in ‘being in the world’! This is the very thing that we keep forgetting. We forget that we don’t need to do anything in order just to ‘be’ and as a result we get caught in the trap of trying to control our own reality.

 

Anxiety – we might say – arises out of unconsciousness. By ‘unconsciousness’ we mean ‘investing everything in controlling, and thereby turning our backs on the present moment’. Controlling may take us into the future, or it may take us back into the past, but it will never bring it into the present moment! Being conscious, on the other hand, means that we aren’t forever trying to stay in control. ‘Control’ and ‘consciousness’ exist in inverse proportion, therefore, and this is just another way of saying that consciousness is the same thing as perspective. This doesn’t mean that we can’t ever control, or that it somehow ‘wrong’ to seek to control, it just means that we don’t try to control what doesn’t need to be controlled. It means that we don’t try to solve life itself. We are controlling out of awareness, in other words, rather than out of blind reflexive compulsion. We control when it is helpful to do so and we ‘let go’ when it isn’t helpful and we are able to do this because we have a bit of perspective on things. Without perspective the inevitable result is that we try to control all the time; we try to control all the time because we have forgotten that we don’t actually need to! We are ‘slaves to the need to control’ and the need isn’t a real one – it comes out of lack of perspective, lack of awareness. We live in a world where everything is controlling in other words, and this is because we have lost sight of any other world.

 

It might seem rather ‘over-simplistic’ or ‘inadequate’ to talk about the answer to anxiety being something as nebulous as ‘staying in the present moment’. When we are suffering from anxiety it definitely doesn’t sound concrete enough (or technical enough) to be of any use! No one is telling us things that we need to do, steps that we ought to take. We have not been handed any method or strategy which we can place our trust in. But if someone did give us some concrete method or strategy then they wouldn’t be helping us, they would merely be adding to our suffering, as if there wasn’t enough of it there already.

 

Our usual approach is to narrow down the field of possibilities until only two possible outcomes exist; we ‘narrow things down’ until it seems to us that only the two possible outcomes exist – ‘succeed’ or ‘fail’, ‘win’ or ‘lose’. All that’s left for us then is to hope that we get the right rather than wrong! Neither of these outcomes are ‘real things’ however – they are simply ‘ideas’, they are ‘over-simplified mental projections of an imaginary future’. Out of our complete lack of perspective we have personalised life into only two things  – ‘fixing the problem’ and ‘not fixing it’, ‘getting it right’ and  ‘getting it wrong’. If we had our precious perspective back again however we would immediately see that life has got nothing whatsoever to do with fixing problems, we would see that it has nothing to do with ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

 

The only real thing there ever could be is the ‘wide-open field of undecided possibilities’ that is the present moment. There’s nothing over-simplistic or inadequate about this therefore – what IS over-simplistic is our regular approach to life, which is to try to reduce it into a set of abstract polarities, such as yes and no, win or lose, right and wrong. Staying in the present moment means disengaging from our thinking therefore and this isn’t a strategy because if it were then we would be engaging with our thinking rather than disengaging! When we disengage from our thinking we come back into the world where there is no right and no wrong, no need to control, no need to ‘automatically fix’, and this is a world which isn’t ruled by anxiety. This is the world that exists outside of our thinking.

 

 

 

The Uneven Mind

Resistance is the single most important idea that we need to grasp if we are to properly (i.e. not intellectually) understand anxiety. Even if we disregard everything else, all the type of more-or-less useless stuff we always get told in anxiety management classes, if we were to understand this much that would be enough. It is our automatic resistance that causes anxiety and once we drop that resistance there is no way that we could ever suffer from anxiety. That would not be possible. Admittedly, this is not exactly what you might call a ‘quick fix’ – resistance is the ‘habit of a lifetime’ and it isn’t something we can dispense with anytime soon, but all the same it is the only thing we truly need to understand if we want to know what anxiety is all about.

 

What is more, resistance is actually a very simple idea – a PhD is not needed to understand it. As we have said, it’s not an intellectual type of an understanding at all but a ‘practical’ one. The only point that we need to make is that it takes (as we have just said) a huge amount of persistent and patient practice before we can find that we are able to drop our habit of resistance, and it is of course this that tends to put us off. As we have said, this is a ‘slow but sure’ approach, not a quick fix that wears off after a month or two. There’s no handy ‘method’ (or ‘system’) learning how to resist less in everyday life, and this is disconcerting, but the ‘plus’ side of the deal is that there is absolutely nothing in life that it is more helpful to learn! ‘Distress tolerance’ techniques are nonsense in comparison (naturally they are since techniques are just another form of resistance, just like everything else that comes out of the thinking mind) So what exactly is resistance, and how do we go about dropping it? There’s certainly no ‘technique’ for dropping it anyway, that’s for sure!

 

Resistance means that we are in one place, and wishing we were in another. For example, I might be in McDonalds, about to tuck into a quarter-pounder with cheese when I remember that the burgers in Burger King are really much nicer. So there I am in McDonalds, wishing I where in Burger King.  The fact is that I am not in Burger King , but because of my resistance neither am I wholeheartedly in McDonalds – I am there, but at the same time I am dissatisfied with where I am and so in a very real sense I am not there. You could say that I am in a sort of limbo because I am not getting the benefit of being where I am, and I am certainly not getting the benefit of being where I am not, because I’m not there! Needless to say, this business of being ‘reluctant to be where I am’ spoils things for me.  If I were a small child, you would probably say that I am in a bit of a sulk, but because I am a fully-grown adult we will say that I am exhibiting ‘resistance’. As we shall see, it is not quite the same thing as a good old-fashioned sulk because it tends to be a lot subtler, but it’s the same sort of thing.

 

Now, this is a bit of an over-simplistic example and so we need to take it further. When discussing resistance we are not so much talking about resisting our physical location but rather resisting our mental location, i.e. resisting ‘where we are in our heads’. So, I am feeling sad and wishing that I was not sad, or angry and wishing that I was not angry, or embarrassed and wishing that I was not embarrassed. Generally speaking, I am feeling bad and wishing that I was not feeling bad.

WHEN MY MIND IS UNEVEN

It is hard to see what is wrong with this – who wants to feel bad, after all? The little word ‘want’ is in fact the key to the whole matter because when it comes right down to it it’s not about wanting, it’s about what is. We tend to be preoccupied with ‘where we want to be’, and dismissive about where we actually are. We see ‘where we aren’t’ as having great value, and ‘where we are’ as having none. This means that my mind is uneven, and unevenness always leads to resistance.

 

Our problem (the unevenness) comes from our deep-rooted belief in the idea that there are RIGHT places to be and WRONG places to be. Resistance comes about because we want to avoid the wrong place and reach the right place. Again, it’s hard to see what the harm is in this, but actually it causes us no end of suffering – by resisting what is we make life far more difficult for ourselves than it has to be. A little bit of thought is all that is needed to spot the glitch. Ninjutsu master Hatsumi Soke has said: “There is no right way or wrong way, only a place from where to start.”  When we find ourselves in what we take to be a wrong place, we turn our backs on that place, we write it off. Like the guy in McDonalds who wishes he were in Burger King, we end up in limbo – neither in one place nor the other. What has happened is that we have severed our connection with reality so that there is nothing that can help us.  This is ‘cutting off my nose to spite my face’.

 

In order to start, we have to have a place to start from, and that place has to be a real place – not just a sort of ‘if only’ bubble floating over our heads.  When we really fall into a hole (when things really get bad) we write off where are, we say that it is a ‘wrong place’ or a ‘wrong way to be’, and this attitude condemns to get nowhere. This is like the joke where a lost motorist stops a local man to ask directions for a certain town. “Oh no” says the fellow, “You don’t want to start from here…”

The point of the joke is obvious – the local man is being no help to the motorist at all because the motorist is where he is, he isn’t at ‘the right place to start’. He is where he is – he can’t help being ‘where he is’!

GETTING ON WITH THE JOB

Another way to explain resistance is by saying that it is what happens when I am given a job to do that I do not like. Because I don’t really want to do the job my heart isn’t in it at all, and so the time seems to drag on forever. I don’t get any good feeling from what I am doing, because I am not actually doing anything! I am just going through the motions, reluctantly, whilst my mind is elsewhere. If, on the other hand, I had put my heart in the job the time would have flown, and I would have got a genuine feeling of satisfaction out of what I had done, no matter what the result. Because I know that I have not ‘copped out’, I have peace of mind.

 

Putting my heart in a job doesn’t mean fixing my thoughts on the ultimate goal and willing myself to reach it, it means being totally in whatever I am doing right now. Fixating on a goal means that I just want to get the job out of the way. If I am worried about whether I will succeed or fail, then that isn’t being wholehearted – being wholehearted about something means unreservedly accepting where I am, and unreservedly accepting the consequences of being where I am. Being wholehearted about doing the job that is given to you is also the same thing as being ‘even-minded’.

LOSING HEART

What does being ‘wholehearted about the job’ mean when applied to anxiety? It is easy to get confused here. When I am anxious I am running away from the ‘work’ of being where I am and it is this that is creating the anxiety. The job that I have been given is not to ‘fix’ anxiety or ‘fight’ anxiety or ‘escape’ from anxiety. The job is to be anxious if I am anxious, and not have my eyes fixated upon the goal of ‘not being anxious’. The job is to not resist anxiety, in other words.  Instead of chasing reality-as-I-would-like-it-to-be (which is unreality) I deal with reality as it is.

 

If the guy in McDonalds is half-hearted about being where he is, then I (as an anxiety-sufferer) must be ‘one tenth-hearted about being where I am. Or ‘one hundredth-hearted’. In an out and out panic attack the truth of the matter is that my heart is simply not in it at all! My resistance is at a maximum – I just don’t want to be here. Where I am is the wrong place to be, and I want out. And yet, that is where I am, and what greater authority can there be than reality itself? If I am there, then how can it be the wrong place to be? It has to be right, because where else could I be?

 

When I have no resistance to being where I am, then there is no obstacle anywhere, because the truth is that the only obstacle was in my mind. With no resistance there is no obstacle anywhere, ever. This is a totally unimpeded situation – it is complete peace of mind, it is the complete absence of anxiety. This does not mean that life is never difficult; it just means that when problems come along, I don’t have a problem with that.

 

Imagine that you have a beast of burden to bear your pain for you, to carry your suffering, and that this beast of burden can carry any weight without complaining or faltering. It can take on any job that comes along. This beast of burden is your ‘spirit’; in other words, it is the inner strength that is available to everyone when they draw upon it. The problem is that we have trained ourselves (very thoroughly and persistently) to believe that we are weak, when in reality we are not. By always trying to avoid situations that we think are going to be too difficult for us we have in fact trained ourselves to believe in our own assumed weakness, and so this weakness has become real. This is a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, which is something that we all do, all of the time – we identify (or ‘project’) limits, and then proceed to act as if these limits were real.

 

As a result of this we end up living out our lives within the confines of mental limits – neurotic limits that have no existence outside of our own minds. As Richard Bach says: “Argue hard enough for your limitations and, sure enough, they become yours”. Basically, we have ended up developing a strong faith in our own weakness rather than developing faith in our strength. The way that we have developed the curse of having ‘faith in our weakness’ is through resistance: what got us in this mess is our automatic and unreflective avoidance of situations that we don’t like. Resistance and ‘faith in one’s own weakness’ go hand in hand – the first leads to the second and the second leads to the first. Because we always try to avoid situations that we think are the ‘wrong places to start from’ we never discover that no place is the ‘wrong place to start from’.

TO NOTICE RESISTANCE IS TO UNDO RESISTANCE

Now it is important to stress that we can’t just drop a life-long habit of resistance just like that. It is not possible to just ‘drop’ a powerful habit in a week or in a month or even in a year. I cannot develop faith in my own strength overnight, and neither can I start by ‘slaying the biggest dragon’. If a panic attack comes along then my resistance will be automatic, it will just happen. I will try not to resist, but then I am ‘resisting resistance’.  I am turning my habit of resistance against itself, and so I am actually strengthening my habit of resistance. The only way to learn to drop resistance is by watching how we react to small things. A situation comes along that makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable and I notice how I start to react. ‘Noticing’ is the first basic act of dropping resistance – it is the start of a revolution (an inner revolution) because normally we never notice resistance. We just resist, and that is it. From then on, from the very moment we start reacting, it is all just automatic. There is no freedom at all, no possibility of getting off the merry-go-round of anxiety.

 

Being able to quietly notice things about how I am reacting is the beginning of freedom; in fact it is freedom – a very profound freedom. In order to escape slavery, we must first see that we are slaves, and then see how it is that we are slaves. Being a slave to resistance (being a slave to our own conditioned weakness) is not the same as being a slave to some external force because I cannot fight it. What we are slaves to is our own thinking, our own reasoning minds, and as soon as I fight (or do anything deliberate at all) I feed that thinking, I feed that reasoning mind. By ‘reacting to my reacting’ I reinforce the very thing that is keeping me prisoner.

THE ‘WILD HORSE’ OF THE MIND

A good way to explain the practice of becoming aware of resistance is by saying that it is like dealing with a wild horse that is easily spooked by anything that comes along. If I have such a horse then that either means that I have to make sure nothing comes along to upset the horse, or I have to find a way of taking the wildness out of it. The first method (the lazy man’s method!) is obviously no good because there is always going to be something unexpected to come along and so it is the second method that is needed.

 

The thing is, it is no good walking the horse down the road and waiting for a fire engine to go by with its sirens screaming to start getting the wildness out of the horse. The horse will bolt – it will lose its head completely and that will be that. There will be no talking to it. So what I do is get the horse used to little disturbances. If I keep this up the time will come when small things will no longer spook the horse. It will not gallop off down the road with froth coming out of its mouth and its eyes rolling and me clinging on for dear life to its back. So then I can work with slightly bigger disturbances, and get the horse used to them. Eventually, by a process of degrees, the horse will lose it’s ‘wildness’ altogether and nothing will spook it.  This means that the horse will become very useful to me because I will be able to go where I want. Before, when the horse was wild, I couldn’t use it and so I had no way of getting about. I was totally restricted. Now, I can go far and wide, as I please – I have the gift of freedom.

 

Now it is very important to note that the analogy of the ‘wild horse’ cannot be taken too far. We spoke of ‘taking the wildness out of the horse’ rather than saying ‘training the horse’ and this is because we have a great tendency to think that we can train our minds not to be anxious. It is training that has got us into the mess we are in now – there is no such thing as ‘good training’ – all training weakens us, all training creates ‘faith in our own weakness’. Actually, training is resistance. If I was to try to train my mind then I would reward myself for good thoughts (or good reactions) and punish myself for bad thoughts (or bad reactions). This creates a belief in a RIGHT WAY and a WRONG WAY, which is the root of our troubles. Training creates an uneven mind, and an uneven mind is a mind that never has any peace – it always has to manipulate, it always has to resist.

 

I take the wildness out of my mind by noticing it, not by controlling it, not by ‘managing’ it (and what a truly horrible world ‘managing’ is in this context!!). As we have said, the basic act of freedom is to quietly notice how we react to stuff. All reacting is resistance, but noticing that I am reacting is not resistance, because I am being where I am. After all, if I’m noticing it, I must be there! Resistance, as we know, means not being there, and so when I start to notice my resistance that is the first thing that is not resistance. From this humble beginning, everything else follows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Can’t Escape On Purpose

There exist certain situations from which it is impossible to escape on purpose – these situations are traps because the harder we try to extricate ourselves the more tightly we get caught up in them. There are many examples of this sort of thing that we could look at. One would be the situation where I am trying to ‘act cool’ when something happens to embarrass me. I say or do something completely stupid in front of a whole crowd of people. Now if I don’t mind being shown up in this way then there is no problem but because I am ‘putting up a front’ then I most definitely am going to mind making a fool of myself. I am going to mind big time!

 

This is where the trap comes in because the more I try to distance myself from the embarrassing incident by saying “It doesn’t matter” the more obvious it will be to everyone that it does matter. The more effort I put into trying to convince myself and others that it isn’t important, the more important I make it. After all, if it really doesn’t matter to me then why does it matter to me so much to say that it doesn’t matter? If it really isn’t important to me then why is it so important that it isn’t important?

 

Another example of this sort of thing would be where I discover that I am prejudiced towards somebody. Maybe they belong to a different race than me, or a different sexual orientation, or a different social status. Now if I am happy being prejudiced then there is no problem (at least, not as far as I am concerned!), but if I don’t want to be prejudiced, then I am in trouble because it is totally impossible to be unprejudiced on purpose. Why this should be is easy to understand: being prejudiced means that I treat someone (or something) in a special way. Now, either I am positively prejudiced or negatively prejudiced – these are the two possibilities. Either I ‘approve’ or ‘disapprove’. Therefore, if I discover to my horror that I am negatively biased towards you, and I try to ‘correct’ this attitude by being positively biased instead, I straightaway demonstrate to everyone that I am prejudiced, because I am treating you in a special way! The fact is that I cannot treat you in a ‘non-special’ way on purpose because if I my attitude is ‘on purpose’, then obviously there is an issue there.

 

There is a very important principle behind these two examples. There is absolutely no way that I can make something not matter to me on purpose: if I say “I don’t need to take a position on that” then I have proved myself a liar just as soon as I open my mouth because deliberately not taking a position is a position.  If something genuinely doesn’t matter to me then I have no position with regard to it, but I do not get to have ‘no position’ as a result of a deliberate act. If it matters, then it matters, and no amount of twisting and turning will get me out of it! This is an important principle to understand because it applies to all of the ‘negative’ mental states that we are prone to getting trapped in.

ANXIETY

Anxiety is a classic example of this: if I am worried by something then trying to be ‘not worried’ by taking a different position towards the source of my anxiety is simply not going to work. Contrary to popular belief, there is no ‘new improved’ viewpoint that I can take, no ‘new improved’ way of thinking about my situation that is going to make me feel better. After all, if I am worried enough about the source of anxiety to be looking for new ‘non-anxious’ ways of looking at the problem, all I am doing is re-affirming the thing that I am worried about as something worth being anxious about! The fact of the matter is that the only reason I am adopting this new viewpoint that ‘everything is okay really’ is because I actually think that ‘everything is not okay’. So the whole enterprise of trying to find a new, more ‘rational’ and less anxiety-making way of looking at the world is based on fear, which is hardly a good basis to start off on. In a nutshell, the more determinedly I assert to myself that “I am not worried” the more worried I must be to be making the statement in the first place. What this means, in plain language, is that we cannot escape from anxiety on purpose.

NEGATIVE BELIEFS

Another example of the principle has to do with self-esteem. It is common practice to try to ‘cure’ low self-esteem by making self-affirming statements. So every morning I look in the mirror and say in a loud confident voice, “I am going to be a success” or “I am a good person!” or something like that. The problem with this ought to be obvious by now – if the only reason I am affirming that I am a good person is because I secretly (or not-so-secretly suspect that I am a bad person, then exactly how much is my positive self-affirming statement worth?  Obviously, if I am standing there telling myself that everything is fine, then everything is not fine and I would be a hell of a lot better off acknowledging this fact in an honest way. Okay, so I will have to feel bad then but at least the bad feeling will be out in the open and not hidden under a layer of self-deception.

 

Of course, it is also possible to take a more sophisticated approach to correcting my low self-esteem, and instead of flatly contradicting my beliefs about my inadequacy as a person, I can try to be reasonable about it. I might say to myself “Well, it is true that I make mistakes and do stupid things, but then so does everybody else too – no one is perfect”. Now this statement is of course perfectly true, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how true or how logical the argument is because the only reason I am saying it is to escape from the pain of my negative beliefs. My negative beliefs may be irrational and distorted and all the rest of it, but that doesn’t mean I can just dismiss them with a wave of my hand. The beliefs may be ‘untrue’ (or ‘illusory’), but what is true is that I do have such beliefs, and I cannot just walk away from them as if I don’t. The attachment to the negative thoughts is there, and I cannot get rid of this attachment just because I don’t want it to be there.

 

The fact of the matter is that I cannot escape from a belief system on purpose, and this applies to any belief system whatsoever. All I can do is honestly see that I am having negative (or distorted) thoughts, without either [1] believing in them or [2] struggling against them. I am not free to escape my beliefs any time I want, but I am free to see what these beliefs are, and I am free to taste the pain that they bring me.

MENTAL STATES ARE CHOICELESS

Somehow, I think that I can pick and choice how I feel about myself, in the same way that I can pick an orange cream out of a box of Black Magic chocolates. I assume that just because I don’t like feeling bad about myself I can decide instead to feel good about myself, but the truth is that I have no such freedom. What I don’t seem to understand (or don’t seem to want to understand) is that my mental state is ‘choiceless’. I am not in control of my feelings – I cannot choose to be happy, or choose to be loving, or choose to be unselfish, or non-anxious, or non-angry or non self-hating.

 

A moment’s reflection will show that the principle which we have been looking at applies across the board to all negative emotions. All such unhappy ego-states are the result of a refusal to honestly accept pain – they are the result of a deep-seated belief that I can choose what we want ‘the truth’ to be, that I can arrange things so that they will be convenient to me. Because I am insisting so single-mindedly on having things my own way  (which inevitably means ‘a way in which there is no pain’) I am stuck in the position of looking for a way out that doesn’t exist. Another way of putting it is to say that I am ‘stuck in denial’ and it is my unexamined belief that I can escape from where I am that constitutes the denial.

 

This can be a hard thing to understand because we always look at it backwards. Thinking that we can escape on purpose seems like such a positive thing that we want to encourage it. It seems like a healthy attitude. In reality, though, what this attitude means is that I never move on because I am afraid to be where I actually am. Psychologically speaking, the attempt to escape from ‘the way which things are’ is not positive at all, and the belief that it is actually possible to do this is a deadly trap which causes us to waste a huge amount of time trying to do something that just isn’t possible.

CONSCIOUS AND UNCONSCIOUS SUFFERING

Insight into the fact that I am attempting to do an impossible thing is a tremendously liberating thing. Suppose I am caught up in a sulk, or self-pity, or some other similarly miserable state of mind. If I have insight into what is actually going on with me, this is a totally different state of affairs to when I am in a sulk, but unconscious of what is actually going on. The difference is the difference between conscious and unconscious suffering. When I am unconsciously suffering, I am just blindly reacting against the pain, I am stuck in the automatic attempt to escape from the reality of my situation, and this ‘reflex reaction’ is not helping me at all, but only making me feel worse. When I am consciously suffering, I am still automatically struggling to escape from my situation, but the difference is that I can see perfectly well that I am caught up in the futile struggle to escape. I can see myself automatically reacting – I can see what is going on.

 

It is important to emphasize that this does not mean that I try to stop myself automatically reacting. That would be an attempt to escape from the reality of my futile reacting, and that would be quite futile as well. That would be ‘reacting against my reacting’. The point is not to change what is happening, but to see what is happening. Therefore, I see that my attempt to escape is futile, and I also see that any attempt to escape from my escaping would also be futile. What we are talking about here is ‘the perception of impossibility’, which, despite sounding terrible, is actually a great break-through. It is at this point that I stop being stuck.

 

Blind or automatic reacting equals ‘being stuck’ but seeing that you are blindly or automatically reacting is never the same thing as being stuck. I might be blindly struggling, but if I can see that I am blindly struggling, then my eyes must be open! The principle here is simple – if I can see that I am unconsciously suffering, then this awareness in itself equals conscious suffering. We’re seeing – very clearly – that our position is untenable (and that there is therefore ‘no escape’) and that (paradoxically) frees us from this position – this position that we had for so very long been trapped in because we mistakenly thought that there were possibilities in it…

 

 

Art: Trapped, by Mila K.

 

 

 

 

Anxiety

One way to explain understand anxiety is to say that it’s an indication that we aren’t engaging with life (or ‘facing’ life) as ‘who we really are’ but rather as some sort of ‘idea’ (or concept) of who we are, which is clearly not the same thing at all! If we were consciously connected with our true selves then we wouldn’t be experiencing this anxiety, in other words. Or – conversely – who we truly are in our ‘Wholeness’ doesn’t experience anxiety.

 

This is not a way of looking at things that makes much sense within our highly rational culture. The suggestion that anxiety in particular (or neurosis in general) is the result of ‘us thinking that we are somebody who we are not’ isn’t something that we can easily relate to, generally speaking. We are very naïve that way! We can easily see this to be true, however. One simple way to approach this matter is to say that we are never actually in the present moment. This would of course be a very familiar idea to anyone who’s ever practice meditation. ‘Being in the present moment’ sounds easy enough, but even a beginner in meditation very quickly learns that we aren’t in the present moment anywhere near as often as we might believe. Usually, we’re shifted slightly out of the present moment and into the abstract framework of thought, and when we’ve been ‘shifted into the abstract framework of thought’ in this way then we are no longer connected to the actual Wholeness of ourselves. Two things can’t go together – ‘being connected with the Wholeness of ourselves’ and ‘living wholly within the context of the rational mind’!

 

This suggestion (the suggestion that anxiety is a ‘warning light’ showing us when we have the come adrift from our core, our true nature) doesn’t ring true straightaway. It doesn’t seem to fit. There are after all lots of folks around who are living exclusively in the rational modality – most of us are – and yet who are not anxious. They seem to be ‘getting away with it’! It’s quite possible – more than possible, in fact – to be ‘rationally dissociated’ yet at the same time be completely confident in ourselves (even though the confidence in question may not be worth a hell of a lot). How then does the rather simplistic-sounding theory that we have just put forward stand-up to examination?

 

What we are really looking at here – although we’re using unfamiliar language – is the life of the everyday ego or ‘self-concept’. When we operate exclusively within the rational mode (i.e. when we are ‘rationally dissociated’) then we are identified with a concept of ourselves. That’s how the everyday ego comes into existence – by virtue of the fact that there is a ‘disconnect’ going on. No disconnect (with ‘who we really are’) means no rational ego. Why this should be so is straightforward enough – I am simply not going to be able to identify with the rationally-defined ego (which is the ‘mind-created self’) if I am the same time connected with the true essence of who I am. The rational ego can only survive ‘in the shadows’, so to speak; it can only operate under conditions of ignorance, where there is not much too much ‘truth’ floating around. I can’t go around believing that I am this ‘self-concept’ and at the same time remember ‘who I really am’.

 

So to come back to the life of the everyday rationally ego (or ‘dissociated self’), in its natural habitat, we can say that there are two phases of existence that it can exist in. There’s nothing new in this observation; all we are really saying here is that the rational ego can either be in ‘good form’, or it can be in ‘bad form’. We all know this well enough – obviously! This isn’t a trivial thing to observe either, even though it sounds like it – the ‘bipolar nature’ of the self-construct actually relates to the nature of logic (or rationality) itself, which can only ever manifest either as YES or NO.

 

Logic itself is bipolar, as is abundantly obvious just as soon as we start looking into it. Logic is all about ‘boundaries’ and boundaries always have two sides. The choice between the one possibility and the other (the choice between one side of the boundary and the other) is actually the only form of freedom that is available to a logical system – either a thing IS a particular way, or it ISN’T, either the answer to the question is YES or it is NO. This is of course generally the only kind of freedom that we understand; the suggestion that real freedom hasn’t actually got anything to do with either YES or NO doesn’t make any sense to us when we are operating in rational mode! The suggestion that there is anything beyond YES and NO doesn’t make any sense at all to the thinking mind, and it never can.

 

Suppose that I am concerned with some issue or other; what’s going on here is that I am trapped between two poles – the pole of ‘successfully solving the problem’ and the pole of ‘failing to solve it’. The only type of freedom I care about here therefore is the freedom to have things work out for me the way I want them to. What I can’t see is that this is not real freedom at all – it’s actually ‘the freedom to keep on getting trapped in the issue’! That’s actually the antithesis of freedom. True freedom would be the freedom not to care about either pole, which is ‘the freedom that exists beyond RIGHT and WRONG, beyond YES and NO’.

 

The point that we are making here is therefore that when we are wholly subsumed within the realm of rationality the freedom to have YES rather than NO (or RIGHT rather than WRONG) is the only type of freedom we can ever understand (for all that it isn’t really freedom at all but actually the ‘disguised antithesis’ of it). Having got this far in our argument, it’s not any leap at all to come to the point of being able to clearly see that – in this rational domain – the only two options of possibilities for this self-concept are for it to either ‘feel good because things are working out for it’, or ‘bad because they are not. ‘Freedom’ for the self-concept means one thing and one thing only and this is ‘the freedom to succeed at whatever arbitrary task it is that the rational mind is setting us to solve’.

 

The world inhabited by the self-concept is a very crude one, therefore – there’s not a lot to it at all! Either we ‘succeed’ in relation to some goal or other (or believe rightly or wrongly that we are able to) and we experience euphoria as a result, or we ‘fail’ (or believe that we are probably going to fail) and experience dysphoria as a result. Here is the ‘emotional life’ of the rational ego in a nutshell, therefore – its perceived state of well-being is always determined by how the rational mind tells it it is doing in relation to the ‘all-important task’ that it has been set. We have no independent life whatsoever when we are identified with thought and its activities. Our whole life exists on the continuum of thought – strung out between the two poles of YES and NO, as we keep saying. Nothing else matters to us!

 

The self-concept can be euphoric or it can be dysphoric, but the one thing it can never be is ‘at peace’, which equals ‘neither being elated nor despairing’. We often hear it said – when discussion turns to the subject of ‘living without attachments’ – that this sort of life this sounds very drab, very lacklustre. How could anyone put up with the tedium of living without elation on the one hand and despair on the other!? What a dismal prospect that is! It is of course the prospect of living always stretched out between hollow elation at one end and an equally hollow despair at the other that is dismal – perversely, we have turned our back on real life and instead are making do with the empty dramas of the thinking mind. Either I feel good because I believe that I am able to succeed at whatever task thought has set me, or I feel bad because it seems to me that I can’t, and this ‘up-and-down,’ win-or-lose. goal-orientated life is the only life I want.

 

Everything is a task when we are living within the domain of thought. Even recreation is a task. ‘Passing the time’ as a task – passing the time is actually a major task, as Eric Berne points out. The biggest task of all that thought gives us is the task of ‘maintaining the self-concept’. This is a full-time job if ever there was one! It’s not just a matter of maintaining our physical organism and sorting out the issues that are attendant upon this; maintaining the self-construct means:

[1] Maintaining the illusion that the SC actually exists when it doesn’t, and
[2] Maintaining the illusion that the SC is who we actually are!

This is the trickiest task of all because not only do we have to keep on pushing this particular ‘heavily-laden wheelbarrow’ ahead of us wherever we go, we also can’t ever let ourselves know that we are doing it. We’ve got to keep it all rolling along smoothly, and yet at the same time we can’t ever let ourselves know that we are shouldering this most onerous of responsibilities – a ‘responsibility that we don’t know we’re responsible for’! The ‘responsibility’ that we’re taking on here – without knowing that we are – is precisely that responsibility of not letting ourselves know what it is that we’re responsible for…

 

Anxiety is not what we think it is, therefore. It’s not just a matter of ‘adrenaline surges’ or ‘increased cortisol levels’ or ‘flight-or-fight responses’ or ‘Type-1 or Type-2 personalities’ or ‘catastrophizing’ or ‘maladaptive thinking patterns’ or any of that sort of stuff. It’s not as simple as that, not as ‘obvious’ as that. There’s no way that we can get to the bottom of anxiety unless we first gain insight in the ‘secret task’ that we have been charged with, which is the task of having to maintain an idea of concept of ourselves that we wrongly imagine to be who we really are…

 

 

Art: Taken from Street Art // Kansas City, in leftbankmag.com

 

 

 

Time Is Anxiety

Time is anxiety. Time is anxiety and in time all tasks become the same task. There only ever was the one task really and it is the one task that we are guaranteed never ever to be successful at! All tasks become the one task and that task is the one that can never ever be fulfilled. Time is anxiety and we can never outrun anxiety. We can run as much as we like, but we’ll never get anywhere. We are running on the spot and the running IS the anxiety. Quick, quick, quick – we got to outrun time! Get a move on because there’s no time like the present. There’s no time like the future either. There’s no time to waste, we’ve got to get cracking, we’ve got to get cracking and get on with the task. All tasks become the same task but we never notice this. We never notice this because we’re far too busy to notice, too stressed out to notice. The man is standing there asking if we have completed the task yet. He’s cracking the whip. We never notice that all tasks become the same task because were under too much pressure to notice anything. We’re inundated with tasks and when we finish one there’s another one to take its place. We’ll never see that all tasks are the same task – if we did see this then we’d straightaway be free from it, we’d straightaway be free from the onerous responsibility to fulfil the task. We’d be free from the onerous responsibility of succeeding at the task because we’d see it for what it is. The task is to transcend time with time, the task is to ‘go beyond time in the course of time’. This is why time is anxiety. Time is anxiety because time can never go beyond time. Time can never go beyond time anymore than running can outrun running.

 

The hidden or covert task is the task of creating a self during the course of time (or ‘creating a self in time’). The hidden or covert task is the task of ‘fixing what is wrong in the course of time’ (or ‘fixing what is wrong in time’). Both tasks are impossible, both can never be fulfilled. Both tasks are the same task. A self can never be created no matter how much time we have at our disposal and ‘the problem’ can never be fixed via time – not if we had a million years in which to do so. When we try to fix the problem in time all we do is carry that same problem along with us wherever we go. We can never get away from it – just as we can never outrun anxiety, so too can we never fix the problem no matter how hard we work at it. Anxiety and the self are the same thing – we’re anxious about the problem, we’re anxious about the problem because we know deep-down that it can never be fixed. We know deep-down that it can never be fixed and yet we have to  fix it – or so we are given to understand! What is ‘the problem’, we might ask? What is it that is ‘wrong’ and ‘needs to be fixed’? The problem is that the self doesn’t exist and can never exist, and yet we are given to understand that it has to. Time – which doesn’t exist because we can never get anywhere during the course of it – IS anxiety. Time is anxiety and time is also the self.