Trying To Improve An Illusion

There is very odd fact about our existence that we don’t generally observe and this fact is that we can never just be in the world, we have to be in the world whilst thinking about being in the world and this business of ‘being in the world whilst continually thinking about being in the world’ isn’t being in the world at all! It is something else entirely. Being in the world whilst thinking about being in the world is the same thing as ‘existing in a desire state’ and the pertinent point about this is that desire states aren’t real.

 

We can never just ‘be’ in the world for some reason; this is the one thing we just can’t do. We obviously believe (on some level) that this continual thinking–type activity is highly beneficial to us, if not actually essential. Why else would we put so much energy into it – we’re obviously looking for some advantageous outcome that is going to come about as a result of our investment! Clearly, it’s not enough for us just to be in the world – that seems to be of no value at all to us – we always have to looking for some mysterious ‘advantage’. This then provides us with a very neat summary of the human situation – a continual striving for improvement, a continual searching for advantage.

 

It is of course fairly normal for us to be spending our time looking for some kind of advantage. We’re conditioned that way; we’re brought up that way. It is widely considered to be a good thing to be busying ourselves doing this, that and the other and ‘busy’ means – in essence – ‘looking for an advantage’. What else would it mean? We’re not investing energy in activity for nothing – we’re looking for a result, we’re trying to improve things.

 

‘Trying to improve things’ has therefore become a sickness for us. It’s not a bad thing in itself – obviously – but when it runs away with us so that we don’t know how to stop ‘looking for the advantage’ in every situation then it isn’t a good thing at all. It has become a horror, it has become a pestilence. Trying to improve things all the time and not to be able to stop is like having an itch that we can’t help from scratching even when this continuous scratching makes things worse rather than better and this is clearly not a happy situation. To be perfectly blunt about it, what we’re talking about here is a type of self-harming – it’s an addiction to an activity that is bad for us.

 

From time to time things do need ‘improving’ and that is an undeniable fact. If we’re looking for food and we need to eat something in order not to starve then this is a situation that needs improving! If we come across someone who is in immediate danger and needs assistance this is also ‘a situation that needs improving’ – the ‘advantage’ in question here is to ensure the other person’s well-being and safety. We have practical needs in life and these needs need to be looked after, obviously. But to say (or rather, unconsciously assume) that reality itself is something that continually needs improving (or continually needs fixing) is nothing short of insanity. Obviously this can’t be true and to so to be continuously and strenuously acting as if it was true is a sickness.

 

To be continually looking for the advantage and not to be able to stop (and, indeed, not even to be able to recognise the fact that there might be something else in life other than continually ‘looking for the advantage’) is nothing short of insanity, but it’s also a type of insanity that each and every one of us is perpetually embroiled in, which makes it invisible to us. Because we don’t come across anyone who isn’t doing the same thing that we’re doing this means that we’re not going to be able to recognise this strange situation for what it is. To us, it’s just ‘normal’. We think being busy the whole time is good.

 

If being (or reality) were somehow ‘deficient in itself’ then this business of ‘perpetual unrelenting fixing’ might make some sort of sense but this premise is – of course – utterly false and utterly ridiculous. How could ‘being’ or ‘reality’ be deficient? The irony is – as we started off by saying – that our continual attempts to improve reality actually degrades it – it is why we can say that continual thinking (and thinking is always an attempt to fix one way or another) is a sickness. It’s a sickness because we are continually degrading our own reality.

 

This is – without any doubt at all – an idea that doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense to us and the thing about ideas that don’t make the slightest bit of sense to us is that we don’t tend to entertain them very long! Our favourite activity is – or so we are claiming in this discussion – trying to improve things (either trying to improve ourselves or trying to improve the world) and the reason we are as invested or preoccupied as we are in the ‘improvement business’ is of course because we imagine that we’re making things better rather than worse! To learn that were actually doing the opposite of what we think we are and that we are degrading our reality rather than enhancing it is a very difficult thing for us to take on therefore. Human nature being what it is, when we come across an idea that is going to result in a truly radical change to the way we see the things then we just don’t go there. Our whole motivation is to preserve the integrity and stability of the apple-cart, not to upset it. We seek equilibrium, not disequilibrium.

 

How can we make such a claim as this however? How can we back up the assertion that we are continually degrading our own reality with our attempts to make things better? The key lies in what we said earlier, which is that ‘trying to improve things’ is fine when it is done from time to time for strictly practical reasons, but that when we’re at it the whole time then something has gone very amiss. ‘Improving things’ has in this case become an end in itself; ‘striving to obtain our goals’ has become an end in itself, ‘purposeful activity’ has become an end in itself. We might of course try to argue that striving to be a better version of oneself isn’t the same thing as continually struggling to obtain external goals but of course it is we wouldn’t know what direction to struggle in unless we first had an idea of what ‘better’ means and what ‘worse’ means. When we talk about ‘striving to better ourselves’ what we really mean is ‘striving to better accord with our idea of ourselves’, and this isn’t the same thing at all.

 

When we try to improve things in accordance with our ideas, or in accordance with our thinking, what this really comes down to is ‘worshipping a false god’, since ‘the thought is not the thing’. My idea of the world is not the world and my idea of who I am is not who I am. This brings to mind the old Zen story of the finger pointing at the moon – if the finger pointing at the moon helps us to see the moon then that is helpful (that is after all the whole point of the exercise) but if we get fixated upon the pointing finger instead (as if the finger itself were the thing) then this is a very great error! In this case we are ‘worshipping the teapot rather than drinking the tea’, as Wei Wu Wei says, and the only point of the teapot is to facilitate us in drinking the tea. The teapot isn’t an end in itself.

 

This is one way of looking at why ‘always trying to improve things’ is a disease therefore – because it causes us to deviate from our own true nature in a ‘suffering-producing’ way. A slightly different way of looking at this is to say, as we did earlier, that ‘trying to improve things’ is the same thing as ‘looking for the advantage’ and an advantage is something that always exists in relation to a particular point of reference. The point of reference that we’re talking about here is of course the self and the thing about this is that the self is an abstraction that has been created by thought. All reference points are created by thought and anything that has been created by thought is ‘an abstraction’ (an ‘abstraction’ being something that doesn’t exist in its own right but which has been produced by drawing boundaries that don’t really exist). All ‘improvement’ comes down to expanding the Abstraction Realm that we are taken for granted and this ‘expanding of the Abstraction Realm’ isn’t actually a real thing at all. It might be our favourite activity, but that doesn’t mean that it’s real!

 

As we have been saying, some specific ‘acts of improvement’ are necessary or helpful – if we are cold and we need to find a way of warming ourselves up then this type of improvement is of course perfectly legitimate. This is a type of ‘improvement’ that exists in relation to the physical organism and whilst the physical organism itself may be said to be an abstraction just as thoughts are (all matter is after all an abstraction from what Heraclitus calls the Universal Flux or from what David Bohm calls the Holomovement) we also need to make the point that this just happens to be an abstraction that is legitimately important to us! Our thoughts and beliefs are a different matter however – they could be useful if viewed in a strictly provisional way but they are more likely to be the exact opposite of helpful. When we can’t stop trying to improve our situation (and this means ‘continually grasping’ or ‘continually thinking) then this is because we are trying to extend or promote the Abstraction Realm that has illegitimately become our master.

 

This is what we might call a ‘counterproductive activity’ therefore, an activity that has become ‘against life itself’ – life itself is not an abstraction, after all. What we are essentially trying to ‘improve’ with all our grasping-type activity is an illusion and what we don’t see is that an illusion can’t be improved, no matter how much effort we put into it…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Can’t ‘Do’ Change

We can’t ‘do’ change – that’s an absolute impossibility! ‘Change that we do’ is always purely for the sake of shoring up our sense of identity and ‘shoring up our sense of identity’ is not change. It’s ‘entrenchment’, it’s ‘digging in deeper’, obviously…

 

Any ‘change’ (so-called) that I might myself enact is merely ‘me asserting myself’, in other words. I’m trying to ‘get things to happen the way I want them to happen’ and this is never going to involve any sort of genuine change. That’s just controlling. Genuine change can only happen when I give up trying to be in control – controlling means ‘holding on to my basic assumptions’, after all, and holding onto my basic assumptions is never going to get me anywhere different! The instinct or urge not to let go almost always predominates – even when something in us wants to let go and ‘give up the constant controlling’ there is almost always another, stronger part that doesn’t.

 

We are aware that change will come if we do relinquish control, the only thing being that we automatically assume that this will be change of the unwanted type, and so in this case it seems much better than to us that we should be ‘stuck’ rather than letting things actually get worse. We feel that we are on the edge – potentially – of some kind of catastrophic change, and this is therefore what keeps us locked into our frozen (or ‘defensive’) posture. Things are not good but we know that they can quickly get a lot worse if we let go of whatever control we have, and so it’s ‘stalemate’.

 

Our perception in this regard – however strong – is in error however. From a psychological point of view it is always ‘staying the same’ that is the most painful thing. Or we could equally well say that it is ‘trying to stay the same when we know that – ultimately – this is not going to be possible’ that is the most painful thing. We are fighting against something bigger than us in this case, and we’re also fighting against our own awareness into the bargain, and what could be a more uncomfortable situation than this? Who would want to be locked into this position?

 

What genuinely helps is not any type of effort that we might make; as we have already said,  any sort of effort that we make is only the fixed identity asserting (or trying to assert) itself and the aim of the fixed identity asserting itself is always to resist change, the aim is always to keep things the same. It’s consolidation it’s all about, not radical change. The fixed or static identity is a conservative force; the static identity is only the static identity because it resists change, after all! Even more to the point, the ‘stalemate’ defensive position that we were just talking about actually IS the static identity – the two are the very same thing, they simply can’t be separated!

 

 

This is – needless to say – a very different way of looking at identity to the one which we usually have. To our everyday way of understanding things, our identity is the most important part of us – it’s ‘who we are’ and so of course it’s the most part important part of us! This is a misapprehension however; it is something that we automatically accept as being ‘obviously true’, even though we could very easily see that it isn’t so ‘obviously true’ at all if we were to actually look into it. The ‘static identity’ as a defensive posture; it’s what happens when we hold on’ to ourselves, when we hold onto the status quo. When we truly relax then – as we can easily notice if we took the trouble – we can see that we are not this fixed, unyielding sense of identity at all. We’re not a ‘fixed thing’ (and why we want to be) – we are a fluid process, and what’s so hard to understand about this? There are no fixed things in nature, only fluid processes, so why should we imagine that we are any different?

 

When we relax (and stop holding on so tightly to ourselves) then we come ‘back to ourselves’, we ‘relax back into ourselves,’ so to speak. Only the funny thing here is that we are not just relaxing into ourselves, also relaxing out of ourselves. When we are stressed or very focused on something then the world narrows down until it is no bigger than what is stressing us or what we are focusing on. No one is going to argue about this! But alongside this narrowing or shrinking of our subjective world there is also a corresponding narrowing and shrinking of our sense of ourselves – the two shrinkages go together, naturally enough. When more perspective comes into the picture then we can see that the world is a bigger place than we thought it was and we can see that we are more than we thought we were too…

 

The problem is however that we are so very used to our more ‘clenched’ or defensive modality of being in the world that we actually think that this is who we are. Alan Watts says that in normal everyday sensors identity is actually nothing more than a knot of ‘chronic tension’ that we assume to be us. If the ‘knot of chronic tension’ were all of a sudden to go away then this would feel very strange to us – even though it would be a great relief at the same time, much as it is a relief when a cramped muscle finally eases up! The idea of letting go of his knot never occurs to us however and, in fact, it’s not just that letting go of the knot never occurs to (as a idea of something that might perhaps be beneficial) but rather that we go the opposite way entirely – we nurture and take care of the knot (or of the ‘fixed identity’) as if this were the only thing that matters in life.

 

‘Taking care of something’ is usually a good thing but in this case our ‘care-taking’ is working against us since we are supporting the very state of affairs that is causing us pain. We are sabotaging the health or well-being of the greater part of ourselves for the sake of the ‘well-being’ of the knot of tension that we have short-sightedly identified with. Really, therefore, we are caught up in a dilemma that we can’t actually see. We can’t ‘have it both ways’, but we want to! What we want is to be identified with the fixed identity (so that we can use it to serve as the centre of our world, to serve as ‘an unquestionable reference point’) but at the same time not to have to put up with the pain that comes from this fixed sense of identity. When the Buddha stated in his First Noble Truth that ‘existence is suffering’ it was the conditioned existence of the fixed identity he was referring to.

 

Our dilemma is that we are caught up in a blatant self-contradiction – we want good mental health and the cessation of all neurotic symptomology (of course) but we also want to hang tightly onto the cause of all that neurotic suffering. We don’t see this self-contradiction at all and this is why we are so very caught up in it. Instead, we are always searching for this ‘mythological creature’ – the mythological creature which is ‘the happiness and fulfilment of the static sense of identity’. We are searching high and low for this strange mythological beast – we are absolutely convinced that it must be out there somewhere so we never tire of searching for it, we never tire of inventing strategies to catch it.

 

As it happens, the fact that the fixed sense of self can never find the happiness and peace that it is searching for is in one way helpful to it – it is ‘helpful’ because it is this searching that keeps the game going. Deep down there is no dilemma; deep-down there is no ‘self-contradiction’ at all because our allegiance is – for the most part – ‘all the one way’ – our allegiance is to the fixed identity and its continuation, no matter what the price. Ultimately, this is a problem for us because the fixed sense of identity (this knot of chronic tension) doesn’t exist ‘in its own right’. Obviously knot of tension doesn’t exist ‘in its own right’ – it’s only knot of tension, after all! The fixed or static sense of identity has the same type of existence is that of a wrinkle in a tablecloth – it’s there in one way because we can see it but it’s not there in another, profounder way. If it was a bump in a carpet instead of a wrinkle in a tablecloth that we were talking about we could even trip over it and hurt ourselves! The wrinkle or bump still doesn’t actually ‘exist’ however because if we were pull it taut then there would be no trace left of it.

 

We get around the problem of ‘the static sense of identity not having any actual existence in itself’ by keeping ourselves forever preoccupied trying to find a ‘peace of mind’ that we can never attain; by keeping ourselves busy hunting for a happiness or sense of completion that will never be ours. This is ‘the paradox of happiness‘ – we can never be happy until we stop looking for happiness! Looking at this another way, we could also say that the paradox of happiness is that the happiness of the one who yearns and strives after happiness, is actually comprised of the absence of that ‘yearner’, that ‘striver’…

 

This ‘solution’ of ours does not change the fact that our commitment to the fixed identity is also our commitment to suffering. When we succeed in perpetuating the fixed identity we are also succeeding in perpetuating the root cause of our suffering, and so this doesn’t really help us any! We’re only clinging onto pain, after all, no matter what strategy we try. The emotional and mental pain that we are struggling against only ever grows as we struggle against it. Why wouldn’t it – it feeds on our resistance, after all! Sometimes – perhaps a lot of the time – there might be no visible sign of this pain, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t ‘stacked up somewhere’, waiting to manifest itself. If we imagine that we have successfully fought against the pain and gotten rid of it then this only makes matters worse – by ‘fighting successfully against the pain’ we have only affirmed the reality of ‘the winner of the game of pain-avoidance’, which is the static identity that has caused the pain in the first place. By ‘fixing the problem’ we have only reaffirmed the existence of ‘the fixer’, who was the original cause of the problem that needed to be fixed…

 

When the suffering that is inherent in our situation becomes too much for us then – naturally – this brings us to the point where we can clearly see the need for some major change and this is of course a crucially important insight on our part. The problem arises however when we try to bring about this change ourselves, as a result of the effort of will, as a result of our own cleverness or determination. This of course means that we have automatically turned our situation into ‘a problem that needs to be fixed’, and this – as we have just said – means that we going around in circles.

 

We can’t ‘change things on purpose’ as we started out this discussion by saying. We can’t ‘do’ change – change can’t occur as a result of our ‘purposeful output’. We can change things ‘on the outside’ – I can organise things this way or that way, I can put up a shelf on the wall I could not put it up, I can mow the lawn or not mow the lawn, there is scope for all sorts of purposeful activity, but this shouldn’t confuse us into thinking that we can change ourselves to. When the static identity tries to change the situation all it is really doing is imposing its own ideas of what that change should be, and the static identity’s ‘ideas about what the change should be’ are itself. The static identity is its set of ideas. The identity is trying to assert (or promote) itself but this just isn’t change! That’s not change at all, it’s just ‘the same old story’…

 

 

It is extraordinarily helpful to understand this. Normally we very strongly feel that we should be doing something to get ourselves out of the situation we are in and so if we can’t (which we won’t be able to in any real way) then we blame ourselves and feel guilty about it. We have already ‘failed’ – or so it seems – to be feeling so bad in the first place, and then we have ‘failed again’ by not being able to do something about this situation. All that responsibility (which is actually ‘false responsibility’) is weighing heavily on us and it’s turning into guilt and self-recrimination because we can’t fix the problem when we are convinced that this is what we should be doing. What helps us in this situation is to see that we aren’t this not of tension, that we aren’t this fixed sense of identity. We can’t get rid of a knot of tension by ‘making it into a problem’ and fighting against it, after all! Blind aggression isn’t really going to help us here…

 

 

 

Image: Great Buddha of Kamakura, taken from gaiijinpot.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Think is to be Hypnotised by Thought

Thoughts are hypnotic, ideas are hypnotic, words are hypnotic – as soon as we think a thought or speak a word it becomes meaningful to us! It didn’t have to be meaningful, however; it’s not ‘stand-alone meaningful’, it’s not ‘meaningful all by itself’… The point we’re making here is at the thought or idea or word wouldn’t be meaningful to us unless we first engaged with it by ‘choosing to look at the world in its way’; we have to ‘buy into the construct’ first and this means making ourselves every bit as small, every bit as petty or narrow-minded as the word or thought is. We’re trapped by our own ‘compartmentalized’ or  ‘black-and-white’ language, in other words.

 

The same thing holds true for our beliefs (which are of course made up of our thoughts) – we are always bigger than any belief that we might have but when we buy into the belief then the world we live in will shrink down to the size of this belief. We often – if not always – tend to be very proud of our beliefs which is therefore rather odd – we are actually proud of being prejudiced or small-minded! It is very much as if we expect to be presented with a prize or medal (or some other type of honour) for being so appallingly, so mind-numbingly petty…

 

Any particular thought that we might have will show itself to be ‘meaningless’ (or ‘hollow’) unless we first adopt the very same framework that is assumed by that thought. Another way of putting this is to say that the thought in question only seems to be true when we look at the world in the specific way that makes it seem to be true. As soon as we spell things out in this way then this whole business is revealed as being somewhat ridiculous, therefore – the only thing being that we never do ‘spell things out’ like this! It is in fact profoundly alien for us to look at things this way.

 

This is the nature of thought – in one way we could say because that thought is a lens that brings specific details into sharp focus; this isn’t quite true however because – as we have just said – the details aren’t just ‘in sharp focus’ because of ‘the lens of thought’, they are only meaningful in the first place because of ‘the lens of thought’! This is the thing that is so very hard for us to understand – that the thought is only real to us because we ‘buy into it’, that the act of ‘buying into the thought’ makes it real. There’s no way to understand this point by thinking about it (obviously enough!) but if only we could get the hang of ‘not thinking about anything for a few moments’ it would then all become crystal clear.

 

Once we enter into the thought-stream nothing ever becomes genuinely clear – it might seem to be so but that’s only because we have ‘repressed one opposite in favour of the other’. This operation (which is  – as Jung says  – rationality in a nutshell) creates a type of clarity – the clarity of the dogmatist, the clarity of the rationalist, the clarity of the zealot, but this isn’t so much ‘clarity’ as wilful ignorance. Repressing one opposite in favour of the other isn’t wilful ignorance in the usual way that we understand it because we don’t know that we are doing anything, but it is intentional all the same. It is us ourselves who are doing it, rather than some external factor over which we don’t have any control. There is a choice there – we just make it automatically rather than consciously. We ignore the repressed opposite automatically, out of ‘long-standing habit’, so to speak.

 

Another way of approaching this is to say that when we ‘enter the thought-stream’ the mechanism involved not only supplies us with a prepackaged way of seeing the world, it also provides us with our likes and dislikes on a very basic level – it provides us with our will, in other words, even though it’s not actually ‘our’ will. It only feels like that. We can slip very comfortably into thinking that it is our will that we are exercising – we do sit very comfortably into thinking that it is our will we are exercising. We slip into it so very comfortably indeed that – actually – no one could tell us otherwise. We simply wouldn’t believe them if they tried. We could probably go our whole lives without suspecting otherwise…

 

This is us being ‘hypnotised’ therefore – this is us being hypnotised by our own thoughts (although, strictly speaking, they are not our own thoughts, as we have just pointed out). To think is to ‘give away all responsibility’, odd though this might sound. It’s as if we are engaging in a type of experiment – the type of experiment that involves pretending very thoroughly to be somebody else, somebody else who we aren’t. Actually we are pretending to be somebody else – the thought is providing us not just with a prepackaged way of seeing the world, but also a prepackaged (or predetermined) way of seeing ourselves. If I am provided with a prepackaged way of seeing/understanding who I am, then it goes without saying that ‘who I understand myself to be’ isn’t the same thing as ‘who I actually am’.

 

Our words and thoughts are only meaningful in relation to this assumed identity, this identity that thought conveniently provides us with. What we are actually saying here therefore is that ‘the thoughts that the thinker thinks’ and ‘the thinker itself’ are one and the same thing – the thoughts are only meaningful if we assume the existence of the thinker and the thinker, in turn, only make sense as a real thing if the thoughts do so. The fact that we experience our thoughts as being volitional is clearly an illusion therefore – if I assume myself to be the identity that my thoughts are telling me I am then I have no choice but to continue thinking the type of thoughts that make sense to this assumed thinker! I’ll be in trouble if I didn’t because I’ll have to let go of my black-and-white identity. I’m being railroaded here in a very extreme fashion, therefore.

 

If it were only a matter of us ‘being fed a false reality’ (in a straightforward ‘conspiracy theory-type’ manner) then this would not be such a big deal. But not only are we fed false information about the world, we are fed false information about ourselves too, and so what happens is that our will gets replaced, so to speak, such that ‘the will or volition that we routinely obey’ is the will or volition of who we are told we are, rather than having anything to do with our own actual volition. This being the case, when any impulse or feeling originating in ‘who we really are’ arises what happens is that is that we suppress it or deny it, and do not at any point see it for what it is. As far as we are concerned the feeling or impulse is merely an ‘error’. We have become – as a result of becoming immersed in the thought stream – our own enemies, our own jailers.

 

This is why Krishnamurti speaks of ‘waking up’ as the ultimate revolution – we can’t rely on anything in the system that we have put in place all around us, and yet this system, this ‘mind’, is all we know. In the world of therapy we hear a lot of talk about therapeutic tools and strategies and models and methods and so on, but the ironic point that very few therapists ever realise (presumably very few) about that this is that it is precisely these ‘tools’, ‘methods’, ‘strategies’ etc, that keep us hypnotised! We imagine, in our innocence, that our tools and strategies and models can be trusted and that they will deliver us from our state of mental bondage that we’re in, and yet the truth is that they were working to betray us right from the very beginning. Strategies and systems are the very thing that was imprisoning us in the first place; the tried and trusted methods we used to fight against the enemy were actually working on behalf of the enemy all along.

 

Once we see the situation that we are in then we can have sympathy for the mind-set of the conspiracy theorist, therefore. We can see immediately where this all comes from; we can relate to it and – not only that – we can understand the truth of it. We can trust nothing and no one because we are living in a world where everyone and everything is against us whilst pretending to be ‘on our side’. The one thing we trust the most – our own mind – turns out to be secretly against us the whole time. It was working for the enemy. In conventional, contemporary therapy we try to use thinking to free us from our painful predicament, but thinking is the very thing that hypnotises us and causes us to think that we are who we aren’t! Even as we implement whatever strategies it is that we have been given, we do it not on behalf of who we genuinely are (which has been rejected as ‘error’ by the system of thought), but on behalf of the self that we are assuming ourselves to be, the self that our thoughts are telling us we are. No strategy, no method, no model can free us; as Chogyam Trungpa says, ‘There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom’.

 

Our thoughts hypnotize us, our ideas hypnotize us, our beliefs hypnotize us, our ‘personal narrative’ hypnotizes us, our goals and our fears hypnotize us – the only thing that doesn’t hypnotize us is actually being, which is to say, being unconditionally in whatever situation it is that we find ourselves…

 

 

 

Image: ‘The brainwashing Of My Dad’, taken from progressivefilmclub.ie