Validating the Status Quo

Thought’s ‘cover story’ (i.e. its ‘excuse for being there’) is – obviously enough – that it is actually useful! That’s how thought gets to make such a major claim on our attention, by claiming to be of actual utility. ‘Think me, I’m useful!’ the thought says, and we – gullible as ever – go right ahead and think it. We fall for this claim every time, like citizens who can’t help voting for an idiot leader…


Some thoughts really are useful of course but the interesting thing is to try to work out the ratio of ‘genuinely useful thinking’ to ‘useless’ or ‘space-filling’ thinking. This is the same as talking – sometimes we talk because we actually have something to say, at other times we might talk simply to fill an empty space. Is it even possible to work out how much of our day-to-day thinking is genuinely useful rather than being purely redundant? It might be argued of course that thinking doesn’t have to be ‘genuinely useful’ (or ‘genuinely meaningful’) – it could after all simply be comforting to us.


This could indeed be true – no doubt thought very often is comforting to us – but just because something is comforting doesn’t mean that it is good for us though. From a psychological point of view the exact opposite is always true – ‘comfort’ leads to addiction/dependency and addiction/dependency robs us of our autonomy, and without our autonomy what are we? Our biggest problem is that we prefer what is comfortable to what is true and so arguing that ‘pointless thoughts’ are okay because they are comforting doesn’t really hold any water! We are simply ‘validating the status quo’, which is pretty much what we always do, come rain or shine. Being committed to validating the status quo (no matter what that status quo might be) is however no way to live.


Again, we might ask exactly what the problem is with this business of ‘validating the status quo’ – this sort of thing is after all very highly regarded in some quarters; there are lots of people who think that validating the status quo is pretty much our moral duty (and that not to do so is an act of heinous immorality). We can answer this perfectly legitimate question (and what questions are not legitimate?) by arguing that they are two great tendencies in life – one is ‘conservatism’ (which equals ‘risk-avoidance’) whilst the other is ‘rebelling against the norms’ and pushing ahead into new and uncharted territory. We either ‘hold onto the past’ or risk ‘letting go of the past’, in other words. We either consolidate our supposed gains or we look for a new challenge. It’s not that we’re saying here that we ‘should’ be one way rather than the other, we are simply making an observation. If there were some ‘authority’ saying that we should either be the one way or the other then listening to this authority, wherever it comes from, would constitute a loss of our autonomy and – as we have said – our autonomy is all we’ve got. Lose that we lose everything!


Using ‘have to’ or ‘should’ or ‘ought’ as leverage to change our thinking or behaviour is always a sorry joke – it’s a sorry joke because it only ever digs us deeper into the hole that we’re in. It only ever adds to our suffering, and why would we want to do that? From a psychological point of view (rather than a ‘conventional morality point of view’) the only thing we can’t do without is our autonomy and this brings us face-to-face with an intractable paradox because there is no way to ‘leverage’ ourselves to regain our autonomy once we have lost it. We can’t say we ‘have to be autonomous’ because that ‘have to’ is a loss of autonomy in itself. That’s like saying that we ‘have to be free’, when ‘have to’ is itself the very absence of freedom. Submitting to authority (which includes the authority of our own ideas or theories or beliefs) will never free us from the ills that afflict us. No ‘authority’ is ever going to save us – ‘Where there is authority there is no freedom’, as the graffiti on the wall says…


So to come back to our argument, we can say that there are these two tendencies or motivations in our lives, one being the conservative motivation and the other being the exploratory motivation and the key observation here is that the former type of motivation always leads to suffering. It can’t not lead to suffering because the movement of life itself is forwards and ‘into the new’ (rather than ‘back into the past’). The ‘holding on’ type of motivation is resistance to life therefore. There is no one saying that we shouldn’t resist life or that it’s wrong to resist life; that would be ridiculous – resisting life is very natural tendency and we all do it! All we are doing is observing that ‘resisting life inevitably causes suffering’, which is of course perfectly obvious. Holding onto the old and fearing the new is clearly never going to do us any good – it’s never going to do us any good because we’re thwarting the process of growth in ourselves. We’re refusing to grow out of fear…


Our next observation, which is perhaps not so obvious, is that thinking is itself resistance. All thinking is resistance, without exception – there is no such thing as ‘thinking which helps us to let go of the old’! There is no such thing as helpful thinking (from a psychological point of view) – from purely practical standpoint they can be but from a psychological standpoint there can never be. This may not be immediately obviously, but it is nevertheless abundantly clear once we reflect on it – thinking operates by saying ‘what things are’ (or ‘what things should be’) and what is this but resistance? Thought doesn’t ever allow things to ‘be what they actually are’; that is what consciousness does, not thought. Thought is a tool for fixing problems not allowing them to be there! Thought (we might say) is by its very nature aggressive whilst consciousness is not; consciousness relates as to what is whilst thought relates to ‘what we say reality is’, or ‘what we say reality should be’.


Coming back to what we were saying earlier therefore, it can very clearly seen that our constant, space-filling thinking isn’t useful for the point of view of reducing the level of suffering that we going through – our habit of non-stop thinking doesn’t ‘save us from suffering’ (is it implicitly claims to) it actually creates it. There are two fundamentally conflicting ways of looking at this however, not just the one. If our orientation is life is such that we want security above all (and want therefore to ‘stick with the known’) then thinking can indeed be said to be ‘useful’ to us. It’s ‘useful’ in terms of the short-sighted goal of ‘increasing our spurious sense of security in the world’. In this very provisional sense of the word thought is (at least temporarily) ‘saving us from insecurity’. From a wider perspective however thought is not saving us from anything – if we take the bigger view of what’s going on we can see that whilst thought might be helping us with regard to to the goal of obtaining a temporary sense of security, it is doing this at the cost of creating great suffering in the future. Depending upon whether our orientation is towards the short-term benefit of perceived-if-not-actual security, or towards our ‘greater good’ (which inescapably involves relating honestly to ontological insecurity) thought is either ‘useful’ or the exact opposite of ‘useful’, therefore.


The key point here – the point that we keep on reiterating – is that we are perfectly free either to be in ‘conservative’ or ‘exploratory’ mode. These are the two possible approaches to life, after all – one, as we have said, is ‘holding on’ and the other is ‘letting go’; one is ‘closing down our horizons’ and  the other is ‘opening them up’. Not only are we perfectly free to be in either mode it is also the case that we can’t deliberately switch from one mode to another. There is absolutely no choice here in other words, even though it naturally seems to us that there is or should be. It’s certainly true that when I am in conservative mode I can act as if I’m interested in or committed to ‘opening my horizons’ but the bottom line is that I’m not – I’m just playing at it. And why wouldn’t I throw myself into this role – isn’t it a very attractive and appealing one? Who wants to know that they are ‘hiding from life’, after all?


What are we talking about here is what Chogyam Trungpa calls spiritual materialism, which is where we ‘throw ourselves into the spiritual way of life’ and we ‘do all the spiritual things’ whilst behind the scenes it is the ego that is very much in charge, which makes the whole thing a sham. The ego never wants change – change would be the end of it so of course this isn’t what it really wants. As Chogyam Trungpa says, it wants to make a lovely cosy nest or playground for itself that it never has to come out of! What’s actually happening when I’m in this ‘disguised conservative mode’, is that I am seriously investing in hiding from the awareness that I don’t want to change, which is of course a painful awareness to face up to. That’s like saying that we don’t want to be free – we don’t but we certainly aren’t going to admit to it!


For the most part however the conservative mode doesn’t need to be disguised since its usual tactic is to glorify ‘staying the same’ or ‘not wanting to change’ on the grounds that the way we are is actually ‘the right way’ and all other ways are ‘wrong ways’. This is of course this is of course how most of us are – we’re locked into one ‘equilibrium-world’ or another for the sake of security. What else is religion after all if not the situation where our way of seeing things (surprise, surprise) is ‘right’ and all other ways are said to be ‘wrong’? This is the oldest dodge in the book. When we are in the ‘conservative mode’, then, thinking – or rather ‘the right type of thinking’ – is not just ‘helpful’ but absolutely obligatory, and from the point of view of blindly upholding whatever belief structure it is that we are tied into this logic makes undeniable sense! If however we were somehow to catch a glimpse of the ‘bigger picture’ – which as we have said is not something that we can do on purpose, by any kind of clever trick – then we would see that thinking (any type of thinking) is most emphatically not helpful from the point of view of ‘saving ourselves from future suffering’. We’re thinking ourselves into a hole, not out of it! This ‘future suffering’, as we have said, is always going to be lying in wait for us because of the way in which we are ‘holding on’ when life itself is a ‘letting go’. This is simply a restatement of the principle in Buddhism and Vedanta that ‘says attachment causes suffering’.


‘Holding on’ – when it is our fundamental orientation in life – stores up suffering (we might say) because [1] it’s not possible to hold on to what we are so trying so desperately to hold onto and [2] because what we are trying so desperately to hold onto doesn’t exist. [And clearly, these two reasons actually come down to pretty much the same thing!] Life is ‘an unfolding of the new’ not a fixed form to cherish or guard jealously; the corollary of this statement is therefore that when we do ‘hold on’ to life what we holding onto isn’t life. It’s something else – it is just some random token that we are sworn to protect and protecting this ‘token’ means (as we might imagine) never questioning it. This is why, when we are in conservative mode, the greatest virtue – as we all know – is ‘never questioning’. Validating the status quo is of course all about never questioning – that’s the agreement we make and we’re free to make it. We’re perfectly free to make it but at the same time we shouldn’t expect this agreement of ours to do us any good!



Art: Phlegm, on











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!








The Dark Pantomime

The intelligible universe is embedded in suchness, which is in its essence profoundly unintelligible. Suchness is not something that the analytic mind can ever hope to make sense of.  It is because we cannot make sense of suchness that we have no time for it – it is of no use to us, and because it’s of no use it is also of no interest to us. We hardly ever pay any attention to suchness; we are habitually inattentive to it and so it seems to us that the universe is in its actual core nature is intelligible to us, even though this is not the case. We feel that the universe – and the fact of its existence – ought to be something that can be (and one day will be) accounted for by some theory, some dry formula…


The intelligible universe is – we might say – made up of hard shiny tiles, or paving slabs, or perhaps concrete blocks making up a solid structure, whilst suchness is to be found in the cracks in-between them. Suchness is to be found in the interstitial spaces, therefore. If we were to look more deeply into this cracks, these interstitial spaces we would discover that they all link up and make up actual Reality, whilst the concrete blocks or paving slabs that we make so much of are nothing at all, when it comes right down to it. They only appear to make sense, as a kind of reflection of the mind that is making sense of them.


It is an odd thing therefore that what we consider to be the only important or meaningful aspect of the world isn’t actually an sort of aspect of anything at all but only is – in truth – nothing more than the echo of our own unexamined assumptions about what the world supposedly ‘is’. Suchness – the idea of which seems so insubstantial, ridiculous and fantastical (if indeed we ever get to hear about it in the first place) is the Whole of Everything, whilst the structural/logical aspect of the world that we place so much stock in (and which as we have said is the only aspect we recognize or acknowledge) is no more than a highly aggressive (and contagious) hallucination…


The thing about the intelligible aspect of the universe which allows it to play such an overwhelmingly dominant role in our subjective experience of life (which allows it to totally eclipse any awareness of the actual suchness of reality) is that as soon as we start engaging with it at all we automatically start to construct our idea of ourselves in relation to it. We cut a picture of ourselves out of the same cloth, so to speak – we make ourselves concrete and intelligible in just the same way that we have made everything else ‘concrete and intelligible’.


So – just to go over this last point again – it is by allowing the intelligible aspect of the universe to ‘take over’ in the way that it does (if given half a chance) that we pull of the trick of creating the concrete or defined self.  Or to put this another way, it is by choosing or selecting our own subjective experience of the world that we bring down on ourselves the very strong (overwhelmingly strong) sense of being this ‘me’, the sense of being this ‘everyday common-or-garden compartmentalized self’. I ‘get to be me’ by the very simple precedent of selecting my own reality, in other words!


It’s no wonder we’re all so keen on maintaining this key element of ‘choice’, therefore. It’s no wonder that we think that ‘staying in control’ the whole time is such a great thing! Whether we like to see it or not – and we don’t – we’re all hardened control freaks at heart and the reason that we’re all hardened control freaks (the reason we’re all so uptight) is because controlling things, and keeping everything within narrowly defined parameters, is how we get to maintain the concrete self-construct in the face of unrestricted openness.


By the same token we could also say that the reason we’re so averse to perceiving the suchness of the world, the suchness that everything is embedded in, is because that would fatally undermine our belief in that prosaic self-construct. Suchness is what we see when we relax and allow the world around us to open out a bit and show to us those mysterious aspects of reality that were not previously selected by us by the narrow mechanism of our habitual prejudices. Suchness is what we discover when we see beyond the suffocating cocoon of our own ‘self-reflection’ and perceive instead something of the non-subjective (or impersonal) nature of actual un-manipulated (or open-ended’) reality.


‘Impersonal’ tends to sound disagreeably cold to us; how we usually understand the word is in terms of someone who is uncaring, unfeeling, lacking in any human qualities. The quintessentially ‘impersonal’ nature of the world around us is not cold, uncaring or unfeeling however. Actually it is the narcissistically self-involved ‘self-concept’ with all its fear-driven controlling that is cold and unfeeling. Suchness is impersonal simply because it is not out own construct, our own psychological projection. ‘It’s got nothing to do with you, if you can grasp it…”, sings David Bowie in The Man Who Sold The World.


When we unconsciously select our own subjective reality by projecting our own private, personalized meaning on everything (the world around us and all the people in it) then the result of this operation is that there is no suchness left – the result is that we live in a suchness-free universe. And because there is no suchness in our environment this means that this environment is effectively dead – no suchness means ‘no real life’. Our own version of reality – which we aggressively impose on the world – isn’t reality, it’s just our own fearfully closed mind reflected back at us from all sides. We’ve ‘turned away from the truth’ and all we have left to relate to are second-hand shadows, just as Plato relates in his famous ‘Analogy of the Cave’.


When we’re in the cave looking away from reality instead of towards it then very clearly this isn’t a happy situation. It’s not a situation that has any possibilities in it. When we’re trapped in the bubble of self-reference (or ‘self-reflection’, as Carlos Castaneda calls it) then we obtain this very reassuring and comforting ‘familiar feeling’ to everything, but the flip-side of this is a latent feeling of deadness, a latent feeling of ‘disconnectedness’ from life. We feel disconnected because we are. This quality of deadness / disconnectedness / hollowness is an inescapable part of the life of the self-construct. This quality of ‘deadness’ actually is the self-concept!


We hold onto the pain-producing self-concept harder than we hold onto anything; actually, we don’t hold onto anything else! We don’t hold onto anything else because nothing else provides us with the feeling of familiarity that we want so badly. We hold onto our sense of disconnection (or separation) from the world because that’s where our sense of security lies. When we talk about mental health or mental wellness we’re talking about the mental health or mental wellness of the self-concept, therefore. But any talk of ‘mental health’ when we’re talking on behalf of the self-concept is only a joke, only a farce, only a charade. It’s a kind of ‘double-speak’, when it comes to the dark pantomime which is conditioned existence. What we’re really wanting – when we’re living the lie of conditioned existence – is of course to ‘have our cake and eat it’. We want to stick with the defined image or concept that we have of ourselves but at the same time we want the pain of the disconnection / separation from reality that comes with it to be taken away! This is our fantasy – that we can have the security of looking out at the world from the self-concept but not the suffering that identifying with the self entails, the suffering that comes as ‘part of the package’.


This situation of only ever relating to our own subjective ‘customized / personalized’ version of reality – which is the ‘intelligible reality of normal everyday life’ – is actually a prison for consciousness. It’s a prison for consciousness precisely because everything is intelligible, precisely because everything is either ‘known’ or ‘knowable’. Every question we might ask – like a curious child – is met with a definite answer, which is very much like being hit on the head with a big hammer as a punishment for daring to be so curious! Curiosity is a sin, as far as everyday (or ‘conditioned’) life is concerned!


All of these definite, concrete answers to our questions about the world aren’t actually helpful or valuable to us – they’re just blocks or obstacles. They’re just a brick wall that has been placed between us and reality. The definite answers (i.e. the positively-defined mind-produced reality) is what we referred to at the beginning of this discussion as the ‘tiling’ or ‘paving’ that covers over reality. That tiling or paving (the ‘cognitive overlay’) is very useful for producing the sense of a separate self that we are so attached to (and that might be seen as a big ‘plus’) but at the same time as creating this concrete self it also brings about the unbearable suffering that comes with ‘life as this separate or disconnected self’ – and this suffering is what we are always trying (unsuccessfully!) to escape from. We might be forever trying to escape from the pain of conditioned existence (which comes from living exclusively in the mind-created reality) but that ‘desire to avoid suffering’, intense as it might be, does not mean that we are willing to stop ‘ignoring suchness’. Our intense antipathy to pain and suffering doesn’t mean for a moment that we are willing to look beyond the tediously-defined mind-produced world, and take an interest an interest in what the world might look like when we AREN’T looking at it from the ‘spurious vantage point’ of the unreal self!





What You Cling To You Lose


‘What you cling to you lose’, the Buddha is reported as saying (or ‘what you don’t let go of you lose‘, which comes to the same thing). “Aah,” we might reply in all our Western sophistication, “but if we’re not holding on to it then we don’t have it anyway and so what’s the difference?” What’s the difference between losing because we’re holding on to it and losing it because we never tried to win it in the first place?


Another thing the Buddha might have said however is that when we cling we create a false self. When we hold on we create the illusion of who we think we are but actually aren’t. Once this is taken into account then it changes everything – not only do we lose whatever it is we are so determinedly clinging to (and experience therefore the anguish of loss that goes with this), we’re suffering in vain because it wasn’t us who wanted it in the first place but ‘the mistaken notion of who we thought we are’. We’re suffering in vain because we’re not really the clinger who loses – we just think we are.


When we cling we create, by this act, ‘the clinger’, but this clinger is not at all who we are. The clinger is the false idea of who we are; the clinger is the false self, the ‘self who we are not’. To this false self, to this clinger, to this ‘attached one’, the thing that is being clung to is of course very important indeed. The strength of the clinging is a measure of this importance and the strength (or rather, the pure desperation) of this clinging goes off the scale. The urgency (or rather desperation) of our clinging has no end, no limits…


The ironic point about all this however is that ‘the thing that is being clung to’ is desperately important only to the clinger and the clinger (as we have been saying) isn’t who we are. The thing we are clinging to is desperately important to the false self, to the ‘mistaken idea of who we are’, but not at all important to who we really are. How can we be so sure of this? Simply because what the false self, the ‘clinger’, the ‘attached one’, is clinging to is actually itself.


The attached one, the clinger, only really cares about one thing and that is itself. What else would it be attached to? It is not attached to anything other than itself, and never could be. We can understand this very clearly just as soon as we see that clinging is how we create the self. That’s the whole point of clinging, that’s the ‘secret agenda’ behind this whole tiresome business of attachment. We naively imagine that when we grasp we are wanting to obtain something to benefit the self, something to enhance or augment or accessorize the self but this isn’t true. The bottom line is that what we’re doing when we cling (or strive) is to create the one who clings, to create the one who strives…


It could be said perhaps that from a psychological point of view what we’re  trying to obtain by our clinging and striving (to / for whatever it is that we’re clinging / striving to/for) is an increase in our sense of ontological security. This is true, but what constitutes ontological security for the false self is the belief that it actually exists when it doesn’t! ‘Striving for ontological security’ is the very same thing as ‘striving to exist’, therefore.


This is a tremendously frustrating sort of a business, obviously. When we play the game which we don’t know to be a game (the game that we exist as this concrete self when we don’t) there is only one thing that really matters to us and that thing is obtaining a type of security that just isn’t possible for us. Obtaining the sense of security that we are so painfully missing (necessarily missing, since the false or attached self doesn’t actually exist) is more important to us than anything else. It is desperately important to us in fact and at yet the same time as being desperately important it is at the same time flatly impossible. This isn’t just ‘a tremendously frustrating situation’, it’s the most frustrating situation there ever could be! It’s also the situation we find ourselves in every day.


In one way this strategy might be said to be working for us. It works for us in the sense that we get to believe very firmly indeed that we are this concrete self, for good or for bad, for better or for worse. We REALLY DO get to believe that we are the wanter, the striver, the clinger! The other side of the coin is however that we have to base our life on believing that we can obtain something that we can’t actually obtain, and at the same time avoid something that we can’t really avoid. We’re always ‘straining in a futile way’, therefore, and this straining is suffering.


The straining is futile because there is never a satisfactory outcome, because we can never ever get the result that we want to get (although it on occasion might for a while seem to us that we have). In another sense – as we have just said – the painful straining isn’t futile because we have created a self. As Alan Watts says in one of his talks, this painful knot of futile straining is the self! By striving to achieve the goal we create the striver, the wanter, the hoper. By planning and scheming we create the planner, the schemer. Is the planner or schemer ever happy? Plainly not, but who cares? Ultimately, it’s not being happy we care about but possessing – however temporarily – a misleading sense of ontological security. It’s believing that we are this ‘concrete self’ that matters, not anything else.


The wanter and the striver, the schemer and the planner, cannot ever be happy, obviously. If we’re wanting then by definition we’re not happy. By definition we are suffering. We haven’t got what we think we need, so how can we be happy? We have something else instead of happiness though – we have a workable substitute and the substitute is the excitement we experience when we (falsely) believe that we really are going obtain what we are so determinedly looking for. This ‘enjoyable excitement’ is a fool’s paradise, however – it’s all just a mirage that’s about to vanish into thin air the moment I close my hand on the prize. And the greater my excitement was beforehand, the greater the let-down is going to be afterwards when the mirage slips through my fingers (as it always does, as it always has done, as it always will do).


Once the prize has slipped (yet again) from my fingers then there is nothing for it but to go chasing after the next ‘object of desire’; I have to start playing the game again so that I can receive the next dose of enjoyable excitement. I have no choice apart from ‘playing the game all over again’ because this is the only way I know of getting to feel good again. I need this feeling of pleasurable anticipation – I am addicted to it, I am a slave to it. All I know is the euphoria of hope and the anguished let-down of loss and I crave the former just as much as a hate and the fear the latter. This attraction to euphoria and aversion to dysphoria is what traps me in the ultimately unfulfilling cycle of conditioned existence therefore. This is what traps me in the game of samsara.


Not only have I made myself into a slave of the enjoyable excitement (which is ‘the rapture of self-creation’) therefore, I have at the same time set up another master over me – that master being the negative excitement (or dysphoria) which is dread and anxiety. What I am in dread of is also only an empty mirage, but it is very real to me because that is the game I am playing. Because I want so much to believe in the concrete self, I have to be a slave to the fear that comes with it. The ‘addictive excitement’ of which we speak is nothing other than the excitement of creating the self but any pleasurable excitement which I manage to gain in the game is always going to be counterbalanced or cancelled out later on by unpleasant variety! This ‘pleasurable excitement’ is what Daisaku Ikeda calls the state of rapture. Because I crave euphoria so much, I have to make myself subject to the dreadful scourge of dysphoria. In order to have what like I also have to have what I don’t like. If I am to believe in the ‘positive’ euphoria-producing projections then I also have to believe in the ‘negative’ (dysphoria-producing) ones.


So in this game not only am I compelled to be forever chasing after attractive illusions, I am also compelled to be forever fleeing the frightening ones. This game – the game that I am playing – is the game of the self, and this is how I CREATE the self – by planning and scheming, by hoping and striving, by constantly chasing after attractive illusions and running away from repellent ones.








The Monkey-Trap

monkey trap

What creates a sense of identity is being trapped – as soon as we cease to be trapped, we lose our identity! As Jean Baudrillard says, “It’s always the same: once you are liberated, you are forced to ask who you are.”


This is a crucial insight – it is the crucial insight – without it we aren’t getting anywhere. Or rather, without it we are going to be continually thinking that we are getting somewhere when we aren’t, and aren’t ever going to be. Without this insight we are going to be continually thinking that we actually genuinely honestly do want to ‘get somewhere’ when the unpalatable truth is that – deep down – we don’t!


What we’re looking at here is nothing other than the ‘jinx’ behind everyday unconscious life, therefore – the jinx that we are permanently oblivious to, permanently ignorant of. Even psychologists – who we might expect to know all about this particular double-bind – know nothing of its existence, of its invisible centrality to human life. Any mention of it is conspicuously absence from the training manuals that health services require their therapists to follow. Therapy – or rather so-called ‘therapy’ – proceeds in the absence of any awareness of this fundamental jinx.


Our everyday existence is fundamentally self-contradictory and we know nothing of this. We remain sublimely ignorant of the glitch that we are talking about here – we couldn’t be more ignorant of it. We are maximally ignorant of it. We take it for granted that everything is all very straightforward so when we do run into a brick wall as far as this endeavour of  ‘changing ourselves’ goes all we can do is blame ourselves for not trying hard enough; all we can do is castigate ourselves for being weak or unaccountably ineffectual. Those around us are very much inclined to hold us accountable for our lack of progress too, although they may not say it in so many words…


The mental health industry is rife with this type of implicit blaming! There is no way for things to be otherwise if we hold (as we do hold) that it is possible for us to change ourselves from unhappy, self-sabotaging states of mind to happy and peaceful ones just by some straightforward application of effort via some kind established method or protocol. We are simply incapable of doubting our hallowed methods or protocols – rule-based procedures are God as far as we are concerned and we will not hear a word said against them! This being the case, how can we not blame – either implicitly or explicitly – those who are subjected to the therapeutic rationale and yet fail to change their thinking or behaviour?  We have no choice in our blaming because of our belief in the unquestionable efficacy of our mechanical methods.


The essential problem that we aren’t addressing with all our models and methodologies is that any genuine attempt to change is always going to involve the sacrifice of our identity, which is the one thing we never want to do. There is an unacknowledged paradox at the heart of all rational therapy – the paradox being that the self is fundamentally incapable of wanting to change itself. The self can never relinquish the self. The conditioned self only has one form of behaviour and that is behaviour that is geared towards securing its own advantage. The self always acts to maintain its own essential integrity, in other words. This is its ‘essential mechanism’.


The fundamental ‘rational motivation’ is the motivation to preserve and extend the self, the identity, and this motivation – for reasons that we have already given – is fundamentally incompatible with a genuine wish for freedom. We don’t really want freedom, as Erich Fromm has pointed out. Freedom is actually our greatest fear! We say that we value freedom above all else but we don’t really mean it. If the sense of identity which we are trying to optimize via rational thought and behaviour is created by being trapped, being limited without knowing that we are limited, and if the only way to escape the pain that comes with being trapped or unknowingly limited is by relinquishing these self-imposed limits, then this straightaway becomes a cure that we do not want. We no longer have any appetite for the cure, if this is what it entails…


This then is the dilemma that we find ourselves in. We can’t bear the misery that comes with being trapped but at the same time we are fundamentally dependent upon that trap for our sense of identity, which is the most important thing in the world for us. We really are caught here therefore – there’s no way we are ever going to sacrifice our precious sense of identity, our sense of ‘being this defined self’ and so there is no real possibility of us ever escaping the yoke of suffering that conditioned existence places upon us.


We don’t really want to change anything important, anything major, and yet at the same time we can’t simply ‘stay as we are’. We can’t stay where we are either because seeing that there is actually no way that we will ever be free from this pain, this unmitigated misery, would be fundamentally unbearable to us. We just couldn’t carry on the way we are if we had this insight – that’s how crushing it is. The awareness of the truth of our situation would totally banjax the mechanism of the conditioned self. We solve this dilemma in the only way we can therefore – by not facing up to the fact that we don’t actually want to change.


Another way of putting this is to say that we solve the dilemma by being fundamentally insincere. It’s not that we ‘choose’ to be insincere – we don’t have any choice in the matter. Our nature as conditioned beings is such that we always want to be moving away from pain; this drive to avoid pain is ‘built into us’, so to speak. As we have already said, the fundamental ‘rational motivation’ is to maintain our sense of identity, our sense of being this defined self, and mental pain is pain to us precisely because it threatens this sense of self. Just as physical pain is as inimical to us as it is because it threatens our physical organism in some way, mental pain is as profoundly unwelcome to us as it is because it threats the integrity of our self-concept. Another way to put this is to say that our fundamental motivation is fear – fear is the self-concept’s relationship with unconditioned reality!


So we say one thing and do another. We might – as part of our strategy – go through the motions of doing whatever it is that we (supposedly) need to do in order to change but we don’t really mean it. It’s all an act that I am putting on – not so much to fool others as it is to fool myself. I need to believe that I am taking steps to better my situation, to make things more tolerable for myself. This is as we have said my basic tropism – I have to be moving away from pain (or rather, I have to believe that I am moving away from pain). Because as a conditioned being I am driven by fear in everything I do, I have no choice in doing anything other than running!


It’s all running as far as the conditioned self is concerned. Even if I run towards pain (or take on difficult stuff) it’s only because I believe that I can in this way ultimately reduce my pain. Even my moving towards pain is running, therefore! Even when I take part in therapy this is running. All purposeful behaviour is running because all purposeful behaviour is ultimately driven by the need to avoid pain (or fear). All my goals are pain-avoidance – my goals are attractive to me in the way that they are because they represent an escape from fear. My goals ARE my fear, therefore.


Being a slave to fear means that I have to run. But even though I am ostensibly running away from pain, at the same time, on a core level, I have absolutely no intention of ever relinquishing the pain-producing trap that I am in. All I can do therefore is to carry on living the theatre in which I am working to better my situation, and this means making sure that I remain unconscious of my true motivation. I have to split myself in two, so to speak – I have to exist on the theatrical level where I believe the cover story of what is going on, and I also have to operate on the level where I have to stick around to make sure that there is never any chance of anything ever changing…


This situation sounds utterly hopeless but of course it isn’t. What we are looking at here is the classic ‘monkey trap’ – the monkey is trapped because of his greed, he is trapped because of the way in which has greed will not let him relinquish the precious fistful of peanuts that he has just acquired. Because he cannot let go of the peanuts he cannot withdraw his hand from the narrow neck of the bottle in which he found the nuts; because of his stubborn refusal to let go of the prize the monkey cannot bring himself to free himself! Escaping from the trap is the easiest, most straightforward thing in the world – all we have to do is forfeit the peanuts. All we have to do is value freedom more than we value the claustrophobic illusion of the self-image!






Separating Ourselves From Our Thoughts


When we meditate one of the things we come to see is that we are not our thinking mind. We come to see that this mind is just a tool or instrument that we can utilize if we want to, but that we aren’t obliged to. This is an easy thing to say but it represents a one hundred and eighty degree turnaround from how we usually see things – usually the thinking mind is all we know (whether we realize this or not) and so it is pragmatically impossible for us to distinguish ourselves from our thinking, from our thoughts. If all we know is the thinking mind then of course we can’t distinguish ourselves or separate ourselves from it! On the contrary, we identify ourselves with it. We know ourselves through our thoughts, via the medium of our thoughts, and so what this means is that in our normal everyday state of being we are our thoughts. If all I know about myself I what I think about myself then this is just another way of saying that I am one of my own thoughts. If all I know is my conceptualization of the world, then this is as good as saying that that I am one of my own concepts! But in becoming a concept who I really am is lost.


The everyday thinking mind swallows everything up – it is like a giant invisible amoeba that absorbs everything it comes across and then replaces the originals with its own ideas or concepts of what they are. It duplicates (or ‘reproduces’) reality, in other words. This is a process that we never see happening because if we’re convinced that our idea about something is the same thing as the thing itself then how are we ever going to notice a transition? The principle here is that thinking about things is easy – it happens totally automatically, without us seeing it happening – but not thinking about things (i.e. not judging or evaluating the world) is hard because that doesn’t just ‘happen automatically’. Not evaluating or judging is the same thing as being conscious and consciousness is not a mechanical process. As long as we are going along with the thinking mind’s story (which as we have said proceeds quite automatically, quite without any volition on our part) then we will never know that it has ‘swallowed everything up’ and that we are as a consequence living in a world that is made up entirely from our ideas, our concepts, our judgements or evaluations.


When we live in a world that is made up entirely of our own thoughts then this of course means that we are at the mercy of our thoughts – if an agreeable thought comes along then we automatically feel good and if a disagreeable thought comes along then we equally automatically feel bad. Life therefore becomes a constant round of ‘up and down’ and all we can do is hope for more agreeable thoughts than disagreeable ones to come along. We can also of course attempt to steer things in this way by ‘trying to be positive’ but as experience shows this can only work for a short while (and if something only works for a short while this actually means that it isn’t working at all). And even the so-called ‘positive thoughts’ aren’t all that they are cracked up to be! They are brittle at best. The rewarding feeling that we get as a result of buying into them is very transient and very precarious – it can be gone in a flash if circumstances change or if another more powerful thought comes along. They can turn around on us in a moment – the comfort thought gives us is fickle to say the least and it all too easily switches around and becomes discomfort


The ‘good feeling’ that comes with positive thinking isn’t realistic in other words – it depends upon a particular slanted way of looking at the world seeming right to us, seeming correct to us, but who is to say that the corresponding negative way of looking at things may not also seem right to us a bit later on? So-called ‘positive and negative thoughts’ function exactly like flattery and insults – if we’re susceptible to being made to feel good by flattery then by the same token we’re going to be equally susceptible to being made to feel bad by any insult that comes our way. We get the soft end of the stick to be sure but we’re also going to get the rough end too in equal measure and the pleasure we get from the former is always going to be balanced out by the pain caused by the latter. How after all can we control the world to make sure that we only ever come across flattery? Even if we can control what people say to us (even if we can manage our environment so that it is always convivial to us) all this means is that we are setting ourselves up for a fall since life itself will level a few good insults at us sooner or later and no amount of money or charm or power or technology can protect us from that!


Another way of looking at why the so-called ‘positive states of mind’ that come about as a result of the thinking process working the way we want it to aren’t reliable is to see them as essentially being ‘agitations of an underlying medium’. All mental states that are linked to thought are ‘agitated states of mind’. There are two forms of agitation possible – one is an agitation that makes us excited in what we would call a ‘positive’ or ‘euphoric’ way, the other is an agitation that causes us to be excited in a ‘negative’ or ‘dysphoric’ way. Either it’s one form of excitement or it’s the other; there is no excitement that isn’t either positive or negative. Agitation of any sort is inherently unreliable however – agitated states of mind are unreliable because they it can (and will) give way to their opposite at the drop of a hat. To be up one minute is to be down the next. The one thing that can never happen as a result of the thinking process, as a result of our thoughts, is that we will find a balance in ourselves, a place where we are not at the mercy of every arbitrary thought that comes along. Or as we could also say, the one thing that we can never obtain for ourselves as a result of our thinking is stillness.


The reason we can’t find stillness within ourselves as a result of thinking is because stillness (or ‘peace of mind’) can never be created (or acquired) by thought. All thought can ever do is come up with positive or negative statements, positive and negative certainties. Thought can either say “It is!” or “It isn’t!” and neither of these is stillness because stillness isn’t a tug of war between two opposites – it isn’t ‘one opposite trying to win out over the other, complementary opposite’. That isn’t stillness, that is conflict, that is war! The activity of the thinking mind results in tension between the two poles which it itself takes for granted (which it has to take for granted in order to function at all) and this tension results in a never-ending agitation or disturbance. The struggle or conflict between one opposite and the other isn’t meaningful – it is a quintessentially meaningless type of conflict! The reason we can say that it is ‘quintessentially meaningless’ is because the opposites (any opposites) don’t have any independent existence outside of each other. The one opposite is only meaningful in relation to the other, and vice versa. The one opposite only makes sense in terms of the other. What does ‘up’ mean without a ‘down’, after all? Or ‘win’ without a ‘lose’, or a ‘YES’ without a ‘NO’?


When we struggle to affirm one opposite at the expense of another therefore (as we are so very prone to doing) we are not just affirming the one we want to affirm (i.e. the ‘positive’ one), we are affirming the whole set-up, we are ‘reinforcing both opposites equally’. We’re putting energy into the opposite we like, the opposite we’re in favour of, and at the same time we’re putting energy into the one we don’t like, the one we aren’t in favour of. We’re adding more and more momentum to the spinning wheel of YES-NO-YES-NO-YES-NO, the spinning wheel of UP followed by DOWN followed by UP… We’re giving more and more energy to the spinning wheel of the thinking mind. The more we try to control the situation (i.e. the more mental activity we engage in) the faster the wheel is going to spin, until the spinning itself becomes revealed as pain, or suffering. And when we get to thinking about this, and thinking about how we can stop the crazy spinning, all we are doing is making it spin faster! We can spin our way into stress and conflict and suffering without any problem at all but the one thing we can’t do is spin our way into happiness, spin our way into stillness…


As we have been saying, the thinking mind very quickly gets the better of us, gains the upper hand, and causes us to perceive the reality that it creates with its non-stop activity as being ‘the only reality’. It subsumes everything within it in other words, and as a result everything we do only serves to make the situation worse. Everything we do and think simply tangles us up more with the thinking mind, and makes that mind more powerful. But the spinning wheel that is the thinking mind isn’t the only reality. It isn’t ‘all that there is’. The spinning wheel is spinning in space and that space is not something that was created by our thoughts. Space is not a construct of thought. ‘Space’ is actually another way of talking about stillness and – as we keep saying – thoughts can never give rise to stillness. To see that we are not the thinking mind represents the introduction of a most extraordinary new element in the mix, therefore. It represents the element of freedom!


If we are not the thinking mind (and if the reality that is created by this mind is not the only reality) then this means we have more than just the two possibilities of saying YES or saying NO open to us. It is no longer just a question of affirming the situation or denying it – we are no longer restricted to the possibility of ‘straining to obtain the positive’ or ‘struggling to avoid the negative’, both of which – as we have said – only serve to fuel the momentum of the spinning wheel. The other possibility is for us to see that we are not our thoughts and that the world which is created by our thinking isn’t the only world. We can start to see that we are not this mind-created self which is always striving to obtain the positive outcome and push away the negative. Both the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ outcome equal this mind-created self – it is only the mind of attachment that sees everything in terms of ‘what I want’ and ‘what I don’t want’, after all. What the thinking mind says are the only two possibilities that are open to us (i.e. affirm or deny, say YES or say NO, ‘like’ or ‘dislike’) are therefore revealed to be ‘only what the thinking mind says is possible’, and the thinking mind is revealed as not being the whole story!


To put all this in just a few words, when we see that we aren’t the thinking mind we are free from that mind, free from that limited set of possibilities that just goes around and around. We’re free to step out of the cage of our concepts, the cage of our ideas. When we see that we aren’t the thinking mind – and that we don’t have to be thinking non-stop the whole time – this means that we are now aware of a much bigger world than the world which thought had shown us. We are aware of an incomparably vaster world. This ‘incomparable vaster world’ isn’t all about right and wrong, like and dislike, YES and NO. It isn’t all about the mind-created self, the ‘narrow-minded controller’. Seeing that we aren’t the thinking mind (and that the world which this mind creates isn’t the only world) is the same thing as seeing that who we are really is the stillness within which the wheel of thought is spinning. So no matter what is happening, no matter what triggers might be there, we don’t have to ‘DO’ anything! We don’t have to keep on going around and around on the spinning wheel. We are free just to ‘be’









Wherever there is Attachment…


Where there is attachment there is unconsciousness. Attachment means that we hope for something good to happen, and at the same time we are watching out in case something bad happens. We’re on the look-out for the favourable outcome and we’re also on the look-out for the unfavourable one, and we’re all geared up accordingly. We’re prepared either to be pleased or disappointed…


Favourable outcomes and unfavourable ones are projections, which is just another way of saying that they don’t exist. How can they exist – they’re only favourable or unfavourable in relation to me after all, they’re not ‘favourable’ or ‘unfavourable’ in themselves! To put this another way, when we personalize the world (i.e. when we see it in terms of ourselves, in terms of our likes and dislikes, our desires and fears) then we don’t see the world as it is in itself at all. We only see our own unreal projections superimposed on it, which we don’t see as being unreal. We don’t see the world we perceive as being ‘personalized’ – we just see it as ‘the world’.


If we’re not aware of the world as it is in itself, but only in terms of the private meaning that we are superimposing upon it, then very clearly there can be no consciousness. ‘Consciousness’ implies some sort of relationship with reality! If I’m not relating to the world but only to my own unrecognized projections then I am not conscious. I’m trapped in a loop, trapped in a blind loop of conditioned consciousness that is forever reacting to itself and this ‘blind or self-referential loop’ has replaced reality. It’s there instead of reality.


Attachment means that I am living in a world that is made up of my own hopes and fears reflected back at me; I am living in a world made up of hopes and fears, advantages and disadvantages, favourable outcomes and unfavourable ones, and this world does not exist.  How could the world be made up of ‘advantages and disadvantages’ after all? What a ridiculous way of looking at things! The advantages and disadvantages which tie up my awareness so thoroughly are purely a function of my greedy / fearful way of looking at the world. They are the result of me making the world all about me, when it isn’t. My hopes and my fears are of course all about me (who else do they belong to?) and this means that I am living my life in a claustrophobically closed little universe that is made up of nothing but myself. As Jung says,

Projections turn the world into a replica of one’s own unknown face.

When I’m looking for favourable outcomes in the world around me, when I am preoccupied with possible advantages / disadvantages, then I am abstracting something out of the world that isn’t really there. If I am thinking about any sort of outcomes at all then I am ‘skipping ahead’ – I’m ‘skipping ahead’ because those outcomes don’t actually exist in the present moment. I have an image in my mind about this outcome and the impact (either pleasant or unpleasant) it would have on me and I am focussing all my awareness on this projected image. I am focussing exclusively on this image (or idea) because it is so very important to me that I should have a pleasant experience and not an unpleasant one! It is my aversion to discomfort and my attraction to comfort that causes me to be obsessed with outcomes the whole time, therefore. This aversion / attraction, this lack of equanimity, is what causes me to be forever skipping ahead and not staying in the present moment…


If I were to stay in the present moment then advantages and disadvantages would not come into it – there are no advantages to be had in the present moment any more than there are disadvantages to be avoided! The present moment isn’t about advantages versus disadvantages. Or as we could also say, there is no ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ in the now! There’s no winning or losing because winning and losing are all to do with the narrow little world of the self and the thing about being in the present moment is that this represents an expansion of consciousness beyond the claustrophobically-closed universe made up of ‘nothing but me and my projections’. The present moment is always an expansion of consciousness. Oddly enough (as it may seem) the present moment – which is of course the only reality – has nothing whatsoever to do with the self and its concerns. To be present in the moment is to be absent from the self – to be present in the moment is to be absent from the self because there is no self there in the present. It has no foothold, in influence here… It cannot spin its web there.


We might feel that all of this is a bit unfair, a bit harsh. We might feel that we’re not looking for advantages (or scanning for disadvantages) the whole time. Generally speaking, it doesn’t usually seem to be the case that we are. This however is only because we are so very used to the ‘attached’ modality of existence that we take this fundamental orientation as being ‘the only way things could be’. We don’t notice the fact that we are relating to the world almost exclusively in terms of advantage versus disadvantage; we don’t notice the way in which we are relating to our environment almost exclusively in terms of how it can either work for us or against us. Another way of putting this is to say that we’re almost always in ‘control mode’, we’re almost always hoping for things to be a certain way and are holding onto the illusion we can wangle this if we try hard enough or are lucky enough. Yet another way of putting this is to say that we’re ‘addicted to promoting the illusory self’, the ‘self that doesn’t exist in the present moment’. We addicted to promoting the interests of an unreal thing; we’re addicted to promoting the interests of ‘a fundamentally dissociated mental abstraction’…


If we want to know whether we’re stuck in control mode or not (or whether we’re looking at the world in terms of advantage versus disadvantage or not) then all we need to do is to pay attention to whether we’re thinking or not. If we’re caught up in thinking then this means that we’re caught up in control mode because the only purpose of thought is to increase the degree of control that we have (or rather, the degree of control that we imagine that we have). We think in order to gain purchase on the world, in order to get some kind of a foothold in the world. What the pie is we’re not sure, but we do know that it’s good and we want to make sure we want to get our hands on a slice of it and this is the reason we are constantly getting caught up in thinking. Thinking equals attachment, in other words. Thinking means ‘advantage versus disadvantage’. Thinking is the net we spin, the net with which we hope to catch the prize.


If we’re caught up in thinking therefore, then there is no consciousness. Consciousness comes in at the point at which we notice that we’re thinking, the point at which we notice that we’re attached to outcomes. The thinking mind is really just a survival tool, when it comes down to it. It is a survival tool that has come to be over-valued, over-used. The reason we can say that it is over-valued or over-used is because we aren’t usually in a ‘survival-type situation’ every moment of the day. It’s not about survival every minute of the day and yet we’re thinking every minute of the day, so what’s going on? The answer to this is clearly that there is something there that is surviving, or trying to survive. It’s not us however – it’s our idea of ourselves, our image of ourselves that is struggling to survive. Our idea or image of ourselves has to struggle to survive for the simple reason that it isn’t really who we are. The self-image has to keep looking for the advantages and steering clear of the disadvantages the whole time because it simply isn’t real! It has its work cut out for it….


The mental image of ourselves (which is who we believe ourselves to be) is inherently unstable simply because it is a mental image. It is a construct and constructs are by their very nature unstable. Because the construct which we call ‘the self’ (or ‘who I am’) is inherently unstable it needs to be continually propped up. Just as long as we are identified with the self-image we are driven night and day by the conditioned need to maintain it, and the prospect of not being able to maintain it strikes instant fear into our hearts. We’re afraid on behalf of the self-image. We’re not only afraid on behalf of the self-image, we’re also hopeful on its behalf. We control on its behalf, we strategize and plan on its behalf, we make goals on its behalf. When we feel pleased we are being pleased on its behalf and when we are disgruntled we are being disgruntled on its behalf. When we feel comfortable it’s on the self-image’s behalf and when we feel uncomfortable it’s on the self-image’s behalf. When we despair it’s on the self-image’s behalf.


A more subtle way of the self-image staying in control (or trying to stay in control) is by describing the world in accordance with its own language, its own model of the way it thinks things should be. We do this by constantly evaluating both ourselves and the world around us. Evaluation and control go hand in hand: inasmuch as we are perceiving the world we are evaluating it. To perceive without automatically evaluating everything we see (i.e. without thinking, without conceptually processing) is extraordinarily difficult – one would have to be an artist or a poet or a mystic, and these aren’t ways of being in the world that usually occur without being patiently cultivated over a very long period of time. Another way to put this is to say that we can only see reality ‘as it is in itself’ when we are our true authentic selves and practically none of us are our own true authentic selves. From a very early age we’ve had that knocked out of us – we’ve been coerced and cajoled and bullied into seeing things the way everyone else does, and in the process of adapting to the group mind in this way we have lost our true selves. That’s what happens in life – we lose ourselves. We get socially conditioned and to be socially conditioned is to lose sight of both ourselves and reality.


It’s not just a matter of becoming free from social conditioning, either. Even if we did get free from social conditioning we’d still be conditioned by the rational mind. It is impossible to look at the world from a particular viewpoint (which is what the rational mind is) and yet not be biased towards seeing this viewpoint as being the right one. Whatever way we have of seeing the world that is our prejudice and if we are prejudiced (as we absolutely are) then this is the same thing as existing in the state of attachment. We’re attached to the particular arbitrary way which we have of seeing the world. Or as we could also say, operating from the basis of the thinking mind means that we always have an agenda for everything and what this agenda ultimately comes down to is maintaining the status quo and the ‘status quo’ in question is our particular way of seeing things, our particular way of understanding things. Our allegiance is not to reality therefore but to our way of understanding reality – our belief structure, our model or theory of reality. If someone were to try to make this point to us we wouldn’t understand because as far as we are concerned our model or theory of reality isn’t a model or theory at all but reality itself. We don’t know the difference. If we knew that what we were relating to via the thinking /conceptualizing mind was only a representation and not the genuine article then this would be a different matter altogether – that would mean that we are no longer attached to the particular viewpoint that we are operating from. That would mean that we are no longer unconsciously committed to validating our own beliefs or theories about ‘the way things are’. We would no longer be preoccupied with maintaining our taken-for-granted POV no matter what the cost. This unattached state of consciousness is however a very rare thing to come across. This is a pretty big deal (to put it mildly) – it is the same thing as ‘not believing that you are this concrete self’, and how many of us find ourselves in this situation? ‘Had I been free I could have chosen to be not me’ says Robert Wyatt, but the point is that we just aren’t free in this way.


Instead of seeing the world as it is in itself we see it in terms of the structure (or system) that we are taking for granted. Anything irrelevant to the system in question we just don’t care about. It doesn’t exist for us – we are entirely oblivious to it.  We couldn’t be more oblivious and this is the state of unconsciousness. The unconscious state – we might say – is the state in which we are fundamentally disconnected from reality itself. We’re disconnected from reality because we not interested in it – we’re only interested in what the rational / conceptual mind has to show us and the one thing the rational / conceptual mind never shows us is reality! We’re only interested in one thing and that is playing the same old game over and over again. The game that we’re playing is very easy to understand – as we have already said, we’re identified with a particular standpoint, a particular set of assumptions, and the ‘game’ we’re playing is the game of pretending that the world which this viewpoint (this set of assumptions) shows us is actual reality. The rational mind equals a particular POV, a particular set of assumptions and the game we’re playing is the game of validating this POV, validating these assumptions. This is attachment in a nutshell – we’re attached to proving that our theory is right, that our assumptions are right, for no other reason than the fact that it is our theory, that they are our assumptions…


The game makes perfect sense from the point of view which it takes for granted – the POV which is itself. This is of course a fairly redundant thing to say – of course the game makes sense from the POV which it itself takes for granted! This is like saying that a structure always agrees with itself, or that a literal statement always agrees with itself. That’s what makes a structure into a structure, a literal statement into a literal statement. From outside of this closed viewpoint however the game doesn’t make any sense at all! It doesn’t make any sense at all because the mechanical structure or system we’re identified with isn’t who we are, and because it isn’t who we are we are under no obligation to validate it or fulfil its needs. We are only obliged to validate it and fulfil the system’s needs when we play the game of thinking that it is ‘who we are’. And not only is this set-up, this system ‘not who we are’, it doesn’t really exist in the first place. It only seems to exist when we take it seriously, when we steadfast ignore everything that doesn’t confirm its reality. It only seems real when we ignore the real world, in other words, and only take notice of the world as it appears to be from our particular arbitrary viewpoint.


The mechanical structure or system that we are identifying with only seems to exist when we are playing the game that it exists. It only exists, in other words, when we keep on furthering its aims, when we keep on obeying the rules that it sets out for us. The more we play the game the realer it gets to seem for us and we play the game a lot! We play the game all the time. We actually can’t help playing this game – we’re terrified not to play it. We play it and we play it and we play it – all in the hope that everything will somehow turn out OK for us if we play it right, if we obey the rules correctly…


What we are essentially hoping here (although we can’t see it) is that going along with our attachments is somehow going to help us get the best out of life. But attachments are really just red herrings – they’re only really there for the sake of keeping us busy, for the sake of keeping us preoccupied. Acting on attachments keeps us caught up in the net of thought, and being caught up in the ‘net of thought’ means that we never actually get to rest in the present moment. The attachments are only there as a distraction from reality in other words; far from helping us, or in any way ‘sorting things out’, acting on attachment is only ever keeping us unconscious. Being unconscious (or ‘being driven by our attachments’) means that we are ignoring what is real and chasing after what is unreal, and this is really just a mechanism for creating suffering…






The Thinking Trap


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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











When it comes down to it, in practice, we find that it is a very hard thing to work in a helpful way with our thoughts. What almost always happens is that we either end up fighting (in a perfectly futile way) against our thinking, or we end up carrying on thinking in the same old way that we always do. Neither of these does any good – in the first case our ‘fighting against the thinking’ feeds the thinking (which means that the struggle just goes on and on) and in the second case the fact that we are ‘carrying on thinking’ also feeds the thinking, and so this goes on and on forever too! Both of these come down to the same thing – both ‘going along with the thought’ and ‘reacting against it’ equal ‘thinking’!


What makes it hard to work with our thinking is our lack of insight about a key point therefore, and that key point is that any involvement at all that I have with my thinking feeds that thinking, just as throwing fuel into a fire feeds the fire. Thinking is a game, and as soon as I get sucked into playing it I am putting energy into it. Not getting involved with the thinking game doesn’t mean ignoring it – if I try to ignore a game this is taking up a deliberate (or calculated) attitude towards it and this means that I am playing it despite myself! This is the same sort of thing as sulking, or being ‘passive aggressive’ – if I am in a sulk (or being what is called passive-aggressive) then I am refusing to get involved, I am refusing to communicate, but the thing about this is that my refusal to get involved is a form of involvement. My deliberate non-communication is of course a communication in itself because I am trying to get some point across! If I have some intention (or agenda) behind what I am doing, then this constitutes a game…


Instead of saying that a game is when I have some sort of intention or agenda behind what I am doing (which I may or may not be aware of) we could just say that it is when I have some kind of thought, some kind of thinking, behind what I am doing, and this perhaps makes it easier to understand. If there is thought behind what I am doing, then what I am doing is thinking, and as we have said thinking always reinforces thinking, no matter what type of thinking it is, no matter what the thinking in question may be about. Thinking always feeds thinking – that is the basic principle! Another way to put this would be to say that we can’t get rid of thinking with thinking, which makes perfect sense when we reflect on it. Working with our thinking in a helpful way doesn’t mean ‘discovering the right approach to take with it’ because all approaches are a manifestation of thinking – what it means is not having an approach, not playing an angle…


In one way this sounds very difficult – if not impossible. How can I not have an approach? No matter what I do, it is going to be some approach or other. And even deliberately trying not to have an approach is an approach – it is the approach of having no approach! The more I think about this the more frustratingly impossible it seems and yet at the same time there is something delightfully straightforward, something delightfully simple about ‘having no attitude’. If I think about having no attitude, and what the right way might be to go about attaining such a wonderfully unprejudiced state of mind then of course the whole thing becomes impossibly complicated (since thinking is in itself an attitude) but then on the other hand if I’m not thinking about it then nothing could be simpler since ‘not having an attitude’ is the way we all are quite naturally, before we start thinking about things, before we start getting all ‘smart and sophisticated’ in ourselves. Not having an attitude just means that I don’t assume that I already know something about life – it means that I am looking at things with fresh eyes, eyes that are not contaminated by all the stuff that I think I know.


We could also say that not having an attitude means not looking at the world in terms of what we want from it, which shows again the difficulties that beset us if we start off from (as we almost certainly do) a position of wanting to have no attitude. Wanting to have no attitude is an attitude and so we’re banjaxed from the start! The question is therefore, how do I start to work with my thinking, when even my intention to ‘do something about it’ is a thought, is an attitude? The first point to make is that there has to be sincerity in this intention: if I am just in pain and as a result of being in pain my knee-jerk reaction is to find some way of making the pain stop then there is no sincerity in this and I won’t get anywhere on this basis. I have an agenda to do whatever I need to do to stop my thoughts tormenting me so much, and so all of a sudden I’m interested in learning whatever I need to learn to do something about this situation! Then – presumably – as soon as the problem has been solved I can go straight back to my previous ‘heedless’ way of life. I can go straight back to sleep! The only problem here is that this just won’t work because deep down – where it really counts – I just don’t give a damn. All I care about is getting rid of the irritation, all I care about is ‘mechanically reacting to pain and discomfort to make it go away’ and this isn’t a genuine motivation. I need to tap into a deeper source of motivation than this if anything is to change…


Luckily this ‘deeper motivation’, this ‘sincerity’, is there somewhere beneath the surface and constant unremitting suffering is the one thing that is guaranteed to put me in touch with it! Of course I want to the suffering that I am going through to end, but there is more than it to this. On a very deep level, I am disillusioned with the ‘way of being’ that I have that puts me in line for this type of suffering, and as a result something in me is genuinely interested in change. Anthony de Mello says that one thing he found out as a result of many years working as a psychotherapist was that people come looking to be ‘fixed’, so that they can go back to their games – very few people come to psychotherapy because they actually want to change in a profound way. It is as if we always want to go back to what we know, to resume the way of doing things that we used to have, back in ‘the good old days’. This is true even if there never were any good old days – looking back through rose-tinted glasses, ‘the way we used to be’ looks very attractive indeed when we are going through a difficult time and so as a result of this nostalgic view we have of it, we want very badly to get back to it. This is our usual ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to being subjected to pain that takes us beyond what our everyday coping mechanisms can deal with.


What can happen when we go through enough neurotic suffering however is that we discover within ourselves a sincere wish to change in a fundamental way – we no longer want to go back to the way we used to be because we can see that the way we used to be contains within it the root of our present suffering! What has happened in this case that we have reached a point where we are willing – on a very deep level – to let go of all the mass of unexamined attachments that are behind all the pain and suffering we are going through, and it is at this point that we can be said to have ‘rediscovered our sincerity’. It is – very clearly – only when we have reached this point that genuine change can take place. After all, how can change possibly take place when we have no genuine wish for that change? Heartfelt assent to change is the only thing that is needed for change to happen – the big obstacle is reaching this point! When we no longer have that ‘deep-down unconscious commitment’ to staying the same (or to returning to how we were before things became so challenging) then – and only then – have we been freed up enough to begin to change our relationship with our thoughts. Beforehand, whilst the ‘unconsciousness commitment to staying the same’ is still there and in full force, we are dependent upon our thoughts to help us. The thinking mind is the unscrupulous government and ‘change’ is the terrorist threat that it has frightened us with, and has promised to save us from, so to speak (just so long as we agree to it taking the appropriate measures). This being the way things are, of course we are never going to come anywhere close to be able to work with our thinking in a helpful (or ‘freeing’) way. This being the way things are, there is absolutely zero chance of changing the way we relate to our thoughts and any practices we undertake are only ever going to be a pretence, are only ever going to be a hollow façade.


The key to everything is not being scared or threatened or cajoled or in any way manipulated by our thinking into taking it seriously. The automatic thinking process will try to get us to buy into what it is saying, but that is all it can do – it’s up to us whether we buy into it or not. This is a freedom that we always have – whether we realize it or not. We don’t have to buy into anything thought tells us, just so long as it hasn’t ‘got anything over us’ – which is exactly what it does have when we’re fundamentally afraid of change. As long as we are absolutely afraid of something, then the thinking process can of course play this card to get our allegiance, and whenever it does play this card we won’t have the option of not going along with it… We are – in this case – the ‘helpless puppet of the thinking process’ and we will be dragged along (kicking and screaming as the case may be) to believe in whatever nonsense the thinking process wants us to believe in…


A very straightforward way of explaining what happens when we get ‘railroaded’ (or ‘puppeted’) by the thinking process is to talk in terms of issues. An issue is – quite simply – when we think we have to do something about what is happening. So, a ‘provocation’ comes along and I am pulled into thinking that I absolutely have to do something about it. My back’s against the wall. I’m caught. The provocation is essentially some kind of difficulty – it is something that makes more of a demand on us than we are used to, something that threatens to take us out of our comfort zone. If being ‘taken out of my comfort zone’ is something that I am absolutely afraid of then I will get sucked into thinking; on the other hand, if I’m willing to make the experiment of venturing out of my comfort zone, then I don’t necessarily have to react to the provocation. I don’t have to get caught up in the issue.


There is a world of a difference between ‘a difficulty’ and ‘an issue’ – a difficulty is when we find ourselves in a place that is hard for us to be in, whilst an issue is when we are faced with a possibility that we just can’t countenance. An issue is a problem that we need to fix therefore there is no leeway with regard to ‘not fixing’. ‘Failure is not an option’, as the saying goes, as we make a virtue of this lack of freedom. This often-heard saying might sound good to us if we don’t reflect on it too much (or at all) but what it really means that instead of inner freedom what we have is a compulsion, what we have is ‘a rule’ that we are not allowed to question…


Difficulties and problems are totally different things – if something is difficult then it is difficult, but I am not on the run from that difficulty. There’s no compulsion in it, no rule saying that we have to ‘fix it’. The situation I’m in isn’t easy, but it is ‘workable’ nevertheless, to use Chogyam Trungpa’s phrase. When something is a problem then I have already evaluated – in a quite automatic way – the situation as being absolutely unacceptable. There is as we have said no leeway here – it has to be fixed and that is that. Because I have accepted that there is no leeway, because I have bought into the proposition that ‘failure is not an option’, all my energy and resourcefulness goes into the question of “how to fix it”. With problems it is always the burning question of ‘how do I fix it’ that obsesses us – this is what makes a problem into a problem, this is what makes an issue into an issue. “How?” is the bait that we automatically bite at, and “how?” also contains hidden within it the hook that makes sure we can’t break free, once we have ‘bitten’.


What makes a problem into a problem is the lightening quick evaluation that we make, by sheer force of habit: “No way!” we say, but we say this in an inkling, so that we don’t even notice ourselves saying it. But once we have made this evaluation – which is also the same thing as ‘a decision’ – then this makes all the difference in the world. From then on we are locked into trying to obey the ‘invisible rule’ that we have bought into – everything hangs upon whether or not we can manage to obey the rule. The ‘rule’ is simply something to the effect of “I cannot allow this…” or “I have to do something about this…”


This lightening-quick decision to go along with the rule is something that I freely (if unconsciously) make, but the thing about this is that as soon as I make it, I forget that it is ‘a decision’. I’m trapped in my own unconscious choice about how the world is to be seen, in other words. I forget that the rule is only a rule because I choose to go along with it. I don’t see that I am seeing things this way because of a decision I made – I just see the way I am seeing things as ‘the way things are’.


We can therefore say that the basic process of how a difficulty gets turned into a problem all starts with that first crucial step of evaluating the difficult situation: first I evaluate, and then I react on the basis of my evaluation (or decision). The snag in this is that the business of reacting is so ‘all-consuming’ (in terms of my attention) that I never get a chance to question my original decision.


It is crucially important to understand this process of ‘converting a difficulty into a problem’ because this is precisely what bogs us down whenever we try to ‘work’ with difficult feelings or thoughts. In fact this process of getting ‘bogged down’ or ‘trapped’ generally happens with all our feelings and thoughts, not just the difficult ones – we just don’t notice being trapped in the thinking process when it isn’t painful for us. The truth of the matter – whether we realize it or not – is that we are controlled by our automatic reactions, which is to say, we turn just about every difficulty that comes along into a problem or issue. This is the ‘mechanical mode of existence’ – it as what happens to us when we get sucked helplessly into the mode of trying to ‘fix things’, as if life itself were nothing more than a series of problems crying out to be fixed.


The big question is “What do we do to prevent ourselves getting sucked into this dreadfully humourless ‘mechanical mode of being’?” What is the ‘key’ to not being controlled by the runaway perpetually rotating rational mind? Actually there isn’t a key, not in the way we’d like for there to be one. We tend to want a literal key that we can remember, something like a helpful formula or recipe. The problem with this however is there just isn’t a handy formula – there can’t be because formulae are methods (or rather they are instructions for how to implement methods) and methods – by definition – are all about changing or controlling the situation. If I am looking for a method, then I must be looking for a means of control, I must be looking for ‘a way to stay on top of the situation’. Or we could say that if I am looking for ‘a way to stay on top of the situation’ then I am looking for a way to ‘win out’, and if I am looking for a way to ‘win out’ then I must have been sucked into an issue! I must have been sucked into an issue because it is only when I am caught up in issues that I feel the need to ‘win’. Only problems need to be fixed, in other words, and so if I’m trying to fix something then I must have already been swallowed up by the mechanical mode of functioning…


So this understanding is actually a sort of a key in itself – only it is what we could call a negative rather than a positive key that tells us what to do. A negative key means that when I see myself doing something, then I know from this that I have gone astray. In other words, it doesn’t tell me what the right thing to do is, it just tells me what isn’t the right thing. So if I notice myself struggling to ‘win out’ in some way, then I know straightaway that this isn’t the way to work with thoughts and feelings. I know that I’m just reacting mechanically. And if I make this into an issue, and start to try to ’win out against my habit of always trying to win out’, then I know that this isn’t the right way to work either!


We would generally much rather have a positive key rather than a negative one for the simple reason that we don’t want to do the work ourselves. We want to be told what to do! We want ‘an external authority’! A positive key tells us what the right thing to do is, and this makes life very easy for us. But there is no right way for dealing with issues (or dealing with difficult situations that are threatening to become issues) because if there was ‘a right way to deal with it’, then this means (by direct implication) that it needs to be dealt with. But if it needs to be dealt with, then that makes it an issue. If it needs to be dealt with then it’s a problem! Therefore, as we have already said, having a right way of doing things (which is the same thing as a method) is just another way of making an issue out of something – in this case, it is a way of ‘making an issue out of the need not to be making issues’.


When we use this ‘negative key’ to guide us rather than some sort of positive one, rather than some kind of method, then this pretty quickly teaches us something remarkable. What it teaches us is that whatever we do, it is ‘wrong’! Whatever we do to free ourselves from our thinking only entangles us in that thinking all the more. We make things worse by trying to make them better. This of course completely ties us up in knots and we end up despairing and asking ourselves or anybody else who happens to be around what the answer could be. But in doing this, we are going back to that old business of looking for a positive key. We are being ‘lazy’ – we want the ‘answer’ to be conveniently handed to us on a plate. We are waiting – as we always do – for the external authority to tell us what to do.


The ‘answer’ that we’re looking for doesn’t come from thinking or methods or books written by experts however – which is to say, it doesn’t come from our models, from our rational understanding of the world and how things work in that world. The answer isn’t to be found in the filing system that we have in our heads because the ‘answer’ is actually to look at reality directly without any of our old, limiting assumptions about what the world is and how things work in it. As Krishnamurti always says, we have to look at the world with ‘new eyes’, not the old ones. The old eyes won’t help us no matter how long we look because it is the old eyes that are the root of the problem in the first place.


When the answer comes, it comes from totally unexpected quarter, and this is why we can’t find it deliberately: I can only deliberately or purposefully find stuff that I already know about, if not in detail then at least in outline. Old stuff I can find on purpose, but new stuff I cannot, obviously! So what we are saying here is that the sort of answer that will show us how to helpfully work with out thoughts and feelings (and prevent us from turning everything into issues) comes in the form of a flash of insight, rather than coming as a result of any sort of acquired ‘cleverness’.


Because insight is ‘new’ (and not part of our repertoire) it is no good racking our brains to work out what to do when we’re feeling hard-pressed, when we’re ‘in the thick of it’. This in itself is helpful to know because this means that we can now see that there is simply no point in involving ourselves in thinking! This is an extraordinarily helpful thing to understand because normally we take it for granted that thinking is somehow going to save us, if we do enough of it (or if we do it in the ‘right way’). For this reason we ‘put all our money’ on this horse, and we end up as a result suffering from ‘over-thinking’, like a car which is having its engine revved up far more than is good for it. The result of over-valuing the rational mind and its box of tricks (as we always do) is that we end up suffering from the disease of ‘runaway thinking’, which happens as a result of us trying to get out of a difficult situation by being clever, by being skilful at manipulating stuff. We’re in a difficult situation and we think about this situation a hell of a lot because we’re hoping to find a way to escape from it, and this runaway thinking activity not only increases the pain we’re in, it prevents us from actually relating – in an honest rather than a manipulative way – with what’s going on. The thinking keeps us stuck, in other words.


The disease of ‘over-thinking’ affects most of us, and yet we rarely realize just how debilitating it is for us. It takes up all our time, uses up lots and lots of energy, and distracts us from enjoying or appreciating what is actually going on at the time. And yet, despite the fact that it costs us so much (in terms of the ‘quality’ of our inner life) we don’t get anything worthwhile as a result of it. We could even go so far as to say that the runaway thinking process acts like a parasitic organism. Thinking never leads anywhere apart from more thinking – basically what I am doing (when it comes right down to it) is ‘thinking for the sake of thinking’. In other words, the normal everyday type of thinking that we all engage in is no more than a pointless and self-destructive habit – it is – not to put too fine a point on it – a form of mental activity that we engage ourselves in simply for the sake of distracting ourselves from what’s really going on. This sounds like a very extreme viewpoint on the matter, and most people undoubtedly wouldn’t agree with it for a second. But if anyone were to take the trouble to actually notice their own thinking during the course of the day, and reflect on just how useful it really is, they could not fail to be struck by the most salient feature of everyday, ‘common or garden’ thinking, which is its redundancy. It is empty chatter – and this empty chatter is somehow tolerated by us, as if it’s only right and proper that it should be there, in the background, passing banal comments on everything like an annoying sports commentator we can’t turn off.


Once we thoroughly realize that the normal everyday type of rational thinking is not going to help us, that it is not going to get us anywhere new, then as we have said this is profoundly helpful. We have already made the point that there can be no such thing as a ‘method’ for freeing us when we are ‘sucked up into issues’ (since the fact that there has to be a method re-affirms the issue) and the exact same thing is true for thinking. If we could clearly see rational thinking for what it is we would see it to be an endless series of issues, one after another, with nothing in the way of gaps in between them. When it comes down to it, there is never any ‘let-up’, never any break from the ceaseless demand that is made on our attention. All our available attention is hoovered up by the mechanical process of thinking. If there was a bit of a gap, a bit of a let-up, then this would constitute actual mental freedom, which is precisely what the engine of everyday rational thinking is geared to prevent!


Realising that the normal type of thinking that we engage in is not useful in the way that it implicitly claims to be, and that – moreover – it has the covert function of mopping up every last little bit of our mental freedom is helpful not because this realisation causes us to try to deliberately stop thinking (which is, as we have said, completely impossible) but because we stop believing in it. This is basically a process of disillusionment – it is just like when we keep meeting a guy who makes promise after promise every time we meet him, and keeps none of them. After a while, what happens is that we see through him, we get disillusioned with his false promises. We don’t need to punch the guy in the face, or roar and shout at him, or chase him away with a big stick, all we need to do is realize that he is a phoney and then it naturally happens that we no longer listen to his empty promises.


Exactly the same thing happens when we get disillusioned with the constant stream of rational thinking that goes on in our heads every day. We don’t need to criticise the thinking, or judge it, or chase it away, or get violent with it in any way, all we need to do is to see through it. Whether we are talking about this in terms of ‘thinking’, or ‘issues’, or ‘negative emotions or feelings’, the point remains the same – it is not action that is needed, but insight into the uselessness of thought-mediated action.


Difficult, hard-to-handle thoughts and feelings always provoke us to take action in order to escape the pain that they bring (‘action’ may mean doing something, or it may mean simply thinking). This action often brings us an initial feeling of relief, but the relief is short-lived and any pain that we escape in the short-term is repaid with interest on the long term. Therefore, we can say that any ‘action’ that we might take (or any ‘thinking about the problem’ that we might do) is only really postponing pain. It is postponing the pain we have waiting for us, and adding to it at the same time. If there is a difficulty there, then I may be able to momentarily postpone the moment when I have to face it, but that is all. I can’t really escape it. And whatever I do it is only making matters worse for myself…


Once we understand this, once we see through the sophisticated psychological game that we are playing with ourselves with all our ‘thinking about the problem’, then we naturally stop investing time and energy in the game. What this means is that when difficulties come along, more and more often it just naturally happens that we don’t make an issue of them. that we don’t distract ourselves with false hopes of ‘finding a way out’. This doesn’t mean that we straightaway cease thinking non-stop, attention-eating thoughts all the time – what it does mean however is that we face up to the fact that we are letting non-stop mechanical thinking eat up all our free attention (i.e. our unconditioned consciousness) the whole time. We don’t avoid seeing this by ‘believing in the thoughts’, by ‘buying into the distractions’. It isn’t ‘an issue’ because there is nothing we can do about it! It’s just ‘what’s happening’. So we don’t try to change what is happening – we just observe what is happening. And if we find that we’ve got caught up in a struggle to observe, caught up in forcing ourselves to observe (as if not-observing’ were a problem!) then we simply observe that this is what is happening. Whatever is happening, it’s only ‘what is happening’ – it isn’t really an issue unless we make it so…


When we get stuck, then this is what is happening. What is happening is that we are stuck in an issue. So we see that we’re stuck in an issue.  This in itself isn’t an issue because there’s nothing we can do to change it!  It’s just ‘what’s happening’ – everything is just ‘what’s happening’. If we have the thought that it is a problem for us to be stuck in the issue then this is just another thought. It’s just a thought like any other thought.There isn’t really a problem because nothing ever really is. It’s only a problem if we believe that it is – our resistance makes it into a problem, in other words. There is only a problem if we insist on believing that it is absolutely unacceptable for whatever is happening to be happening, instead of seeing that it is just an unfolding of a dynamic reality. The reason we get caught up in thinking is always because we don’t want to see where this dynamic reality is going to go to when we let it unpack itself (as it always will do); we if did have an interest in seeing what unfolds then we wouldn’t need to be doing all that thinking. We’d be watching with interest, instead…






The Engine of Automatic Reacting


In each of us there is something that might be called the engine of automatic reacting. Another way to explain this ‘engine’ would be to say that it is ‘force of habit’. This would be the more usual way to talk about automatic reacting, but it suffers from the drawback of being too familiar to us, so that we don’t really think about it that much. The idea of force of habit seems fairly harmless to us – at worst it is something that is annoying or frustrating. A lot of the time, it is simply invisible because it doesn’t get in the way. For example, if I have a habit of always having a cup of tea first thing in the morning I don’t generally see that as a problem – it’s just what I do. Only when I can’t get a cup of tea in the morning would it be a problem, and even then I wouldn’t see the habit as being the problem but the lack of availability of teabags, or whatever. On rare occasions we are forced to confront the fact that we have a genuinely nefarious habit that we can’t get rid of, but even when this happens we still do not appreciate how widespread or endemic the problem is, and how much of a threat it is.


In the following discussion we are going to suggest that the engine of automatic reacting is both a very remarkable thing, and very terrible thing. It is remarkable because it is a sort of powerhouse that goes on and on, never running out of energy. In fact, rather than running out of steam as time goes on, it gets more and more powerful, more and more ‘unstoppable’. This is why it is also a terrible thing. In its unstoppability, it is like the legendary ‘perpetual motion machine’ that generations of eccentric inventors have tried in vain to come up with. Up to now, no one has ever invented a perpetual motion machine and the reason for this is that all mechanical processes involve friction which means an inevitable loss of momentum. We just can’t produce a totally friction-free mechanism. The mental machine that is automatic reacting is friction-free however, as we can show with the help of a few examples.


Our first example is provided by the common and well-known phenomenon of two people having a blazing row. First I say something hurtful, then you say something hurtful back, and then, stung by your mean comment, I come back with a mean comment of my own. This is exactly like a pendulum swinging first one way, and then the other. The reason there is no friction in this continual ‘reacting’ is because the momentum (or energy) of the swinging pendulum is not absorbed by either person, but reflected back. At the heart of this tit-for-tat reacting is the refusal to accept pain, and it is the refusal to accept pain that is at the heart of all automatic mental reactions.


It is easy enough to see how this works: when I sting you with an unkind remark you feel bad, and the automatic way to deal with feeling bad is simply to ‘pass it on’. It is as if I hit a ping-pong ball at you, and you (having none of it) promptly hit it back at me. When you return with a stinging remark directed at me, this is a way of avoiding pain, and it is also a way of obtaining satisfaction – the satisfaction of putting your opponent in their place with the ‘ultimate put-down’.


Psychologically speaking, the attempt to avoid pain and the attempt to gain satisfaction are one and the same thing, they are the two sides of the same coin – the coin of extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is the motivation behind ‘reacting’, the motivation behind automatic behaviour. We can see this by looking at another example of a perpetual motion machine, which is addiction. Once an addiction is established, it can go on and on just about forever. The basic mechanism is the same swinging pendulum type thing: at one end of the swing there is the grasping for satisfaction which is when I take the addictive substance. A bit later on, I start to feel bad because the high is wearing off, and I am no longer experiencing euphoria but rebound depression, or cold turkey, or something like that. This bad feeling triggers me to obtain another dose of the drug, which fuels another swing of the pendulum. This goes back and forth, back and forth, until the time comes when I get so sick of the imprisoning pattern of addiction that I am willing to swallow the pain of the negative end of the cycle without acting to avoid it. When I do this, the momentum or energy of the pendulum is absorbed, and it finally comes to rest.


The same is true for the swinging pendulum of an argument – one person has to unconditionally accept the pain that has been sent their way, they have got to absorb the momentum of the ping-pong ball that is coming across the table at them. This hurts, and there is no satisfaction to be had in it. It goes totally against the grain of our automatic reacting machine, but it always works in the end because unless we ‘play the game’ by reacting to discomfort (or reaching out for satisfaction) the whole to-and-fro movement of the mechanism cannot continue. It is our knee-jerk aversion to pain, and our knee-jerk attraction to pleasure, that perpetuates the perpetual motion of the engine of automatic reacting.


To find an example of this tendency in action, we have only to think about the phenomenon of ‘having to have the last word’ that we sometimes see enacted in an argument, where one person just has to have the final word before leaving the room. The reason this is so important is purely because of the unwillingness to accept pain, and the desire for the satisfaction of being ‘one up’. I don’t want to be put in a bad light, and I do want to put the other person in a bad light (even though I of course see it as being the correct slant on things). If both people insist on having the last word, what we have is a never-ending game of ping-pong – it has to be never-ending because for it to end someone has to not have the last word, and neither party is willing to have this happen to them.


The example of an argument is clearly a ‘two player’ game, but the same principle operates in ‘one player’ games, an example of which would checking in OCD. Suppose I have a compulsion to keep checking and rechecking my letters before I post them, because I am worried that I might have put the wrong letter in the wrong envelope. Successful checking brings a momentary feeling of satisfaction, but it also ‘feeds the engine’, which is to say, it makes the underlying compulsion stronger and stronger with time. What this means is that the next time an ambiguous situation comes along (i.e. where I can’t say for sure if the correct letter is in the correct envelope) then I am going to be on the receiving end of a bad feeling which I will want to get rid of. So I try my best to obtain satisfaction by checking, which is equivalent to the tactic of ‘returning the pain’ in an argument involving two people, only this time (obviously) there isn’t actually another person. One way to explain what is going on is to say that I am treating my environment like a giant spring: it pushes me and causes me to feel bad, and so I push back on it in order to get satisfaction. The problem with this is that by pushing (or compressing) the spring I have stored energy up in it, and so sooner or later it will push back at me and the whole familiar ‘back-and-forth’ cycle will be set in motion. I can’t actually get rid of the pain, I can only get momentary relief by pushing it away, which ensures that there will be a return later on. This ‘one person’ game also never ends, because I am totally unwilling ever to be on the receiving end without reacting to send the pain impulse away again.


Chronic anger is also an example of a one-person game. When I feel the initial discomfort of the anger, I react automatically in my head to blame someone (or something) else, and simultaneously vindicate myself. This tactic sends the bad feeling away, just as if the discomfort was a tennis ball and I had hit it a good whack with a racket. However, I haven’t really got rid of the pain because I have conditioned myself to react this way, and I have in the process fixated my consciousness in a particular frame of reference so that I now totally believe in the distorted (or one-sided) version of reality that I had to adopt in order to feel vindicated or justified in the first place. My solution to the problem isn’t a real one – I have in effect ‘cheated’ by fixating on narrow perspective of things in order to obtain a false feeling of satisfaction. If we say that reality is a rubber ball, then I have obtained satisfaction by squeezing it, and because I have squeezed the ball, it is inevitably going to rebound on me at some future point in time. This is what games are all about – deluding ourselves that we can obtain a [+] result without having to make an equal and opposite payback. As long as we think we can have a PLUS without also having to pay a MINUS later on, then the game can (and will) go on indefinitely. Thus, the engine of automatic reaction is fuelled by ignorance, i.e., it is fuelled by our ignoring of the fact that an UP and a DOWN always come hand-in-hand.


Two final examples of perpetual motion one-person games are anxiety and perfectionism. In anxiety the tactic we use to refuse discomfort is avoiding, which involves both fighting and repressing. Essentially, we think that we can evade our fear, but our attempt to evade it actually perpetuates it indefinitely. In perfectionism the game we are playing is of course chasing perfection. The ideal perfect state is always there just in front of our noses, urging us onwards, but somehow we never find the final satisfaction that we so much desire. The problem with perfectionism (and ‘fixing’ generally) can be explained by using the idea of a tablecloth that has annoying wrinkles on it. We react to the wrinkles by smoothing a patch out, but by doing this we necessarily throw up more wrinkles somewhere else. These new wrinkles annoy us, and so we busily smooth them out, thereby creating more wrinkles again, and so on and so forth. It is possible to gain momentary satisfaction by focussing only on the smooth patch that we have cleared in front of us, but this too is ‘cheating’ really because we only get to feel good because we ignore that fact that successful smoothing always comes with a price. And, as always, when we ignore the price (or believe that we can escape paying it) we have to continue the game, because the game has no end…


There is one possibility that we have not so far mentioned, and that is the possibility of escaping from one game by distracting ourselves with another. I might be caught up in angry thoughts, and then distract myself by eating a cream doughnut. Basically, what I do is I find something more compulsive, or equally compulsive, and I substitute that compulsion for the old one. This is exactly like coming off a heroin addiction by switching to an alcohol addiction instead. Obviously, this is always a ‘false solution’ because the new compulsion is just as much a trap as the old one. However, if I take a narrow view, it is possible to feel relief or satisfaction because I am able to believe that I have in some way ‘moved on’.


Actually, this business of escaping a troublesome compulsion by over-riding it with another compulsion, which is swapping one game for another, is itself a game – it is just another level of game. On the first level, I believe that I can achieve success within the terms of the game. For example, if I am in the grip of perfectionism, then I believe that I can reach the ideal state of perfection in whatever it is that I am doing. As we said, this is a trap because, if I take the wider view, I will see that all I have done it to ‘pass the problem on’ to another part of the board. Earlier, we illustrated this idea in terms of a wrinkly tablecloth. Another way to illustrate it would be to say that it is like a Mobius strip, which the Cassel Paperback Dictionary defines as follows:

– a long, rectangular strip of paper twisted through 180 degrees and joined at the ends, to form a one-sided surface bounded by one continuous curve.

The Mobius strip is a ‘physical paradox’ – like all strips of paper, it has two surfaces, and yet with this particular strip of paper there is a twist because if you follow one face of the paper long enough you inevitably end up on the other, which obviously means that there is only one face really. Now, suppose that I am the sort of perfectionist who hates twists. Twists or bendy bits make me feel really annoyed and I have to fix them by ‘flattening them out’ by some means. Let us next suppose that my life consists of travelling around and around on the surface of a giant Mobius strip, which is, as the above definition tells us, one continuous curve. This curve or twist is really going to bug me and so I am going to have to flatten it. When I ‘iron out’ the kink in the area where I am sitting I am going to feel good- I am going to get a rush of satisfaction at having achieved ‘perfection’. However, all I have really done is to chase the kink to another location on the loop, and because I have to keep travelling around the loop (or strip), I will inevitably encounter an exacerbated kink a bit later on. The reason we say that the kink is ‘exacerbated’ is because when a part or section of the curve is flattened out, this naturally means that there must be increased curvature somewhere else on the loop to make up for it.


This story ought to be getting fairly familiar to us by now! What happens next is obvious. If a bit of a twist drove me cracked, then an exaggerated twist will drive me twice as cracked, and so when I encounter it I will redouble my efforts to straighten it out, and so the cycle of fixing will be set up all over again. There are two entirely different possibilities here:


[1] is when I persist in focussing only on the short-term gain, and ignoring the long-term cost. This involves me in an endless series of ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ – I get an ‘up’ when I kid myself that I have fixed the problem, and I get a ‘down’ when I find that I have a new problem to deal with. What I don’t see is that I am engaged in an impossible task – all I am ever doing is driving the kink around and around the loop. The twisty bit cannot ever go away, it can never be banished. And yet, as long as I think I am getting somewhere, I will keep at it, never realizing that I have actually been totally swallowed up by a perfectly meaningless (or ‘circular’) task.


[2] is when I take a broader view and see as a result the impossible nature of what I am trying to achieve, and I therefore perceive the meaninglessness of what I am doing. I see as clearly as day that for every gain (or PLUS) I am bound to get a corresponding loss (or MINUS). I see that PLUS equals MINUS. This is ‘seeing through the game’. To see that I am attempting the impossible takes the guts out of the engine of automatic reacting, because in order to keep fuelling the engine I have to actually believe that I can obtain a [+] without incurring an equal and opposite [-] to cancel it out a bit later on. Even though the engine does not run out of steam straight away, seeing through the game is the beginning of the ‘winding down’ process by which the power of the automatic mechanism gradually dwindles away.


We were on the subject of ‘swapping one compulsion for another’. We started off by talking about the ‘first level of the game’, which we defined by saying that it is where we believe that we can obtain ultimate success within the terms of that game. Alternatively, we could say that the ‘first level’ is when we think that we can eradicate the ‘hidden paradox’ in the game (this is what Professor Carse calls the ‘contradictoriness of finite play’). The paradox is hidden because we just don’t see it, but it is of course still there just the same, as we can clearly see from the example of the Mobius strip. I just need to ‘pull back’ enough from my purposeful behaviour so that I can see what I am doing, and I will see it.


The second level of the game is where we swap one distraction for another, one game for another. When we think about it, we can of course see that this is exactly the same thing. We think that we can fix the problem this way, whereas all we are really doing is endlessly exchanging one problem for another. This is what ‘neurotic fixing’ is all about! What this shows, therefore, is that there is no way to ‘cure’ a compulsion on purpose, because ‘purposes’ are themselves compulsions, and you can’t cure compulsivity with yet more compulsivity. However sophisticated our game, our situation is essentially the same, which is to say, it is a dead-end which no amount of cleverness will free us from. The problem is insoluble, and so cleverness is not the answer.


What we are basically looking at here is a trap for consciousness. When we get caught up in a circle of thought (or a circle of behaviour), and believe that we are genuinely going somewhere when we are not, then our awareness has effectively been put in a prison. This is the most complete sort of a prison there could be, because we think we are actually free. We are ‘going nowhere for ever’. This is the state of psychological unconsciousness, where we are fully engaged in the pursuit of illusory progress, utterly distracted from the reality of our situation. To be genuinely free, we would first have to see the circle of thought within which we are trapped, we would have to see that we are eternally distracted in Taking A Trip To Nowhere. Freedom is, therefore, seeing through the trick, seeing the paradox. To put it most succinctly, believing that [+] doesn’t equal [-] is the state of unconsciousness, and seeing that [+] equals [-] is consciousness. These are the two possibilities: either we are trapped in the realm of illusion, which is when we are totally absorbed in thinking that we are getting real results when we are not, or we are free, which is when we see the illusion for what it is, and do not get pulled into it.


In a way, we could say that are two ingredients to unconsciousness. The first is the ‘illusion of progress’ that keeps leading us onwards, and the second is the sheer force of the compulsion that makes us want the progress. It is because of the force of the compulsion that we don’t examine the illusion too carefully – if it wasn’t there we would be so ‘stupid’. As we have been saying, there is no magic short cut for getting rid of this force, which is the momentum of the engine of automatic reacting. We cannot oppose this momentum, or deflect it, without adding to the momentum. Any reaction to it feeds it; any purposeful response at all feeds it, because goals are themselves compulsions.


The way to break into the closed circle of unconsciousness is not through purposeful action but through insight. In other words, we can’t do anything to (directly) slow down the momentum of automatic reacting, but we can puncture the ‘illusion of progress’, i.e. the belief that it is possible to free ourselves on purpose. When we have insight, the force of compulsion is still there, and we still find ourselves reacting to it, but by ‘seeing what is going on’ (i.e. seeing the trick) we are unconditionally accepting pain, and the fact that we are no longer allowing ourselves to believe in illusory progress as a means of escaping pain means that we are no longer fuelling the machine.


We have used various analogies to describe the engine of automatic reacting – one final analogy would be to say that it is like a huge iron wheel that is turning with apparently unstoppable momentum. Normally, our refusal to experience pain ensures that the wheel turns in a friction-free fashion, it ensures that the machine stays in perpetual motion. As soon as we puncture the illusion that we are actually getting somewhere by reacting, then there is friction. The momentum is being absorbed – the ‘insult’ is being swallowed, the blow is being allowed to land. The energy of the wheel, which is refused pain, is gradually transferred and as it is transferred the wheel slows, until eventually it comes to a complete halt and we are free. This is a long drawn out process, and it is a very major undertaking. Inevitably we wish for a quicker way, a faster result. Methods abound for ‘quick fixes’ and sometimes they seem to be working. The only problem is, when will we encounter the negativity that we have thrust somewhere, out of sight?


Paradoxically, it is the wheel itself that teaches us about the error of reacting against negativity. For the majority of us, the engine of automatic reacting is out of sight, somewhere below the surface, and so we have no way of knowing that it is there. We never draw the connection between positive gains we make and the periods of payback we go through, and so we never see the way in which our cleverness as avoiding pain only ever rebounds on us. And yet, when the wheel comes to the surface and visibly affects us, and we start to lose the illusion of the freedom we thought we had, then that is a blessing in disguise because it is only when the chains bite into our flesh. It is only when the rules (or limitations) that bind us and cause us as a result to keep going around in petty circles, start to cause us pain that we realize that we are not as free as we thought we were.


Between those who are aware of their bondage to the wheel of unconsciousness, and those who are not, there is a world of difference. When we are caught in the unforgiving jaws of neurotic torment, we find ourselves wishing that we could be in the shoes of someone who is not undergoing such trials. We try to live a normal life but we are frustrated at every turn, whereas everyone else just seems to sail straight ahead with no real problems. “Ignorance is bliss,” we say. And yet it is our very frustration that is giving us a valuable chance for freedom. What we can’t see is that the satisfaction of being successful within a game (for that is what unconsciousness is) is hollow. It is all appearance and no essence; success in the game looks good from the outside but when we obtain it the satisfaction soon evaporates leaving nothing but the craving for yet more ‘theatrical victories’.


For example, I might think that it must be great to achieve the social status of a chart-topping pop star, and look no further than this in my ambitions. But even if the million-to-one chance comes off and the dream comes true, the euphoria soon pales. When it comes right down to it, nothing has really changed! When I lie in bed at night with no one to tell me how great I am, I feel exactly the same as before. It is the same old ‘me’. Victory in a game is purely bogus, when it comes right down to it. Furthermore, what goes up must come down, and so the day will come when my special social status is revoked and I am just another person, just another face in the crowd. All I will have will be the dubious comfort of my memories. I might argue with this, and say that I don’t want to be a rock star, I just want to make something of myself and find happiness. Happiness cannot be found in a game however – momentary satisfaction, yes, the thrill of the chase, yes, but happiness, no. Happiness is itself paradoxical in this respect because when we try to deliberately obtain it our very ‘successes’ become our downfall. Happiness comes despite ourselves and our purposeful activity, not because; it is something that comes unexpectedly when we drop our agendas, our ideas about ‘what is important’.


In contrast to ‘attainments within a game’ (which have to be externally validated in order to mean anything), there is such a thing as real attainment, real change. The real task is for me to grow, to become the genuine individual that I potentially am, to win freedom from the easy but essentially meaningless life of psychological unconsciousness. Most of us are only potentially free. Even the great and the mighty are slaves to the hidden forces that determine their actions – imagining that they are calling the shots when in reality they only ever react. The president of the United States is as much a slave to his negative emotions as the guy who takes out the trash! And maybe he is more of a slave, if the guy who takes out the trash has worked on his self and has woken up to his unconsciousness. In the end, it is only internal freedom that is worth anything – all other attainments are phantoms, mere passing things. As G. I. Gurdjieff has said, we are all mere ‘reaction-machines’ until we break the spell and the power of the trance of unconsciousness. The ‘satisfaction’ (if we can use that word) that comes from radical transformation of the personality against all the odds, is real. No one is going to come along and pin a medal to our chest, there will be no mention of it in the papers. Yet because it is a real, and not a ‘theatrical’ change, it cannot be taken away from us. What we are saying here is not that practical (or ‘external’) attainments are pointless or unworthy of us, but that when we use them an excuse to avoid inner change, then we are thwarting our need to grow.


Deep down we know that life requires more from us than merely ‘fitting in with general expectations’ and doing well within the framework of meaning that has been handed to us by society. However, daunted by an unacknowledged fear of the hugeness of the true task in life, we seek fulfilment in petty gains and superficial victories. We ‘delight in the unreal’. We try to achieve a good feeling about ourselves by winning pointless contests. Success (or the attempt to achieve success) in games distracts us from the painful demand that life makes on us. If I ignore this demand the time will come when I will discover that through always focussing on improving my ability to ‘control what I know’, I have sold myself short.