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…

 

 

 

 

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Looking For Freedom Outside Ourselves

It isn’t just that who we are (or the way that we are) is in itself ‘good enough’, and so on this account we don’t need to be constantly striving to ‘better ourselves’ or ‘improve ourselves’ (and be constantly recriminating against ourselves if we can’t do so) but rather that who we are (or the way that we are) is our only possible means of liberation, our only possible way to freedom and happiness! We need look no further than the way we actually are – right at this very moment, in other words.

 

The chances are of course that most of us would immediately dismiss this bold assertion as being utterly nonsensical. How could anything be that easy? How could ‘being the crappy old way that we already are’ be enough to release us from our suffering? If nothing else, we would probably say, this will prove to be a recipe for total self-indulgent laziness. Another thing that we might say is that we know lots of people who already think that they are ‘fine just the way they are’ and that this complacent attitude of theirs hasn’t done them any good at all. People who think that they are great the way they are generally jerks, after all!

 

The first thing that we could say about these objections is that ‘accepting ourselves’ is not an easy thing at all – it’s actually the hardest thing we could ever do. Climbing Mount Everest is easy in comparison! The second thing we could point out is that people we might know who seem to think that they’re perfectly fine just the way that they are – and consequently make no effort at all to change – aren’t accepting themselves at all. They might seem to be but what’s really happening is that they have some kind of image of themselves which seems acceptable (or even pretty wonderful!) but which is completely illusory, completely unreal. They aren’t accepting themselves at all therefore – they’re accepting their illusion of ‘who they would like to believe they are’ and obviously this can’t be beneficial to anyone.

 

We usually don’t come anywhere close to seeing ourselves as we really are, never mind ‘accepting ourselves’. We have a concept about ourselves, an idea or image of who we are, and we relate to this instead. There is therefore a ‘gap’ between ‘us as we actually are’ and ‘us as we perceive ourselves to be’ and this gap tends to grow bigger and bigger with time. In this ‘image-based’ world of ours we ‘grow into the false idea of ourselves’ because that’s what we are presented with – we are given an identity that matches the type of world we happen to find ourselves in. This is convenient for sure when it comes to operating within that world, but still isn’t who we are. We have ‘convenience’ instead of truth, therefore, but convenience only goes so far.

 

Another aspect of this process is that we become more and more separated from the painfully ‘underdeveloped’ aspect of ourselves as a result of social adaptation and this separation grows bigger with time because the pain associated with that neglected part of ourselves can only ever grow as long as it remains neglected. In the consensus reality we get rewarded (or validated) for developing in line with what society requires from us, and disincentivized from developing our true nature, which has consequences that are beneficial from the point of view of society but profoundly ‘non-beneficial’ from the point of view of the individual. The pressure to adapt to the social world is the same thing as the pressure to turn our backs on our core nature and this systematic neglect causes pain that we don’t want to look at. It’s painful to see what we have done, in other words, and our keenness to run away from this pain means that the gap between us as we are and us as we’d like to imagine we are just keeps on getting bigger. The rejection of the pain that stems from betraying our true nature forces us and more into the societal world because this is the only place we’re going to obtain validation for the false ‘image of who we are’.

 

We might naively think that it’s a fairly straightforward thing to ‘accept ourselves’ but nothing could be further from the truth. If we could find it within ourselves to ‘be ourselves as we actually are’ then we have already – just in this humble act – done something completely tremendous. Our instinct is to go completely the other way and strain to achieve some ideal, some idea we have (or society has) about how we should be. Our instinct is always to do the very opposite of ‘just being ourselves’ and this is because we fundamentally believe that there is no good at all to come from ‘just being ourselves’. As we are (we believe) we are ‘unredeemed’; we are ‘awaiting salvation’. We might not know that this is what we believe but we believe it all the same – our ‘orientation’ is pointing fundamentally away from ourselves, and this is true for almost all of us. It’s the prescribed way to be…

 

What we are saying here is therefore that – on a subconscious level – we don’t believe that there is any great value in us being the way that we actually are. The way that we actually are doesn’t have any possibilities in it; it is disregarded, dismissed without even the slightest consideration. Our personal reality ‘as it is’ is dismissed as being intrinsically worthless (even though we don’t see ourselves doing this) and we are constantly ‘reaching out’ to somewhere else where we think the advantage must be. Everything worthwhile – we imagine – lies in ‘the realm of what is yet to be achieved’ (i.e. ‘the realm of improvement’) and this keeps us in a constant state of anticipation. Either we are hopefully anticipating the result that we want or we’re anxiously anticipating the result that we don’t want. We’re always ‘directed externally’ – our attention is always on whatever advantages or disadvantages might come from the outside.

 

This brings to mind Jung’s often-repeated quote ‘Who looks outside dreams; who looks within awakes’. Our ‘dream-state’ is to be hypnotised by the false perception that ‘how we are in ourselves’ can be either improved or disimproved by events occurring on the outside of us (or – as we could also say – by the erroneous belief that the possibility for change lies outside of how we actually are, within the domain of control). We all want to be happy and lead fulfilling lives and we imagine that this can be achieved by successfully controlling things – and by things we include ourselves. We might not be foolish enough to think that we can buy a happier or more meaningful state of existence but we do nevertheless have this deep-seated belief that if we try hard enough in the right way we can improve ourselves to become the sort of person we’d like to be. Essentially – as we have said – we straining towards some sort of mental image, and we imagine that this projected ‘image’ can actually become a reality for us. We’re looking for salvation ‘outside of ourselves’. We’re looking for freedom outside ourselves…

 

Isn’t ‘looking outside of ourselves’ what self-help books and online seminars are all about, after all? Isn’t this what therapy is all about? If I go to therapy then in most cases what happens is that I’m presented with a certain set of ideas and theories and techniques that I can use – with the support of the therapist – to improve my situation, to make it less painfully conflicted or blocked than it was before. That’s why I’m going to therapy, after all. This idea makes plenty of sense – it makes complete sense to us in fact. Whether it ‘makes sense’ to us or not makes no difference however because what we are trying to do is completely absurd! It is completely absurd because our orientation is all back-to-front – it is (as we have been saying) orientated away from ourselves and towards the ‘realm of improvement’. It’s quite natural that we should be orientated in this way – our state of being is a painful one after all, and the nature of pain is that it makes us want to move away from it!

 

It’s perfectly natural that we should be orientated away from pain (away from the way that we actually are) and towards the possibility of escaping this pain, but for this to be somehow seen as a legitimate therapeutic modality, for this orientation be actively encouraged by those whose job is it is to be of help to people who have suffering from ongoing emotional or psychological pain is something of an irony. No one should tell us or imply to us that we ought to ‘stay with the pain’, but at the same time it is not our job as mental healthcare workers to encourage people suffering from mental pain to try to escape from it, via whatever so-called ‘legitimate methods’ it is that we are supplying them with. If we do this then we are simply adding ‘delusion on top of delusion’; if we do this then we are adding a whole new level of neurotic avoidance to the mix – a ‘legitimised’ or ‘officially-correct’ or ‘societally-sanctioned’ form of avoidance…

 

The trouble is that we are being aggressive  either way – if I say to someone that they should ‘sit with the pain’ (because that’s the right or helpful thing to do) then this is pure counter-productive aggression on my part, and if I go the other route and say that it is their responsibility to do ‘X, Y, and Z’ and thereby work constructively with their difficulties so as to improve their situation this is still ‘pure counter-productive aggression’! I’m being violent either way, and ‘violence’ (i.e. ‘trying to force things to be the way we want them to be’) always adds to the underlying suffering rather than lessening it in any way. The root of the dilemma that we are in (both both as ‘the therapist’ and ‘the sufferer’) is therefore that we’re ‘hung up on making the right choice’. No matter what choice we go with we’re still trying to wrestle with the situation and change it from being the way that it actually is – either we try to making ourselves stay with the pain, or try to make ourselves get away from the pain. Either way we are at loggerheads with ourselves, either way we are having an argument with reality! Aggression always comes out of thought – if we are being aggressive or controlling with reality then this is always because we are ‘thinking about it’; it’s because we are trying to work out what ‘the right answer’ to our situation is. If this is what we doing then we will be doing it forever; we’ll be ‘doing it forever’ because if we’re trying to find out what the right answer is then this means that were stuck in our heads, stuck in our thinking, and thinking is never more than a crowbar which we are using to try to change things.

 

It’s so very hard for us to see this! If we could see it then straightaway we’d laugh at the utter absurdity of what we trying to do! We’re trying to use the ‘crowbar of thought’ to change the way reality is. We trying to use the crowbar of thought to change ‘the way things are right now’ to be ‘some other way’, and yet what is ‘thinking’ other than coming up with a particular way of describing the world to ourselves and then acting on the basis of that description? When we try to change ourselves (or control ourselves) we first have to describe (or ‘model’) ourselves, therefore. This, as we all know, works very with some things – technical understanding gives rise to the possibility of controlling what we understand – but we can’t turn this trick  on ourselves because (counter-intuitively, in this rational culture of ours) we cannot gain a ‘technical understanding of ourselves’!  We are in some way that we completely fail to see ‘our own blind-spot’; as Alan Watts says – the eye cannot see itself, the tooth cannot bite itself and the tongue cannot taste itself.

 

Nobody can control their own state of mind because controlling would only work if we first had a complete understanding (obtained from some kind of theoretical external viewpoint) of ourselves – which is something that we believe to be totally possible since we aren’t able to see the limitations of thought or the logical mind. The problem is this however – if it were possible for us to ‘completely understand ourselves’ from some external (or ‘abstract’) theoretical viewpoint then ‘who we are’ would be no more than a logical extension of that external, abstract viewpoint. This is what creates the blind-spot because who we really are – which is neither ‘external’ nor ‘theoretical’ nor ‘abstract’ – has now been left out of our calculations. ‘Who we really are’ has been forgotten about in the course of the rational game we are playing – the rational game we are playing and can’t help playing!

 

What we can’t see is that ‘what’s happening is just what’s happening!’ What could be simpler than this? This is actually too simple for us – we have to add the complication (or the ‘twist’) of thinking about it. We have to ask ourselves ‘what the right answer is’, or ‘what the right way to look at things is’, and this confuses us. This confuses us right from the word ‘go’ because it implies that there is such a thing as ‘the right answer’ or ‘the right way to look at things’ and that’s just plain nonsense. What’s happening is just what’s happening – our descriptions or deliberations aren’t necessary! When we try to shove thought in there, in order to gain some kind of advantage or foothold, all we gain is ongoing confusion and paralysis.

 

When we ask what the right way to be with ourselves is therefore what we are doing is adding another level of complication, another level of neurotic avoidance. We are banjaxing ourselves just as soon as we ask this question because we are approaching everything from the point of view of the thinking mind and, as we have just pointed out, this has the immediate and distinctly unhelpful effect of placing us ‘outside of ourselves’.  We’re stuck in some kind of disconnected (or ‘alienated’) abstract mental space. We are ‘on the outside looking in’, and who doesn’t know what this feels like? This is ‘neurotic hell’ in a nutshell, and everyone knows what neurotic hell is like…

 

The way the world is is the way the world is and the way we are is the way we are…  It’s as simple as that. If someone waves hello at us then they’re waving hello, if a dog barks then a dog barks, if a gust of wind blows your hat off then a gust of wind blows your hat off. If we’re happy then we’re happy and if we’re sad then we’re sad! This isn’t ‘fatalism’ or anything ridiculous like that (fatalism is just an artificial mind-created attitude, after all) – it’s just ‘being in the moment’ and the moment is only place we can be. There is no choice there; there’s no ‘right or wrong way’ in it! Instead of choice, there’s actual freedom. It’s a mark of our own colossal stupidity if we think that there is ‘a right way and a wrong way’ to be in the present moment!

 

At the very core of all our confusion is therefore this very profound inability that we have to understand what freedom is. We’re clueless about freedom, even though we keep on talking about it. We’ve got the wrong idea about it entirely. We have – very foolishly – confused freedom with ‘choice’ and ‘choice’ – as we have said – is just ‘thought trying to shoehorn its way into the picture’. It’s ‘the thin end of the wedge’. Choice after all can only exist between ‘known alternatives’; it can only be found within the realm of the rational mind. so if we can never really know ‘what’s going on’ (because the unfolding present moment is always fundamentally unknowable) then how can we ‘choose’? What kind of foolishness is this? What is this great ‘hang-up’ about control that we have anyway other than ‘the neurotic refusal to live life unless we can first ‘know’ it’??!

 

Bizarrely, we imagine that freedom is something that exists within thought, within the closed and artificial domain of the thinking mind, whilst the truth of the matter is that freedom only exists where there is no thought. Freedom is freedom from thought; freedom is freedom from ‘known alternatives’…

 

Art: Eduardo Martinez, taken from creativebloom.com

 

 

 

 

 

The Problem of ‘Sitting with Pain’

When we try to ‘sit with our own pain’ (as we often do try to do when we are involved in psychotherapy or mindful practice) we generally run into a problem. The problem with ‘sitting with our own pain’ isn’t just the pain itself – which is of course what we think it is – but our purposeful attitude to this whole business of ‘sitting with pain’. The problem is that we can’t be present with our pain on purpose.

 

Because we have the aim or purpose of sitting with pain this jinxes the whole process – we want to become more present with ourselves but we become more absent instead! It backfires on us every time. There is no way that being purposeful about wanting to be present with our pain isn’t going to backfire on us because purposefulness is ‘control’ and control causes us to identify with the ‘abstract controller’ (which is another way of saying that it stops us being present). This is the very same paradox of ‘self-acceptance’ that Alan Watts talks about. The thing about self-acceptance, Alan Watts says, is that the self we should be accepting (i.e. the non-accepting self) is the very same self that we are trying to get rid of…

 

There is a point at which we decide that we need to change the way we are and become self-accepting rather than self-rejecting or self-denying and it is at this point that a new and problematic twist gets thrown into the equation. We’ve complicated things by turning our back on ‘how we really are’ in favour of ‘how we’d like to be’ (or ‘how we feel we ought to be’) and this means that our so-called ‘act of self-acceptance’ is really just another act of self-rejection – the latest in a long line of ‘acts of self-rejection’.

 

The problem is that every form of purposeful action that we might engage in is a rejection. Every purpose is a rejection just as every goal is a rejection – every goal is (of course!) a rejection of whatever it is that has not been designated as ‘the goal’. Purposeful behaviour is rejecting behaviour therefore – we’re rejecting anything that interferes with (or stands in the way of) the achieving of the purpose that we have set so much store in. Purposeful behaviour is all about attachment (or ‘like and dislike’) in other words – it’s all about ‘vehemently rejecting or eliminating what we don’t like’….

 

This tends to sound a bit complicated when we try to pin it down in the way that we have just been trying to but this is really just a problem with language (or a problem with thinking, which is the same thing). In short, ‘accepting yourself’ means – if it is to mean anything – accepting the self that you were before you decided to accept yourself and ‘sitting with your pain’ means – if it is to mean anything – being present with yourself as you were before you conceived the notion of ‘sitting with your own pain’. ‘Self-acceptance’ means – in other words – being unconditionally with yourself as you were before you got any clever ideas in your head about changing yourself or adjusting yourself to be some special way!

 

‘Adjusting ourselves so as to be some special way’ IS the jinx that always flummoxes us – that’s the whole problem in a nutshell. We are always trying to adjust, modify or change ourselves so as to be some special way – we do this so automatically, so unreflectively, that we don’t even notice ourselves doing it. We’re always being aggressive to ourselves – we’re not letting ourselves alone, we’re not giving ourselves any peace. Being aggressive towards ourselves doesn’t bear any fruit; it doesn’t change us to be the way we want to be – this has never happened in the whole of human history and it never will! Self-aggression has never resulted in anything other than ‘an increase in suffering’ and never could. Jinxes never stop being jinxes; that’s the whole thing about ‘a jinx’ – that it unfailingly catches us out every time. The whole point of a jinx is that it will never come good for us, no matter how long we keep on trying to beat it.

 

When we automatically try to adjust ourselves, modify ourselves, change ourselves, all that happens is that we create a barrier, a gap, an obstacle. As soon as we try to change or adjust ourselves we create a gap between ‘actually being in the world’ and ‘our experience of what it means to be in the world’ and this gap spells one thing and one thing only – it spells suffering. The ‘gap’ equals suffering and the reason that the gap equals suffering is because it’s a gap between us and life. We are life – we’re not something that ‘possesses’ life or is aiming or planning to gain life or maximize life – we actually are life and so a gap between us and life is a gap that stops us being what we really are!

 

What more terrible thing could there be than a gap between us and life? If there is a gap between us and life then where we are isn’t life – it’s somewhere else. We’re stuck somewhere else in a ‘non-place’ that isn’t life and we’re watching life at a distance through some kind of distorting lens. We’re alienated, dissociated, dislocated. We’re seeing life darkly, as if through glass, as it says in 1 Corinthians 13:12; we’re not seeing it as it is at all.

 

This is how we almost always are – it’s the human condition. It’s the usual state of affairs for us because we’re always trying to adjust ourselves, modify ourselves, change ourselves. That’s the thing we do without even knowing that we’re doing it. To live is to be constantly trying to change oneself and the reason for this is that we’re always living via the thinking mind. The thinking mind is a tool for changing things, a tool for analyzing and solving problems, and the one thing it can never do is ‘leave things alone’! The rational mind can never exist in a state of peace with the world – it always has to be trying to evaluate it and control it. The rational mind is a device for evaluating and cataloguing and controlling and it can’t do anything else.

 

Life’s a scab and we’re forever picking at it, in other words, even though this isn’t the prettiest of metaphors. When we’re coming at it from the point of view of the thinking mind life is continually irritating us, or perhaps even causing us actual pain, and we’re trying to fix that but by trying to fix it we’re maintaining the gap that is causing the pain in the first place. Generally speaking the gap between us and life is fairly imperceptible – it doesn’t cause us any conscious distress or sense of disconnection. For the most part the sense of disconnection and alienation that it creates is invisible to us; we don’t know that it’s there and we will in fact deny that it is if asked. We are used to it; we assume on some level or other that this is what life is supposed to be like so we pay it no heed. We assume that we’re supposed to be ‘separate from life’; we don’t miss that vivid immediacy of life because we don’t remember ever having it and this ‘forgetting’ is concomitant with the conditioned state of being….

 

When we are suffering from neurotic pain of one sort or another then the ‘gap’ that we are talking about gets exacerbated and because it has become exacerbated it becomes visible. The ‘disconnect’ becomes more severe, more pronounced, more painful and so we do notice it. We notice it all of the time; we can’t get rid of it in fact and our attempt to get rid of it, or fix it, makes it worse. Our mind keeps on working away at the problem and this restless activity of the mind keeps widening the suffering-producing gap. We’re caught in a loop, in other words – we’re caught in the loop of the analyzing/evaluating mind.

 

The mind always is a loop, whether we’re aware of this or not, and we’re always trapped in it. It’s only when the loop narrows so that we can feel the pain that it creates that we start to gain the possibility of seeing that we’re caught in a mental loop; otherwise life is full of enough distractions and diversions to keep us from seeing that our situation is in any way ‘prison-like’. That’s what distractions and diversions are for – to prevent us from seeing that we’re in prison, to prevent us from noticing that we’re caught in a mental loop. We could quite easily spend our whole lives without noticing this…

 

What maintains the gap is us automatically reacting to the pain that is created by the gap. We don’t notice that we are continually reacting in this way – it’s so normal for us that of course we don’t notice it. It’s just regular life, as far as we’re concerned. We’re too caught up in this mechanism that is forever ‘feeding on itself’ to ever question what is going on here. It is – as we keep saying – normal for us; the mental loop of the thinking mind is ‘normal’ for us because it’s all we ever know. To be is to react when we’re in the unconscious mode of existence; we’re owned by the mechanical forces of analysing and evaluating and controlling when we’re in this mode – just so long as we’re unconscious we are a vehicle for these forces and nothing more.

 

We often hear that the way to work with this situation (i.e. the situation of being the unconscious pawn of forces we do not understand) is by ‘not judging’, ‘not reacting’ and all this kind of thing, but this is only half the story. It’s only half the story and because it’s only half the story it’s not really going to help us! Being told to ‘not judge’ is actually a very confusing message, despite the fact that it sounds so straightforward. The problem is that the self (i.e. the thinking mind) can’t ever ‘not judge’, can’t ever ‘not react’. This is the supreme impossibility for it – the one thing the self-mind can never do is ‘stop judging’! The reason that this is a supreme impossibility is because the self-mind is created by judging, is created by reacting, so of course this entity is never going to genuinely embrace not-judging. It might pretend to (if it thinks that there’s something in it for it), but that’s as far as it goes…

 

‘Sitting with our own pain’ is a joke as far as the mind-created self is concerned. The very idea of it is ludicrous – the thing or entity that is created by resisting pain is supposed to be able to ‘not resist’, even though unreflective resistance is its very life-blood. All that’s going to happen in this case therefore (when we only have half the story) is that we’re going to learn to resist in a camouflaged way – we’re going to learn to disguise our resistance by calling it ‘spiritual practice’, by calling it ’sitting with my pain’…

 

The ‘missing half’ of the message (which is the half that we in the West don’t seem to be so keen on hearing!) is that we’re not this beleaguered self that is trying (and failing) to sit with the pain. We’re not that self and we never were. The whole thing is a ‘false problem’ therefore – it would be a problem of we were this self but because we’re not there isn’t. There isn’t a problem and there never was one – there’s no one who needs to ‘sit with the pain’ just as there’s no one who needs to ‘do the spiritual practice’.

 

In down-to-earth terms what we’re talking about here could simply be called ‘having a sense of humour’ or ‘not taking things too seriously’ (even though it might seem flippant to say this). We see that the task we’re setting ourselves is impossible and so we don’t take it so seriously. How can we take it seriously if it’s totally impossible? ‘Being present’ is an impossible task – it’s an impossible task because it isn’t a task. It isn’t something to be achieved. When we do treat ‘being present’ as a task we find that the more we try to succeed at it the less present we become. It backfires on us. Being serious about a task that isn’t a task is a double-bind – we’re jinxing ourselves by trying. We’re already present so how can this be a task? ‘Trying’ creates the separate sense of self that wishes to be ‘not separate’ and it tries to be ‘not separate’ (or ‘not disconnected’) by trying even more and this is the mental loop that we’re all caught up in…

 

 

 

 

The Simplest Things

The simplest things are the hardest to speak of. When we’re talking about ‘approaches’ that we take in therapy or ‘models’ that we have in psychology we have no trouble in finding things to say – we find it very easy indeed to come out with all sorts of highfalutin jargon! In no time at all we evolve a whole jargon-heavy language, full of catch-phrases and buzz-words. Yet we’re not really saying anything really – we’re prattling. We’re intoxicating ourselves with our own spurious cleverness. If we were actually saying something real then it would be a lot harder and we wouldn’t be able to use other peoples’ catch phrases, tawdry generic language that we have ‘taken off the shelf’. That wouldn’t cut the mustard…

 

The reason we love models and approaches, catch-phrases and buzz-words so much is of course because it gives us an angle. We’re desperate for an angle! We’re stuck without one; we feel that we absolutely do need one. Without an angle, what are we going to do? How are we going to proceed? It’s seems natural and perfectly reasonable that we should be looking for an angle because we’re coming at things from the point of view of the rational mind and this is just another way of saying that ‘we’re coming at things from the POV of wanting to change or control what is going on’. If the person I am working with is depressed then I am looking for a way of getting them to be not depressed; if they are thinking in an anxious or self-recriminatory way then I am going to be trying to change this anxious or self-critical way of thinking, and so on. That’s pretty much my brief as a therapist, after all!

 

We need ‘an angle’ because our intention is somehow to manipulate the situation and manipulation or control is simply not possible without an angle. Control and manipulation are second nature to us; more than second nature, it very often seems as if this is the only nature we know. Control seems like the answer to everything when we are in mental pain and if you try to say that it isn’t people aren’t going to take any heed of you. We don’t want to suffer, obviously, and neither do we like to see others suffer but this doesn’t mean that trying to manipulate what is going on as soon as things start getting painful is a good thing to do! Far from being ‘the answer to everything’, control is actually the root cause of our woes. It only takes a little wisdom to see this. Even a little wisdom is generally beyond us however – we have bucket-loads of technical means in our culture but no wisdom! Or if we do have wisdom (because it’s out there somewhere) it is rarely to be found in our experts. Expertise doesn’t require wisdom – wisdom comes out of the broader view and – generally speaking – we just aren’t interested in ‘broadness’ or ‘width’ of vision.

 

The thing about control is that it always distances us from whatever it is that we are attempting to get the better of. When we bring in control this always puts us at odds with the world, it always introduces a very troublesome glitch into the system, which is odd because the whole point of control is that it is supposed to benefit us, not jinx us! The reason control always puts us at odds with the world (and not the world but ourselves) is because it disconnects us – it necessarily disconnects us (and no one can reasonably argue that it doesn’t!) because control can only ever be instigated as a result of our theories about the world, our abstract models of the world. So first we represent the world to ourselves in terms of a handful of spindly abstract concepts and then the next thing is that we charge ahead on this basis and interact with the world as if our abstract model wasn’t an abstract model at all but an infallible guide to what’s really going on out there! This isn’t a genuine interaction at all therefore but rather it’s a type of hamfisted bullying that is taking place on the basis of this bizarre misrepresentation – a type of bizarre misrepresentation that exists in our heads but nowhere else.

 

‘Control’ has its rightful domain of applicability but this is not the psychological domain! It has its rightful applicability within the realm of the ‘non-complex’ – if I have to put up a fence or build a shed or dig a hole in the ground that is of the right size and depth then this is where control is needed. If I am surgeon performing a laparotomy then this is also a case where very precise control is required, if the patient is to stand any chance at all of surviving! In all such cases we can come up with a formal theory that holds water and then apply it to ‘the real world’ but when it comes to psychological matters we cannot come up with any convenient theory or model. No theory has ever been found that has allowed effective psychological control to be exerted or applied, regardless of what the text books might say. Changes may be effected alright, but only at the cost of a ‘rebound’ that wipes out any advantage we might think we have gained. The reason no model (no model which ever yielded useful results) has ever been found is because the psyche isn’t a machine. The psyche (i.e. who we are) isn’t a machine and if it isn’t a machine (i.e. if it doesn’t obey the dictates of linear or predictable logic) then there is no way that we can ever possibly model it…

 

How could we ever think that how we are could be something we could understand, just as we understand the internal combustion engine or a printed circuit board? The thinking mind always assumes everything to be understandable (i.e. amenable to being represented in its own non-complex terms) because if it doesn’t do this then it would be cutting the ground away from under its own feet. Unless the thinking mind assumes a universe that is fundamentally understandable in terms of logic then it is making itself redundant, it is doing itself out of a job. It only works if everything is understandable – if we had a situation where parts of the universe were understandable but these parts were embedded in a deeper reality which is itself not understandable then this would mean that nothing was understandable, not really. If a thing is to make sense to the thinking mind then the whole universe, from top to bottom, has to make sense. Otherwise its position is lost. We can’t see it, but the thinking mind’s ultimate agenda is always to ‘hang in there’ and avoid the fate of being made redundant and for this reason it will never admit (it never can admit) that the world or the universe isn’t just some kind of machine, and that we aren’t – in our turn – just complicated units of biological machinery, even though this puts us in an utterly preposterous position. And there is no more preposterous position than the one we find ourselves in when we claim to understand something profound about ourselves on the basis of the so-called ‘science’ of psychology’.

 

The truth of the matter – which we are very keen indeed to deny (for no batter reason than our inability to see through the malign influence of the runaway rational mind, which cannot bear to be knocked off its pedestal – is that the universe is infinitely complex, just as we are, being as we are part and parcel of that universe. This is no disaster, this is no defeat, this is no terrible thing – it just means that we have to put up with the thinking mind no longer being ‘top dog’, no longer ‘ruling the roost’. It wasn’t doing a very good job anyway! As a result of seeing things clearly (which is something we have been steadfastly resisting at every turn) we have to ‘put up with’ no longer living in a world which is basically an exercise in accountancy, where we have to spend all our time trying to make sure that every single thing can be neatly accounted for. Instead, we have to live in a world which in its essential nature is more like a poem or a work of art than a neat row of numbers in a ledger (or on a spreadsheet). This is the hardship that we have to endure if we can bring ourselves to come around to dispensing with the dubious services of the rational intellect and accepting the actual non-logical nature of reality…

 

When we live in a world of poetry then cleverness is no good to us! As Rumi writes:

No better love than love with no object.

No more satisfying work than work with no purpose.

If you could give up tricks and cleverness,

that would be the cleverest trick!

This whole drive to be clever, to argue mysteries away, to systematize our understanding of the world, is simply us trying to make our concepts and models relevant when they’ aren’t. We’re trying to force everything to fit our conceptual slots because – since we’re coming at the world from the basis of the thinking mind – everything has to be about these slots. The bottom line is that we’re always struggling to make the rational faculty relevant when it isn’t. When we’re dealing with infinite complexity (i.e. infinite inter-connectedness) then any attempt to systematize just traps us in delusion – the only way not to be trapped in delusion is not to try to make sense of things! Even though it may sound contradictory to say it, when we’re dealing with great complexity, simplicity is what’s needed. Simplicity works because it resonates without trying – if something is simple enough then it is whole, and if it is whole then it resonates with everything else that is whole. By not trying to say too much we say it all!

 

This is why the sparse verses of the Tao Te Ching work so much better than all the weighty tomes of Western philosophy. It is as if in the West our response to the surpassing complexity of life is to complicate things as much as we can. We go down the wrong road – we go down the road of hyperrationality. We throw a whole mess of technical jargon at the problem, we invent a whole new kind of ‘speak’ that creates the illusion that we ‘know what we’re doing’. This technical language owes its existence to one thing and one thing only – the premise that it can actually enable us to do something about to help alleviate the mental pain and distress that our clients are suffering from. If the people we are dealing with are anxious then the language validates itself on the basis of its ability to ameliorate anxiety; if they are suffering from depression then the terminology gains prestige from its promise to banish effectively the shadow of depression from our clients’ lives, and so on. What else could excuse this ungainly mass of specialized terminology, which is quite lacking in aesthetic or poetic virtue in itself?

 

Traditionally however, all of our psychological situations have been addressed by something else entirely – by wisdom rather than cleverness. Wisdom has an entirely different character to cleverness – it doesn’t seek to create its own highly specialized vocabulary, for a start! Wisdom can express itself in the simplest of terms; it can express itself in language that can be understood by children, in fact. That’s how we know that it’s honest – this is where its power comes from, not in its ability to impress, intimidate, dazzle or intimidate people. If we come across some common human situation like anxiety and we respond to it by pulling a lot of neologisms out of our hat then all we have succeeded at is in alienating the sufferer from his or her own experience; in Ivan Illich’s words, cosmopolitan medical civilization takes the experience of being unwell (or in pain) out of our hands and makes it into the property of the mental health professionals. Only they have the power to say what our situation is, and to know what to do about it, and their language is both controlling and jinxed.  [As we have already said, ‘Controlling’ and ‘jinxed’ go together when it comes to mental health!]

 

Anxiety (to to use this one example) isn’t what the medical authorities say it is, however. It isn’t something that needs to be understood in terms of some frame of reference that doesn’t belong to us, and which we are actually excluded from understanding because we haven’t had the appropriate training or education. If I am suffering from anxiety then ‘what it is’ is necessarily my own subjective experience of it; there’s nothing else it could be – anxiety isn’t something that exists ‘in the abstract’! It isn’t at all what you –with your technical terminology – frame it as being…Anxiety is actually a very simple thing – anyone who has ever suffered from anxiety knows what it is. Anxiety is the experience of anxiety and this is where the ‘answer’ (so to speak) lies – not in someone else’s complicated theories of it! Anxiety is not at all a technical matter, in other words – it can’t be transposed into some other (highly arcane) sphere, it can’t be converted into some riddle or problem to be solved.

 

The ‘answer’ – if we may continue to use that word – lies exactly in our subjective experience of what’s going on, not in some abstract, mind-moderated formulation or theory of it. In the simplest of terms, where we are when we’re suffering from anxiety is a very difficult place to be and the ‘answer’ is simply for us to be able to be there without feeling that we need to escape, without constantly feeling that we need to ‘press the eject button’. This could easily become a type of a theory but it isn’t – it’s an intuitive understanding of the situation we’re in. Furthermore, it is our understanding and not one else’s. What makes anxiety different from the everyday ‘non-anxious’ experience of being in the world is simply that in the non-anxious state of mind we somehow have the ability to avoid the existential challenge that lies in the present moment and so – because we always have the option of escaping – we don’t get anxious, even though anxiety is latent in our situation. We are constantly escaping without knowing that we are escaping (because not knowing that we are escaping is an essential part of the escaping) and so we perceive ourselves as not being anxious. Anxiety – in this case – can be linked with the failure of the mechanism which facilitates our imaginary escaping from the demand that ‘being present’ places upon us! Or to put this another way, it is because we can no longer flee reality with impunity that we are feeling anxious…

 

Anxiety – we might therefore say – is where we keep on trying to flee (or ‘solve the problem’) but can’t and this is where the suffering comes in. We trying to do something that we can’t do. Our comfort zones have failed us and so we now have to deal with the difficulty of being present in our own life without any of the usual convenient escape routes. The drug of escaping (and not being present in our own lives) is no longer available to us and so now we’re going ‘cold-turkey’ – anxiety is as simple as this. How then can the clever talk of some accredited clinical expert help us if this is the case? It is more than likely that their role of ‘clinical expert’ represents nothing more than their escape from being present in the reality of their own life – there are no experts when it comes to the question of ‘how to live life’, after all! No one can be an expert at being their own true self…..

 

There is no jargon for being present. There are no models, no theories. This is not something that someone else can advise us on  – just as Walt Whitman says in his poem Song of Myself that no one can ‘walk that road’ for us, so too must it be the case that no one can ‘be present’ for us. Being present in the actual reality of our own lives is the simplest thing there is, yet no one can describe it, nor tell us how to ‘do’ it….

 

 

 

 

 

Mental Health Is Not A Goal

The only type of ‘therapy’ that is worthy of the name is therapy that has no agenda, therapy that does not involve expectations or goals. The only type of therapy that is worthy of the name is therapy that is completely ‘non-coercive’, in other words. This is such an alien concept to us however – it’s far more alien to us than we imagine it to be because we simply don’t realize how coercive we are in our relationships both with other people and ourselves. We all function on the basis of the logical mind (whether we acknowledge this or not) and the logical mind is always coercive, always aggressive. It operates on the basis of the order which it takes for granted, and which on this it account projects or imposes upon the outside world and this is of course the very essence of aggression! How can imposing your own brand of order (a brand of order which doesn’t actually exist anywhere in the world other than in your own head) on the world not be aggressive?

 

This inherent coerciveness shows itself in our notions of what mental health consists of – mental health is inevitably seen as an ideal state and an idea state is something that we have to work towards. It’s something we have to define, make a goal of, and then take the appropriate steps to obtain. This tends to sound reasonable enough to us (since this is how it works with everything else, just about) but the point is that all of this business of ‘deciding where we want to be and then working towards it’ is aggression – we’re actually trying to coerce ourselves to be mentally healthy (because it’s an ideal that needs to be accorded with) and yet ‘coercing or manipulating ourselves to be mentally healthy’ is a contradiction in terms. It’s flatly self-contradictory in the very same way the phrases ‘fighting for peace’ and ‘legislating for freedom from bureaucracy’ are…

 

The state of mental health isn’t an ‘ideal state’ because ideal states are projections of the mind; they are pictures of ‘how things should be’ that the thinking mind has come up with. If we go down this road then we are trying to inhabit our own mental maps and our own mental maps are essentially uninhabitable, just an ideology is uninhabitable. The attempt to attain what we consider to be an ‘ideal state’ – which is something that we do all the time – is anything but conducive to good mental health. It’s conducive to a lot of things, but none of them are healthy. What it is conducive of are various socially-prescribed styles or fashions of unhappiness and frustration…

 

Mental health has nothing to do with obtaining goals or ‘being the way we (or other people) think that we should be’ – it has to do with the honesty that we can bring to bear on our actual situation and this is a completely different type of thing. Honesty is never aggressive or violent – it doesn’t need to be because it’s not about trying to change anything. Honesty accepts rather than rejecting; it comes with no agenda – it comes with no expectations or judgements with regard to the vexed question of ‘how things should be’. And the point is of course that we can never – in the normal run of things – separate ourselves from our thoughts or preconceptions regarding ‘the way things should’; we live out our whole lives within this matrix of expectations and how well reality accords (or seems to accord) with this artificial template determines whether we feel good or whether we feel bad, whether we say that life is going well or badly…

 

Of course honesty has nothing to do with expectations or agendas or goals or judgements or control or anything like that. All of this stuff is the business of the thinking mind and the thinking mind is all about projecting its ideals or assumptions out into the world. It never does anything else – it always measures the world in accordance with its expectations and then tries to change or manipulate things on this basis. That’s its job. Thought has its role and stating that all it ever does is ‘measure things against it expectations’ (or ‘chase ideal states’) does not diminish or invalidate that role. If I’m thirsty and I need a drink of water then the projected situation where I actually receive this glass of water is ‘the idea state’. If I’m cold and tired then being all warm and snug somewhere where I am able to rest is an ideal state, and so on. Practical goals and our consideration of how we might attain them is the very stuff of life, we might say, but this type of goal-orientation does not apply to mental health.

 

As we have already said, mental health is not a goal to be obtained, it is on the contrary purely a matter of relating honestly and clearly to the way that we actually are. Another way to put this is to say that mental health is when we are able to be ‘present’ with ourselves, instead of being ‘somewhere else’. It doesn’t matter what it is that we are to be present with, it just matters that we be present! This is – needless to say – no small matter. It’s no small matter because we’re all experts at not being present in our lives – we’re expert at not being present in our lives to the very same extent that we live in our dreams, in our goals, in our expectations, and this is a very considerable extent. Far from being a ‘small’ matter being present in our lives is the biggest challenge there is. This is what really matters, no matter what anyone else might tell us, not matter what society as a whole might tell us. How after all can ‘being present in our lives’ be outranked by something else? Suppose I have everything ‘right’ in my life – according to societal values – but I didn’t happen to be present in it, what good would this do? And yet we’re already being prevailed upon by the forces that act upon us to postpone ‘being present’ until X, Y and Z are taken care of; in practice there’s actually always something more important!

 

Being present is not something that is encouraged or promoted by our social milieu, by the humdrum everyday forces that are in operation all around us. It is not something that is ever promoted by the everyday mind, which is the mind that finds expression in society. On the contrary, we are constantly being told that achieving this task is the important thing, or that achieving that task is the important thing. Anything else is more important, when it comes down to it! There is always a task needing to be attended to and this is always ‘the important thing’. There is always a goal waiting to be achieved and this is seen as being where our well-being lies – in the successful accomplishment of our goals. The achievement of our goals (which is a spectacularly jaded formula which we nevertheless never seem to get tired of hearing) might well be seen as being where our wellbeing lies but this has nothing to do with being present.

 

All of the ‘humdrum forces’ that we have been speaking of operate by ensuring that we shall not be present. We won’t be present because we’re living in our goals, our agendas, our plans, our expectations, our ideas and this is not being present. This is ‘living at a distance from reality’, just as James Joyce says of one of his characters in his novel Dubliners that he ‘lived at a little distance from his body…’ This is also ‘living life on the never never’ because we’re always saying to ourselves that we’ll start living our lives when the ideal conditions that we’re controlling for come about, when they never will. Or if they do seem to come about, then before very long there will be another set of conditions that we need to bring about, another set of goals that we need to attain. The result of this is therefore that we’re always waiting to live but never living, as Alan Watts says, and there’s no way that this can be called ‘being mentally healthy’. How can always living at a distance from one’s life as it really is be mentally healthy?

 

There’s nothing wholesome or conducive to health about this business. There’s nothing wholesome about it because there’s nothing ‘whole’ about it – we’re living a fragmentary life, as Krishnamurti says – we’re living a life made out of fragments (or fractions) that never come together and this causes a malaise. More simply put, it causes chronic unhappiness, and then – because we’re unhappy all the time – we realize that we need therapy and because this therapy probably involves trying to achieve some kind of an ideal state we’re simply going around in circles. Mental health (or ‘being present’, if we want to call it that) doesn’t necessarily have to mean being happy but it does mean ‘being real’ and being real makes it possible for us to experience peace and happiness, which it is clearly not possible for us to ever experience if we aren’t being real. All we could ever know – at best – would be an unreal version of peace / happiness! What glitches us is that we are constantly straining for it; we are constantly aggressive, constantly striving, and even if we aren’t actively striving we’re possessed by the thought or belief that we should be striving, that striving is the right thing to do, and this too is striving, this too is aggression…

 

Aggression (in this sense of the word) ensures that we stay locked into a state of chronic unhappiness because there is no way that any genuinely wholesome states can ever come our way if we are constantly trying to feel better than the way we actually do. We want to be happy (or at least we think that we do) but that doesn’t mean that we want to be real and so because of our resistance to ‘being real’ (because being real or moving in the direction of being real doesn’t feel so good) we never get to feel ‘good’ in a profound or wholesome sense – at best we will occasionally feel ‘good’ in a superficial or image-based kind of a way, and this is really just a form of suffering. Anything superficial or ‘image-based’ is a form of suffering. Being ‘real’ means being present in the mess of what is actually going on, and who amongst us has the stomach for that?  It’s much nicer to live our idealized dreams and projections of who we would like to be, or think we ought to be; this is the sugar-coated version of reality that the thinking mind keeps presenting us with – the sugar-coating is only a tiny fraction of a millimeter thick, a couple microns perhaps, but it’s still the only version of reality we’re interested in. If it isn’t what the rational-conceptual mind is feeding us (or rather spoon-feeding us) then we don’t want to know. We will look the other way with all the stubbornness and obstinacy in the whole universe!

 

What we need isn’t more goals, more purposes, more methods to follow and more tasks to complete but the unconditional support to be the way that we actually are, and this is something that our mental health services are just not equipped to provide. Most of us can’t provide support for ourselves to be present in our lives, so how can we be supportive to others who are having such great difficulty being present with themselves? The crux of the matter is that our systems deny us our presence, which is the possibility of ‘us having an honest relationship with our own pain’. They are always pointing in the other direction, just as the thinking mind is always pointing in the other direction. All of the social systems that we have created have this characteristic – the characteristic of ‘denying us’, the characteristic of pointing us in the wrong direction, the direction that leads away from our own wellness, our own true mental health. This is always going to be the case with any system that we devise. That anti-health, anti-wholeness bias is inherent in all logical systems and this reason for this is very clear indeed, once we get around to letting ourselves see it – systems are of course all about organization (they could hardly be about anything else) and ‘mental health’ (or ‘wellness’) isn’t something that can be organized.

 

To organize something is to put it into the appropriate slots, the appropriate compartments, the appropriate boxes, etc. This seems in one way too obvious to be worth pointing out but at the same time we need to stress this point because we are so blind when it come to understanding that ‘organization’ or ‘regulation’ cannot be applied to people in the name of therapy, or in the name of promoting mental health.  ‘Managing’ ourselves with regard to stress or anxiety or anger or whatever emotional turmoil it is that we might be going through is a far cry from anything even remotely ‘mentally healthy’  – we shouldn’t even be allowed to use the word because we are so very far from understanding it! How can the thinking mind know what health is, what wholeness is? As a rational culture, we don’t actually know anything about mental health at all – we think that it has something to do with ‘according with certain standards or criteria’. We would like to devise an instrument or machine to determine it. We think that just about everything has to do with ‘according with standardized criteria’ – if it can’t be standardized (or regulated) we don’t take it seriously.

 

Mental health isn’t however about perceiving, feeling, thinking, or behaving in a particular way (which is what we think it is), it’s about being present in our own lives, as our lives actually are. It is as simple (and as difficult) as this. We don’t become present by according with criteria or rules (i.e. by ‘fitting into the prescribed framework that everyone else is trying to fit into’), we become present by honestly relating with what actually is not by trying to measure and arrange everything in accordance with our unexamined expectations, which is all the thinking mind can ever do! Goals and methods and expectations have no part to play here! Coercion to ‘be the way that we or other people think we ought to be’ has no part to play here….

 

 

 

 

 

The Devaluation Of Consciousness

Consciousness is the least valuable commodity there is – we can sell just about everything else but we can’t sell this! Consciousness is garbage to us; we would not stoop to pick it off the street. It’s worse than garbage actually – consciousness is something that we have put on the banned list, it is something that we make every effort to keep at a safe distance. Consciousness is the uninvited guest at the party who will be thrown out unceremoniously by heavily armed security men if she ever dares to show her face…

 

To say that consciousness is inconvenient to us is of course to put it very mildly indeed! Consciousness is the one thing that is guaranteed to upset every apple-cart. It is guaranteed to throw all of our structures into disarray, and reduce them to rubble in moments. Consciousness destabilizes our structures to the point where they are not able to exist anymore. It falsifies all of the assumptions that our systems rest upon. How then can we possibly value consciousness, given that we are so very heavily invested in all of these structures and systems that we have created? To value consciousness is to value truth and truth is the very last thing we want to know about in this modern world of ours, no matter what we say.

 

It might seem that we live in an enlightened era which exists in stark contrast to earlier times when the human race was ruled by ignorance, prejudice and superstition, but if we think this then we’re looking at things with rose-tinted spectacles. People are not behaving very differently, when it comes down to it. What has happened (and it is admittedly very dramatic) is that we have got a lot better at controlling our physical environment and manipulating whatever we are able to manipulate. We can pull off a lot of tricks and they are quite spectacular. We have become very skilful at carrying out certain technical manoeuvres but if this skilfulness exists without any relationship to actual consciousness, then we’re in big trouble – to put it mildly. When there is no consciousness in the picture (and there isn’t) then things can hardly be expected to work out well…

 

If we have this hugely enhanced ability to manipulate the physical world but at the same time our actual level of awareness hasn’t changed very much (if at all) then we are in heading in one direction only and that is the direction of deceiving ourselves, and then enslaving ourselves with our self-deceptions. It has been said many times that when our cleverness outstrips our wisdom then we’re headed for disaster and how could this be otherwise? We don’t tend to see this because we imagine that technological prowess and understanding is the same thing as wisdom, but this is very far from being the case. The tools might be impressive but the user of the tool most definitely is not; our agenda for using all of the tools that we have access to is not impressive – on the contrary, it is distinctly uninspiring. It’s all pretty squalid. We’re only ever concerned with personal advantage; we’re only ever concerned with promoting the interests of the narrow little group that we’re affiliated with and this allegiance to the self or the group is a symptom of unconsciousness not consciousness.

 

Consciousness has no agenda whilst the rational mind always does. The rational mind cannot not have an agenda and its agenda has nothing to do with becoming conscious. The only way we can become conscious (or ‘globally aware’) is when we drop all of our rational agendas and it can be readily seen that our contemporary rational/technology culture has absolutely interest in doing any such thing. If we have an enhanced ability to control, and we are moreover very much invested in control and the outcome of controlling, then why on earth would we want to relinquish all our agendas? Actually, dropping our agendas turns out to be the very same thing as dropping the rational-conceptual mind and we definitely aren’t about to do this anytime soon! When it comes down to it, we think that we are the rational-conceptual mind and so of course we aren’t about to drop it – that would be the psychological equivalent to suicide. That would be throwing away the thing we hold most precious.

 

This – we might say – is our biggest delusion – the delusion that we are the thinking mind, that we are the same as our thoughts about who we are. As long as this is the case then it goes without saying that we won’t have any genuine interest in becoming conscious. Becoming conscious would mean sacrificing our precious illusions about who we are. Instead, we’re going to be very interested indeed in controlling because we imagine that if we get very good at controlling then we will be able to produce some especially favourable conditions for ourselves. Producing especially advantageous circumstances or conditions for ourselves is our chief interest; it’s just about our only interest. Although we may not necessarily put it quite like this, our Number One Assumption in life is the belief that if we get very good at controlling then this will mean that we will be able to bring about the ultimately beneficial situation for ourselves. Naturally enough, this (thoroughly deluded) thought has an enormous amount of appeal! It’s quite intoxicating…

 

We could hardly get things more wrong, however. We couldn’t get things more wrong – that would be an impossibility! The more we invest in controlling the more deluded we are, and the more trapped by our delusions we are. We are always looking for better and better outcomes and because of the intoxicating lure of ‘improving our situation’ we are constantly being driven to invest more and more of ourselves in cleverness and controlling. We are constantly being driven to invest more and more of ourselves in the rational mind, in other words. The more we invest ourselves in the rational mind however the more alienated from actual reality we become – our viewpoint is getting narrower and narrower the whole time as we focus more and more on the particular details that we are interested in. The more we specialize the less we are aware we are of the indefinable Whole; to know everything (or nearly everything) about one particular set of details at the expense of having any awareness or appreciation of the bigger picture is to be not-conscious. That is to be unconscious and being ‘unconscious’ is very clearly what we as a culture are all about. We’re not about the bigger picture at all – we think that our narrow rational understanding of the world is the bigger picture! We call anything else an illusion…

 

Our assumption is then that the outcome, the special conditions that we will have brought about with our skilful controlling, will be highly beneficial for us, highly advantageous for us. We are on this accounted highly attracted to the goal or outcome that we see in front of us – it exerts a tremendous magnetic effect on our attention. But how can a mind-created illusion (because that’s what it is) possibly be ‘beneficial’ or ‘advantageous’? How can it possibly do us any good? The answer is of course that it can’t do us any good; it will actually do us harm – over-valuing a mind-created illusion is bound to cause us harm because we’re neglecting what matters in favour of what doesn’t matter. Only the Whole can be beneficial, only the Whole can do us any good, but we have no regard for it. We have no regard or respect for the Whole – all we care about is our controlling and what this controlling is supposed to bring about for us. We’re obsessed with our narrow agenda and this agenda is purely toxic.

 

On the face of it, what we value is the desired goal-state, as we have just said; we value the special conditions that are going to be so beneficial to us. If we go deeper into it however we can see that this means we must also value the abstract viewpoint that gives rise to the mirage of the goal (or to which this goal seems so meaningful and so important). Without this narrow, abstracted way of looking at the world the goal means nothing at all. In simple terms – if we value the goal at which we are aiming, and which is exciting us so much, then we also have to value the state of ignorance that gives rise to it. Whether we want to admit it or not, we actually value our own ignorance and so – this being the case – of course we don’t value consciousness.

 

We either have it one way or the other therefore – we can’t have it both ways and the way that we have chosen to have it is to protect and preserve our own ignorance at all costs. The thinking mind can’t operate any other way, strange as it may sound to say this. The thinking mind has to ignore the Whole Picture because if it doesn’t then all its deliberations, all its activities, immediately become entirely meaningless. What ‘goal’, what ‘outcome’, what ‘specially-engineered situation’ can hold a candle to the Whole, after all? The ‘Whole’ we’re talking about here isn’t some kind of metaphysical fancy – it’s what actually exists. It’s the only thing that exists. The part, the fraction, the detail, only seems to exist when we pretend that the Whole isn’t there – this is the game that thought is playing. Reality itself doesn’t not contain any divisions; it does not come with any boundaries or limits.

 

The thinking mind is a jealous god and it doesn’t look kindly upon any extra-curricular activities, anything that doesn’t support the party line, anything that doesn’t have anything to do its all-important goals, anything that doesn’t support it’s all-important agenda. As we read in Saying 47 of the Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said: It is not possible for a man to ride two horses or stretch two bows; and it is not possible for a servant to serve two masters, unless he honours the one and insults the other. …

Once we’re in the business of controlling then consciousness goes out of the window straightaway because consciousness is what lies outside of the framework of thought. Consciousness is what doesn’t serve the master of the thinking mind. The engine of thought and all of its devices requires a lot of investment; as we keep saying, this means that anything which has ‘no relevance’ to our viewpoint (i.e. anything that doesn’t fit with our prosaic assumptions) has to be forgotten about. We have no time for it; we have no regard for it. We’re far too busy with the endeavours that the mind sees as important. Yet what we’re forgetting about is Everything because the special goal-state we’re lavishing our attention on isn’t real. It’s not part of ‘Everything’ because it’s a mind-created abstraction. What we think is important is never ‘where it’s happening’ – on the contrary, it’s always where it isn’t happening! There’s nothing more sterile than thought’s creations.

 

We’re always looking in the wrong direction – we’re always looking in a direction that isn’t even a direction. We’re deludely convinced we’re onto something but we’re not. We’re gambling everything on the wrong thing because even if we did win the prize it wouldn’t do us any good. It wouldn’t do us any good because the prize is a mind-created abstraction and so we would have to become a mind-created abstraction too in order to believe in it, in order for it to seem substantial to us. We would have to become a ghost, in other words – we would have to become a ghost whilst still alive. Chasing the glittering images which the mind creates in such abundance means that we have turned our back on reality itself, and what possible good do we expect to come from this?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s No Therapy For Life

The most counterproductive thing we can do with regard to our own emotional pain and mental suffering is to get ‘clever’ about it – which is to say, the most counterproductive thing we can do is to think about it! When we hear about ‘not thinking about our emotional pain’ we are very likely to take this to be the same thing as denying our emotional pain but this isn’t the case. Denial starts with a thought, it doesn’t come out of anything else other than our thinking. Everything else that happens afterwards comes out of that original thought, and therefore is that original thought. That original thought never goes away therefore – it might be unconscious, it might be buried deep, but it will continue nevertheless to have an enormous effect on our everyday lives. The more unconscious the thought (i.e. the more deeply buried it is) the more it will determine the course of our lives.

 

We place far too much reliance on thinking as a way of dealing with our difficulties; our reliance on thinking is of course just a manifestation of our desperate hope that we can escape from the difficult situation that we’re in. ‘Thinking’ equals ‘our attempt to escape’, in other words – it’s the same thing. We are all great believers is escaping – we call it ‘problem solving’ or ‘finding solutions’ and the very sound of these phrases make us feel better! We immediately feel better upon hearing phrases such as these because by using then we have legitimized escaping and made it seem both possible and the right thing to do. As soon as we hear the word ‘solving’ or ‘fixing’ we know we are barking up the wrong tree! Because our thoughts are more powerful the more unconscious they are the helpful direction to go in is the direction of bringing consciousness to these thoughts and this is not a ‘doing’, not a ‘goal-driven activity’. ‘Goal’ is a code word for ‘escaping our predicament’ after all so whenever we find ourselves being orientated towards some outcome or other then we should beware of this because we’re actually running away from our life.

 

Consciousness has no goal, just as life has no goal. Goals are solutions and solutions are fear. Solution-focussed therapies are fear-based therapies therefore and the search for solutions (or belief in solutions) is the sickness not the cure. The root of the sickness – we might say – is that there are parts of our life that we are fundamentally opposed to living. We REALLY don’t want to live these parts of our life and we never question why we don’t want to live them. We don’t question or examine our refusal or resistance and the more caught up in the resistance we are the more unconscious we become. Very quickly we become totally unconscious and our activity becomes nothing more than a reflex that has been triggered, an all-powerful reflex that has been ‘ruling the roost’ for a very long time. This is the time-honoured ‘reflex of trying to escape’!

 

When we come across part of our life that we don’t want to live then this is where all the ‘thinking’ comes in. This is what all the thinking is about – skipping over the unwanted bit of our life is ‘the goal’ and the thinking is our attempt to find an effective way of doing this. Escaping from the bit of our life that we don’t like is our ‘clever plan’. Solution-focussed therapies are – we could therefore say – ways of facilitating us not to live the parts of our life that we don’t want to live, that we have resistance to living. They are our way of ‘being clever about things’! It’s not that we actually see things like this, of course. We don’t see ourselves as wanting to pick and choose over which parts of our life we want to live and which we don’t want to live (as if we had the choice!) but rather we see the bits of our life we want to get rid of as being wholly negative and worthless, as deserving zero attention or care or interest on our part. Labelling an experience as being absolutely negative is of course the perfect justification for wanting to eliminate or escape from it – this part of our life is ‘a fault’, ‘a mistake’, ‘an error,’ a ‘bad thing’, and so naturally we don’t want to have anything to do with it. That goes without saying…

 

The logic behind this ‘rejection of the negative’ is extremely plausible, extremely convincing – we never question this way of looking at things for a moment. This way of looking at things EQUALS not questioning. ‘Thinking about things’ equals not questioning. There is a snag in this logic however – a glitch that we are always going to be unconscious of when we are busy dividing life into the parts we like and want to keep versus the parts we don’t like and want to get rid of. The glitch arises out of the fact that we CAN’T separate or divide life according to our preferences – this is just not a possible thing we can do and when we try we get caught up in the glitch. Life always comes as a whole – it’s all of one piece and we abstract only the elements that we like or find enjoyable. It’s all life, to paraphrase what Kurt Vonnegut says in Breakfast of Champions, there’s no part of it which isn’t, no part which is ‘something else other than life’.  All that’s happening when we reject one part of our life as not being worth living is that we are exercising prejudice, but that prejudice is entirely ours – it does not represent or correspond to anything in reality. That’s a glitch that comes out of our attitude, not out of life itself.

 

When we try to eliminate or escape from a part of our life that we have automatically labelled as unacceptable what happens is that our tactic rebounds on us. Resistance is always going to rebound on us! It can’t not rebound on us – all that’s happened is that we have put a kind of twist in things to make life even more difficult for us than it was before e started rejecting it. By refusing to live part of our own lives we have created a twist (or glitch) that we just can’t get past. What do we imagine happens to the unlived bits of our life, after all? Where do we imagine they go? Unlived life is still life whether we like it or not and because it is still life it has to be lived sooner or later. All that has happened when we reject it is that we have put it ‘on hold’…

 

There is more to it than just this, however. ‘Unlived life’ changes the way it subjectively appears to us – it becomes dark, it becomes subjectively hostile or threatening. It manifests as an enemy that persecutes us. The ‘demonic’ character of the life that we have rejected isn’t a property of that unlived life itself however – it’s simply a reflection of our own aggression. Aggression – as Chogyam Trungpa says – can be seen as a ‘refusal to communicate’. There’s no communication in the situation and this refusal to communicate gets reflected back at us as a terrible hostility. Our own refusal to communicate gets reflected back at us as the demonic quality that we are either trying to fight or run away from; fighting or running away doesn’t help the situation however because both fighting and running away equal ‘not communicating’! The demonic, persecutory aspect of our environment is really nothing other than our own attitude, our own aggression mirrored back at  us but we perceive it to be something that exists independently in the world around us – something that can be successfully eliminated if we try hard enough!

 

When unlived life takes on this persecutory nature that makes us resist it all the more, in other words, and this is the ‘glitch’ that we have been talking about, the glitch that we can’t help getting caught up in when we are living unconsciously. The rejected parts of our life take on the appearances of ‘avenging furies’, as M. Scott Peck says in The Road Less Travelled and the more we run (or the more we fight) the more furiously these demons (the demons that have been created by our rejection) pursue and terrorize us. We are at war with ourselves and we cannot win! Aggression is the same thing as ‘the absence of communication’ because we are always projecting our own meaning, our own categories on whatever is happening to us. We are perpetuating our own closed viewpoint, our own fixed framework of interpretation in everything we do and this means that there is zero possibility of communication. If we reject one part of our life as it unfolds then we reject all of our life. This has to be the case – if life is ‘all the one’, if it cannot be conveniently subdivided, then we cannot reject any supposed ‘part’ of it without rejecting all of it. It’s all or nothing, therefore. And the moment we start ‘picking and choosing’ which bits of life we want to live then it’s going to be ‘nothing’ rather than ‘everything’, therefore! This is the inevitable result of exercising ‘the mind of preference’.

 

Trying to pick and choose, trying to ‘get clever about things’, is the root cause of our sufferings, not the cure for it. That’s how ‘backwards’ we have got everything! If we saw things clearly then we would see that we don’t need a cure – as we have already said, what we fondly call ‘a cure’ or ‘a solution’ is simply our hoped-for escape from the parts of our life that we don’t like, the parts of our life that we have automatically rejected. There is no solution (or ‘therapy’) for life. Interference or control or manipulation is only going to multiply our woes – it’s only our fear that is driving this control, this interference, after all. It is not ‘therapy’ we need therefore but simply the willingness to live each moment of our lives exactly as it unfolds

 

This is what Pema Chodron calls ‘the fearless heart’. This panoramic fearlessness is also symbolized by ‘the lion that looks in all four directions at once’ – the Lion of  Ashoka that has been adopted as the state emblem of India. Rather than our customary one-sided ‘rational approach’ (which is based on always having plenty of clever strategies at our disposal), all that is required therefore is for us to live our lives ‘consciously rather than unconsciously’. We aren’t partisan, we aren’t mean-minded, we don’t exclude anything. And if we find ourselves rejecting or resisting life as it unfolds (as of course we will do), then we bring consciousness to that rejection, that resistance, too! That automatic resistance, that ‘attempted manipulation or control’, that ‘running away’ is after all as much part of life as anything else…