We all tend to have an odd sort of relationship with our thinking in the sense that we tend to think compulsively rather than ‘thinking freely’. This is a point that may not immediately make sense to us, but it is nonetheless a point that is very helpful to understand. A compulsive action – we may say – is an action that we carry out because we feel irritated in some way, and the only way to get relief from this irritation is to perform the action, to ‘get it over with’ so we can have some sort of peace as a result. We are a ‘slave to the irritation’, in other words, in that we have no choice other than ‘doing what we have to in order to make it leave us alone’. It’s the boss, not us. This – needless to say – is a very familiar scenario.
With regard to physical actions this idea is of course very easy to understand – a lot of our behaviour is of this nature, more than we would usually realize. We are hungry and so we eat, we are thirsty and so we drink, we have an itch and so we scratch, and so on. Or perhaps someone keeps on bugging us to do something, and so we give in and do it! This principle operates psychologically as well as physiologically and socially. We might for example sometimes talk compulsively – we say something or other because we are irritated and what we say is a response to this feeling of irritation (or ‘nervous tension’) rather than anything else. There is an ‘internal pressure’ that makes us do it. This is exactly the same thing as ‘scratching an itch’ – an itch comes along and we automatically scratch it so as to get some relief. Or perhaps we are nervous or ill at ease, and so we come out with something to break the tension. Needless to say, this sort of thing is very familiar to us all.
So what we’re saying here therefore is that most of our thinking is the result of the same sort of automatic process as scratching an itch, even though this isn’t at all how we usually see things. Most (if not practically all) of our thinking is the result of ‘internal pressure’. The proof of this assertion is simply to sit still for ten minutes and pay attention to the thinking process and how it happens – I normally think that I am in charge of my own thinking, that I am directing it, that I am the ‘voluntary creator’ of it, but all I need to do to correct this viewpoint is to actually pay attention instead of assuming I know what is going on. I don’t think the thoughts at all – they pop up and I simply go along with them. I go along with them because I don’t have any choice in the matter! The only reason I don’t see that I have no choice in the matter is because I am usually so agreeable to go along with them. I go along – quite automatically – with whatever comes along. There is no conflict – the thought comes and I go along with it with perfect unreflective compliance.
What’s actually happening here is that the thinking process is leading me, just as an obedient dog is taken for a walk by its master. I think compulsively, in other words – I think because I don’t have the choice not to think. I can easily discover this fact if I try not to think – what invariably happens in this case is that I end up ‘thinking despite myself’, I end up thinking against my own will, thinking even though I don’t want to be thinking. I think despite my intention not to. This is similar to what happens when I get angry with someone – as long as I go along with my anger I feel that I am ‘in control’, that I am calling the shots, that I am the one who has decided to get angry, but if I then decide to stop being angry then I discover that I simply can’t help it. Anger, in other words, is a compulsive sort of a thing and it only appears to be voluntary when we passively go along with it. It is very easy indeed to go around being angry and not realize that the anger is controlling us and not the other way around. This happens all the time!
Our everyday thinking is exactly the same as anger (or any other compulsive emotion) in this respect – it only appears to be voluntary when we passively go along with it. It is natural therefore that we feel perfectly convinced that ‘we are in control of our thinking’ and not vice versa; in order to lose this impression or this understanding we would have to have experience of being at odds with the thinking process, which generally only happens when our thinking starts to distress us and we find that we are unable to do anything to stop the thoughts that are causing us to suffer. Just so long as our thoughts are not causing us any distress it is unlikely that we shall ever discover the inherently compulsive nature of the thinking process. ‘Out of conflict comes consciousness’, says Jung. When I discover that I am not free, then I wake up out of the ‘fool’s paradise’ of unconsciousness, and actual awareness is born.
When my thoughts start to upset me then of course I do my best to ‘switch off’ the upsetting thoughts, but what happens then is that I find out that they do not come with a handy ‘off button’. I am forced to endure them, and put up with the unhappy or agitated states of mind that they are producing in me. Wherever the thought takes me, there I have to go – I’m like an ‘involuntary passenger’ who has to go along with the ride, whether I want to or not. When I see this then I have learned an important lesson, although it is definitely not a lesson that I am going to enjoy learning. Almost always we hear people talking of ‘fighting against the negative thinking’, or ‘fighting to stay positive’, and this is of course one way which we have to try to ‘switch off’ the distressing thoughts. What we don’t tend to see so clearly however is that our desire to think about things in a ‘positive’ way is the very same thing as our desire not to be thinking in the negative way, which means that the big emphasis on positive thinking (which sounds healthy) is really a disguised form of our fear of the negative thinking. It’s only ‘fear in disguise’.
So this leads to the question – is a fear of negative thinking ‘healthy’? It is certainly very natural but we can’t say that it is healthy (i.e. leading to a state of mental health or well-being) because when we experience aversion towards the ‘negative thoughts’ all that this means is that the thoughts in question are controlling us. It’s as simple as this. The aversion to the negative thought is a direct manifestation of that thought, so by running from it we are feeding it, we are making it stronger. We all know that fleeing from fears causes these fears to have a stronger grip on us, but somehow we don’t see that trying to force ourselves to think positively is just another way of ‘obeying the fear’. If we did see this then we would also see that tying to think positively isn’t a manifestation of mental health at all. It’s a manifestation of fear!
It’s remarkable how hard it is to see that positive thinking is really just negative thinking in surprise – it’s not ‘hard’, it seems nearly impossible! Nobody gets it! A clue lies in the way that we would usually say something like “I have to be positive”. Even if we don’t use these exact words there is a ‘have to’ lurking in the background somewhere – I certainly don’t say “I can be positive if I want to but I don’t have to”! It’s not playful, it’s serious! It’s grim! There is a perceived urgency in it, a strong – if not to say overwhelming – need. But if there is this need, this compulsion for me to think a positive thought instead of the negative one then in what way is this type of ‘compulsivity’ any better than the type I am trying to get rid of? I am unfree either way – I am being compelled to ‘think the thought’ either way, and so how is this an improvement?
We could of course answer that being compelled to think the positive thought is preferable to being compelled to think the negative one because it’s not as frightening and this – when it comes to the crunch – seems like a very persuasive reason! When fear is the motivation then we never look beyond the relief of escaping fear – if we can escape, that is. This is the sort of motivation that fear is – it’s a ‘mechanical’ motivation, a ‘reactive’ motivation, the type of motivation that doesn’t actually have any intelligence to it! We will – when it comes to the crunch – do whatever we can do to get away from whatever it is that is frightening us and so as long as forcing ourselves to think positively seems to be a way of doing this then this is what we will do (or at least, try to do).
The positive thinking is however (as we have said) simply a way of covering up the negative thinking and so what happens is that we get locked into a cycle in which we (at best) temporarily seem to be getting away from what is frightening, only to come back to it later when our ‘energy for escaping’ runs out, as it must to. This is exactly like holding a heavy iron spring down – we can do it for a while, until our arms get tired, but then, when our strength runs out, the spring uncoils again. So with the frightening thought, we can hold it at bay by thinking the positive thought for as long as we can, but as soon as we run out of strength it’s going to suddenly jump out at us again, just like a jack-in-the-box. It’s only a matter of time – the jack-in-the-box is only just waiting to jump out…
Any time we force something it’s not going to work. Whenever we force (or try to force) our mental state to be a certain way we’re going to find ourselves in the same situation – it’s going to work for a while (maybe) and then it’s going to back-fire on us. It’s going to go in reverse. This happens so many times – it happens over and over again – and yet we keep doing the same thing. It is as if we somehow manage to cling to the hope that the next time – perhaps – it’s going to be different. Maybe the next time we push the frightening thought away it’s not going to rebound on us like a boomerang! For sure the easiest thing (by far) is just to go along with this well-established mechanical reflex and keep on hoping (in some kind of faint, ill-examined way) that it’s going to work out for us, despite the fact that we know really that it won’t, and so this is what we almost always do. We keep on trying to force it, and allowing ourselves to believe that – this time – it’s somehow going to work…
Forcing always comes out of fear and fear is – as we have said – a motivation without any actual intelligence in it. It’s just something that mechanically happens because that’s the way the system is set up. It’s set up that way because that’s the way we’ve always done it. But because there is so much pain in this mechanical cycle (the cycle in which we first think negatively and then think positively in the attempt to fight back against the negative thoughts and then keep going around in this loop) we end up learning that it doesn’t work. The mechanical motivation isn’t intelligent but we are, and because there is so much suffering in being caught up in the cycle of compulsive thinking we start to learn from it. What we learn is that ‘forcing’ isn’t a way to escape from mental pain. On the contrary, it’s a very good way of exacerbating it! Forcing is us running away from fear and when we run away from fear we perpetuate it…
We could also say that what we learn as a result of being put through the wringer of compulsive thinking (of thinking because we have no choice but to think) is that we need to examine our relationship with the thinking process, and take more careful notice of it. Usually, as we have said, our relationship with thinking is peculiar in that we don’t have any freedom with regard to it; we just automatically go along with it wherever it takes us and what is even more peculiar is that we don’t ever notice that this is the nature of our relationship. There is a kind of blankness here – a kind of a ‘blind-spot’. If it weren’t for the fact that our thinking did start to create suffering for us, the chances are that we would never look at the nature of our relationship with it at all. The question is – therefore – when we see that we are powerless with regard to our thinking (and that even if we try to switch positive thoughts for negative ones this isn’t going to help us to escape the cycle) – what are we to do?
It’s all very well to say thinking positively is no help (and that it actually increases the power thinking has over us), but where does this leave us? Doesn’t it leave us feeling more powerless than ever? We’ve had our only hope taken away from us and this doesn’t feel good. This might feel like ‘a bad thing’ but the truth of the matter is that having insight actually leaves us in a much better place. It leaves us in a hugely better place, in fact. If we didn’t have any insight into the way that we ‘can’t use thinking to help us escape from thinking’ then we’d keep on at this forever, without ever getting anywhere. Without insight, there is ZERO chance of freedom. Without insight there is only the absolute certainty of continued mechanical bondage, which we can’t see as such.
Insight (i.e. seeing what is actually going on) doesn’t seem as important to us as ‘effective action’ – it doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as important as doing. When things get fraught we automatically look for ‘the right thing to do’, ‘the right way of changing or fixing the situation’. We look for the remedy. We look for the formula. This is our bias and it is a very powerful bias. It is an overwhelmingly powerful bias. And yet the thing is – as we have just said – that forcing cannot ever help us escape from mental pain. Forcing doesn’t work because it always sets up a rebound, a backlash, and ‘doing’ is really just another word for forcing. It’s all just us trying to run away from fear, and what’s so ‘effective’ (or ‘positive’) about this?
So when I ask “What do I do?” this is really just another way of asking “How do I force things to happen the way I want them to?” What kind of doing isn’t a type of forcing, after all? How could there be a type of doing that isn’t forcing? Once we see this clearly it really does take the wind out of our sails. As we’ve said, it seems to leave us in a very powerless place. The truth is however that this apparently ‘powerless’ place is the only place that actually contains freedom in it. It contains freedom because I’m not caught up in the trap of trying to control; it contains freedom because I’m not caught up in the trap of compulsive thinking (either of the negative or positive variety). The reason we find this as hard to understand as we do is because we’re seeing everything backwards – we see controlling as a way of obtaining freedom instead of seeing that controlling is actually a way of losing freedom.
Controlling is an unfree place! We are controlled by our need to control! If I am attempting to be in control then what this means is that I have to get things to work out the way I want them to work out. I’m trapped in it – the only way I can ‘get out’ of this constrained situation (this strait-jacket) is if I control successfully, and so I put all my energy, all my attention on doing this. The implication is that when I control successfully then I’ll be free so I am chasing freedom with my controlling, but then if I stopped to reflect on this I would see that it’s contradictory because what I’m doing is that I’m giving away my freedom in order to become free! So how does this make sense? How is this going to work? How is ‘giving away’ freedom ever going to lead to freedom?
When we switch into ‘control mode’ (or ‘doing mode’) we are delivering ourselves into the power of the thinking mind. Obviously this has to be the case – the thinking mind supplies us with the goal and it also supplies us with the means by which the goal is to be attained. It tells us where to go and how to get there. It supplies us with the goal, the method, the formula, the procedure, the strategy, the lot. The thinking mind supplies us with everything – it supplies us with our whole picture of reality, it supplies us with our ideas of what’s important and what’s not important, what we have to do and what we must not do.
The one thing the thinking mind does not supply us with is freedom! The thinking mind – when it comes right down to it – is entirely rigid – it is all about rules. It is all about black-and-white certainties and black-and-white certainties have nothing to do freedom. So what this means is that ‘control mode’ isn’t as empowering for us as we might have thought. The thinking mind sells itself to us as if it is going to empower us but really it’s disempowering. How can it be ‘empowering’ to hand over our freedom to a rigid system of rules? How can it be empowering to give away our freedom? So when we give up trying to control (because we realize that forcing always rebounds on us, because we realize that there is no way to use controlling to escape from a painful or unhappy state of mind) then although this initially feels like a very powerless place to be we are actually taking our power back. We are no longer afraid to be ourselves ‘just as we are’ in all our vulnerability – without strategies and without defences – and this is empowering rather than disempowering. We’re coming back to ourselves.
This point becomes very clear when we look at relationships – if I can only be in a relationship when I am heavily defended, or when I am controlling what is happening then although on the surface of things it may look as if I am in a ‘powerful’ position the truth is of course simply that I am acting out of weakness, out of fear. I’m scared to be genuinely in the relationship – I’m scared of taking the risk that it implies so I play ‘power games’. The only way to genuinely relate to another human being is by being open and vulnerable and by not playing any games – otherwise there’s simply no relationship, there’s only control.
The same essential principle applies to our relationship with life, and our relationship with our own feelings. If I try to be secure then I replace the relationship – which works both ways – with controlling, and this just isn’t going to work out for me. If I am afraid to let things happen as they will then I have to invest in control, and this means handing over my freedom to the thinking, game-playing mind. This is the hold that thought has on us – the only reason we think (in the rational/analytical way rather than the intuitive way) is because we are trying to change things. This can of course be helpful in some cases (where it relates to what’s going on outside of us, in the physical world) but it is not helpful when it comes to the inner world of our mental states, for reasons that we have discussed. Once we have gained this key insight into the ‘unhelpfulness’ of forcing and control in relation to how we feel then the incentive for us to buy into the thinking mind and its strategies is no longer there. Why would I be thinking all the time if I no longer want to change things? Why would be planning and analysing and calculating on a constant basis if I am not afraid to ‘take the risk’?
When we no longer feel that we have to be in control then our relationship with our thoughts changes in a radical way. Because we no longer feel that we need to be in control we don’t have to automatically hand over freedom to them. We don’t have to take our thoughts so seriously, in other words. Instead of taking our thoughts seriously we have a playful, curious relationship with them – we don’t fight against them and neither do we clutch hold of them in the hope that they are going to somehow save us. We’re not pushing them away and we’re not holding onto them – we have ‘taken back our power’ as a result of our equanimity, as a result of our fearlessness, and so we’re free to think if we want to, but we’re also ‘free not to think’…