The Mind Creates Problems That Need To Be Solved

What does it feel like not to be relating to life as if it were some kind of a problem, some kind of a puzzle that needs to be worked out? This turns out to be a very difficult question to answer – it sounds straightforward enough but it isn’t. If we ask instead what the world looks like when we’re not trying to get something out of it then this is the same thing – just about nobody knows! Very few of us actually care…


The thing is that we’re almost always treating life as if it were some sort of problem to be solved. Even if we don’t realize that we’re doing so (which we often don’t) we’re always trying to manipulate life so as to get some sort of benefit out of it. The puzzle is how to get the benefit! When we’re trying to get something out of life – which in one way seems very normal to us – then we are being goal-orientated and when we’re being goal-orientated (or purposeful) then the problem that we’re trying to find the answer to is simply “How do I achieve my goal?”


Even if we’re chilled out for a while so that we’re not, for the moment, trying to obtain a particular goal or enact a particular purpose we’re still – in all probability – treating life as a problem to be solved. Just as long as the thinking mind is engaged, just as long as thought has ‘its hand on the tiller’, then we’re problem-solving. Thought can’t do anything else but problem-solve. The problem that we’re trying to solve even when we don’t know that we are trying to solve anything is the problem of ‘knowing what reality is’. Or as we could also say, the problem we’re trying to solve is the problem of ‘how to be in reality’ (which is the same thing as ‘how to relate to reality’).


We’re constantly trying to work out what our relationship with reality is, even though the chances are that we don’t realize that we’re doing this. one realize that we don’t see it happening is because the process is happening unconsciously, in the background, as some kind of ‘low-level anxiety’, and another reason why we don’t perceive ourselves to be stressing out over the existential question of ‘how to relate to the world’ is often because we already imagine that we have hit upon the right way of relating. The mega-collusion that we call ‘society’ is very good at providing us with this particular illusion (i.e. the illusion that we actually know what life is and how we’re supposed to live it). Society tells us who we are and what life is all about and so – at a stroke – all the existential issues that would otherwise be troubling us are put to bed! That’s the big favour the social collusion does for us.


That this is the case is not immediately apparent to us. If someone were to come up to us and ask us if we knew what life was all about, or ‘what reality is’, the chances are that – unless we happen to be some sort of fundamentalist Christian – we will say that we don’t. We don’t consciously claim to know ‘what reality is’ but on a subconscious level we nevertheless tend to assume this in some way. Our rather prosaic and ‘matter-of-fact’ descriptions of the world imply that we do; our concrete thinking about things implies that we do. Our complete ‘lack of wonder’ – which is an inevitable consequence of the operation of the thinking mind, which as Krishnamurti says always makes everything ‘old’ – implies that we do…


Just as long as our thinking (or our language) is of this prosaic, literal nature then we are assuming a knowledge about the world that we don’t actually have. This is what thinking does, as we have just said – it assumes a knowledge that isn’t there! Without ever stopping to reflect on what we’re doing we’re ‘wrapping everything up’ with our thoughts, with our literal descriptions of the world. We’re ‘packaging reality’ with our ready-made concepts so that we never have to look at it and then we’re proceeding to get on with things on the basis that we already know what’s under the packaging.


When we do this we’re acting as if life were a puzzle that we have already worked out. We treating life as if it were a jigsaw that we have already put together. No pieces are missing. We’re still treating life as a problem only it’s a problem that we know the answer to. It’s a kind of ‘dead’ or ‘finished’ problem therefore. It’s a problem that we’re no longer interested in. It’s a closed book that we’ve already read. It’s a set of ‘confirmed assumptions’…


So our point is that we never – or almost never – know what life is like when we aren’t treating it as a problem. Either we see it as a problem that we need to solve but haven’t yet done so, or we treat it as a problem that we actually have solved. In the first case there is anxiety in the mix – either to a greater or lesser degree depending upon how many teeth the existential crisis is manifesting for us, or there is some sort of depression there because everything has already been worked out and there is no existential challenge left for us. The absence of any existential challenge to life might sound good but when we achieve this we have actually shot ourselves in the foot big time! We’ve been ‘too smart for our own good’ – when there’s no more ‘existential challenge’ there’s no more life!


When the problem hasn’t been solved yet there is always the anxiety that perhaps we mightn’t be able to solve it. There is the worry that we might not be up to the challenge. There is a type of motivation inherent in anxiety but it is a closed sort of motivation because all we want to do is to press for a conclusion and after this we simply don’t care. We never look beyond our goal, which seems to subsume everything in life within it. This equals ‘treating life as a finite game’ therefore – all we want to do is get rid of the irritation of not having won the game yet, not having solved the problem yet. We’re ‘end-gaming’. We’re very very serious, very very humourless about getting it all ‘done and dusted’. We really haven’t got time for anything else. We’re pushing for the conclusion…


Whenever we are looking at life in terms of ‘problem-solving’ we are in thrall to our assumptions. Either we’re trying to achieve something (or striving to avoid something) on the basis of the assumptions that we have made without knowing that we have done so, or we imagine that we have already achieved something on the basis of these assumptions that we don’t even know about. Either way, we never go beyond the assumptions that we don’t even know that we have made!


It is the relationship between us and our invisible assumptions (the things we have taken for granted without knowing that we have taken anything for granted) that lies at the root of the ‘problem-solving modality’ therefore. This relationship has nothing to do with reality ‘as it is in itself’ but only with reality as we lazily ‘take it to be’. When it comes to ‘reality as it is in itself’ there is no problem – there is no need to ‘win a game’, no need to obtain an outcome that will somehow make everything alright (or avoid a negative outcome that will be totally disastrous). There is no need for any of that. There’s no ‘issue’ that needs to be sorted out satisfactorily – the issues (or problems) only exist in our thinking. The thinking mind creates problems that need fixing; it is in the mind’s nature to do this.


Actually, when we are perceiving life as ‘a problem that needs to be fixed’ (or as ‘a problem that already has been fixed’) we are not living life at all – we’re living our fantasy of life, not life itself. We’re doing a dance with our own assumptions – the assumptions that we cannot see to be only assumptions. We are living in a world that is made up of our own unrecognized projections and so we are never encountering reality at all. To encounter reality (or ‘life as it is in itself’) we’d had have to look beyond our assumptions about it and this is the one thing that we never do.


Why is it that we always have to be working on some problem or other, or be fondly imagining that we have solved it, imagining that we have already ‘got there’? Why do we have to be having some agenda that we’re always orientating everything towards so that we’re either feeling optimistic/ euphoric because we feel that things are going to ‘work out’ (or pessimistic /dysphoric because we suspect that they’re not) or complacent because we believe that they have already worked out, that we have already ‘arrived’? Why is this? Why can’t be ever just ‘let things be’? Why can’t we ever stop making assumptions?


The answer to these questions comes surprisingly easily once we get this far into the discussion – it’s not hard to spot what’s going on here, under the confusing ‘smokescreen’ of the mind’s illusions. The reason always have to be orientating everything around an all-important agenda is because that agenda is us. We construct ourselves around the agenda, around the need to fulfil it. The assumption that we can’t get beyond, can’t see beyond, can’t let go of is simply ourselves. The conclusion that we’re pressing for (without seeing what it is we’re pressing for) when we’re trying for all we’re worth to ‘solve the problem’ is the conclusion that our idea of ourselves is real, is true, is valid.


This is why we always have to be relating to life as if it were some sort of problem – because we’re always looking at life (or the world) from the point of view of the game-playing self. The problem the self is trying to solve is itself! Everything is always a problem for the self because the self is itself a problem, so to speak. Why is the self a problem? Because it always needs validation, and if it doesn’t get this validation then it can no longer believe in itself as a concrete entity, and actual ‘thing in itself’ rather than just an arbitrary viewpoint or ‘set of assumptions’, which is what it is.


We validate ourselves by fulfilling our arbitrary agenda just as we negatively validate ourselves by failing to do this. There’s the euphoric excitement of thinking that we’re going to achieve the all-important goal and there’s the dysphoric excitement of thinking that we’re not, that this isn’t going to happen, and both the agreeable and disagreeable excitement have the function of defining the game-playing or concrete self, the self that hopes and fears. The euphoria that we love and the dysphoria that we hate are what perpetuate the mind-created fiction of the one who likes and dislikes, the one who strives for the goal, the one who wants to win and fears losing.


And even if there’s no immediate goal or puzzle on the horizon (and we’re just having a bit of ‘down-time’ from problem-solving or goal-chasing or game-playing) there’s always the problem of describing reality, defining reality. The reason it is so important for us to definitively describe or define reality is because in describing or defining reality we describe/define ourselves. ‘How to describe ourselves’ is the problem that we always need to solve – that’s how we get to exist, that’s how we get to feel that we’re real. We are describing everything from the point of view of the self after all, and this automatically validates that self, that viewpoint. That’s the trick that we’re involved with – we’re ‘tautologically self-creating’. We get to feel real by ‘defining ourselves in relation to a version of reality that we ourselves have created’, in other words…


This brings us to the real question, which is this –

Are we at all interested in seeing reality ‘as it actually is in itself’ or do we only ever want to know what it looks like from the redundant (or ‘tautological’) point of view of the unreal self?





Two Types of Strength


According to James Carse there are two ways of being strong. The first type of strength is what he calls ‘power’ and he defines this as the ability to influence other people without being changed or influenced in return. Power is what is exercised in games: we defend and consolidate our position whilst manoeuvring the other person so that they can’t do what they want, but have to do what we want. Therefore, power is all about winning and losing: the person who is most powerful wins whilst the person who is least powerful loses.


The second type of strength (which James Carse calls simply ‘strength’) is in a way the exact reverse of power. It is not the ability to move (or manipulate) other people from an impregnable position, but the capacity to allow myself to be moved (or influenced) by others in ways that neither I nor they can foresee. To a ‘Type-1 player’ – which is most of us – this sounds suspiciously like letting someone else get the better of you, i.e. being a doormat or a loser, but there is a crucial difference here that is all too easy to overlook.


The difference is this. When I am exercising power, I already know where I want to go, I already know what it is that I want to achieve. All that is left is for me to control the situation as best I can until I obtain the desired goal. James Carse calls this a finite game, and he says that the point about a finite game is that I play in order to not get any surprises. If I am surprised by the other person, then that necessarily means that he or she has ‘got one over on me’. There is no way that this can be good, therefore! Strength, however, rather than power, is the quality that is required by the player of an infinite game, and the player of an infinite game is playing in order to be surprised. He or she does not have a fixed agenda, or goal, and therefore the notion of ‘winning’ or losing’ are both equally meaningless. Surprise isn’t the enemy to someone who is playing the infinite game but rather it’s what makes it all worthwhile.’Being surprised’ is the whole point of life, a player of the infinite game will say. What is life otherwise? Who wants to be ‘proved right’ the whole time?


The player of the infinite game plays in order to learn something new, in order to journey to a place that they have never been to before. If I am a finite player then I always know what I want, and as a consequence I never move beyond my own conceptual horizons, I never move beyond the known. Essentially, I never change because change is the one thing I don’t want to do! If I am an infinite player, on the other hand, then I am open to change. I am curious, open-minded, and willing to find out that what I thought to be true before is perhaps not so ‘definitely true’ after all! Being proven wrong is not a bad thing. Having one’s expectations overturned is not a bad thing – that’s how we grow!


For the finite player what is important is ‘the rule’. Everything is based on the rule and the rule is never to be questioned – in fact, the whole point of power is that it is force which is used unreflectively. The point is to do, not to question why I am doing what I am doing. For the infinite player, the ‘rule’ is only interesting as a stepping-stone. It is interesting because it is part of the journey, not because it is the final destination. The rule exists only to go beyond itself; by itself it is quite meaningless. “Know the rules well, so that you can break them effectively!” says the Dalai Lama. The essential ability in an infinite game is therefore the ability to ‘question the rule’, rather that the ability to ‘act out the rule’ (which would be power, not strength).


We can see how valuable it is to be able to engage in infinite play by considering communication. Carse says that a finite player moves others, but is not moved himself. When I speak as an exercise of power, I am not speaking in order to be surprised – I already know what I am going to say, my beliefs are not to be questioned. The point of communication in finite games is for me to change what you think, for you to be moved by my beliefs. This, however, is a mockery of true communication because it is only one way. Basically, I am not in the least bit interested in your position; I am only interested in what you say so I can use it against you. I don’t actually want to find out anything ‘new’, because I already know that I am right. I already have the answer. The situation is totally different in infinite play: Carse says that an infinite player does not move others, but allows himself or herself to be touched by others. If I am an infinite player, I speak in order to be surprised, I speak in order to learn. I don’t know where the conversation is going to lead because I haven’t got it tightly under control the whole time. In fact, the conversation isn’t under control at all!  True communication can only occur when neither party has the agenda to be ‘right’.


In true communication, both parties are ‘touched’ by the encounter in an unpredictable manner – the interaction is ‘out of control’ for both of them. I am changed by meeting you, and you are changed by meeting me. We both go away different people, we both go away with a different understanding of the world. What has happened is that we have both gone beyond ourselves, gone beyond our limited conceptual boundaries, and this is what the infinite game is all about. We can use a version of Carse’s principle of finite versus infinite play to help us understand anxiety. Instead of ‘power’ versus ‘strength’ we will simply talk in terms of Type-1 strength and Type-2 strength, and we will define the two as follows:


Type-1 strength is the strength to get things to be the way we want them to be, whilst Type-2 strength is the strength to allow things to be the way they already are.


Normally, when people talk about ‘strength’ it is Type-1 strength that they are talking about. We rarely stop to consider that Type-2 strength might be a better answer to the situation. When defined in the way that we did above, Type-2 strength might not even make sense at all. The point is, of course, that there are times when it is both smarter and more courageous to give up the attempt to ‘stay in control’ than it is to keep desperately at it, and ignore the fact that trying to control the situation is not working. Being able to face one’s fear is a basic manifestation of Type-2 strength. Not being able to face fear is what lies behind the reliance on power.


There is more to it than this, though. Normally, we control our realities so tightly that we very rarely get to see stuff that we don’t want to see. And when we do, we make sure that we forget about it pretty quickly. ‘Control’ means that we make the world obey our rules, but the only trouble with this is that if we get too hooked on control then we don’t actually see the world as it is, we only see the world as we made it. Because our ‘managed reality’ conforms so closely to our rules for ‘how it should be’, all there is left is our rules. We have ironed out surprise, and so we end up living in the world of our rules, meeting only those aspects of reality that we feel safe with. This is like being a millionaire who surrounds himself with ‘yes-men’ – he only ever hears what he wants to hear. He is too powerful ever to communicate! After all, as Carse says, we are playing in order not to be surprised.


Being in control of our external environment is one manifestation of Type-1 strength, and this is something we all need to do in order to survive. Being in control of our internal world (the world of thoughts, feeling, memories and perceptions) is another manifestation. What this second manifestation of Type-1 strength amounts to is ‘the ability to only see what we want to’, and we all make heavy use of this ability! Therefore, this type of strength is actually ‘the strength to avoid’ – it is how good we are at not facing up to stuff. It is the strength to distract ourselves.


This second manifestation of Type-1 strength also has its rightful place. When I concentrate on answering a telephone I have to screen out the chatter of people around me, which means that it is a form of self-distraction (i.e. it is a way for me to exclude what I don’t want to know about), but clearly this is a necessary and harmless form of ‘internal control’. If I concentrate on something in order to exclude awareness of some problem that I have, then this is a different kettle of fish entirely. This is psychological denial. When Type-1 strength turns into the ability to avoid reality, then Type-2 strength comes to our rescue as the capacity that we have to actually see reality. This is why we said in the definition above that it is the ‘strength to let things be what they really are’.  Type-2 strength is the strength to ‘drop our agendas’, and let things unfold as they will.  Essentially, it involves the willingness to take a risk, to accept uncertainty, to face the radically unknown.


Type-1 strength always expresses itself in terms of attraction and aversion, [YES] and [NO], [+] and [-]. This is another way of saying that Type-1 strength is based on rules (or ‘certainty’). As we saw in the first handout, a ‘rule’ necessarily involves a black-and-white split between [RIGHT] and [WRONG], [GOOD] and [BAD], positive and negative. A rule causes the ‘separation of opposites’, technically known as a symmetry break because one way of doing things is not at all the same as the other way, and so there is no symmetry or equality between the two possibilities. For this reason, Type-1 strength is inextricably linked with extrinsic motivation, which is motivation that comes from rules (or ‘conditioning’). ‘Extrinsic’ simply means that the source of the motivation is from outside our true self, it is imposed on us and not natural to us.  Type-2 strength is not based on rules, but on uncertainty, i.e. [MAYBE].  Rules say “This is allowed, but that is not allowed”, whereas [MAYBE] says “Everything is equally allowed.”  MAYBE is symmetrical, it presents the same face to all possibilities. Whilst Type-1 strength is always a reaction to an identified reality, Type-2 strength is not a reaction, it is about allowing enough uncertainty to creep in to show us that all our identifications where too hasty, too premature. Type-1 strength is a self-fulfilling prophecy because it always shows us the reality we expected to see, whilst Type-2 strength allows us to see that things are never what they seemed to be….


We can relate certainty with ‘comfort zones’, and uncertainty with what we might call ‘discomfort zones’.  The opposing forces of attraction and aversion that make up automatic thinking are a comfort to us, for the simple reason that they provide us with a basic orientation: if there is something that I see as GOOD, I strive to obtain it, and if there is something I see as BAD then I strive to avoid it. Extrinsic motivation always operates within fixed framework of meaning – in fact it takes that framework totally for granted. This allows me to identify meaningful goals which I can then work towards.


This sounds good on the face of it, but what is really happening is that I am trading off realism for a convenient black & white over-simplification of my situation. I therefore obtain the satisfaction of having both a definite goal to aim at, and a straightforward method or procedure to enable me to reach that goal, and in order to enjoy this feeling of satisfaction I am more than willing to ignore the fact that my model (or ‘map’) of reality is incomplete and inaccurate! This just about sums up comfort zones – by providing us with somewhere in which hide from reality, they allow us to feel a sense of relief and security. This ‘somewhere’ is actually ‘nowhere’ though, because we are no longer in reality.


Reality is not black and white, or YES and NO, and for this reason it is uncomfortable for the thinking mind.  I don’t know what my goals ought to be, and I don’t have a clue what to do in order to help my situation; I know something is called for, but I don’t know what. But why should reality be uncertain? One way to answer this is to say that reality is always more complex than we give it credit for. Another way to answer the question is to say that reality is uncertain because it is always ‘new’. MAYBE is a term which expresses unpredictable development – it means becoming, i.e. the unfolding of something that we don’t understand. MAYBE therefore stands for the dynamic aspect of the universe – its mysterious side, its power to surprise, delight, and terrify. YES and NO, on the other hand, are a way of talking about something that is finally known, a situation that has been evaluated or judged once and for all. For this reason YES/NO stands for a frozen or static representation of reality, a sort of ‘snapshot’. Therefore, extrinsic motivation relates us back to our static snapshot of reality, which is why automatic reactions confirm our expectations in a form of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. Intrinsic motivation (or ‘curiosity’) relates us to the way life goes beyond our expectations.


Since Type-2 strength is linked with the capacity to tolerate (or ‘stick with’) uncertainty, we can see that it is actually ‘the strength to stay in reality’. Type-1 strength, as we said earlier, tends to become ‘the strength to evade reality’, the strength to take refuge from the uncomfortable uncertainty of life by ignoring all data that doesn’t fit in with our narrow view of it. Type-1 strength is the strength we use to ‘hang on’ to our comfort zones, whilst Type-2 strength is the strength we use to ‘hang out’ in our discomfort zones.


We need to repeat that Type-1 strength has its rightful place in our lives, because we simply couldn’t survive without being able to control stuff. The only thing is, in order to control effectively, we also have to see the limitations of control, which means we have to be able to ‘let go’ as well as being able to ‘hold on’! Holding on becomes an obstacle if we don’t also know how to let go, because then we can never move on. ‘Holding on’ without ‘letting go’ is worse than useless! The crucial thing to understand is that our difficulties have to do with the fact that we tend to use Type-1 strength to solve all our problems, instead of knowing when to let go, and gracefully drop our attempt to remain firmly in control of everything.


We can also see this in terms of communication: as we saw, James Carse describes the infinite game as the only way we have of being in a genuine dynamic relationship with our environment. In finite games, communication means “telling others what I already know”, which is not a two-way process. In one-way communication, what counts is the power that I have to influence others, whilst not being influenced myself. In two-way communication, what counts is the strength that I have to stay in the uncomfortable zone where I am uncertain of what the other person is saying, as well as being uncertain of what I myself am saying. Type-1 strength, therefore, is the way in which we impose our will on the universe around us, without being open to stuff that has no relevance to our plans. We are talking, but not listening.


Type-2 strength, on the other hand, means being in a state of dynamic two-way communication with everything. The state of being in communication with the dynamic or surprising aspect of the universe we can call consciousness, whilst the state of being safely secluded in that aspect of the universe which matches our narrow expectations, we can call psychological unconsciousness. Consciousness can be defined simply as ‘knowing that we don’t really know’ (i.e. questioning rules), whilst unconsciousness can be defined as ‘thinking that we do know what we’re doing’ (i.e. automatically accepting or obeying rules). Controlling is how we obey the rules and so we feel good when we are in control because we are able to successfully obey the rules! Essentially, we are feeling good because we are managing to avoid our fear of uncertainty.


As we have said, Type-1 strength has two aspects. One aspect is the ability to control the outside world (which covers anything from boiling a kettle to getting dressed in the morning), and the other aspect is to control the internal world of our thoughts, feelings, memories, and perceptions (i.e. what we attend to). Both aspects become counterproductive when we feel that we absolutely have to control, when we feel that we don’t have the freedom not to control. This is the state of mind in which we have totally lost the ability to question the rules that lie behind the controlling, and so we are forced to ‘act out’ the rules no matter what. In this case Type-1 strength is ‘strength that is against ourselves’.


It is easy to see how we set ourselves up for trouble when we absolutely insist on controlling our situation.  If the universe we live in is essentially uncertain, and we are insisting on making it definite, then we are fighting the universe. If, as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “All is change”, and we try desperately to fight this change, then we have set ourselves an impossible task. We are trying to do one thing that can never be done! Because we cannot challenge the rule which says “This mustn’t happen’ we are forced to put all our money on control, and yet control can never win. It is impossible to win this struggle, and yet it has become infinitely important that I should win, and so here we have anxiety in a nutshell.




Finally, we can round everything up by saying that there are also two types of cleverness and two types of confidence. Type-1 cleverness is the cleverness that allows us to successfully avoid the discomfort of encountering uncertainty. When uncertainty avoidance is my over-all goal then I am constantly calculating the best way to get through the day without having to spend any time in my discomfort zones. There are all sorts of tricks that I can use, all sorts of clever dodges and sneaky manoeuvres. I have all my comfort zones carefully lined up in a row, all my escape routes and back-up plans. This type of cleverness takes up a lot of time, and it easily takes up all of my available ‘thinking power’, because it is such an endless task. What’s more, no matter how clever I am it’s still never going to work out for me in the end…


The universe is always one step beyond me, so there is always the possibility of something going wrong, and that is something I feel that I cannot allow. Type-1 cleverness, although very successful at first, ultimately leads us to disaster because it seduces us into undertaking ‘the impossible task’ the task of predicting what will happen in an unpredictable universe. ‘Its not clever to be clever’, says Gurdjieff. What we provisionally might call ‘Type-2 cleverness’ is on the other hand the cleverness to know when our cleverness is not doing us any favours. It is the cleverness to know when to let go. This type of cleverness is of course better referred to simply as ‘wisdom’!




‘Type-1 confidence’ is the confidence that comes from being secure in our controlling.  It is related to the feeling of well-being that is dependent upon our ability to successfully manipulate our environment. A lot of people who appear to have lots of self-esteem manage to be so confident because they are good finite-game players, because they are experts at playing a particular game. However, this is a type of ‘external confidence’ that derives from ‘external strength’, and it is not at all the same sort of thing as inner peace. Type-1 confidence comes from our strength to be ‘one up’ on the universe, and therefore it constantly has to prove itself. It has no time for failure, either in oneself or in others, and for this reason it is essentially uncaring. Type-2 confidence on the other hand comes from knowing that you don’t have to play the game, knowing that you don’t have to control, knowing that you don’t have to ‘win’. Not winning is more interesting than winning, after all!


The feeling of well-being that is associated with this inner-confidence is dependent on nothing and so it is not pressurized. Neither is it competitive, because it is based on the understanding that it doesn’t really matter at all whether we win or lose. If Type-2 strength is the strength to let the universe be what it is, then Type-2 confidence is confidence in the universe’s ability to be what it already is. Type-2 confidence might be better referred to simply as ‘trust’, therefore.


Type-1 confidence, which is ‘for show,’ is always beset by secret anxiety no matter how good it looks on the surface. It is beset with secret (or sometimes not so secret) anxiety because it is based upon fighting what is inevitably going to be a ‘losing battle’. We ever can’t win this battle and so the very best we can do is stage a ‘theatrical victory’, which is where we deceive ourselves (temporarily) into thinking that we can win, or that we have won. This type of ‘victory’ is a victory over ourselves since the only thing we have succeeded in doing is in fooling ourselves into thinking we are ‘in control’ when we’re not! When we succeed in fooling ourselves in this way (which we do petty much on a full-time basis) then we feel secure, we feel cocky (we can even feel totally arrogant) but all of this is Type-1 confidence, all of this is only ‘for show’. We only fooling ourselves; we taking refuge in comforting illusions…


With Type-2 confidence there is no anxiety, because it is not based on us trying to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re in control when we’re not. There’s no need for anxiety because we’re not trying to ‘succeed at something which deep-down we know we can’t succeed at’. We’re not trying to deceive ourselves, in other words (which is to say, we’re not trying to escape into illusion). We’re not fighting against ‘what is’ – we’re relying on reality to be ‘what it already is’ and so there is no way that this can ever let us down…






The Gift of Anxiety


Anxiety is a very misunderstood kind of a thing. We see it as being a problem, when really it is a teacher! Anxiety is a teacher and it teaches us something very important – it teaches us who we really are!


Straightaway when we hear this there tends to be a problem and that problem is that we almost always think that we already know very well ‘who we are really are’, and so on this account we don’t feel that we need anyone or anything to come along and teach us otherwise. The very idea that we don’t already know who we are comes across as being ridiculous, it comes across as being totally absurd. This however is because we have made a rather big assumption which we’re just not paying any attention to. Somehow, in our culture, it is assumed that ‘knowing who you really are’ is something that comes very easily – as easily as falling off a log in fact. This must be the case since everyone we meet automatically ‘knows who they are’, regardless of how much work they might (or might not) have put into uncovering the mystery. The way we are brought up to see it is that knowing who you are isn’t a difficult thing at all, but simply a formality, the same way we might know our national insurance number or address. It’s not considered a big deal, no matter what the philosophers of olden times might have said to the contrary! Because we believe that knowing our true identity isn’t a big deal (and that everyone automatically knows it, so to speak), the notion that anxiety could have a valuable function in helping us to learn (or perhaps remember) who we are doesn’t really make a hell of a lot of sense to us, and this is putting it mildly!


The thing is that when I think that I know ‘who I am’ all I really know is what I have been told or conditioned to believe about myself and this – very obviously, when we state it like this – isn’t the same thing at all. Knowing ‘who you are supposed to be in a game’ isn’t the same as knowing who you really are – knowing who you are in the game is just a matter of learning a role, it’s trivial. Thinking that you know ‘who you are’ because you believe what you’ve been told isn’t just ‘not quite the same’ as knowing who you really are – it’s the very antithesis of this. Very obviously, believing you are ‘who you’ve been told you are’ prevents you knowing ‘who you really are’…


The reason that anxiety manifests as such an intractable problem to us is because is because we are already so very sure that we know who we are. Or we could say, the reason that anxiety is such an intractable problem is because the lesson that it is teaching us is one that we are extremely resistant to learning. This lesson is the lesson in life we least want to learn; we are – it seems – so very resistant to learning it that we would rather put up with any amount of suffering rather than do so! The more resistant we are to seeing the truth, we might say, the more of an absolute ‘negative’ anxiety will be experienced as being, and it is pretty much undeniable that we experience anxiety as an absolute negative – we experience anxiety when it comes as an out-and-out curse, a curse with no good side to it at all.


So the reason anxiety is such a problem to us is because we really don’t want to know who we are. This is why we suffer so much. It is in fact no exaggeration to say that the thing we are most reluctant to learn in life (and using the word ‘reluctant’ is putting it far too mildly) is who we actually are.


On the face of it this sounds very strange – how could it possibly be the case that the thing we are most resistant to learning is who we are? What kind of a crazy idea is this? This is – admittedly – not the kind of idea that we tend to come across very often (if at all) in mainstream culture. We don’t come across it in the study of psychology either – there are all sorts of models, all sorts of theories that will be covered in a course on the psychology of personality but the theory that our single greatest fear is discovering who we really are is not one that sounds immediately familiar. Actually, it sounds very unfamiliar – so unfamiliar in fact that we would be unlikely to take it very seriously! And yet as an idea it isn’t entirely unheard of – it has a powerful resonance outside of the mainstream theories of psychology. The philosopher Alan Watts has explicitly referred to this curious state of affairs (the state of affairs in which we don’t want to know who we really are) in his book The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, the thesis of which is that the Number One (unspoken) social rule is that we should not be allowed to have any clue regarding our true identity and that we should all collude in covering it up as much as we possibly can by taking up some sort of prescribed role. As Alan Watts says –

Our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing — with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized. The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.

The one thing we are never supposed to go into (on pain of total social exclusion) is the question of who we really are under the opaque façade of who we are conventionally supposed to be, who we are told we are, who we habitually understand ourselves to be. It’s not of course that anyone explicitly addresses the issue, or in any way acknowledges that there is or might be an issue, but rather its something that we all just take for granted – that we all are who we think we are, that we all are who we understand each other to be. The very thought that we might not be, the thought that there might be some sort of conspiracy of silence going on here regarding ‘who we really are’ (and what life might really about) sounds totally ridiculous. We’re far too adult, far too hard-headed to tolerate any kind of airy-fairy talk like that. That just sounds plain silly to us.


The thing about a ‘conspiracy of silence’ – if we agree for the time being that there might be such a thing – is that if we all agree to pretend that whatever it is doesn’t exist (or isn’t an issue), and then we also agree to pretend that we didn’t ever make such an agreement. This of course means that if you ever do raise the issue (if you ever do suggest that there might be an issue here worth raising) then people will simply look at you strangely – whoever you’re talking to will look at you with that particular look on their faces that lets you know that there must be something wrong with you for coming out with such strange stuff. You will be made to feel that you are being ridiculous, and on the wider scale of things, you will be excluded from any ‘serious discourse’. So even though Alan Watts wrote the book The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are the ideas in it never reached the mainstream and never gets mentioned in any course in social psychology. This, after all, is what happens when you try to bring up something that is taboo, something that has already been decided to be ‘not a subject’ or ‘not an issue’. No one takes any notice of what you’re saying.


What we have collectively done – and this is fairly obvious once we get to thinking about it – is to make a very big assumption about ‘who we are’ and about ‘what life is all about’, and then we have rushed ahead without ever looking back. We aren’t interested in questioning the assumptions that we jumped to on the outset, we’re interested in what happens when we proceed on the basis of these assumptions. Looking at the assumption undermines the whole exercise that we are collectively engaged in, and inasmuch as we are all committed to the exercise (which simply equals ‘the type of life that we are all busy leading’) we don’t want to go spoiling the whole thing. And anyone who does want to go back and start looking at the flimsiness of our ‘starting off point’ is going to be very thoroughly excluded from the public discourse. That is the game we are playing after all, and this is how the game works.


Sociologists Berger and Luckman made this key point in their work The Social Construction of Reality – the only way to create any social structure (and the idea of ‘who we are’ and what ‘life is about’ is a social structure) is to pull a few rules or stipulations out of a hat, and then do a kind of a turnaround and say that we didn’t arbitrarily arrive at the rules or stipulations in question, but that they were there all along. We say that the rules are self-evident, that they were always there, or perhaps that God appeared in the form of a burning bush and dictated them to Moses, or something like that. Whatever way we do it we make those rules, those stipulations unquestionable – we make it so that if anyone does question them then it becomes clear to everyone that the problem is with them and not the rules! This is a type of conspiracy – it is a conspiracy of silence regarding the flimsiness of the foundation regarding the collective endeavour that we are all engaged in, the collective story of what it is we are all about, what life is supposed to be, who we are supposed to be, etc. Really what we’re talking about here is game-playing – a game is where we pick a bunch of rules at random and then act as if they weren’t picked at random, as if the rules ‘simply have to be there’ and that is that. We have to pretend that we aren’t free to question the rules or else the game just won’t work. ‘Not questioning the rules’ is what games are all about!


So we can say that the conspiracy of silence that we have been talking about is a necessity if we are to have any social structure to work with, but the only thing here is that the structure in question then takes over and we get stuck in it – upholding the structure becomes more important than anything else, it becomes more important than our mental health, it becomes more important than our happiness. It becomes more important than anything even though it’s only a game, even though it ‘doesn’t really need to be so’! We get so stuck in the game that we lose sight of the only genuinely meaningful quest in life – which as the philosophers and mystics have always said is the quest to know ourselves – and this loss of meaning naturally has very major consequences for us. Being locked into a way of life that is essentially meaningless (as of course all games are, outside their own frame of reference!) and which systematically denies who we really are is – very clearly – not going to be good news for us in the long run!


So looking at Berger and Luckman’s theory of reification and the general theory of games allows us to see how it could be that we don’t know who we really are, even though this might sound like a rather peculiar idea on first hearing. It also gives us a strong indication that there are going to be major ramifications in terms of our mental health, in terms of our ability to be happy and creative; not being in touch with our true selves is – after all – not exactly a recipe for happiness and creativity! We have said that the discovery of what has been covered up (our true selves) is not a trivial kind of thing – it is not like we can read it in a book or get told about it by some highly-trained expert. On the contrary, it is the work of a lifetime – and no one else can help us if. If they do try to help us, that will only lead us astray. There are no easy answers when it comes to discovering what the truth of our situation is – easy answers are only to be had in games, where everything is standardized, where everything has to be what it is designated to be by the rules of the game…


The thing that is being ‘covered up’ by the game has to be covered up for the game to proceed, and yet the other side of the coin is that from our point of view – as the actual individuals we are rather than the mere players of the game – what is being obscured is actually the only thing that truly matters in life! The journey by which we discover our true individuality is a ‘path with a heart’, as Castaneda puts it. It’s the only genuinely interesting pursuit in life – everything else is just a diversion, everything else is just a red-herring! In our culture, however, no time at all is given over to this endeavour, and instead all sorts of other tasks and duties and ‘responsibilities’ are pushed upon us, to the point where anything else gets quite buried. This is not to say that there isn’t a practical side to life that needs to be attended to – there obviously is – but no matter how important the practical aspects of life are if these ‘practical necessities’ (or ‘responsibilities’) are used as a way of stopping us ever reflecting on what this thing we call ‘life’ is all about, then something has clearly gone very wrong. And this is precisely what has happened – it is hard to imagine how anyone could deny it! First of all there are the things we have to do in life in order to attend to our material needs and then there are the things we do to entertain ourselves when we aren’t working, or when we aren’t attending to the practicalities of life, but between ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ there simply isn’t any space for anything else. When we’re not busy doing what we have to do in order to survive we’re busy entertaining ourselves – we’re watching television, or shopping, or going out drinking. This is the prescribed regime. That’s what modern life is like.


Jung makes the point somewhere that whilst in India there exists a tradition in which one can leave behind the life of a householder in one’s later years and turn to a life of reflection and contemplation, there is no corresponding tradition in the West. On the contrary, once we are past the ‘productive’ years of our lives (or the years in which we are still young and good-looking) we are no longer considered to have much to do in life. We hear talk of the ‘golden years’ that are to follow retirement but this is merely marketing speak designed to sell us pensions and life-assurance policies. In reality, no value is given to the second half of life because underneath all our fine talk we don’t understand life to consist of anything other than purely ‘surface-level’ matters – we have no comprehension of any psychic process, any movement in the ‘inner life’ that is the deeper meaning of our lives in this world. We only believe in externals, in ‘the image’, which is the important thing in the first half of life. No matter what we might say, as a society we don’t place any value in the inner life at all. The term itself is all but meaningless to us. Our so-called ‘inner life’ is simply the generic outer life that we have internalized, the external script or picture that we have unreflectively gone along with.


There is of course a good deal of lip-service paid to ‘self-development’, to this sort of therapy or that sort of therapy, this sort of healing or that sort of healing, but almost always this comes down to fixing the socially-prescribed image that we have of ourselves – almost all of it comes down to what Alan Watts calls ‘social adjustment therapy’. We go off the rails, one way or another, and the expert clinicians are there simply to help us to get back on them again! In Psychotherapy East and West Watts writes,

Whenever the therapist stands with society, he will interpret his work as adjusting the individual and coaxing his ‘unconscious drives’ into social respectability. But such ‘official psychotherapy’ lacks integrity and becomes the obedient tool of armies, bureaucracies, churches, corporations, and all agencies that require individual brainwashing. On the other hand, the therapist who is really interested in helping the individual is forced into social criticism. This does not mean that he has to engage directly in political revolution; it means that he has to help the individual in liberating himself from various forms of social conditioning, which includes liberation from hating this conditioning — hatred being a form of bondage to its object.

According to Alan Watts, a lot of our mental ‘un-wellness’ comes from the inherent contradictions of having to adapt to a system, to a way of life that restricts or denies our true individuality, and forces us to become regulated and mechanical. Simply patching us up and sending us back out onto the front-line again hardly qualifies as ‘therapy’! In Health as Expanding Consciousness, Professor of Nursing Margaret Newman speaks of ‘linear interventionism’, which is where we – as doctors or therapists – attempt return people to where they were before they became unwell. In the case of physical illness we can see that there is a lot of sense in this – if I break a leg I want to go back to being able to go walking and running again; if I get appendicitis or malaria, I want to recover so that I can go back to living my life again, and so on. But even in physical medicine there is the question of considering what elements in or aspects of my life-style predisposed me to becoming unwell in whatever way that I did, which means that healing is not just a matter of ‘us getting better so we can go back to what we were doing before we became unwell’! This may not be the case with a broken leg, or with some infectious disease, but with all of the endemic ‘life-style’ diseases that we are suffering from (such as heart-disease or diabetes) ‘going back to the way we were before we got sick’ is clearly not the answer at all. But with neurosis the idea that we can be patched up and ‘stuck back in the trenches’ is itself clearly pathological. This is the type of thinking that leads to entrenched neurotic mental suffering – the type of thinking in question being where we can’t let go of a fixed pattern of doing things even though that fixed pattern is doing us harm…


It’s not simply the case that we are stuck in one particular pattern that happens to be dysfunctional and that if we switched to a different pattern we would be a lot better off – neurosis is an automatic consequence of holding onto any sort of pattern! As far as mental health is concerned, there is no such thing as good pattern, there is no such thing as a good system. Mental health is synonymous with having the personal courage to let go of all patterns, to let go of all precedents, and this is the one thing that society (which is itself a fixed pattern of thinking and behaving) will never support us in doing. The rules of the game do not have any provision in them to encourage us to not play the game – the rules of society are never going to encourage us not to take them as seriously as they are asking us to! Society is a system that (like all systems) is made up of unquestionable precedents and this means that the one thing it is never going to do is play fast and loose with these precedents. That’s just not how things work, as we could very easily understand if only we could see that all logical systems necessarily have to repress the individuality (i.e. the ‘irregularity’) of the elements that comprise them.

So if we define mental health as fitting in with the world-view of everyone playing the game called ‘society’ we can see that linear interventionism makes a lot of sense. It is the ‘only way to go’ if this is how we understand mental health. This way of defining mental health is however really just a way of approving of our own arbitrary way of doing things – I have a certain set of prejudices about ‘how things should be’ and so then naturally I will go ahead and define good mental health as ‘subscribing to these prejudices’! I am making my way, my pattern, my system into the standard by which all things should be measured. This is clearly a cheat though because no matter what set of biases I start off with I’m going to promote this as being ‘the mentally healthy way to look at the world’. Really, therefore, I am abusing the word ‘health’ because health no longer means anything apart from what I want it to mean. It simply means conformity to the pattern to which I happen to subscribe. It is like me telling you that you are ‘sane’ if you happen to agree with what I say, or if you happen to believe what I believe, and that you are ‘mentally unwell’ (or insane) if you don’t. This way of defining mental health is clearly quite nonsensical, as well as being distinctly sinister into the bargain…

In Finite and Infinite Games James Carse differentiates between ‘society’ and what he calls ‘culture’ –

It is a highly valued function of society to prevent changes in the rules of the many games it embraces… Deviancy, however, is the very essence of culture. Whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past, is culturally impoverished. There are variations in the quality of deviation; not all divergence from the past is culturally significant. Any attempt to vary from the past in such a way as to cut the past off, causing it to be forgotten, has little cultural importance. Greater significance attaches to those variations that bring the tradition into view in a new way, allowing the familiar to be seen as unfamiliar, as requiring a new appraisal of all that we have been- and therefore all that we are. Cultural deviation does not return us to the past, but continues what was begun but not finished in the past…

To say that deviance is the very essence of culture is no different from saying that ‘deviance is the very essence of individuality’, and so we can rephrase what James Carse says above and say that ‘whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past has lost all awareness of who they truly are.’ When we follow the script, and substitute the collectively-validated ‘external life’ that we have been provided with for our inner life (without us either seeing that this substitution has taken place, or understanding what that means to us) then the unique individual self has been replaced by the generic self, which is a self made up of nothing more than theatrical appearances. The generic self doesn’t have any actual content – it can’t have any actual content because it’s ‘an externality’, because it’s a theatrical performance and nothing more. The outer life is of course made up of externalities – that’s why we are calling it the ‘external life’! The inner life, on the other hand, has no defined features or aspects that we can talk about, or readily discuss in a public forum, but instead of having generically recognizable features that can easily be talked about it is full of actual content. Hence, Carl Jung says –

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.

When we dream, and live the external socially-validated life only, then what we gain in theatrical definition we lose in genuine content and saying that we ‘lose the content’ is just another way of saying that we lose the connection with who we truly are. What bigger thing could there be to lose than this? We worry about losing all sorts of unimportant, trivial things, but we never seem to worry about losing the biggest thing of all, which is losing our awareness of who we actually are. When we lose this we lose the heart, the core of who we are and as a result of this essential ‘hollowness’ we become slaves to this desire and that desire, this belief-structure and that belief-structure, all of which have the hold on us that they do because they promise to give us what deep-down we know we are missing. They promise to return to us our Wholeness, which we do not consciously see that we are missing.


Society itself is a belief structure that we cling to because it promises to remedy our inner deficit, and provide us – if we play the game well enough – with the much-sought-after social validation (often called success) which is the external substitute (or analogue) for ‘being who we truly are’. This is ironic because society is motivating us with the promise of remedying the painful inner deficit which it itself has engendered in us! It’s both the ‘cause’ of the sickness and the ‘cure’ at the same time, which is something that really ought to tip us off as to what is really going on here…


When we lose the core of who we are and have to go ahead on the basis of what Wei Wu Wei calls the self-concept and what Krishnamurti calls the self-image then we are at a disadvantage, even though we cannot directly see or understand what this disadvantage is. We’ve been ‘wrong-footed’ right from the start. We can talk about this disadvantage (or wrong-footedness’) in terms of loss of essential being – we have lost our essential being and have to make do instead with the theatrical ‘substitute for being’ – which is image or appearance. Some of the time we can get on like this just fine – if we believe the image to be the thing then we don’t see any problem. If we take the theatrical performance of the self-image to be the same thing as ‘who we genuinely are’ (as we almost always do) then we won’t necessarily feel ourselves to be ‘at a disadvantage’. But as we get removed further and further away from any connection with our true nature – from the well-spring of our being – we’re getting stretched thinner and thinner all the time. We’re getting into a sticky situation without being able to see that we are getting into a sticky situation.


As we ‘forget ourselves’ and caught up more and more with a false notion of who we are we end up in a very peculiar – if unappreciated – predicament. The predicament is that we have become ‘unreal without knowing that we are unreal’ and this is akin to having suffered a very serious accident without knowing that we have done so. We have suffered the most serious ‘accident’ of all, and yet we carry on blithely as if nothing had happened, getting caught up in one trivial issue after another. We’ve lost something without which we can’t really continue, and yet we haven’t worked this out for ourselves yet…
And yet there is a way in which this lost understanding can come to us, albeit a way that we cannot readily understand. We cannot see what has happened directly, in a straightforward way, but we can see it in an ‘upside-down way’, so to speak. When being is lost, then we don’t experience this loss of being, but we do experience the neurotic suffering that comes with it – all we need to do therefore is understand this neurotic suffering for what it truly is.


This isn’t actually a question of ‘doing’ – there’s nothing we can ‘do’ to purposefully regain our lost being. It is after all our unconscious attempt to regain our lost being (through all our surrogate purposeful activities) that keeps us trapped in our deficit condition. We just need to be aware of our loss of being, rather than automatically trying to correct it, rather than automatically trying to make it better. When we automatically try to ‘make it better’ all we’re doing is avoiding the awareness. The challenge isn’t to strive to become ‘more confident in ourselves’ (which everyone invariably says it is) – the challenge is to clearly see our lack of confidence and understand its root. The challenge is to fearlessly observe the reality of our situation. If we do somehow manage to become confident again (just like we used to be) all this would mean would be that we have managed to go back to sleep again, immerse ourselves in the dream again. The challenge isn’t to ‘go back to how we were before we became anxious’; the challenge isn’t to ‘go back to sleep’ – the challenge is to wake up!