The Trouble With Wanting

The key to finding peace of mind is to see the hidden contradiction behind the state of desire, i.e. wanting. Wanting keeps us in a particularly effective sort of prison, a prison of the mind, and the reason it is so effective is because it is always offering us a prize – a prize that it can never deliver. Another way to explain this is to say that wanting, once we respond to its provocation and turn the wanting into trying, inverts our way of seeing the world so that we perceive everything backwards.


This ‘inverted’ state of mind is sometimes called psychological unconsciousness, which is where we live on a very superficial level and don’t have any insight into our true motivation for doing things. One way to explain the ‘thinking inversion’ is by saying that when we are under the influence of wanting, our attention is distracted from the desire itself, onto whatever it is that the desire is about. Desire is a compulsion, and a compulsion that I am unable to obey makes me feel bad, but rather than seeing that the source of my misery and frustration is the actual wanting, I perceive the problem to lie in my lack of success in obtaining what I want. So, if I am craving a cigarette, and there isn’t one there, I say that it is the lack of cigarettes that is the problem and so I apply all my cunning and ingenuity to the task of correcting this problem. Where the inversion comes in is that I don’t see the wanting that has got a hold of me as the true culprit, the true author of my unhappiness – if I did then instead of using all my intelligence trying to obey it, I would turn my attention to the root of the problem.


The wanting is telling me that once I obtain the cigarette, then everything will be okay. The wanting only hurts when I can’t get what I want, and so along with the ‘stick’ of the discomfort there is always the ‘carrot’ which is the promise of relief from pain (plus the satisfaction that comes with fulfilling the desire). Therefore, the promise is that when I obey the compulsion successfully, the bad feeling will leave and everything will be fine. In other words, once I get what I want, then the wanting promises that it will quit the scene (since it is no longer needed) and there will be peace of mind.


This promise is in fact a deception, because the wanting has no intention of leaving me in peace. The truth is that wanting is insatiable, and no matter how much it gets, it will always want more. To take the example of the cigarette, if I give in to the craving and have a smoke, then of course the craving will leave temporarily, but the one thing I know for sure is that it hasn’t really gone anywhere, it is just biding its time until it is ready to appear on the scene again, even stronger and even more insistent than before. The wanting is like a playground bully, who says that if you hand over your lunch money he will not bother you again. Actually, if you give in once, he will be back again and again, until you finally stand up to him.


Another example would be a spoiled child – a child who is always given what he wants, and as a result is never happy, never satisfied. Although caving in to the child’s demands for this, that or the other may bring peace for a minute, the one thing that we know for sure is that it will not last because the more I give in, the more I spoil the child. It only ever gets worse – in all such cases, freedom never comes from taking the easy option.


‘Standing up’ to compulsions does not mean fighting them, or trying to keep a lid on them. If we do this then we fail to see the contradiction, and so all our efforts rebound on us. The contradiction arises because we want to get rid of the enemy, which is wanting. We want to stop wanting, which means that we are using wanting as a tool to get rid of itself. This is like using violence to get rid of violence – no matter what happens, violence is the winner. My tendency to be dissatisfied with my situation does not go away just because I am dissatisfied about being dissatisfied – on the contrary, it gets stronger and the underlying problem gets worse. It is tempting to fight, even though it is not really achieving anything, because at least then I can feel that I am doing something, at least then I can have the illusion of progress. Once I do start struggling though, I am lost because I lose all perspective, and I am no longer able to see how my efforts are rebounding on me.


The only way to ‘stand up’ to compulsions is the way of non-violence, which means allowing the compulsion to be there. Normally, we either obey it or fight it, and the motivation in both cases is to escape from the pressure which it is putting on us. We are unwilling to accept the pain and so we have to do something about it, one way or the other. Yet the pressure the compulsion is putting on us is pure bluff – it threatens us with all our worse fears, but if we are not provoked to react then we find that what we were threatened with never happens. The terrible consequences that I am persuaded will occur if I fail to react are only ever a mental projection, whereas in reality it is the consequences of reacting which are disastrous to me.


Allowing the compulsion, the wanting, to be there is the same thing as ‘allowing reality to be exactly the way it already is’. This is not something we do, but rather it is an act of understanding, which does not seek to change anything. An example of this sort of thing would be a situation where I have said something stupid and hurt someone’s feelings. I am desperate to put matters right, and say something to try and make everything okay again, but I find that whatever I say only makes matters worse. I am ‘digging a deep hole for myself’. As we all know from experience, the only cure for this is to leave things as they are – this is the most helpful thing to do. I am driven by the urge to correct the situation, because I cannot face feeling the shame or embarrassment. By correcting the mistake, I think that I can ‘undo it’, make it as if it had never happened. In order not to go down this road, the road of continually trying to make it better whilst actually making it worse, what is needed is that should accept the pain that I have incurred. This means facing reality and seeing that bad feeling which I am having is unavoidable. What happens then is that I unconditionally accept the mental pain involved, which, as we have said, is not a deliberate action but something that happens naturally (or spontaneously) as a result of gaining insight into the situation that I am in.


Another way to try to explain the idea of ‘unconditional acceptance’ is by using the example of being forced to spend time with some people whose opinions I strongly agree with. If I argue with them, driven by the need to prove that they are wrong and I am right, then they are just going to argue back. There is no way that I am going to change the way in which they think about things, and all that is going to happen is that there will be bad feeling between us.  Once I see this, then I just ‘let it go’ – I allow them to be the way that they already are and as a result of this there is peace. The essential element of this is that I unconditionally accept the pain of hearing them voice opinions which I do not hold with.


This does not mean that I judge them as being ‘wrong’, and then smugly tolerate them, safe in the knowledge that I am ‘right’. That would be a deliberate act, or posture, on my part and as such it is artificial (or unnatural) and therefore it would require constant effort on my part to keep it up. Instead of accepting the people I am sharing space with conditionally (which is to say, on the condition that I know they’re wrong), I accept them unconditionally. No effort or artifice is needed for this, and so there is no strain involved. This is the attitude which is sometimes called ‘beyond acceptance and rejection’. The point about this is that there is no choice involved whatsoever – there am I, and there is the situation that I am in. It doesn’t matter in the slightest if I say YES to that situation or if I say NO to it; my acceptance or my rejection are both equally irrelevant, equally ‘beside the point’. To put this another way, I am free to see the situation being the way that it is, but I am not free to choose whether the situation should be that way or not.


We can see the principle of the ‘inversion’ operating here if we look hard enough. When I feel that my acceptance is necessary for the whole process, then obviously this makes me feel like a significant or important part of the equation. I am unconsciously assuming that I am somehow still in control, that I can accept what is going on if I want to. This is plainly absurd though – my likes and dislikes don’t come into it at all. The inversion makes me think that my ‘say so’ is the crucial factor, whereas it is of course reality that is the crucial, all-determining factor. Basically, I am suffering from a distorted or deluded view of things which is a kind of ‘self-importance’ where I think that it is me (or my relationship) with reality which matters, rather than seeing that it is reality as it is that matters.


The same distortion creeps in when I judge (or evaluate) something, when I label it as being good or bad, useful or not useful, meaningful or not meaningful. Although on the face of it I am being open to what is outside me, interested in what is going on, actually I am only interested on the condition that I get to have the final ‘say so’, i.e. I am only open to what is there on the condition that what is there fits in with my preconceptions regarding what it should be like. Conditional acceptance means staying in control, whereas ‘no conditions’ means ‘no control’. Unconditional acceptance, therefore, means seeing that my likes and dislikes are irrelevant, which straightaway puts them in their ‘proper place’. The instant I see this my mind is no longer inverted – I am no longer coming at things from an upside-down perspective and I stop thinking that it is my responsibility to ‘do something’ about what is happening.


All of this is not to say that we should never listen to our needs, that we should ignore every want. This would obviously be totally ridiculous. Suppose I want to go to the toilet, or suppose I want to get up because I am sitting on a thumb-tack? Clearly I am not going to get very far ignoring these wants. These are adaptive wants, they are motivations which we need in order to function as living beings. However, having said this, we must point out that we are not specifically talking about non-adaptive compulsions such as effect us in neurotic conditions such as addictions, anorexia, anxiety and OCD, although these are plainly deadly enemies of our well being. Rather, what we are getting at is the idea that there is a ‘general tendency to be dissatisfied’ which causes us to be helpless slaves to the niggling urge to correct or improve our situation. This ‘tendency’ is the hidden thief which imperceptibly steals away our mental freedom; the worse thing is that it is accumulative in nature, which means that as time goes on it tends to steal more and more.


The tendency to be dissatisfied is there the whole time, undercover but never far away. To come face to face with it, all we need to do is to stop doing the usual stuff that we do – and wait and see what happens. One way to do this is simply to sit down on a chair (or, even better, on the floor) and refrain from all preoccupations or entertainments for a period or ten to fifteen minutes. Almost immediately a host of little annoying wants will appear like horse flies trying to goad us to react. The first will probably be physical in nature: I will start to feel uncomfortable and so I will want to stretch out my leg or shift my sitting position this way and that. Then there are the mental discomforts which dominate even when I am physically comfortable (as we can see when we sometimes lie sleepless in bed). These take the form of little worrying thoughts and concerns, potential problems that need to be considered, or just random preoccupying thoughts – each one of which will make their claim on my attention.


All these thoughts are wants: either they cause me to want to do something, or plan to do something, or work out something; generally, they all compel me to think about the world in their on narrow, claustrophobic little way. These little compulsions, clamouring as they do for a ‘slice of the pie’, eventually spell the annihilation of my mental freedom, which is the freedom not to be pushed around by every little (mental) itch that comes along. We think (or we assume) that we will become free from obeying these itches, because when we scratch an itch it tends to go away, and we get a bit of relief. This is dangerously short-sighted of us though because scratching an itch to get momentary relief from it means that we turn ourselves into ‘slaves of the itch’. We are ‘free to obey our compulsions’ – which is of course no sort of freedom at all. True freedom is not the freedom to do what we are told, but the freedom not to have to do what we are told, which is what we learn from doing the ‘doing nothing’ exercise that we talked about a minute ago.


When we carry out the ‘doing nothing’ exercise we are generally surprised by the amount of distractions that we encounter; if we thought before hand that doing nothing was easy, we now learn that it is not! Actually, it is not strictly true to say that all these wants suddenly appear when I do nothing – the point is that normally when a little want comes along I am likely to just indulge it and so the compulsion in question remains quite invisible to me. The reason ‘acting out’ a compulsion makes it invisible is firstly because as soon as I obey it, the niggling pressure ceases, and secondly (and more importantly) because when I automatically act out a compulsion I identify with it. What this means is that I align myself with the pressure so that it feels as if it was me that wanted to do whatever it was, rather than the compulsion that forced me to do it. So I don’t say “I was compelled to switch on the TV”, I say “I wanted to switch on the TV”. It can be seen that this process of identification is the exact same thing as the process of ‘viewpoint inversion’ that occurs when we obey a compulsion. We can also say that that the state of passive identification which we have just described is the same thing as the state of psychological unconsciousness, which we defined earlier as a superficial type of awareness where we do not know what our true motivation for doing stuff is.


In a ‘superficial’ sort of a way, it might seem that I have solved the problem of dealing with my wants by automatically acting them out, but all I have really done is to make my problem invisible. Not only is it invisible, it has been given the upper hand and this hand grows a little bit stronger, and a little bit heavier, every day. When I take a break from my normal more-or-less unconscious (or routine) behaviour pattern I am privileged to get a glimpse of just how powerful and insistent my tendency to be dissatisfied really is, and this insight is not usually very pleasant. From one point of view (my everyday, inverted point of view) I simply see this experience as a pain in the butt, I see it all as a bit of a nuisance or annoyance – my reaction is to exit the experience as soon as possible, and never go there again. If I could, I would make sure that I never have to encounter such uncomfortable little gaps in my life; if I could, I would wallpaper them all over with unconscious (or unreflective) living.


From the other point (non-inverted) of view, I would see this experience as a marvellous opportunity, a chance for me to drop my habitual resistances, my automatic reacting to wants, and regain my inner freedom. Being able to see the problem is not a bad thing (which is what I automatically tend to think), it is actually a great piece of luck because unless I can see the problem I cannot ever stand a chance of overcoming it. If I am willing to confront the ‘uncomfortable-ness’ of my exposed tendency to be dissatisfied, then the situation can change so that it is no longer my master. In order to stay in the discomfort zone of ‘not doing’ all I need is the insight to understand that it is pointless being dissatisfied with my tendency to be dissatisfied; instead of fighting against this tendency I unconditionally allow it to be the way that it is. As we have said before, this is not an automatic reaction (or a measured, calculated response) but a spontaneous and intelligent appreciation of things as they actually are.


On last point that we ought to consider is the constitutional difficulty that we experience in seeing ‘doing nothing’ as a solution, and putting this into practice. This has a lot to do with the type of society which most of us live in – we have to remember that a consumer society is bound to encourage the proliferation of wants because each want that comes along translates into a ‘product’ which can be sold, or a ‘service’ that can be marketed. This means that money gets turned over and profits get made, which is of course what keeps the whole show running. In a consumer society the more needs there are, the better it is for everyone. What would happen to the rat race if none of the rats wanted to chase after the glittering prizes any more?


The right to satisfy all of our petty needs is enshrined deep in our culture. You can have whatever you want – just so long as you have the money to buy it, that is! The ideal state is to be wealthy enough to buy anything we set our heart on, and yet the richest person (the person no one says “NO” to) is also likely to be the person with the least inner freedom. This is another example of our backwards way of thinking – we imagine that we can become happy by chasing our desires and the more we are able to satisfy our wants the better off we think we are. But in reality, there is no happiness or peace of mind to be had this way. Paradoxically, true freedom is not ‘the freedom to realize all of our goals’ (which equals ‘the freedom to successfully obey our wants), but freedom from having to have goals.







No Pressure…

Pressure, in therapy, is always counterproductive. There’s no such thing as ‘helpful pressure’, no matter how much common sense may seem to indicate the contrary. We may define ‘pressure’ by saying that is when some force outside ourselves is making us do something. It is an ‘external authority’, in other words. It is an extrinsic motivating factor. Pressure is what creates society – it is the force that we find at work in the domain of our collective reality. It is what operates in families, relationships, friendship groups, organizations, nations – pressure is really all we know! Just about everything we do and everything we think is the result of pressure. Our perception of reality, of the world, of ourselves is the result of societal pressure that has been applied to us from the very earliest age. It is all ‘forcing’ via peer pressure and in the very same way what we fondly call ‘therapy’ is almost always just more of the same – it is simply an extension of the forcing-house which is society. It is the arena within which we enforce – yet again – our social programming, our unexamined biases, our deep-rooted cultural assumptions. What we refer to as ‘therapy’ is generally just an exercise in normalization, in other words – we’re putting people under moral pressure to be normal!


There is really no way any of us can do otherwise just as long as we ourselves remain unconscious of our social programming. How can I call myself ‘a therapist’ if I myself am just as hopelessly conditioned as my clients, if I myself am afflicted with the same unexamined prejudices? If I haven’t come to be in any way aware of the biases that inform my thinking, my perception of reality, then very clearly all I can ever do is enforce these biases on everyone I meet. This is a very basic principle: when I am ‘psychologically unconscious’ then all I can do is to unwittingly (or wittingly) apply pressure to everyone I meet to subscribe to the same assumptions about life that I do. More simply expressed: when I am unconscious then I want everyone to see the world in the same way that I do! The unacknowledged expectation that everyone should share our arbitrary viewpoint is what social interactions are all about; this is what all conflict is about. If we wanted a guiding principle by which to understand human history then this is it.


When we are unconscious pressure is all we know, all we are capable of knowing. The implication of the word ‘therapy’ is that there is the possibility of helpful change occurring as a result of it – there is the suggestion that there a possibility of us gaining freedom from our suffering-producing conditioning, freedom from the rules we follow without knowing that we are following any rules. There is the inference that we will – by some means – be enabled to discover our true, authentic selves! In socially-prescribed therapies however this just isn’t ever going to be the case. In any type of therapy that is generic in nature (which is to say, any type of therapy that comes from a template) this never can be the case. It never can be the case because the template IS the conditioning. The (psychological) theory here is that if we ‘do the right thing’ then the right result will surely follow. This theory however is the purest nonsense – there is (needless to say) no method to being one’s authentic self…


To go back to our original point: the reason pressure (or forcing) in therapy is always counterproductive is because it results in change (if indeed there is any change) that isn’t real. It results in change that is ‘convulsive’ rather than organic. The change – if there is any – isn’t happening as a result of a naturally occurring process but rather it is occurring as a result of what we can only call ‘artificial contrivance’. It suits the agenda of the thinking mind that there should be this change and that is all. That agenda might sound ‘good enough’ to us but – really – what does the thinking mind know? Rational understanding is only ever ‘skin deep’  – when we act of the rational or thinking mind we are acting out of our unexamined assumptions, we are ‘thinking our way through life’ rather than ‘feeling our way’. When we act out of our assumptions we are acting aggressively – we are acting aggressively because we defending a bunch of assumptions that we have made without realizing that we have done so. We’re ‘defending a fixed position’ and implicit in our defence is our blind refusal to look at why we think this fixed position is worth defending. What we are calling ‘aggression’ is simply activity that proceeds on the basis of fear, in other words. Action that comes out of fear isn’t sensitive, it has nothing to do with any interest in the world, any curiosity about the world – it is purely concerned with escaping from whatever it is that is challenging us and what is ‘challenging’ us is ultimately nothing other than reality itself…


The ‘fixed position’ that we are defending is the everyday mind with all of its assumptions, all of its prejudices, all of its conditioning. Every time we try to change things (in accordance with our ideas about how they should or should not be) then we are acting out of the fixed viewpoint which is the everyday mind. There is no way we can have ideas about ‘the way things should be’ without operating from a fixed (or ‘unquestionable’) position – if we questioned our viewpoint then we’d have to question our goals and if we questioned out goals then that would be the end of our goal-orientated or purposeful behaviour! Acting on the basis of our thoughts about the world, our beliefs about the world, is always aggressive. We are being fundamentally insensitive because all the emphasis is on getting things to be the way we want them to be, and none on questioning or examining the fixed position that we are taking on order for us to be having such clear-cut and inflexible ideas about ‘how reality should be’ in the first place! Thought itself is always aggressive, is always violent, as Krishnamurti says, and when we are unconscious we are perpetually acting on the basis of thought…


‘Sensitivity’ is a very different thing to the activity that comes out of the thinking mind – activity that comes out of the thinking mind is all about changing stuff on the outside, it is ‘the one-way arrow of control’. ‘Control’ –we might say – is another word for unconsciousness; the whole point of control, in the psychological sense of the word, is as we have just said that it deflects attention away from our assumptions onto ‘changes that supposedly have to be made’. Our attention I deftly deflected away from our assumptions onto the changes that these invisible biases cause us to see as being necessary. Control – as we keep saying – is aggressive – you have to dance to my tune whether you like it or not. You have to fit into my way of thinking and not vice versa. Everything has to give way to my way of thinking because my way of thinking is not open to questioning – there is no way it is ever going to be questioned and so the only thing we can do is try our best to fit into it. If we can’t fit into it then we’re wrong.


Is it possible, we might ask, to have a type of therapy where we are remaining open, remaining sensitive to what is going on? This would appear to be the best answer to the dilemma that we are faced with – the dilemma of ‘how not to be aggressive’. Any sort of control is aggression – as we have said – is always counterproductive when it comes down to having an honest relationship with oneself or others, which is what therapy is ultimately all about. No one can deny this, but what we aren’t so quick to see (or dwell upon) is the fact that controlling or forcing can never result in a relationship with anything. On the contrary controlling alienates us not just from whatever (or whoever) it is that we are controlling, it also alienates us from ourselves. An honest relationship is the only sort of relationship there is and where there is aggression – which is to say, the exercise of power – there can be no honesty.


Things are very simple when it comes to pressure – either there is pressure in the situation or there isn’t. It’s either one way or it’s the other; there is no middle ground. The idea that we can use some sort of pressure, some sort of external motivation to achieve some goal or other, and yet at the same time be open and sensitive to whatever it is might unfolding. What we are actually talking about here – when it comes right down to it – is something that the thinking mind calls risk. Risk is something to which the thinking mind is infinitely averse! We can explain the activity that comes about as a result of the rational-purposeful mind by saying that it is activity that is geared towards reducing risk as much as possible. We can define goal-orientated or purposeful behaviour by saying that it is behaviour that is directed towards eliminating (as far as possible) the risk of the goal not being achieved. Or instead of risk we could talk in terms of uncertainty and say that the activity which comes about as a result of the thinking mind is activity that is geared towards getting rid of all uncertainty. Ultimately, it’s not uncertainty with regard to anything in particular (i.e. in relation to any particular goal being achieved) that the purposeful mind is averse to but simply uncertainty in general!


All of this is really just going around in circles – we’re saying the same thing in several different ways. The rational-purposeful mind operates by identifying goals and then working towards them and ‘working towards obtaining a goal’ is of course the same thing as ‘working against the risk of not obtaining it’. But none of this has anything to do with therapy – it’s all just pure control, it’s all pure ‘uncertainty avoidance’. Therapy is the antithesis of ‘risk-avoidance’, as any psychotherapist will be happy to tell you. Therapy is not ‘trying to get what you want to happen to happen – that’s just the rational mind pursuing its perennial agendas…


Trying to secure the outcome that we want (and avoid any other unspecified) outcome is simply ‘conservatism’ and conservatism is nothing other than ‘a fear of change’ that has somehow been validated and made to look heroic rather than cowardly. Fear of change – needless to say – doesn’t really qualify as therapy! It’s something else entirely – it’s ‘hanging on’. What we’re afraid of happening is – as always – the unknown, and whilst the rational mind is superlatively good at avoiding the unknown, it is no good at all at helping us face it! The thinking mind, with all of its tools and strategies, has no useful role to play here. All it can do is ‘temporarily stave off the inevitable’, all it can do is hang on (for as long as possible) to the known, in stubborn denial of the ultimate futility of this endeavour. ‘Hanging on to the known’ isn’t an option when it comes down to it; it isn’t an option for the simple reason that ‘the known’ is a mind-manufactured illusion! It might seem like an option but that’s only because we’re afraid to see the truth. We’re invested in not seeing the truth. ‘Seeing the truth’ is what we’re fighting against…






Not Scratching An Itchy Nose


The key to finding freedom from compulsivity (which is where we very strongly feel that we have to do something!) is being able to hang out in our discomfort zones. It is the inability to hang out in our discomfort zones that makes us helpless slaves to whatever compulsion it is that comes along. A simple example of this principle is a person who cannot say no when someone asks him or her for a favour. Now it is of course good to do favours but it is not good if I help people out only because I am unable not to do so! Suppose that I am one such person. You ask me if I would mind looking after your three children for a couple of hours while you go off to see to some matter or other. On this occasion, let us say, I have stuff to do myself, and it would be very inconvenient for me to baby-sit. However, I know that if I say “no” then I will feel terrible – it might be that I will feel bad that I am so mean to you, or terrified in case you think I am an awful person, or frightened that I might be hurting your feelings by my rejection. I might feel guilty about not helping you – it is, after all, very easy to take on board someone else’s problems and then feel bad if we can’t do something to help.


It can be seen from this example however that my real concern is to do with not experiencing the pain of the guilt, or the pain of (possibly) hurting someone’s feelings, or the pain of being negatively evaluated by another person. Because I am so unwilling to experience the pain (or the discomfort) of not doing what you want me to do, I have to go ahead and say “yes”, even though saying “yes” is going to cause me a whole lot of trouble later on. I have no other choice. If I could find some way of saying “no” and avoiding the pain at the same time I would, but I am caught in a trap. Either I go along with what you want and put up with the inconvenience, or I say “no” and feel bad, and the thought of feeling bad makes me automatically take the first option. The cure for this situation is obvious enough – don’t be afraid of feeling bad. If I have no problem with feeling bad then I am not in a trap – I can say “yes” if it is not too inconvenient, or I can say “no”. In other words, I am free to say “yes” or “no”, I am not being pressurized. Normally, we think it is the other person (or the situation) that is pressurizing us, but it isn’t – it is our own unexamined refusal to experience discomfort that has us under pressure!


The example given above is a simplistic one, but the principle applies for all compulsions, without exception. Whether it is the urge to smoke a cigarette, the urge to lose my temper with someone who is annoying me, the urge to escape from an anxiety-provoking situation, the urge to feel sorry for myself – they are all compulsions and they all make me their slave purely because of my unwillingness to experience discomfort (i.e. the discomfort of not acting on the urge).


So now we have redefined the problem. Instead of saying that the problem is how to successfully obey the compulsion, or successfully fight the compulsion with an equal and opposite compulsion, we are saying that the problem is how to refrain from obeying and/or fighting. The problem is how to ‘hang out’ in the discomfort zone. In the most profound sense this is not a problem at all because there is nothing to be achieved that is not already there. I am already in the discomfort zone, and so I don’t have anything to do. In a practical sense, however, there is a problem because I don’t know how to ‘not do’. I am so used to automatically ‘doing’, automatically ‘reacting’, that I simply do not know any other way. Either I obey the urge, which is , or I fight the urge, which is . I don’t know anything else apart from oscillating between these two poles. Basically, I am trapped in reacting – either I react, or I react to my reacting. Either I say or to the original compulsion, or I say to my saying or , but whatever I do, it still inevitably comes down to or . So how do I escape my own automatic reacting?


There is a neat way of illustrating this predicament and that is the exercise of ‘not scratching an itchy nose’. All you have to do is wait until the next time you have an itchy nose and try out not scratching it. The first thing we notice is that the urge to scratch actually gets worse when we try to resist it – it dominates our consciousness, it becomes huge. What has happened is that we have made scratching/not scratching into a major issue, and as a consequence we have got sucked into an ongoing irresolvable conflict situation.


It is of course possible to sit there and deliberately not scratch, even though the itch has by now assumed unbearable proportions. The problem is though that the thing has already gone wrong because it has become such an issue – I have come to a virtual standstill because all my resources are going into fighting the compulsion, and the more I fight the more obsessively fixated I get on the little itch (which is by now not such a little itch). We intuitively know that the whole thing has become stupid at this stage and so what usually happens is that we just say – “The hell with it” and give the itch a scratch so that we can forget about it and get on with our lives. We know on some level that, even if we do successfully resist the compulsion, the victory is a false one because all we did was substitute another compulsion for the itch. In other words, I manage to not obey the ‘scratching compulsion’ by obeying the ‘compulsion not to scratch’, so actually I am still copping out. I am still scratching, only this time the itch I am scratching is the new itch which is the itch to resist scratching. I swapped itches, but I am still in the state of slavery to itches. I am still just an ‘automatic reaction machine’.


The point here is that it is totally and utterly impossible to defeat a compulsion by saying or to it. As soon as we do that we are lost, which is to say, as soon as we assume a deliberate posture with regard to the itch, we are reacting. Another way to explain this is to say that a compulsion is ‘an invitation to play the game’. If I say “Yes I will play the game” then I am playing the game, and if I say “No I will not play the game” then I am still playing the game, because by taking the compulsion seriously I have (without realizing it) accepted the terms of the game. The terms of the game are simply that the game by taken seriously, that the goals which are important within the context of the game should also be seen as important by me. Obviously, once I do that, then I am by definition playing the game!


We can also explain this by saying that the compulsion is a trigger – it triggers us to react, to do. It doesn’t matter what sort of reacting, what sort of doing, because as soon as we are triggered into doing we have got sucked into the game. The trigger is of no consequence if I do not react because nothing comes of it – if I do not ‘do’ then I do not make an issue of anything and so I do not get stuck in the issue, and so there is no problem, no conflict situation. Not doing – not reacting to the trigger – doesn’t mean ignoring the trigger (which is treating the trigger as something special), it means treating the trigger the same as everything else. In the terms which we have been using, saying and both means ‘treating the trigger as something special’. ‘Not doing’ can be expressed in terms of <?>, which is open, unprejudiced awareness. <?> is simply consciousness, or ‘seeing what is there’.


Going back to the ‘itchy nose’ experiment, what this means is that the way to do it is by just being aware of the itchiness, without treating it as anything special. Where I tend to go wrong is by thinking that I have to be ‘aware of the itchiness’ on purpose, which is a mistake because the awareness is there by itself. Seeing happens by itself, it is not something that we ‘do’. The crucial insight is that I cannot deliberately be in a state of open, unprejudiced awareness, because ‘deliberate’ always means prejudice. The answer is simply to be myself, but I cannot be myself on purpose because ‘being myself’ is not a deliberate stance – it is not a position in a game, it is what happens naturally when I am not making an issue of anything.


<?> is a kind of natural balance point that needs no energy input to maintain. If I say then I have to maintain it and if I say I have to maintain it. I need to be there, to be actively involved in ‘propping up the situation’. If I take up a position then I need to defend that position. We can explain what we mean by this by looking at the problem of low self-esteem.


Often when a person has low self-esteem they are advised to try to think more positively about themselves. In other words, they are told to take up a certain position with regard to the question of whether they are crappy or not. We can analyse this in the same way that we have been looking at ‘scratching an itch’. In the case of low self-esteem, the feeling of inferiority (or embarrassment/shame) is the trigger and reacting to the trigger (i.e. scratching the itch) takes the form of either [1] saying to it by saying that “I am a crap person” or [2] saying to it by saying “I am a worthwhile person”. Both of these reactions provide momentary relief from the pain of the itch, but both also exacerbate the underlying problem – both responses make the itch worse, i.e. they make the issue bigger not smaller. The helpful thing to do is to take no position on the underlying painful feeling of inadequacy or inferiority. Seeing it is all I can do, really.


We might say that the thing to do is to take an ‘unprejudiced’ position but this would be misleading, because (as we have already noted) any position that I deliberately take is inevitably going to be prejudiced. It has to be prejudiced because it (i.e. the attitude or position) arose in connection with an aim or goal, and goals are by definition prejudiced! On the one hand what we are saying here seems to be ‘hopeless’ because what we are saying is that it is utterly impossible to mentally manoeuvre ourselves so as to not have low self-esteem, if we do have low self-esteem. There is no way to put a helpful slant on it in order to ‘adjust’ away the inadequate feelings. This sounds bad, naturally. On the other hand, what we are saying is actually good news, because what we are saying is that we are already doing the right thing, before we even started doing anything. The ‘right thing’ is simply to feel the pain and not try to fix things so I don’t feel so bad. Going back to the example of the itchy nose, the point is that it is okay for the itch to be there – the itch doesn’t really need a response, it just feels like it does. As long as I don’t fall into the trap of thinking that ‘I need to do something about it’, then there is no problem. I don’t need to react, and I don’t need to act so that I don’t react. The situation is right just as it is.


We have used the example of an itchy nose and the example of low self-esteem. The principle applies across the board, as we have said – it doesn’t matter what the itch or compulsion is. In anxiety it is ‘the itch to run away’ (i.e. fear), in anger it is the itch to attack, or the itch to defend oneself, and in OCD it is the itch to check or correct. In all cases what is happening is that we are trying to avoid discomfort or pain, and by avoiding the pain we only succeed in making the underlying compulsion stronger, just for the sake of momentary relief.


The key is to not feed the engine of reacting, because when we stop feeding it the engine gradually runs out of steam, without anyone having to ‘do’ anything. One metaphor is that of the muddy pool. When a pond gets muddy no amount of stirring or ‘messing about’ will fix it to make it stop being muddy. The more we mess about with it the muddier it gets, because it is our attempts to clear the water that keep it cloudy. The cure is to leave it to be muddy, even though this might be annoying, frustrating or painful to us. Once we stop interfering the mud will unfailingly settle and the water will clear all by itself – it might take a while, but there is no way to rush it. There is nothing else to do apart from letting it alone. The exact same is true with the muddied pond of our thoughts and emotions. We cannot use thinking to clear an upset or distorted mind because it is thinking that made everything confused in the first place.


No matter how bad the discomfort is in our mind, if it is allowed (if it is left alone) it will return to clarity and peace. Even though this is a very simple remedy, it is still easy to get confused. It seems that we can’t help trying to ‘smooth out the wrinkles’ ourselves, and even when we understand the idea of ‘not doing’ we spoil it by trying to ‘do’ the ‘not doing’. Suppose I have a compulsion to scratch an itch. My original formulation of my predicament is to say that it is the pain of the itch, which I try to solve by scratching. My attempt to scratch is based on my desire to escape the pain. When I get a bit of insight I see that my predicament is actually my on-going attempt to ‘fix’ the itch, and my inability to stop fixing.


This is always the predicament when it comes right down to it. There is absolutely no way to deliberately free myself from automatic reacting, and my attempts to do so only serve to fuel the whole thing. This is the bottom line – I cannot escape on purpose, and if I think I can then that is only because I am psychologically unconscious. One way of defining the state of psychological unconsciousness is to say that it is pain avoidance which is so thorough that we do not even know that this is what we are doing. In other words, I believe that my motivation for acting is one thing, whilst actually I have a hidden agenda the whole time and that hidden agenda is to distract myself from seeing something that I don’t want to see.


When I am in the state of psychological unconsciousness I always believe that there is some way to ‘fix it’. Because of this belief, I am always on the move, never accepting the truth of where I am. Therefore, although the discovery that I cannot escape on purpose (become free from my mind on purpose) initially seems like bad news, actually it is a very helpful insight because it means that I am no longer unconscious. I am no longer avoiding the pain of seeing my true predicament, which is that I cannot really change my situation by deliberate action – and because I am no longer avoiding pain I am no longer feeding the engine of automatic reacting. Even though I can’t stop trying to fix, by seeing that my attempts to fix the situation are futile I am in the state of conscious frustration, and it is through conscious frustration that the engine of automatic reacting is drained of its terrible ‘dead momentum’. This is how we do psychological work.