The Hell of Pure Purposefulness

Ours is a purposeful culture, and this inevitably brings a whole raft of  neurotic mental health ‘conditions’ in its wake, which we then attempt to solve in a purposeful manner! The irony is lost on us, however.

 

Purposefulness is clearly a healthy part of life; no one is suggesting that we should abandon all purposeful behaviour, but – on the other hand – when purposefulness eclipses all else it becomes an evil, it becomes ‘a mental health hazard’. We only have to reflect on this for a moment to see that it is true – imagine what life would go like if we had to be purposeful all the time. What a nightmare this would be! The whole of life becomes one big grinding chore that never ends… This is not life but a cruel parody of it; the ultimate joke is being played on us and it is not a nice joke…

 

Alan Watts explains this point in terms of dancing, and the question of ‘who leads the dance’. If one partner leads all the time then the dance would be a very sterile affair – it would hardly deserve being called ‘a dance’ at all! It would be more like ‘having a conversation with oneself’. If both partners lead the dance to an equal extent however then the interaction immediately becomes creative, it immediately becomes a genuine dialogue.

 

In the same way, when purposefulness is overvalued in the culture then there is no ‘dance’ going on, merely the humourless and obsessive pursuit of goals. Life itself becomes devalued in this case because life (or ‘nature’) just become something that is supposed to ‘submit to our will’. What we forget, in this case, is that it isn’t ‘all about us’, that life isn’t just a matter of us ‘exerting our will’, or ‘conceiving a goal and then doing our level best to achieve it’.

 

When everything becomes about goals, and overcoming whatever obstacles might be standing in the way of us achieving them, then life becomes frighteningly sterile. ‘It takes two to tango’, as the saying has it, and control is always a one-way street – it’s a ‘top-down’ kind of a thing. When purposefulness is overvalued then – obviously – the only thing that matters to us is control, and how effective we are at it, and this is the recipe for neurotic suffering, not mental health.

 

When I am focussed entirely on ‘the attaining of my goals’ then I am stuck in ‘a relationship with myself’ – there’s nothing there else left to have a relationship with, after all! When life becomes all about purposefulness then there is just ‘me having a relationship with myself’ and the relationship between ‘me and myself’ isn’t actually a relationship at all (just as a dance between me and a purely passive partner isn’t really a dance at all). The most important element – the relationship with ‘the other’ – has been lost. There no longer is an ‘other’ in this case, and this is always the case with control. We only have to think about abusive relationships.

 

‘Overvaluing purposefulness’ is a bad road to go down, therefore. It’s a bad road to go down because we lose our relationship with reality and all that’s left is me playing a game with myself; all that’s left is me ‘relating’ to my own projections. One projection is called ‘winning’ and I think that this is a good thing, the other projection is called ‘losing’ and that is a bad thing. Actually, both are the very same thing – both are only my projections and my attempt to obtain the positive projection is every bit as sterile (or futile) is my attempt to avoid the negative projection.

 

When I think that life (or nature) is merely some kind of passive thing to be moulded as I see fit, to be controlled or manipulated as it suits me, then I am heading for disaster. On the ‘macro-‘ scale (which is to say, on the scale of the environment within which we live) then we all know what this disaster looks like. At this particular point in time at the beginning of the twenty-first century we are all becoming very aware indeed of the negative consequences of having a ‘one-way relationship’ with nature, a relationship in which we get to ‘call all the shots’.

 

The same disaster for faces us on the ‘micro-’ (or individual) scale of things too. When I treat the dance between me and life as if it’s only what I want that matters, then sooner or later I back myself into a sterile corner. My life becomes meaningless and pointless. If I keep on ‘leading’ and never show any sensitivity to what life, or my own ‘unconscious’, wants (if we may put it like this), then life will refuse to help me when I need it to. My own spontaneous nature will refuse to step in and help me when I finally realise that I need it to because ‘I have run out of answers’. It is at this point in time that I will truly become acquainted with this spiritual wasteland that we call ‘neurotic suffering’.

 

The assumption that we are making is that if we get to be ‘totally in control’, if we get to be ‘calling all the shots’, if we get to be ‘securing the outcomes we want’, etc, then this will of course be a very good thing. That’s our assumption but it couldn’t further from the truth, for the reasons that we have just given. What’s missing from this picture (as we have said) is a relationship with anything outside of us – in order for there to be a relationship there has to be something ‘coming back the other way’, so to speak, and that’s precisely what’s not happening…

 

Something else is needed and that ‘something else’ might be called ‘listening’, or ‘sensitivity,’ or ‘intuitiveness’, or something like that, but the thing about this is that we can’t do ‘listening’ or ‘sensitivity’ or ‘intuitiveness’ on purpose! If we did do it on purpose then that would mean that we knew in advance what we were listening or intuiting for, or what we were being sensitive to, and the whole point is that we don’t know. We can’t know and that is precisely the point. What we’re talking about is an entirely different ‘modality of being in the world’ therefore, and it doesn’t happen to be a modality we know very much (if anything) about in this rational-purposeful culture of ours. That is after all the very element that we’ve forgotten about in our great, all-consuming hurry to be ‘in control’…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Confirming Our Biases

There’s this thing we do called ‘living’ only it isn’t living – it’s ‘bias confirmation’, which is actually a travesty of living. How do we get away with this travesty, then? How do we wangle it so that we get to believe that we are living when all we’re really doing is repeatedly confirming our sterile preconceptions?

 

Living is living and we shouldn’t be able to ‘make of it what we want’ (or ‘have our patented version of it’). We shouldn’t be able to live a ‘tame version’ of life that hasn’t got any actual existential challenge in it and yet still be able to get away scot-free! It would be a clever cheat if we could do this for sure, but since when has ‘cheating’ ever produced a good result? Can we really ‘cheat life’ and get away with it?

 

We go through the motions, we do the things that ‘pass for living’ (at least as far as we’re concerned, anyway) but there’s something missing. There is something not there that should be there! What’s missing is any kind of challenge to our mental categories, anything that might disagree with our pre-existing way of looking at things. What’s missing is reality, in other words….

 

It’s as if we read a book cover to cover, with interest, whilst being entertained throughout, only it’s the type of book that can be completely understood within the terms of the concepts which we already have. We don’t have to stretch our concepts in the least, let alone dispense with them entirely. Needless to say, there are lots and lots of books like this! The bestseller list is made up of books like this. But if we can read a book without it in any way changing the way that we have seen the world then that doesn’t really say much for the book. What we looking at here is ‘a non-event disguised as an event’. Nothing really happened during our reading of the book because nothing about us has changed – we’re exactly the same afterwards as we were before! We have received no information because information (in the proper, technical sense of the word) is always that which contradicts our assumptions. Information is ‘that which changes us’; or as cybernetics pioneer Gregory Bateson puts it, it is ‘the difference that makes a difference‘.

 

The very same is true for ‘living’ in general – if none of our (so-called) living calls upon us to change the way we have of understanding the world then what we’re talking about here isn’t actually life but something disguised as life. There are no new events occurring here, there no actual information content to what is going on – there is merely a ‘continuum’ that is made up of the same event stretched out indefinitely so that it seems like the whole of life. Yet this ‘one event’ that keeps on being rehashed and recycled, isn’t actually an ‘event’ at all because an event can only be an event if it gives way to something else, if gives way to something new. Otherwise we have eliminated all genuine change from the picture and replaced it with superficial change (which is ‘formulaic change’, i.e. ‘the same old thing revamped in some sort of a way’).

 

It is perfectly possible to read a book and enjoy it, or watch a film and be highly entertained, and yet for this not to be an ‘event’ in the strong sense of the word that we are using (rather than using the word event in the ‘weak’ sense, in which it signifies nothing more than a type of an echo). It’s also perfectly possible to live life without anything ever really happening – naturally this is possible, that’s just normal, that’s just the way we usually do it. But the question is, what happens to our ‘real’ life in this case? What happens in other words to the life that we would be living, if we hadn’t somehow fallen asleep at the wheel? What happens to the life we don’t live?

 

This turns out to be a very good question, a question that is well worth asking, even if the answer is hard to come by. Is there – we might wonder – anything that could wake us up to what’s really going on with us with our perennial obsessive ‘bias confirmation’? Is there perhaps some kind of sign that we could look out for to show us that we’ve gone wrong? Is there any way that we could cottoned on to the fact that something important has gone missing? Do you really want to know anyway? It is this last question that is – perhaps – the most significant. No doubt we could suss onto the fact that something is amiss but the evidence is pretty overwhelming that we don’t particularly want to. We are otherwise engaged’; we’re busy doing other things – ‘bias confirmation’-type things…

 

Somehow this business that we have called ‘bias confirmation’ not only substitutes itself very effectively for life, it also puts a kind of spin on things which makes us very disinclined indeed to ‘look outside of the box’. Getting hooked on bias confirmation very effectively ‘switches our curiosity off’, we could say. It switches it off as if it were a light switch – all our curiosity about the world vanishes and all we care about instead is ‘getting our biases validated’, getting our data-processing prejudices confirmed. Of all the ‘switch-arounds’ that there ever could possibly be in terms of our way of being in the world, this is the greatest therefore. This is a ‘one hundred and eighty degree turn’.

 

‘Bias confirmation’ simply means that we are busy proving that our view of the world is the right one – it is nothing more and nothing less than this. This innocent-sounding term ‘bias confirmation’ covers more than we might think it does – it accounts for the whole of our thinking process since almost of what we do in day-to-day life is based on thought. Everything purposeful that we do is based on thought after all and how often do we do stuff that isn’t purposeful, that isn’t goal orientated?

 

The ‘thinking process’ (whether we like to see it like this or not) is purely based on the principle of ‘jumping to conclusions’ – thought can never escape the assumptions that it is founded upon and so course it’s always jumping to conclusions. Thought always jumps to the conclusion that it was right in the assumptions that it has made! More technically speaking, we may say that thought operates in a self-referential way, which is undeniable. Thought operates by comparing all incoming data with the mental categories that already exist in our heads, and so this whole business of thinking is example of business of bias confirmation. Every day of our lives we confirm our own unexamined mental constructs with our thinking; we confirm them over and over again and we never get tired of doing so.

 

It’s not just thought-based perception that is based on the principle of bias confirmation but also thought-based action – we don’t see the setting and achieving of goals as bias confirmation but what else could it be? Being ‘focused on goals’ and ‘learning to see the world in a radically new way’ do not exactly go hand-in-hand. We all think that obtaining our goals (or ‘getting what we want’) is what life is all about but this is plainly ridiculous – ‘obtaining our goals’ (or ‘getting what we want’) is how we prove to ourselves (without admitting that this is what we doing) that our way of looking at the world is the right way. It isn’t though because reality isn’t ever going to agree with our biased way of looking at it! Reality isn’t going to match our bias because reality – unlike the thinking mind – isn’t biased. Reality equals ‘no bias’.

 

Our idea (or ‘version’) of living is based on us spending all of our time proving to ourselves over and over again that reality is something that it isn’t. The reason we have to keep on proving the point to ourselves over and over again (or trying to prove it) is precisely because what we’re trying to say is true isn’t true. If it were then there would be no need for this business of ‘bias confirmation’, obviously. What we’re doing isn’t living at all therefore – it’s actually denial, and when we are in denial we are not living.  On the contrary, we are engaged in an ‘inverted version of living’; we’re actually rejecting life because life (by its very nature) doesn’t agree with our biases…

 

 

 

 

Art: jornalagora.info/street-art-graffiti-wallpaper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At The Heart of Anxiety

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Spectre Of Anxiety

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Counterproductivity

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

FIGHTING FEAR

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

 

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

 

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

LETTING GO OF THE THINKING THAT CREATES ANXIETY

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

 

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

DROPPING AGENDAS

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

WHEN TO LET GO

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

EQUANIMITY

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

RADICAL ANXIETY MANAGEMENT

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

 

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

 

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

SECURITY VERSUS FREEDOM

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hooked On Controlling

Mindfulness – we might say – is where we aren’t fighting with ourselves, managing ourselves, controlling ourselves, repressing (or ‘soothing’) ourselves the whole time. It isn’t quite right to say this though because when we practice mindfulness we don’t try to stop ourselves from fighting ourselves, controlling ourselves, repressing or soothing ourselves – if it was the case that we were trying to stop ourselves from doing all this then we’d still be controlling ourselves!

 

And yet the other side of the coin is that when we really are trying to control ourselves, manage ourselves, et cetera, then all of our focus is on the goal of ‘being in control’, the goal of ‘successfully managing ourselves’, and whenever our attention is wholly upon this goal – or upon any goal – we not being mindful, we are not being aware. When our eye is ‘on the goal’ then it’s all about ‘how great it will be if the goal is attained’ or ‘how terrible it will be if it isn’t attained’ and this is the very antithesis of being mindful, being aware!

 

Mindfulness is so very often confused with ‘soothing the mind’ (or ‘quietening our thoughts’) but this then is merely another form of goal-orientated behaviour. When we’re engaged in attempted ‘self-quietening’ then we are not actually being aware at all because we are – as usual – fixated upon the two extremes of ‘getting it right’ and ‘getting it wrong’! To successfully soothe or quieten our minds equals ‘getting it right’ and not to do so equals ‘getting it wrong’; we’re busy controlling in other words, and when we’re busy controlling then there is never any time for awareness. There’s no time for life itself, when it comes down to it – ‘life is something that will happen when we successfully control, when we get to the end of our control sequence’, or so we think! First we have to ‘tick all the boxes’, in other words, and then we can live…

 

It’s not that we think this consciously – is just a kind of a thing we are automatically assuming without ever realising what it is that we have automatically assumed. We imagine that when everything is properly managed, when we get ‘all our ducks in a row’, then we will be better able to let go of our controlling and then ‘kick back and enjoy life’. We imagine that we’ll finally be able to ‘chill out and let our hair down’… We’re assuming, in other words, that ‘controlling/managing’ is somehow a good preparation for ‘letting go’, which is clearly not the case at all. Controlling no more prepares us for ‘letting go of control’ than taking heroin twice a day prepares us for giving up the heroin at some future date!

 

Quietening our minds isn’t a good preparation for being mindful therefore; it’s just another form of controlling and controlling is a slippery slope to yet more controlling. It’s certainly not a pathway to giving up controlling! And yet if we deliberately try to stop managing our own thinking then this too is ‘managing’, this too is ‘controlling’. So how do we get out of this trap? How do we let things happen naturally? How do we get back into the flow? The key is not falling for the trick that our mind is always playing on us, which is getting us to believe that when we control successfully, then we will somehow be free.

 

This really is the ‘big illusion’, the illusion that keeps us ‘hooked on controlling’. Controlling is an unfree state of mind – it’s unfree because we are constantly tied up by the need to make sure that the good outcome happens rather than the bad outcome. This doesn’t leave us any space (or ‘freedom’) to do anything else, or to be ‘aware’ of anything else. The goal (i.e. the ‘good outcome’) represents freedom for us and that’s why we chase it as avidly as we do! We are the greyhounds and the mechanical hare is the goal which represents our release from the mechanical (or ‘unfree’) situation that we are unhappily trapped in. The goal is unconsciously associated with ‘the end of all our problems’, in other words, which is clearly ‘wishful thinking’ on an epic scale!

 

To actually see the absurdity of this is to be free from the power of the illusion, therefore. This simply means ‘seeing things clearly’, or ‘seeing things for what they are’ – our belief is that if we control tightly enough, then through this feat of controlling we will eventually become free, even though controlling (i.e. being constantly subject to the need to control) is the very antithesis of ‘being free’. I’m doing the very thing that prevents me from ever being free, yet I imagine this by investing in it enough (and ‘enough’ here means 100%) then everything is somehow going to work out for me. I imagine, in other words, that the payoff for my dedication, the payoff for my investment, will be the prize of ‘freedom’.

 

Practicing mindfulness means that we are aware of our mechanical nature (i.e., our constantly controlling or managing or striving) without fighting against it. It’s one thing to have a momentary awareness of the mechanical forces that are controlling us and to immediately try to fight against them, and quite another to be aware, and yet not fight. We are living the unconscious (or mechanical) life, and yet we are at the same time aware in it. We’re living our run-of-the mill everyday life, as who we actually are, in accordance with the way that we actually are, but we’re doing it consciously, with great sensitivity and without lying to ourselves or turning a blind eye to anything. And the ‘key ingredient’ here is that we no longer have this flat unconscious belief that our mechanical behaviour is one day going to ‘pay off’ for us! There is a world of difference between being 100% committed to the mechanical way of life (without even knowing that we are) and ‘going through the motions’ of mechanical existence whilst no longer being 100% invested in the logic of that type of existence.

 

Normally – as we have said – we have total belief in the efficacy of purposeful or controlling activity to deliver the outcome that we want. Even if we aren’t particularly confident about our own ability to control, we still unquestioningly believe that controlling is the right road to go down, that ‘the instrument of thought’ and the purposeful activity that comes out of it can deliver us the outcome that we want. Even when we are anxious, and have a deep-seated doubt in our own ability to control effectively, and get things to turn out the way we want them to, we are still no closer to ‘doubting the doubt’, which is to say, doubting our unexamined belief that purposeful or controlling activity is the right tool for the job no matter what that job might be. I might be rubbish as a controller, which will I believe will have very bad consequences for me, yet I still don’t doubt that ‘controlling is the way to go’. I don’t doubt that ‘controlling is the way to freedom’. I only doubt myself.

 

This belief in the power of thought/control is pretty much absolute in everyday life and this is what keeps us unconscious (which is to say, ‘completely under the power of illusionary appearances’). To see with perfect, unstrained clarity that what is most important – which is to say, stillness or ‘inner connectedness’ – can never be attained through thinking or through purposeful activity completely changes things therefore. We are no longer ‘putting all our money on the wrong horse’, which is what is keeping us in the trap of the thinking mind. By pure habit we will of course still be putting a lot of money on that horse, but no longer all of it and that slight difference makes all the difference in the world! That in itself completely changes the dynamic of what’s going on – a little bit of light has entered the picture and nothing will ever be the same again…

 

Our normal way of being in the world is one in which we are constantly trying to achieve by purposefulness’. To be operating on the basis of the thinking/conceptualising mind is to be contingent constantly striving’, constantly trying to get things to be the right way’. That’s how the thinking conceptualising mind functions, that the way that it has to think to function. Thinking ‘strives’ just as a wheel rolls, just as the pendulum swings, just as an escalator escalates! Certainly it is true that some things need to be controlled, but the most important thing of all – as we have just said – can’t be arrived at via control or via purposeful doing, and this is stillness. We might wonder what is so great about stillness (which is obviously something that isn’t particularly valued in our society!) and the answer is simply that it is through stillness that we connect with who we really are. How important is that? This doesn’t mean that we have to be passive or withdrawn or disengaged – it just means that we aren’t constantly clutching at (or striving for) something the whole time. We’re not striving to attain the whole time, and this isn’t a mark of weakness or indifference! We can act all the more effectively when we are not constantly clutching or straining or striving – the action is much more spontaneous, much more fluid, much more ‘appropriate to the moment’ when we are not driven by ‘attachment’.

 

We can’t manipulate stillness, we can’t avail of it as part of our ‘overall strategy’ or ‘design’, we can’t make a goal of it any more than we can make goal of freedom. Particular goals are worth may be worth strategising for striving for, but life itself isn’t! Not only is life itself something that we can’t strain for or attain by skilful actions) it’s actually the case that we miss it every time when this is our approach, and when we are operating on the basis of the thinking mind then this – as we have just said – is inevitably going to be our approach. Thought can only ever grasp!

 

When we’re living life (or rather trying to live life!) on the basis of thought (or on the basis of control, which is the same thing) then we’re constantly ‘missing the mark’, we are constantly in a state of frustration, and this is why the Buddha states in his First Noble Truth that conditioned existence is dukkha, or ‘suffering/frustration’. Of course living on the basis of constant striving (or living on the basis of constantly ‘trying to attain’) is going to result in suffering and frustration – if the most important thing of all cannot be attained by striving, by controlling, by ‘managing’, then we’re actually working against ourselves the whole time, even though we think that we’re doing something to ‘help ourselves’…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Self-Reflection

When we’re in mental pain, this pain – as we experience it – has a very precise relationship to our way of understanding ‘who we are’. To put this even more clearly, the pain that we are experiencing doesn’t just have ‘a precise relationship’ to our way of understanding who we are, it is a faithful reflection of that understanding. What this means is that any idea that we have of escaping the pain, or solving the problem that it poses to us, is no more than a momentarily comforting fantasy. It’s no more than a comforting fantasy but it’s also our sole preoccupation – it consumes us.

 

We could also put this in a simpler way and say that ‘our thinking about the pain that we’re in is itself the pain’, which is a curious thing to contemplate. The more pain we are in the more we think about this pain, which straightaway creates a trap that there doesn’t seem to be any way out of. This is ‘the trap of resistance’ – the more it hurts the more we resist and the more we resist the more it hurts. The more we turn our face away from our pain, the more the pain grows and we have to put ever-more effort into ignoring it, or running away from it. In a simplistic way we might say that our course of action in this case is clear, and that all we need to do is to take note of our error and then correct it. If turning away from our pain causes this pain to grow, then the answer must be to turn towards it instead.

 

We are underestimating the subtlety of the trap however if this is what we think. What we fail to see is that any sort of ‘deliberate stance’ that we take with regard to our inner pain equals ‘turning our face away’. What’s the motivation behind the manoeuvre to ‘turn to face the pain’, after all? If we are manoeuvring then there must be a motivation behind it, there must be something that is being aimed at, and what possible aim could it be other than escaping ‘from the pain’, after all? Why else do we do anything? If we sincerely wish to accept the pain that we are in then we wouldn’t be manoeuvring at all – there would be no need for it. If we were truly sincere and wished to unconditionally embrace the pain that we are in then we would also embrace the ‘extra pain’ that we are in as a result of turning our face away from the original pain. There would be no scheming, no manoeuvring.There would be no need for anything like that.

 

This is an old point, a point that has been made many times. When we try to accept pain or face pain then this is only in order to escape that same pain – is a ‘clever ploy,’ in other words. It’s a clever ploy to do something that is actually quite impossible to do because we can no more ‘face pain on purpose’ than we can successfully avoid or escape it! If we are trying to escape the pain then that is because we’re thinking about it and if we trying to face it then this is also because we’re thinking about it. It’s the thinking that constitutes the trap, not the particular type of thinking that we are engaged in. It’s not as if there is such a thing as ‘the right type of thinking’ that will enable us to escape from the trap! No thinking is the right thinking.

 

Thinking is itself a trap because it always involves us in self-reflection. Thinking is self-reflection – thinking always traps us in our own assumptions. As we said at the beginning of this discussion it’s not just that our mental pain has a very precise relationship to our way of understanding who we are, it is actually a faithful reflection of that understanding. By reacting in any way to the reflection, we solidify it, we confirm it as being true. The pain of our situation is the pain of our predicament in thinking that ‘this sufferer  is who we are’. If we were to move any distance at all from this fixed position of self-identification then the pain that we are in would immediately change and lose its utterly oppressive nature – it only has that utterly oppressive nature because we think that we are that ‘self’, because we think that we are that ‘sufferer’. The pain that I am afflicted with is the shadow of the ‘self-delusion’ that I am caught up in. I am ‘identifying with the sufferer’;  i am identifying with my manoeuvring, with my scheming and calculating, with my endless ‘thinking’.

 

The reflection of ourselves that we see and react to as a result of our thinking is a very precarious and transitory type of thing therefore. It’s only there because of our thinking – when we think we solidify it, we confirm it as ‘the only possible reality’. We are potentially very free indeed therefore – we could ‘float freely in any direction’, so to speak, but not if we solidify the picture we have of ourselves and our situation by thinking about it, or reacting to our thoughts about it. As we have said, we are the pain and the pain is us. The specific sense of identity which is conditioned by my reactions to the pain (or my resistance to the pain) gives rise to the pain. I am my pain and my pain is me, and so the idea of ‘escape’ from it is a complete non-starter. If I am constructing myself in terms of my absolute need to escape from the pain then how can I ever go beyond this pain?

 

If I try to escape or turn away from the pain then this turning away reaffirms the concrete sense of myself that I am identifying with, and if I try instead to turn towards the pain (which I may come to see as ‘the smarter move’) then this too reaffirms the concrete sense of self. Who is it that is either ‘turning away’ or ‘turning towards’, after all? Or purposeful action reaffirms the reality of the one who is striving to enact these purposes, just as all thought reaffirms the reality of the one who is having the thought, and this is the nature of the trap that we are caught in. It doesn’t matter how much I twist and turn with my clever thinking and my goal-orientated actions, all I’m doing is digging myself deeper into the hole.

 

We can’t try to ‘do nothing’ or ‘think nothing’ either – ‘freezing’ isn’t the answer. Who is the one who has to ‘do nothing’ or ‘think nothing’, after all? If we tried to ‘do nothing’ then we would identify with the one who is trying to do it; if we try to ‘have no thoughts’ then we would be identifying with the proposed ‘non-thinker’! The trap is that we are ‘identified’ with a particular idea of ourselves; a particular idea of ourselves that has been created by our thinking (by our resistance, in other words). All of our thinking, all of our purposeful activity, comes from this particular idea of who we are and so how are these plans and strategies ever going to work? Any method (any method whatsoever) that we are presented with is always going to be used by this ‘idea of myself’ to perpetuate itself and so how is this going to help matters any? How is any method or strategy ever going to genuinely help us, rather than proving to be just another level of the trap for us to get caught in?

 

We keep on talking about ‘skills’ and ‘tools’ in the world of mental health care – but who do we imagine is going to use the skills, use the tools? Who is it really in aid of? All of this effort and technology is in the service of the mind-created self (which is to say, ‘the conditioned identity’) not in aid of who we truly are. We have no allegiance to ‘who we truly are’. We know nothing about our true unconditioned nature; we don’t even have any curiosity – we think we know everything already. All strategies, all cleverness belongs to the conditioned identity – consciousness (which is our true nature) has no need of such tricks however. The conditioned identity relies on controlling because that’s how it comes into being, because that’s how it is maintained and perpetuated, but consciousness has nothing whatsoever to do with control. If it has something to do with anything, it is honesty, which is somehow the one thing we tend to overlook in our overly-technical approach to mental healthcare. When honesty comes into the picture (instead of controlling) then the phenomenon of ‘self-reflection’ comes to an end and the door to the trap suddenly swings open…