Overthinking Life

When we think “How do I be in the world?” this jinxes us. As soon as we have this thought (or any variant of it) we are jinxed – we’re jinxed and we can’t back-track out of it again, no matter how clever we might get, no matter what tricks we might try. Once we start trying to solve this problem we can’t ever stop, in other words.

 

As soon as we think “How do I be in the world?” or “What is the right way to live life?” we are overthinking it. This is a simple enough point to make (it’s the simplest point anyone could ever make, actually) but it also doesn’t happen to be a point that we want to hear! It doesn’t make any sense to us, and even if it did make sense we wouldn’t how make use of it. We’ve already gone down the slippery slope and there’s nothing that we can (deliberately) do to get out of the trap. Deliberation is the trap, after all!

 

The reason we are so averse to hearing this message, or any variant of it, is because we are convinced on a very deep level that there is a right way to think about things, that there is a right way to ‘approach life’. This is so obvious to us that we don’t even need to go around saying it. The fact that we have never actually hit upon this ‘right way’ doesn’t seem to discourage us with regard to this belief in the slightest! We’re convinced that there must be a rational (or thought-based) way to approach life, so we keep on doggedly looking for it…

 

This is the snag in a nutshell – that we believe that there must be some special angle that we can cleverly utilize, some special ‘Get-out-of-jail-free’ card that we can play. It makes so much sense to us that we should be able to find the right angle, the right approach. Our whole way of life is based on this unspoken assumption; our very ‘modality of existence’ is founded upon this premise. Our ‘modality of existing in this world’ is based on thought and thought – by its very nature – is always looking for answers, always looking for solutions.

 

Of course, ‘looking for answers’ or ‘looking for solutions’ sounds like a very good thing to us – it sounds like an admirable attitude to have. It sounds right and proper, and the fact that it sounds right and proper shows us something important about ourselves – it shows us that we have become divorced from reality itself. The point is that reality itself is neither right nor wrong, neither this nor that, and yet – when we are in the grip of thought – we go around assuming that everything must be either one way or the other. Because we see the world in this polar (or ‘split’) way we are constantly analysing and controlling; analysing / controlling has, in other words, become ‘our way of being in the world’.

 

The whole world has to fit into our categories of good/bad, right/wrong, valuable/not valuable therefore and this is an absolutely crazy situation. How can we do this to the world? Why would we want to? What is possessing us? And if we do this to the world then this means that we are also doing it to ourselves; we’re going to try to fit ourselves into these categories as well – we’re going to be either good or bad, right or wrong, valuable or not valuable and this is equally crazy. The world has nothing to do with our absurd categories and neither do we, and yet we’re making our sense of well-being dependent upon how well be are doing at the task of trying to make everything (and ourselves) be the way we think it should be (whether this ‘way’ is absurd or not).

 

All angles – without exception – do this to the world and so if we’re coming at everything from an angle (as we almost always are) then we are imposing this false duality both on ourselves and the world. That’s what ‘angles’ do – they split the world into ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; that’s the whole point of an angle, after all. So one the one hand we feel that we are going to gain the advantage by ‘having an angle on things’ but on the other hand this cleverness of ours rebounds on us in a way that is not to our advantage at all! Our classifications end up classifying us, just as Carlos Castaneda says. The tool of thought very neatly ‘turns the tables on us’ and we end up being on the receiving end of the stick and catching a whack in the head rather than dishing one out, as we had intended to.

 

This doesn’t (as we have already pointed out) means that we don’t ever need to have an angle. That isn’t the point at all. It’s not that we never ever need an angle but rather that we don’t need to be ‘looking for the right angle’ on a nonstop basis. Specific situations arise in which we do need an angle (problems arise which do need a solution) but then once the matter has been dealt with one way or another the need is no longer there. Life itself is not ‘a problem to be solved’, in other words, even though we generally end up treating it as such. We end up treating life as if it were a problem to be solved because this is how thought works. This is what thought always does – thought always treats everything as a problem!

 

Thought always treats everything as a problem because that’s just the kind of phenomenon it is – it has to fit everything into boxes of its own making when stuff just doesn’t come ‘in boxes’, when life doesn’t come in boxes. More than this however, life becomes a serious problem to us when we have identified with thought and the products of thought. Life (very much) becomes a problem to me when I identify with the idea of myself that the thinking mind furnishes me with. The problem is really with life of course but with ourselves. The problem is with me, not the world! This is of course a classic example of how the conditioned mind always perceives the truth backwards – I say that the problem is with you, or with the world in general, but really the problem is in me.

 

The problem that we always need to be fixing (or trying to fix) when we have identified ourselves with thought (and the image of ourselves that thought provides us with) is that we’re always placing certain demands on life; we’re always wanting things to work out for us in a particular way, in our words. We have very serious ‘preferences’ – not just with regard to the way things work out for us, but with regard to what we unconsciously require reality to be. Being identified with thought means that we’re always seeing reality in a very narrow and stilted fashion – to us, this is what reality actually is and so we don’t see ourselves as imposing our own arbitrary brand of order onto the world around us.

 

The ‘problem’ that we’re trying to fix with our thinking is how to get reality to be the way we think it ought to be, therefore. We’re trying to twist things to be the way we assume they should be and we’re doing this without having the slightest awareness that this is what we’re doing, and this means that we’re locked into a never-ending series of problems, not just the one, because things are never going to inherently be the way that we unconsciously assume that they should be. This is an ongoing problem that we’re never going to solve because we’re looking at it all wrong – as we have said, the problem isn’t out there in the world but in ourselves and we’re never looking at ourselves. We’re only ever looking outwards at the problems that we ourselves have unwittingly projected onto the world. The problem isn’t that the universe doesn’t play ball, the problem is the fact that we are constantly trying to impose our absurdly narrow and stilted viewpoint onto it!

 

Trying to impose our own brand of order onto the world but not seeing that this is what we are doing (because we genuinely do think that this is the way reality should be) is the very essence of what is meant by the word ‘aggression’. This is aggression in a nutshell. When I aggressively try to correct a problem that I wrongly see as existing out there in the world (and all fixing, all correcting is ultimately aggression) then what I’m really doing is fighting against myself. I’m creating the problem and then I’m trying very seriously, very humourlessly to find the solution as if it wasn’t me who created the need for a solution in the first place. I’m fighting myself but I haven’t a clue that this is what I’m doing. I think that the ‘problem’ is out there, but actually it’s my own aggression (or my own ‘unconsciousness’) that’s the problem…

 

This is why any amount of thinking about ‘how to be in the world’ is ‘overthinking’! Thinking is good (sometimes) for small tasks, but not for the ‘big task’ (so to speak) of how to be yourself, or how to be in the world. Thought is no good for existential questions, in other words, only down-to-earth practicalities. Thinking is generally appropriate for practical matters but it most certainly has no applicability at all to any challenges of what we might call an ‘existential’ nature! Within this context, thought is simply unwarranted and painfully counterproductive aggression. We assume certain things to be true (without of course ever properly examining them) and then we automatically start trying to control the world on the basis of these unconsciously-made assumptions of ours. We automatically start trying to fix everything on the basis of ‘how we think it should be’. This is what ‘unconscious living’ is all about – it’s all about conflict, it’s all about us projecting our assumptions on everything without seeing that this is what we’re doing.

 

When we’re living this way (i.e. on the basis of thought) then we never see beyond the conflict, we never see beyond the struggle. Our own assumed reality is the only reality we know, the only one we have any awareness of, and so all we ever know of life is this constant fighting, this constant struggling. The only world we ever know is this unhappy ‘battleground’, this ‘conflict-zone’ of us unconsciously trying to impose our own patented form of order on everything (and everyone) we encounter. When the struggle seems to be going our way (which it never really is of course because our patented brand of order is an artificial construct that couldn’t survive a second on its own) we experience pleasure and satisfaction and feel that all is well with the world, and when we see that things aren’t going our way then we experience the reverse of this – we experience pain and frustration, anguish and demoralization and so on – and we feel that things are fundamentally not right with the world.

 

Another way of putting this is to say that when we’re in the conditioned or unconscious mode of existing in the world then we never see beyond ‘good and bad’, ‘right and wrong’, ‘like and dislike’. No other reality exists for us. No reality other than this false ‘polar’ one exists – we actually incapable (when we’re in the conditioned modality) of understanding how there could be any other way of looking at things than the dualist or polar viewpoint that is provided for us by the thinking mind. We completely fail to see that this duality is our own projection that we’re imposing on the world, and as a result we never ever see beyond the ongoing struggle or conflict that is us. By thinking at all (when it comes to this question of ‘how to be in the world’) we isolate ourselves from reality as it is in itself, which is infinitely serene, infinitely profound, infinitely harmonious. As the Buddhist teachings say, ‘the nature of all phenomena is perfectly tranquil’. The world we create for ourselves with our aggression however is not serene, not profound, not harmonious. It is – on the contrary – both utterly shallow and irredeemably conflicted. And just so long as we remain helplessly identified with the tool of thought, as we have already said, this is the only reality we are ever going to know…

 

 

 

 

 

The Long-Cut

Everybody’s interested in the short-cut, but no one’s interested in the ‘long-cut’. So what’s the ‘long-cut’, we might ask? What is it and why on earth should we be interested in it? It doesn’t sound particularly interesting after all. Who would want to go the long way around things if there was a shorter and quicker alternative? That doesn’t sound very smart!

 

The ‘long-cut’ – we might say – is our life as it actually is, and as soon as we say this we can see why we might not be very interested in it. We might be interested in theory perhaps – in theory it sounds fine, as a kind of noble ideal – but in practice definitely not. In practice it’s a very different matter entirely.  In practice we are constantly trying to avoid our life as it actually is in whatever way we can. In practice, we’re always looking for ‘a short-cut’. In practice we are always looking for ‘something else’, something shinier…

 

‘Short cutting’ life means skipping over the difficult bits, the ‘not so good bit’, the ‘boring’ bits, the bits we don’t like and jumping ahead to the good bits, the interesting bits, the bits we do like. This is what M. Scott Peck means when he talks about wanting to eat the icing on the cake before we eat the cake itself. We do this all of the time of course – we try to separate the bits we like from the bits we don’t. This is what attachment means, and who amongst us is free from attachment (or ‘like and dislike’)? Our normal everyday way of relating to the world is in terms of attraction versus aversion, which Buddhists sometimes call ‘the mind of preference’. Some things we like and try to get more of whilst other things we dislike and try to get less of, which seems almost too obvious to point out. But what we don’t see is the automatic (or unfree) nature of this tendency – if we experience attraction to something then it is ‘automatic’ that we try to get more of it and the same is true in reverse for what we are averse to. The ‘judgement’ (good or bad) and the purposeful or goal-orientated action that follows on from this are all of one piece. ‘Judgement’ and ‘reaction’ are both aspects of the same mechanical movement and this mechanical movement is completely non-volitional, no matter what we might believe to the contrary.

 

What this means therefore is that there are parts of our life that we like and try to optimize and other parts that we dislike (or don’t particularly care for) and these we try to minimize as much as possible. We live in an uneven fashion – we ‘play favourites’, so to speak. This very pronounced tendency to favour some aspects of our life at the expense of other is what we have referred to as ‘short-cutting’; we’re actually impatient with life – we’re impatient with life precisely because we’re always trying to skip ahead to the good bits. Short-cutting is of course considered by all and sundry as a very sensible thing to do; we could go so far as to say that we see this as being what life is all about – separating the bits we like from the bits that we don’t like. With regard to life in general we call this ‘being positive’ or ‘being goal-orientated’ whilst with regard to our mental health we call it ‘self-development’ or ‘self-improvement’. We’re striving to optimize the good stuff, we’re trying to ‘actualize the positive’, etc, etc. This is pop-psychology in a nutshell; it’s also regular psychology in a nutshell too. Our clever so-called ‘therapies’ are patented ways of separating the good from the bad, the desired from the undesired – they are all ‘short-cuts,’ in other words. Naturally our therapies are short-cuts; inasmuch as a therapy is directed towards a goal it is a short-cut! Anything that is directed towards a goal is a short-cut and we in the West don’t really understand anything else. ‘Goals’ is all we get…

 

The question that arises here of course is ‘What’s wrong with ‘jumping ahead’ from painful states of mind to less painful ones, particularly if it looks like we can do something about it? What’s wrong with having this as a goal? Why would we want to stay in the pain?’ This is a hard thing to understand, and the chances are that we won’t be particularly motivated to want to try to understand it, either. Pain doesn’t cause us to be reflective after all, it causes us to act on reflex, it causes us to run away as fast as we can! We have a fear that deep there is some part of us that wants to wallow in the pain and so naturally we don’t want to encourage this type of unhealthy wallowing. The trouble with our reflexive tendency to want to skip the difficult or painful parts of our life is however that they are just as legitimate as the parts that we do like and so if we try to bypass them they’re just going to come back and haunt us. We’re then going to be caught up in continual avoidance, continual fruitless struggling, continual ‘running away’. Our regular ‘fixing’ approach to painful states of mind embroils us in a non-terminating game of ‘Whac-a-mole’ therefore – we keep on whacking the mole as hard as we can with the mallet whenever he pushes his nose up and then he immediately appears from another hole. We can whack the hell out of the mole on a full-time basis if we want but we’re never going to get anywhere by it!

 

The short-cut isn’t so much of a short-cut after all really – it only appears to be and that’s what keeps us tied into it. Playing the ‘Whac-a-mole’ game also drastically reduces our perspective on matters to ‘the next mole’ and then ‘the next mole after that’ so we not even going to be able to see where we’re going wrong. We won’t have any insight into what’s really going on at all. Understanding that continually whacking the mole on the head every time he turns up isn’t a fruitful approach isn’t a ‘pessimistic’ or ‘hopeless’ sort of a thing at all therefore, even though it will of course seem so from the perspective of the entrenched game-player. Seeing through the ‘short-cuts’ is actually a profoundly liberating sort of thing – it might seem negative to our regular goal-orientated state of mind but negative is actually the only thing that is ever going to work here! ‘Negative’ is good, ‘negative’ is liberating; it’s the not-doing that’s going to save us, not the doing…

 

Not one of the problems that we have in this world was ever solved, says Omar Khayyam, but this isn’t a pessimistic or despairing thing to say. Omar Khayyam isn’t loved and celebrated as a mystic philosopher throughout the world because of his gift for pessimism! The point is that we don’t have to do anything about these problems. The problems in question pertain exclusively to the conditioned state of being – they are absolutely inescapable just so long as we exist in the conditioned world, the conditioned state of being. The ‘problems’ and ‘the conditioned state of being’ are the same thing and we can’t have one without the other. We can’t have conditioned existence with the ‘snags’ that comes with it and yet we never give up the hope that we can do and this is where our blindness lies…

 

We spend all out time trying to ‘cure’ or ‘fix’ the conditioned state of being so that we can remain safely within it and yet not suffer from the snags that come along with it, the snags and short-comings that actually are it. If someone comes along and says to us that the snags and short-comings can’t be fixed then we won’t be very impressed. We won’t be very favourably disposed to them. We want to hear some nice positive technical fixing language, we want to be told that the impossible thing we want to achieve actually is possible and there are no shortage of experts will to tell us this! If someone like Omar Khayyam comes along and tells us that during our time in this world we are not going to be able to solve even one of our problems then we’re going to be downright pissed-off. We want positive messages, not negative ones and if someone with integrity comes along and tells us something helpful we’re going to want to string them up!

 

We completely fail to see the liberating nature of what they are saying, the liberating nature of the ‘negative message’, which is that we don’t need to fix the problems because they don’t pertain to who we really are but only to who we have artificially made ourselves to be. The snags and short-comings that we are railing against don’t exist in reality, only in the false ‘constrained’ version of reality that we have adapted ourselves to and taken as ‘final’. Any talk of the ‘short-cut’ of finding peace and happiness whilst still imagining ourselves to be who we aren’t, whilst still remaining in the falsely ‘constrained’ version of reality isn’t helpful at all therefore, but the very reverse of this. Samsara is made up of these ‘false rumours of short-cuts’!

 

Once we can clearly see that any hope we might be harbouring of one day ‘finding a short-cut’ is actually the root cause of our suffering then this leaves us with the ‘long-cut’. We come back to the long-cut, which was waiting patiently there for us all the time, after a life-time’s obsession with finding a short-term fix. What then is the long-cut, we might ask? What is the long-cut and how do we go about finding it? These are of course purely rhetorical questions when it comes down to it since the long-cut is, as we said right at the beginning of this discussion, ‘our life as it actually is’. We don’t therefore need to go searching for it, the way we might go searching for a ‘magic answer’ or ‘magic fix’ – we don’t need to go searching for it because it was there all along. We don’t need to learn any special methods to actualize this state of affairs; any cleverness or artifice is quite beside the point. Any cleverness or artifice is actually the very devil, any cleverness or artifice is actually ‘the short-cut’!

 

The ‘point’ – we might say – is not that the long-cut is hard to find but rather that we don’t want to find it. We don’t value it; it is worthless to us. Nothing is of less interest to us ‘as our life as it actually is’; nothing is of less interest to us than our life as it actually is because we’re always looking for something special, because we always looking for something glittering and attractive. We might of course come out with fine self-affirming statements about loving our lives or loving ourselves but we don’t really mean it – we love our ideas of life, we love our ideas of ourselves and this isn’t the same thing at all. The truth of the matter is that we love our distractions, because that’s what thought and ideas are. We love the games that we play. And yet even this isn’t really true – we don’t really love our games and distractions any more than an addict loves his addiction. We need it but we don’t love it. If something is compulsory, then how can we ‘love’ it? All we can do is adapt to it as best we can and say that we love it, but that is a far cry from actually loving ourselves or our lives. It is actually pure theatre – theatre that we feel obliged to buy into because we can’t see any alternative…

 

The long-cut doesn’t mean that we should be ‘appreciative of our lives’ or that we should ‘feel gratitude for what we have’ or anything like that – it doesn’t mean that we ‘should’ anything. It doesn’t even mean that we should be ‘authentic’ because as soon as we think we need to be authentic we cease to be so. As soon as we think we ought to be anything we cease being authentic, so it’s useless thinking about it. To ‘be authentic’ would be to accept that one is inauthentic rather than trying to change things. This is like the jinx of ‘being good’ – if I try to be good then I am automatically not good. I’m pretending, and pretending to be good isn’t being good. I’m actually being false if I try to be good! ‘Trying’ has nothing to do with it because ‘trying’ is just a reflex reaction to avoid what we don’t like. ‘Trying’ just means looking for a short-cut!

 

One good way of talking about the long-cut is to say that it is when we are not looking for results, therefore. This is the philosophy propounded in the Bhagavad Gita – one acts, and acts wholeheartedly, but one does not orientate oneself towards the result of the action. We don’t hang around waiting for the fruit of our action to drop into our lap, which means that there’s no possibility of satisfaction for the ego happening here. The long-cut isn’t actually going anywhere, in other words, and this is what is so hard for us to understand about it. The long-cut isn’t actually any sort of ‘cut’, long or short. Challenges arise and we respond to them, but this is not done for any sort of a reason, because it is ‘good’ or ‘right’ to do so, or anything like that. There’s no sort of model or theory to what we’re doing. In the most succinct terms, therefore, the point is that what we have called ‘the long-cut’ is simply us living our life as it happens. The long-cut is just ‘living one’s life’ in other words and to express it like this tends to come across as rather an anticlimax. It’s something of a let-down to hear this because we were expecting something special! We were actually wanting to learn something fancy but there’s nothing fancy here, nothing for the thinking mind to grab hold of. This may not be anything fancy, anything clever, but simply ‘living one’s life as it happens’ is all the same the greatest challenge that there could ever be. This is the ultimate ‘secret’ of everything; this is the fabled ‘philosopher’s stone’…