We Are ‘Relief-Seeking Mechanisms’

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The best way to get a handle on the idea of ‘psychological work’ is to understand what it is not, and what it is not is our normal everyday mode of mental functioning! This ‘everyday mental modality’ – which is generally the only mode we have – can be neatly explained by saying that it is all about obtaining relief. This is not a particularly flattering way to understand ourselves but it is nevertheless a very accurate one. Despite any illusions we might have to the contrary, it doesn’t take very much at all to understand ‘what makes us tick’. Basically, the fundamental underlying motivation for our purposeful (as opposed to spontaneous) behaviour is the non-negotiable need to find relief from difficulty or discomfort.

 

It is this very simple motive that lies behind all of our purposeful or goal-orientated behaviour, and behind all our rational thinking. If I am busy performing actions, then what lies behind my busy-ness is the need to find relief and if I am busy thinking then what lies this busy-ness is also the need to find relief (in the case of thinking I am trying to find relief by analysing or problem-solving).

 

We don’t like to know this about ourselves and it is this resistance to seeing the less-than-glamorous truth that is the first obstacle to genuine self-understanding. We like to think that we are more complex, more diverse than simple pain-avoidance machines, mechanisms which are driven by nothing more interesting or heroic or inspirational than the need ‘not to challenge ourselves anymore than we can possibly avoid’.

 

This motivation is sometimes called the motivation of attachment and attachment covers both attraction (positive desire) and aversion (negative desire). In essence both attraction and aversion come down to ‘the need to seek relief from discomfort’ – when I am experiencing attraction it is difficult to be in the place where I haven’t yet obtained what I want to obtain and therefore the way that I look for relief from this demand is to try as hard as I can to succeed at obtaining whatever it is that I am experiencing attraction towards. I am automatically running away from the challenge of ‘doing the hard thing’ which is ‘not achieving the desired outcome’. When I experience aversion the same thing is true – some difficulty or discomfort is impinging upon me and the only way I can find relief is to somehow escape that difficulty. The hard thing in attraction is ‘not chasing’  or ‘not grasping’ and the hard thing in aversion is ‘not running away’, ‘not avoiding’.

 

Not to put too fine a point on it, what this means is that we are – for 99% of the time – no more than mere ‘relief-seeking mechanisms’. We don’t do anything for any higher purpose than self-interest although in order to protect our image of ourselves we dignify this self-serving activity by coming up with all sorts of validations for what we’re doing. We find some sort of reason for doing it, for going along with it. We say that we want to be doing whatever it is that we’re doing. We say that what we’re doing is ‘the right thing’, or ‘the good thing’.

 

As ‘relief-seeking mechanisms’ free will is a complete and utter illusion – our only freedom is the freedom to find the relief that we are so humourlessly seeking! When we express things like this it does not sound like a particularly convincing (or very enjoyable) form of freedom but when we’re actually stuck in the position of needing the relief (or rather feeling that we need the freedom) the freedom to obtain relief (whether it genuinely is freedom or not, or genuinely is enjoyable or not) is the only thing we’re actually interested in. As a ‘relief-seeking mechanism’, I really am not interested in anything else. Not only am I not interested in anything else, I’m not actually capable of understanding anything else. Can a machine be expected to understand anything or have appreciation of anything that in no way relates to its functional repertory?

 

This of course is fine and we can all grasp the above point perfectly well – the thing we can’t grasp however is why it should be the case that our psychology(when seen stripped of all the superfluous notions with which we like to cloak ourselves) should be that of a mere ‘relief-seeking mechanism. This, we can’t grasp at all! We don’t actually want to grasp it, in fact it could be said that our whole way of seeing things is orientated in such a way that we never do run the risk of seeing anything of the sort. We see things backwards – we see our constant looking for relief as something positive, we see it as the most wonderful expression of our own true volition, when the less-than-wonderful truth of the matter is that we’re simply looking for relief, in whatever way we can…

 

This of course sounds too ridiculous to us to even consider (we won’t consider it) and yet at the same time once we ‘get it’ it all becomes laughably obvious. We would wonder how on earth we didn’t see it before. We would wonder how we could have missed it, how we could have been so blind. The ‘trick’ is that everything has been turned upside down – everything we want to achieve we really only want to achieve as a release, and yet we see it as our own free will. We see the ‘achievement’ as an actual positive value in itself and this ‘reversed perception’ is what conditioned existence is all about – we fondly imagine that we are doing this, that or the other because we want to whereas the truth of the matter is that we have been conditioned to want to and this isn’t the same thing at all. Wanting something because you have been conditioned to want it is not just ‘not the same thing’ as genuine volition – it’s the complete antithesis of it.

 

All of the things we want, all of our ‘goals’ are simply ‘whatever we need to do in order to find (temporary) release from whatever pressure is acting upon us. We want the release from pressure that achieving the designated goal will bring rather than wanting the goal itself, but rather than seeing this we see it the other way around. We’re chasing ‘escapes from the pain we’re in’ not the things themselves; we’re pursuing ‘what the goal represents to us’ rather than the goals themselves. When we ‘do the thing’ (or ‘achieve the goal’) we feel good and so if we take a superficial view of this (as we do) it can very easily seem to us that it’s the fulfilment of our purpose that we want when actually it’s the good feeling that we get as a result of fulfilling it that we’re after. And of course it’s not just that ‘it could very easily seem’ that it’s the fulfilment of our goal/purpose that all the excitement’s about, it does seem that way to us. Our psychological makeup is such that that all our attention is directed onto what is going on ‘on the outside’ so that we don’t notice the mechanical processes that are going ‘in the background’. We don’t notice the pressure that’s acting on us, we just notice the relief that comes when there is a (temporary) cessation of this pressure and this manifests as ‘satisfaction’ or ‘pleasure’. Genuine volition is never to seek pleasure or satisfaction! How could it be? This ought to be obvious to us (how could it not be?) and yet it isn’t at all obvious. We know it isn’t obvious by virtue of the fact that no one ever sees it!

 

We don’t see that moving towards pleasure or satisfaction is a ‘down-hill’ (or ‘equilibrium-seeking’) movement – it is a purely mechanical process just like a tightly-wound steel spring unwinding and driving a system of cogs and wheels, just like a marble running down a wooden chute. This ‘purely mechanical process’ is not volition! Volition isn’t when we go along with the mechanical process; it isn’t when we work towards obtaining relief / pleasure / satisfaction. True volition is on the contrary when we don’t do this! Genuine volition is not (and never could be) about achieving goals. That’s just going along with the system of thought’ and the system of thought is mechanical through and through – there’s nothing ‘non-mechanical’ about it at all. What’s not mechanical about logic, after all? Yet to say that ‘true volition is not about achieving (or trying to achieve) goals is profoundly baffling to us. To say that this statement ‘goes against the grain of our everyday understanding’ is an understatement of epic proportions. We can’t figure this out at all. We might try to figure it out – if pressed – but we will still end up getting it wrong. If we say that trying to obtain pleasure or satisfaction is not genuine volition and that finding our genuine volition is the only thing that will free us from our wretched mechanical predicament then we will of course try to go against our mechanical impulses. We will try to oppose them but then this too is ‘mechanical’. Going against the mechanical impulses is still mechanical because all we have done is to swap one goal for another; we’ve switched goals but we’re still ‘looking for relief’ no matter what our goal might be. After all, all goals are ‘looking for relief’! We’re trying to get the system of thought to validate us, to validate what we’re doing. We’re trying to accord with some sort of logic. All we’ve really done is to switch a minus for a plus but NO equals the system of thought just as much as YES does!

 

So when we fight against mechanical impulses all we’re really doing is reversing the goal from a positive to a negative. Whatever the rational-logical mind presents us with as ‘a good idea’ is (of course) only ever going to be ‘just another goal’. Anything thought presents us with is a goal (or an anti-goal, which is the same thing. anything thought presents us with is always going to ‘definite’ and ‘definite’ – of any type or description whatsoever – always equals the system of thought. So what we’re essentially saying here is that the thinking mind can only ever provide us with ‘escapes’ from some kind of difficulty or challenge, and yet these escapes’ aren’t real. They aren’t real because thought itself isn’t real – thought is a system of abstractions. Thought presents us with escapes from discomfort / pain / fear, all of which have to do with our relationship (or rather lack of relationship!) with radical uncertainty, which is the unconditioned or uncreated reality; it presents us with ‘opt outs’ from reality which it calls ‘solutions’ or ‘answers’ or ‘goals’ – words which sound inspiringly positive to us! But no matter how positively we view these words, they are only ever ways of talking about ‘obeying the compulsion to escape’. It’s only fear-driven ‘relief-seeking’ we’re on about and there’s nothing particularly inspirational about this – we’re not heroes, no matter what we’d like to think! All we’re doing is ‘glorifying our running away’; all we’re doing is seeing ‘obeying compulsions’ as freely doing what we really and truly want to do.

 

So what we’re essentially saying here is that the thinking mind is no help to us at all with regard to psychological work. It always points us in the wrong direction. The rational mind is as we have said essentially a ‘relief-seeking mechanism’ and to the extent that we are identified with the rational mind so are we. This is why we are ‘relief-seeking mechanisms’ – because we’re identified with the everyday thinking mind. As soon as we have this insight everything that we have so far been talking about immediately becomes clear. Everything can then be seen in the most beautifully simple and straightforward way – we can see that psychological work is when we are NOT acting on the basis of thought!

 

This proposition is at the same time both wonderfully simple and formidably challenging – all we have to ‘do’ in order not to be evading reality (even though it is of course not a ‘doing’) is to be in the world independently, standing on our own two feet (as it were), as we actually are in ourselves, without any artifice, without any cunning. What could be simpler than this? Any child could do this! And yet this proves to be the hardest thing of all; as simple as it is, to just be ourselves without any artifice turns out to the greatest challenge we will ever meet in our lives. We don’t know how to come out of the constricting shell of the thinking mind even if we wanted to do so, even if we realized that we were trapped in this ‘shell’ (which we don’t). We do everything on the basis of thought, oPyschn the basis of the thinking mind. We live our lives pretty much entirely on this basis and because we do live our lives this way – minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, year after year – we don’t even know that there is ‘a basis’. We couldn’t be further from knowing that there is a mechanical basis to our living, to our being in the world. We don’t think we’re playing any sort of a game, we think that we’re ‘doing it straight’! We think that there’s no trickery going on, that there’s no manipulation – that this is just ‘the way things are’.

 

We’re tricky creatures. We’re ‘trick-loving creatures’ and thought is our trick! We have become inseparable from our trick – we are playing it all the time without knowing that we are playing it. To be separated from the trick that we are playing (without knowing we are playing it) would be the ultimately terrifying scenario for us. All of our fear and terrors come down to ontological terror in the end – lack of ontological security is the one thing that we never want to face. Anything rather than that! When our own trickiness catches up with us – as it always does – and constricts the very life out of us, we do our level best to come up with new, improved forms of trickery and we call this ‘therapy’!  We do our level best to come up with new, super-sophisticated tricks to solve the problems that our original reliance on trickery has caused. It’s trickery on top of trickery, trickery trying to solve trickery. We think that cleverness is the answer. The one thing that we just can’t seem to see – to paraphrase Rumi is that when we give up tricks and cleverness, then that will be our cleverest trick!

 

 

 

 

 

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Increasing Perspective

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What is perspective? Most people would probably answer that perspective has something to do with ‘seeing things from more than just one angle’ – of being able to get the true picture, i.e. not just a one-sided or narrow view of what we are looking at. There is also the implication of not being too ‘up close’ to our problem, perspective means being able to pull back so that we do not get trapped by one way of looking at what is going on. This means that perspective is basically a way of talking about freedom, we might say ‘freedom of perception.’ When I have freedom of perception I can look at an object in lots of different ways, and when I add up all these different viewpoints I get an ‘all-round’ view.  Once I have an all-round view, I am not so likely to jump to conclusions about my situation. I am not so likely to subscribe to a distorted view of reality, and therefore I will be able to act more effectively. If I have a problem, I will be able to see that problem (and my own part in it) that much more clearly.

BUMPING INTO ELEPHANTS IN THE DARK

There is a story about four men and an elephant that is sometimes used to illustrate this idea.  The story goes like this: Four men bump into an elephant one day, in the dark. None of them has ever heard of an elephant before, and they are all very interested in the strange creature that they have encountered. They have a meeting to try to come to some basic agreement about what sort of beast they have discovered. The first man bumped into the side of the elephant and he says that the elephant is a bit like a wall. The second man met the trunk and so he says that an elephant is rather like a giant snake. The third man came across an ear and he thinks that an elephant is just like a huge fan. The forth man found a leg and so he says that an elephant is like nothing so much as a massive tree trunk. All four are right, given the perspective they were operating from, and yet at the same time none of them are right, because they each try to use their limited perspective to explain the whole thing.  Complete perspective in this case would be to examine the elephant from every single side, and then take all the different aspects into account to see what they add up to.

 

If I jump to the (understandable) conclusion that an elephant is best pictured as a ‘wall-like creature’, and then proceed to interact with all the elephants I ever meet on the basis of this premature and incomplete understanding, then all my future dealing with elephants are going to fraught with difficulties. This is because I will not actually be interacting with an elephant, but only with my idea of an elephant – which is not at all the same thing! For this reason my actions will backfire on me – unexpected problems will keep coming up that I am quite unable to understand, and which, naturally enough, I never will be able to understand just as long as I stick to my one-sided theory (or ‘model’) of elephants.

THE MAP AND THE TERRITORY

This example is of course rather over-simplified and not entirely plausible either, but we can apply it to real-life situations all the same.  Everyone of us interacts with the world on the basis of an incomplete or premature understanding. That is to say, every single person has a model for what is going on.  It is a fact that models, without exception, are always incomplete; there is inevitably going to be a difference between reality and our idea of it – no one can get around that. If this wasn’t so then life could never surprise us, and it always does, sooner or later; that is how we learn stuff – through being surprised!  The trouble is, of course, that there is a part of us which doesn’t like surprises very much, and this is why we have a natural tendency to want to have a theory that ‘explains everything’.  Another way to put this would be to say that we really want to believe that our map matches the territory exactly, and that there is nothing significant that we have left out, lurking in the twilight zone somewhere. Once we believe that we have a map that matches reality in every detail, then we are able to do what we really want to do, i.e. hand over responsibility to it. Life is under control, I say to myself, I have it licked!  There is a big danger here, though: when we completely identify with our map of reality we can’t actually tell the difference between the idea and the truth any more. Our thoughts become the word, they become all there is – we never go beyond them any more. This is ‘loss of perspective,’ big time. When we think we know it all, we are no longer capable of learning and growing; as a result, life has lost its flavour – it becomes a technicality, a job, a foregone conclusion one way or the other.

KNOWING IT ALL

Usually when we hear of someone who thinks they know it all, we think that they must be big-headed or arrogant. There is however, another, more common, reason for us jumping to the unwarranted conclusion that we know it all, and that reason is fear! This might seem like a bit of an odd suggestion, but let us consider it a bit further. When I am frightened I feel that I can’t afford to hang around in the ‘scared place,’ I have to do something fast to get out of there. Now, there is no way that I can hit upon a plan and put that plan into action without jumping to the conclusion that I know what is happening – I need a map in order to act, and once I start acting there is no time to question whether that map was right in the first place. I cannot afford, at that stage, to question my basic assumptions; at least, I don’t feel as if I can. As long as I am doing something ‘definite’  about my situation I feel a bit more secure and the last thing I want to do is consider the possibility that my action is based on an inaccurate representation of reality, and therefore useless, or even worse-than-useless. I’d rather carry on acting, and feeling secure in acting – ignorance is bliss, as they say! This sort of unquestioning action is mechanical in nature, it is unconscious and automatic.

 

Fear comes in many guises – it might be that we really want (or need) something, in which case the fear is the fear of not getting it, the fear of not having our needs met.  Generally speaking, fear occurs because of the awareness of uncertainty, or ‘lack of security,’ and the behaviour it tends to inspire is action that is geared towards increasing our sense of security and control. It is my need for control (i.e. my insecurity) that makes me want a theory that explains everything.

TOTAL CONTROL IS NOT FREEDOM

If my theory explains (and therefore predicts) everything, then the possibility of ‘total control’ is only one step away. Total control is our dream – it equals ‘total security’. Or so we think. Total control means that we can have everything ‘our own way,’ and who does not want this?  This is what we tend to think of when we hear the word freedom – we think of ‘the freedom to have everything the way we want it…’  Put another way, we think of the freedom to have whatever we want. Great…..  Fantastic…… But is this really freedom? What if our underlying understanding is incomplete? What if we’ve missed out something important out in our haste to feel that we have things ‘under control’?  If all maps are incomplete, as we have said that they are, then the ‘freedom to have things the way we want them to be’ actually means ‘the freedom to escape reality,’ or ‘the freedom to live in an imaginary place’.  What we are dreaming of is the freedom to live in a world which exactly matches our incomplete idea of it, which sounds a bit strange, to say the least. Even if we could have this so-called ‘freedom’ to be in a place where reality cannot reach us, would that turn out to be as great as we think, or would it not turn out to be some kind of ghastly nightmare?  After all, if I am not in reality, then just where the hell am I?

THE SECURITY OF KNOWING WHO I AM

There is another question I could ask. If I am not in a real place, then perhaps I am not being my real self either. And when I am not being my true self, then just who am I being? When I am completely identified with my map of myself, I am not being myself, but only my false idea of myself. In other words, I am putting on a show, or an act. True happiness, it is said, comes about through discovering who one really is, being true to oneself.  “If only I could just be myself…” I say.  “Just act naturally, be yourself…” advise my friends (in the fond belief that they are saying something helpful).  But how do I go about discovering my true self? ‘Being myself’ sounds so simple, yet everything I do seems to take me further away from it; the more I try to control myself to be myself (or, more accurately, what I think ‘myself’ should be) the more wrong I seem to go.  This is the very root of the problem – my inability to be myself through trying is the very thing which stands in the way of my happiness. ‘Trying’ means that I act purposefully on the basis of my ideas, and because my idea about who I am is not who I am, trying only makes me more artificial.

 

Just like there is a feeling of security in having a 100% reliable map of reality, so too there is security in ‘knowing who I am’.  Society itself provides us with well-defined roles and identities: I am a father, a patient, an income tax accountant, a Hell’s Angel, a free-mason, a communist, an alcoholic, a sports-fan, etc. I also have a nationality: I am German, or Irish, or Japanese! All of these descriptions provide security and predictability, the only problem being that they are not really who I am at all. Okay, so I can take on these roles, but they do not define me – there is always more to me than just a father or or just a patient.  Someone may point at me and say “so, you are English…” and then think that this says something important about me, but it doesn’t.  It leaves an awful lot out! Because our roles are not the whole truth about us, this is a guaranteed recipe for trouble. There is a conflict going on between my map and the reality which it is trying to explain.

 

As we have said, there is always a strong tendency for us to identify with our descriptions of reality and take them to be 100% reliable. When we are under any kind of stress we do this, and then the actions that we take on the basis of our narrow view of ourselves becomes increasingly ‘at odds’ with who we really are, which has the effect of making the original problem even worse.  A lot of the distress involved in ‘mental illness’ arises out of this mismatch between idea and reality: we are trying to fulfil some idea of who we are; we are provided with a set of assumptions about ‘who we are,’ and then we try to live up to them. Therapy, we might think, ought to allow us to play out our roles and games without any conflict or ‘role-stress’. But this conflict cannot be eliminated, and, even if it could, that in itself would be a disaster – we would be truly lost then, with no helpful pain to remind us that we have lost our authenticity somewhere along the line.

NEUROSIS AS LOSS OF PERSPECTIVE

When I identify with a fixed idea of ‘who I am,’ then I lose vital perspective, and this loss of perspective causes inflexibility, the inability to grow and change as a person. Identification provides a feeling of security; identification gives us something to grab hold of – a solid, non-ambiguous structure to rely on in times of trouble. The disadvantages, as we have said, are that I lose contact with my true self, and with the true nature of the ‘troublesome’ situation that I find myself in. This means that the conflict is actually perpetuated, and exacerbated, despite the illusory feeling that we are dong something positive.  This basic idea, that we reduce our own perspective deliberately (yet without really knowing what we are doing) in order to cope with stress, gives us a good way of looking at all neurotic states of mind. Phobias, depression, anxiety, obsessions, compulsions – all of these come down to ‘loss of perspective’. We are not just talking about the more unusual extremes of neurotic disturbance either – everyday neuroticism involves exactly the same principle, and so do the common negative emotions such as anger, jealousy, bitterness, self-pity, sulking, and so on. In all of these emotional states we experience a collapse of perspective which makes it impossible to see anything that can help us get out of the mood that we are in.  We can take a few examples:

[1]    ANGER    When I am angry I focus on stuff that makes me angry, and lose awareness of all the things that don’t help me in justifying myself in my anger. I see only one side of the story!

[2]   JEALOUSY    When I am jealous all the information I receive seems to support my idea that my partner is betraying me – there is no such thing as an ‘innocent explanation’. All the other explanations are simply unbelievable to me, I am no longer able to keep a balanced outlook.

[3]    SULKING   When I am sulking or bitter, everything I see serves to remind me of the wrong that has been done to me. I make myself into the centre of the universe and as a result I cannot get beyond this ‘poor me’ story even though there might be things happening around me that are fun and exciting.

 

Perspective means ‘freedom of perception’, and so the loss of perspective means being trapped in just the one way of seeing things.  I am not free to move from one viewpoint to another; I am restricted; am in a hole and I can’t climb out.  Normally, the viewpoints listed above such as anger, jealousy, etc, still exist, but so do all of the others, too. The difference is that I don’t dally with them – they hold no special attraction to them, and so I move on effortlessly. Nothing is excluded from my view of the world, and it is precisely this lack of exclusion that makes it a free-flowing situation; once I want to (consciously or unconsciously) block out certain ways of seeing the world, then the fluidity and freedom is lost. Therefore, the answer to being stuck in a negative mood or a neurotic, obsessive state of mind, might be said to be to increase perspective. When someone tells me this my most likely response will be to say “Fine, but how do I do this? How do I increase my perspective?”

 

This sounds like a helpful question to ask, but actually it isn’t all. In fact if I ask this question then what this really means is that I am looking for a way to increase my perspective that I can understand with the perspective that I already have. Asking ‘how’ means that I want to understand how to increase my perspective using the limited perspective (i.e. the map) that I am starting off from because any answer you give me will automatically be understood using ‘the limited way of understanding the world that is my usual everyday rational mind’. There is no way to get around this – if I can understand something then this means that it makes sense within the terms of my current map, and so I am never going to go beyond my map. Asking closed questions (questions that require a specific answer) re-affirms the validity of my habitual way of understanding the world, and so there is obviously no way in which this can ever lead to an increase in perspective (or ‘an increase in consciousness’, which is the same thing).

 

The only way to increase perspective is not by active ‘doing’, but by allowing the situation to be exactly the way it already is. So rather than ‘muscling in’ in a heavy-handed way and trying to control the situation  – whatever that situation might be – I remain sensitive to what is going on without doing what I normally do, which is automatically (and insensitively) trying to gain some sort of advantage. Even if I do nothing apart from mental reacting to the situation I find myself in, this too is keeping in control of what is going on because I am insisting on having my say. I am insisting on interpreting things in my way – the way that suits me. This is a way of staying in control because I am controlling the way I see the world so that I don’t have to see things in a way that I don’t like. As soon as I ease up on reacting, or trying to put my own slant on the proceedings then my understanding straight-away starts to develop in an unusual direction and this ‘unusual direction’ is due to the fact that I am allowing myself an extra bit of perspective on matters – I am allowing myself perspective that I would normally be struggling to suppress by staying in control.

 

Another way of explaining this point is to say that our perspective increases when we pay attention to whatever is making us feel bad. We tend to think that mental pain such as fear, anxiety or sadness causes us to lose perspective and get trapped as a result in a smaller world but really it is our reaction to mental pain that causes loss of perspective. Actually, losing perspective is something we do ‘secretly on purpose’ in order to escape from whatever it is that is troubling us – even though having very little perspective is thoroughly rotten in an oppressively cramped, dismally predictable, wretchedly unfree and claustrophobic sort of a way we choose (without really knowing what we are doing) this self-created prison rather than facing whatever it is that we are afraid to face. This is a good thing to understand for the reason that if we understand that loss of perspective is due to pain-avoidance then we know what the key to increasing perspective is purely and simply to pay careful attention to whatever it is that is causing us pain.

 

This tends to sound awfully morbid and unhealthy – we naturally assume that the way to go is to concentrate on the positive and the uplifting and try hard not to be preoccupied with all the rotten old negative stuff. It seems positively reprehensible to pay attention to feeling bad when there are so many wonderful – or potentially wonderful – sides to life. Why focus on misery as a way to increase perspective when we could gaze on the splendour of the stars, or immerse ourselves in the beauty of nature, or listen to glorious music? Gazing at the stars, going for a walk in the country, and listening to music can of course on occasion miraculously increase our sense of perspective on life but this does not mean that we can use them as ‘methods’. If we could then every time we felt bad which could just do one of these things and straightaway we would feel wonderful but the point is that it is just plain impossible to increase perspective as a way of escaping pain. I can’t use such a sublime thing as perspective for petty personal reasons – if my motivation is simply personal gain then the stark ‘lack of perspective’ inherent in this motivation will ensure that my attempt to increase my perspective comes to nothing. The same is true for creativity – if I try to tap into creativity in order to deliberately benefit myself in some way it just won’t work. The motivation behind the attempt to be creative is itself uncreative – personal gain (or pain-avoidance, which is the same thing) is always uncreative because its agenda is always fixed in advance. In fact there is nothing as profoundly uncreative as the motivation of greed-for-personal-benefit or fear-of-personal-loss. Nothing helpful can ever come from either greed or fear – fear and greed are states of mind that derive from a fundamental ‘lack of perspective’ and so any action that comes about as a result of this closed (or uncreative) type of motivation is bound simply to indefinitely perpetuate that lack of perspective. Greed cannot be used to escape greed any more than fear can be used to escape fear!

 

One reason we give for not paying attention to painful feelings or thoughts is that it puts us in danger of becoming obsessively fixated on our own misery. But this isn’t really true at all because what causes us to become fixated (or ‘stuck’) is the fact that we are fighting against these feelings or thoughts. When we find ourselves with an inner state that is unhappy or fearful or painful in any way we automatically resist that state – we struggle to change it to a state that is easier to bear, in other words. This tactic is perfectly understandable but it is also the worst thing that we could possibly do because fighting against my inner state means that I am negatively attached to it, and if I am attached to it clearly it is going to stay with me. Paying attention to my inner state is not at all the same as fighting against it, or complaining about it. Paying attention is, on the contrary, a fundamentally non-aggressive sort of a thing and for this reason it dissolves the existing attachment rather than creating additional attachment. Actually there is absolutely no way to aggressively or violently dissolve attachment because aggression and violence are themselves prime manifestations of attachment. The only way to dissolve attachment is by peaceful means and a peaceful approach basically involves remaining open to whatever the state is, without reacting, without ‘doing anything about it’. The temptation is of course to either ‘do something about the painful state of mind’ or to ‘ignore it’. Ignoring your state of mind is aggressive just as distracting yourself from your state of mind is aggressive and so ignoring and self-distracting create attachment just as much as fighting or complaining do.

INCREASING ‘ACCURATE PERCEPTION’

The way Krishnamurti explains this is to say that we always bring our own agenda to the situation, and it is this agenda that ensures that we get stuck. Therefore, if I am feeling bad in any way I don’t accurately perceive what this bad feeling is about, and I don’t accurately perceive what it feels like to feel like this. What I do perceive is what the situation feels like from the point of view of a person who can’t drop his agenda, and what this means is that I am only getting a ‘distorted’ picture of things. Obviously, anything I do on the basis of this distortion is bound simply to make things worse by translating this distortion into reality. The distortion is a distortion because it is a misrepresentative or ‘one-sided’ view of things  – basically it is how things look to me when I have lost all perspective and any reaction that I make faithfully ‘echoes’ my original lack of perspective and perpetuates it indefinitely.

 

So what is the distorting agenda that we unnecessarily bring with us into difficult situations, and which guarantees that we get hopelessly stuck in the misery of counterproductive or ‘self-defeating’ behaviour? One way to answer this question is to say that the agenda always has to do with acting as if something matters very much indeed (or matters ‘absolutely’) when actually it doesn’t very matter at all. We can make this clear by giving a slightly silly example: suppose I have mislaid my special platinum pen that was given to me as a first prize in some sort of writing competition. This annoys me and I cannot rest until I find it, even though I could get by equally well using a biro, of which there are many on my desk. In this situation what happens is that I get upset and frustrated and do not get on with the work that I have to do and the reason I have such a hard time of it is because I have insisted on finding the pen that I had lost. No other pen will do.  The ‘distorting influence’ here is the allocation of a huge amount of importance to something that isn’t in reality as important as we say it is. The reason finding my special pen is so important to me – so important to me that I waste a whole morning looking for it and getting in thoroughly bad form in the process of not finding it – is because I have said that it is important. I have set my heart on having it, and so I ‘have to’ have it, but it was me who freely decided to insist on having it in the first place so there isn’t really a ‘have to’ at all. Or to put it another way – finding the pen is only important because I have made it important (i.e. it only matters because I have said that it does).

 

The ‘unnecessary’ nature of the agenda, along with all the unnecessary trouble it causes for us, can be easily seen in the case of the special platinum pen but what exactly is the agenda that causes us to get stuck in miserable, self-frustrating states of mind – states of mind that are characterized by what we might call ‘futile or counterproductive struggling’? In the case of these miserable states of mind, which are commonly referred as ‘bad moods’, ‘negative emotions’ and ‘neuroticism’, the agenda is that a particular type of mental pain should not be felt. This tends to sound utterly ridiculous because we think that of course it matters that mental pain, or physical pain for that matter, should not be felt by us. Physical pain usually means that there is some sort threat to our bodily integrity and therefore because it makes sense to avoid threats to our bodily integrity, it also makes sense to avoid physical pain if we can. Mental pain, however, is a different kettle of fish because it does not signify a threat to our ‘mental health’ that needs be avoided at all costs – on the contrary, if we avoid mental pain then this avoidance itself becomes a threat to our mental health.  What ‘mental pain’ actually comes down to is a type of awareness that for some reason we find threatening and that we are utterly determined not to feel, without knowing (or even caring) why it is that we are so determined not to feel it.

 

Strangely enough, this sort of reaction, the reaction where we automatically fight against certain possibilities of awareness without knowing or caring why we are so dead set against them is inherent in the very nature of the everyday self which – when it comes right down to it – has its allegiance to repeating or reiterating the patterns of the past, whether or not these patterns are useful, or even make sense at all. The reason that the conditioned (i.e. habitual) self is able to successfully do this lies in its indefatigable ability to validate its own patterns of thinking and behaviour to itself, no matter how absurdly counterproductive they might be!

 

The way that the conditioned self does this is by looking at things only in a particular narrow way, which means making sure that it does not look at things in any other way. It is for this reason that ‘increasing perspective’ is actually the very last thing that the conditioned self wants to do! A good example of what we mean when we say this is provided by anger – if I get angry because you have taken my parking space then the only reason that I am able to get so self-righteously angry is because I believe that the parking space was mine not yours. I have set my heart on having it and then you come along and take it from me under my very nose, so to speak. This makes me feel very bad and I blame you for this bad feeling, but actually the only reason I feel so bad is because I have said to myself that the parking space is rightfully mine, end of story.

DE-VALIDATING THE SELF

If I didn’t insist on taking this position I wouldn’t feel the intense upsurge of righteous anger that I do feel, but rather than seeing that I am ‘doing it all myself’ (by refusing to look at things any other way) I say that my mental pain is your fault, and so my anger justifies itself, over and over again. An increase in perspective would mean that I would lose all justification, and so the mechanism of anger is one in which the possibility of me looking at things in any other way other than the anger-producing one is effectively prevented. I am ‘permanently validated’, in other words, and this gimmick of being ‘permanently validated’ is what being ‘the conditioned self’ is all about. We are always justifying our position to ourselves, even though this position is at all times perfectly arbitrary, perfectly gratuitous!

 

If we were to become ‘aware of ourselves’ (i.e. accurately perceive what we are actually doing) this act of observation would therefore increase our perspective on what is going on, and this increase in perspective would de-validate us! This feels bad because we are deeply invested in ‘being right’, but even though it feels bad, it is profoundly freeing at the same time because we are now free from the onerous task of always having to be propping up an untenable position, a position that is ultimately unworkable because it is arbitrary, because it is ‘gratuitous’. Gaining perspective hurts, in other words, because gaining perspective shines awareness on mechanical processes that (as P.D. Ouspensky says) no longer function in the light. And yet this ‘pain’ – even though we do not see it at the time – is really nothing other than the joyful dawning of our dawning freedom…

 

Image taken from: wraunyblogspot.ie

 

 

 

 

 

 

Separating Ourselves From Our Thoughts

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When we meditate one of the things we come to see is that we are not our thinking mind. We come to see that this mind is just a tool or instrument that we can utilize if we want to, but that we aren’t obliged to. This is an easy thing to say but it represents a one hundred and eighty degree turnaround from how we usually see things – usually the thinking mind is all we know (whether we realize this or not) and so it is pragmatically impossible for us to distinguish ourselves from our thinking, from our thoughts. If all we know is the thinking mind then of course we can’t distinguish ourselves or separate ourselves from it! On the contrary, we identify ourselves with it. We know ourselves through our thoughts, via the medium of our thoughts, and so what this means is that in our normal everyday state of being we are our thoughts. If all I know about myself I what I think about myself then this is just another way of saying that I am one of my own thoughts. If all I know is my conceptualization of the world, then this is as good as saying that that I am one of my own concepts! But in becoming a concept who I really am is lost.

 

The everyday thinking mind swallows everything up – it is like a giant invisible amoeba that absorbs everything it comes across and then replaces the originals with its own ideas or concepts of what they are. It duplicates (or ‘reproduces’) reality, in other words. This is a process that we never see happening because if we’re convinced that our idea about something is the same thing as the thing itself then how are we ever going to notice a transition? The principle here is that thinking about things is easy – it happens totally automatically, without us seeing it happening – but not thinking about things (i.e. not judging or evaluating the world) is hard because that doesn’t just ‘happen automatically’. Not evaluating or judging is the same thing as being conscious and consciousness is not a mechanical process. As long as we are going along with the thinking mind’s story (which as we have said proceeds quite automatically, quite without any volition on our part) then we will never know that it has ‘swallowed everything up’ and that we are as a consequence living in a world that is made up entirely from our ideas, our concepts, our judgements or evaluations.

 

When we live in a world that is made up entirely of our own thoughts then this of course means that we are at the mercy of our thoughts – if an agreeable thought comes along then we automatically feel good and if a disagreeable thought comes along then we equally automatically feel bad. Life therefore becomes a constant round of ‘up and down’ and all we can do is hope for more agreeable thoughts than disagreeable ones to come along. We can also of course attempt to steer things in this way by ‘trying to be positive’ but as experience shows this can only work for a short while (and if something only works for a short while this actually means that it isn’t working at all). And even the so-called ‘positive thoughts’ aren’t all that they are cracked up to be! They are brittle at best. The rewarding feeling that we get as a result of buying into them is very transient and very precarious – it can be gone in a flash if circumstances change or if another more powerful thought comes along. They can turn around on us in a moment – the comfort thought gives us is fickle to say the least and it all too easily switches around and becomes discomfort

 

The ‘good feeling’ that comes with positive thinking isn’t realistic in other words – it depends upon a particular slanted way of looking at the world seeming right to us, seeming correct to us, but who is to say that the corresponding negative way of looking at things may not also seem right to us a bit later on? So-called ‘positive and negative thoughts’ function exactly like flattery and insults – if we’re susceptible to being made to feel good by flattery then by the same token we’re going to be equally susceptible to being made to feel bad by any insult that comes our way. We get the soft end of the stick to be sure but we’re also going to get the rough end too in equal measure and the pleasure we get from the former is always going to be balanced out by the pain caused by the latter. How after all can we control the world to make sure that we only ever come across flattery? Even if we can control what people say to us (even if we can manage our environment so that it is always convivial to us) all this means is that we are setting ourselves up for a fall since life itself will level a few good insults at us sooner or later and no amount of money or charm or power or technology can protect us from that!

 

Another way of looking at why the so-called ‘positive states of mind’ that come about as a result of the thinking process working the way we want it to aren’t reliable is to see them as essentially being ‘agitations of an underlying medium’. All mental states that are linked to thought are ‘agitated states of mind’. There are two forms of agitation possible – one is an agitation that makes us excited in what we would call a ‘positive’ or ‘euphoric’ way, the other is an agitation that causes us to be excited in a ‘negative’ or ‘dysphoric’ way. Either it’s one form of excitement or it’s the other; there is no excitement that isn’t either positive or negative. Agitation of any sort is inherently unreliable however – agitated states of mind are unreliable because they it can (and will) give way to their opposite at the drop of a hat. To be up one minute is to be down the next. The one thing that can never happen as a result of the thinking process, as a result of our thoughts, is that we will find a balance in ourselves, a place where we are not at the mercy of every arbitrary thought that comes along. Or as we could also say, the one thing that we can never obtain for ourselves as a result of our thinking is stillness.

 

The reason we can’t find stillness within ourselves as a result of thinking is because stillness (or ‘peace of mind’) can never be created (or acquired) by thought. All thought can ever do is come up with positive or negative statements, positive and negative certainties. Thought can either say “It is!” or “It isn’t!” and neither of these is stillness because stillness isn’t a tug of war between two opposites – it isn’t ‘one opposite trying to win out over the other, complementary opposite’. That isn’t stillness, that is conflict, that is war! The activity of the thinking mind results in tension between the two poles which it itself takes for granted (which it has to take for granted in order to function at all) and this tension results in a never-ending agitation or disturbance. The struggle or conflict between one opposite and the other isn’t meaningful – it is a quintessentially meaningless type of conflict! The reason we can say that it is ‘quintessentially meaningless’ is because the opposites (any opposites) don’t have any independent existence outside of each other. The one opposite is only meaningful in relation to the other, and vice versa. The one opposite only makes sense in terms of the other. What does ‘up’ mean without a ‘down’, after all? Or ‘win’ without a ‘lose’, or a ‘YES’ without a ‘NO’?

 

When we struggle to affirm one opposite at the expense of another therefore (as we are so very prone to doing) we are not just affirming the one we want to affirm (i.e. the ‘positive’ one), we are affirming the whole set-up, we are ‘reinforcing both opposites equally’. We’re putting energy into the opposite we like, the opposite we’re in favour of, and at the same time we’re putting energy into the one we don’t like, the one we aren’t in favour of. We’re adding more and more momentum to the spinning wheel of YES-NO-YES-NO-YES-NO, the spinning wheel of UP followed by DOWN followed by UP… We’re giving more and more energy to the spinning wheel of the thinking mind. The more we try to control the situation (i.e. the more mental activity we engage in) the faster the wheel is going to spin, until the spinning itself becomes revealed as pain, or suffering. And when we get to thinking about this, and thinking about how we can stop the crazy spinning, all we are doing is making it spin faster! We can spin our way into stress and conflict and suffering without any problem at all but the one thing we can’t do is spin our way into happiness, spin our way into stillness…

 

As we have been saying, the thinking mind very quickly gets the better of us, gains the upper hand, and causes us to perceive the reality that it creates with its non-stop activity as being ‘the only reality’. It subsumes everything within it in other words, and as a result everything we do only serves to make the situation worse. Everything we do and think simply tangles us up more with the thinking mind, and makes that mind more powerful. But the spinning wheel that is the thinking mind isn’t the only reality. It isn’t ‘all that there is’. The spinning wheel is spinning in space and that space is not something that was created by our thoughts. Space is not a construct of thought. ‘Space’ is actually another way of talking about stillness and – as we keep saying – thoughts can never give rise to stillness. To see that we are not the thinking mind represents the introduction of a most extraordinary new element in the mix, therefore. It represents the element of freedom!

 

If we are not the thinking mind (and if the reality that is created by this mind is not the only reality) then this means we have more than just the two possibilities of saying YES or saying NO open to us. It is no longer just a question of affirming the situation or denying it – we are no longer restricted to the possibility of ‘straining to obtain the positive’ or ‘struggling to avoid the negative’, both of which – as we have said – only serve to fuel the momentum of the spinning wheel. The other possibility is for us to see that we are not our thoughts and that the world which is created by our thinking isn’t the only world. We can start to see that we are not this mind-created self which is always striving to obtain the positive outcome and push away the negative. Both the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ outcome equal this mind-created self – it is only the mind of attachment that sees everything in terms of ‘what I want’ and ‘what I don’t want’, after all. What the thinking mind says are the only two possibilities that are open to us (i.e. affirm or deny, say YES or say NO, ‘like’ or ‘dislike’) are therefore revealed to be ‘only what the thinking mind says is possible’, and the thinking mind is revealed as not being the whole story!

 

To put all this in just a few words, when we see that we aren’t the thinking mind we are free from that mind, free from that limited set of possibilities that just goes around and around. We’re free to step out of the cage of our concepts, the cage of our ideas. When we see that we aren’t the thinking mind – and that we don’t have to be thinking non-stop the whole time – this means that we are now aware of a much bigger world than the world which thought had shown us. We are aware of an incomparably vaster world. This ‘incomparable vaster world’ isn’t all about right and wrong, like and dislike, YES and NO. It isn’t all about the mind-created self, the ‘narrow-minded controller’. Seeing that we aren’t the thinking mind (and that the world which this mind creates isn’t the only world) is the same thing as seeing that who we are really is the stillness within which the wheel of thought is spinning. So no matter what is happening, no matter what triggers might be there, we don’t have to ‘DO’ anything! We don’t have to keep on going around and around on the spinning wheel. We are free just to ‘be’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking Because We Have To

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We all tend to have an odd sort of relationship with our thinking in the sense that we tend to think compulsively rather than ‘thinking freely’. This is a point that may not immediately make sense to us, but it is nonetheless a point that is very helpful to understand. A compulsive action – we may say – is an action that we carry out because we feel irritated in some way, and the only way to get relief from this irritation is to perform the action, to ‘get it over with’ so we can have some sort of peace as a result. We are a ‘slave to the irritation’, in other words, in that we have no choice other than ‘doing what we have to in order to make it leave us alone’. It’s the boss, not us. This – needless to say – is a very familiar scenario.

 
With regard to physical actions this idea is of course very easy to understand – a lot of our behaviour is of this nature, more than we would usually realize. We are hungry and so we eat, we are thirsty and so we drink, we have an itch and so we scratch, and so on. Or perhaps someone keeps on bugging us to do something, and so we give in and do it! This principle operates psychologically as well as physiologically and socially. We might for example sometimes talk compulsively – we say something or other because we are irritated and what we say is a response to this feeling of irritation (or ‘nervous tension’) rather than anything else. There is an ‘internal pressure’ that makes us do it. This is exactly the same thing as ‘scratching an itch’ – an itch comes along and we automatically scratch it so as to get some relief. Or perhaps we are nervous or ill at ease, and so we come out with something to break the tension. Needless to say, this sort of thing is very familiar to us all.

 
So what we’re saying here therefore is that most of our thinking is the result of the same sort of automatic process as scratching an itch, even though this isn’t at all how we usually see things. Most (if not practically all) of our thinking is the result of ‘internal pressure’. The proof of this assertion is simply to sit still for ten minutes and pay attention to the thinking process and how it happens – I normally think that I am in charge of my own thinking, that I am directing it, that I am the ‘voluntary creator’ of it, but all I need to do to correct this viewpoint is to actually pay attention instead of assuming I know what is going on. I don’t think the thoughts at all – they pop up and I simply go along with them. I go along with them because I don’t have any choice in the matter! The only reason I don’t see that I have no choice in the matter is because I am usually so agreeable to go along with them. I go along – quite automatically – with whatever comes along. There is no conflict – the thought comes and I go along with it with perfect unreflective compliance.

 
What’s actually happening here is that the thinking process is leading me, just as an obedient dog is taken for a walk by its master. I think compulsively, in other words – I think because I don’t have the choice not to think. I can easily discover this fact if I try not to think – what invariably happens in this case is that I end up ‘thinking despite myself’, I end up thinking against my own will, thinking even though I don’t want to be thinking. I think despite my intention not to. This is similar to what happens when I get angry with someone – as long as I go along with my anger I feel that I am ‘in control’, that I am calling the shots, that I am the one who has decided to get angry, but if I then decide to stop being angry then I discover that I simply can’t help it. Anger, in other words, is a compulsive sort of a thing and it only appears to be voluntary when we passively go along with it. It is very easy indeed to go around being angry and not realize that the anger is controlling us and not the other way around. This happens all the time!

 
Our everyday thinking is exactly the same as anger (or any other compulsive emotion) in this respect – it only appears to be voluntary when we passively go along with it. It is natural therefore that we feel perfectly convinced that ‘we are in control of our thinking’ and not vice versa; in order to lose this impression or this understanding we would have to have experience of being at odds with the thinking process, which generally only happens when our thinking starts to distress us and we find that we are unable to do anything to stop the thoughts that are causing us to suffer. Just so long as our thoughts are not causing us any distress it is unlikely that we shall ever discover the inherently compulsive nature of the thinking process. ‘Out of conflict comes consciousness’, says Jung. When I discover that I am not free, then I wake up out of the ‘fool’s paradise’ of unconsciousness, and actual awareness is born.

 
When my thoughts start to upset me then of course I do my best to ‘switch off’ the upsetting thoughts, but what happens then is that I find out that they do not come with a handy ‘off button’. I am forced to endure them, and put up with the unhappy or agitated states of mind that they are producing in me. Wherever the thought takes me, there I have to go – I’m like an ‘involuntary passenger’ who has to go along with the ride, whether I want to or not. When I see this then I have learned an important lesson, although it is definitely not a lesson that I am going to enjoy learning. Almost always we hear people talking of ‘fighting against the negative thinking’, or ‘fighting to stay positive’, and this is of course one way which we have to try to ‘switch off’ the distressing thoughts. What we don’t tend to see so clearly however is that our desire to think about things in a ‘positive’ way is the very same thing as our desire not to be thinking in the negative way, which means that the big emphasis on positive thinking (which sounds healthy) is really a disguised form of our fear of the negative thinking. It’s only ‘fear in disguise’.

 
So this leads to the question – is a fear of negative thinking ‘healthy’? It is certainly very natural but we can’t say that it is healthy (i.e. leading to a state of mental health or well-being) because when we experience aversion towards the ‘negative thoughts’ all that this means is that the thoughts in question are controlling us. It’s as simple as this. The aversion to the negative thought is a direct manifestation of that thought, so by running from it we are feeding it, we are making it stronger. We all know that fleeing from fears causes these fears to have a stronger grip on us, but somehow we don’t see that trying to force ourselves to think positively is just another way of ‘obeying the fear’. If we did see this then we would also see that tying to think positively isn’t a manifestation of mental health at all. It’s a manifestation of fear!

 
It’s remarkable how hard it is to see that positive thinking is really just negative thinking in surprise – it’s not ‘hard’, it seems nearly impossible! Nobody gets it! A clue lies in the way that we would usually say something like “I have to be positive”. Even if we don’t use these exact words there is a ‘have to’ lurking in the background somewhere – I certainly don’t say “I can be positive if I want to but I don’t have to”! It’s not playful, it’s serious! It’s grim! There is a perceived urgency in it, a strong – if not to say overwhelming – need. But if there is this need, this compulsion for me to think a positive thought instead of the negative one then in what way is this type of ‘compulsivity’ any better than the type I am trying to get rid of? I am unfree either way – I am being compelled to ‘think the thought’ either way, and so how is this an improvement?

 

We could of course answer that being compelled to think the positive thought is preferable to being compelled to think the negative one because it’s not as frightening and this – when it comes to the crunch – seems like a very persuasive reason! When fear is the motivation then we never look beyond the relief of escaping fear – if we can escape, that is. This is the sort of motivation that fear is – it’s a ‘mechanical’ motivation, a ‘reactive’ motivation, the type of motivation that doesn’t actually have any intelligence to it! We will – when it comes to the crunch – do whatever we can do to get away from whatever it is that is frightening us and so as long as forcing ourselves to think positively seems to be a way of doing this then this is what we will do (or at least, try to do).

 
The positive thinking is however (as we have said) simply a way of covering up the negative thinking and so what happens is that we get locked into a cycle in which we (at best) temporarily seem to be getting away from what is frightening, only to come back to it later when our ‘energy for escaping’ runs out, as it must to. This is exactly like holding a heavy iron spring down – we can do it for a while, until our arms get tired, but then, when our strength runs out, the spring uncoils again. So with the frightening thought, we can hold it at bay by thinking the positive thought for as long as we can, but as soon as we run out of strength it’s going to suddenly jump out at us again, just like a jack-in-the-box. It’s only a matter of time – the jack-in-the-box is only just waiting to jump out…

 
Any time we force something it’s not going to work. Whenever we force (or try to force) our mental state to be a certain way we’re going to find ourselves in the same situation – it’s going to work for a while (maybe) and then it’s going to back-fire on us. It’s going to go in reverse. This happens so many times – it happens over and over again – and yet we keep doing the same thing. It is as if we somehow manage to cling to the hope that the next time – perhaps – it’s going to be different. Maybe the next time we push the frightening thought away it’s not going to rebound on us like a boomerang! For sure the easiest thing (by far) is just to go along with this well-established mechanical reflex and keep on hoping (in some kind of faint, ill-examined way) that it’s going to work out for us, despite the fact that we know really that it won’t, and so this is what we almost always do. We keep on trying to force it, and allowing ourselves to believe that – this time – it’s somehow going to work…

 
Forcing always comes out of fear and fear is – as we have said – a motivation without any actual intelligence in it. It’s just something that mechanically happens because that’s the way the system is set up. It’s set up that way because that’s the way we’ve always done it. But because there is so much pain in this mechanical cycle (the cycle in which we first think negatively and then think positively in the attempt to fight back against the negative thoughts and then keep going around in this loop) we end up learning that it doesn’t work. The mechanical motivation isn’t intelligent but we are, and because there is so much suffering in being caught up in the cycle of compulsive thinking we start to learn from it. What we learn is that ‘forcing’ isn’t a way to escape from mental pain. On the contrary, it’s a very good way of exacerbating it! Forcing is us running away from fear and when we run away from fear we perpetuate it…

 
We could also say that what we learn as a result of being put through the wringer of compulsive thinking (of thinking because we have no choice but to think) is that we need to examine our relationship with the thinking process, and take more careful notice of it. Usually, as we have said, our relationship with thinking is peculiar in that we don’t have any freedom with regard to it; we just automatically go along with it wherever it takes us and what is even more peculiar is that we don’t ever notice that this is the nature of our relationship. There is a kind of blankness here – a kind of a ‘blind-spot’. If it weren’t for the fact that our thinking did start to create suffering for us, the chances are that we would never look at the nature of our relationship with it at all. The question is – therefore – when we see that we are powerless with regard to our thinking (and that even if we try to switch positive thoughts for negative ones this isn’t going to help us to escape the cycle) – what are we to do?

 
It’s all very well to say thinking positively is no help (and that it actually increases the power thinking has over us), but where does this leave us? Doesn’t it leave us feeling more powerless than ever? We’ve had our only hope taken away from us and this doesn’t feel good. This might feel like ‘a bad thing’ but the truth of the matter is that having insight actually leaves us in a much better place. It leaves us in a hugely better place, in fact. If we didn’t have any insight into the way that we ‘can’t use thinking to help us escape from thinking’ then we’d keep on at this forever, without ever getting anywhere. Without insight, there is ZERO chance of freedom. Without insight there is only the absolute certainty of continued mechanical bondage, which we can’t see as such.

 
Insight (i.e. seeing what is actually going on) doesn’t seem as important to us as ‘effective action’ – it doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as important as doing. When things get fraught we automatically look for ‘the right thing to do’, ‘the right way of changing or fixing the situation’. We look for the remedy. We look for the formula. This is our bias and it is a very powerful bias. It is an overwhelmingly powerful bias. And yet the thing is – as we have just said – that forcing cannot ever help us escape from mental pain. Forcing doesn’t work because it always sets up a rebound, a backlash, and ‘doing’ is really just another word for forcing. It’s all just us trying to run away from fear, and what’s so ‘effective’ (or ‘positive’) about this?

 
So when I ask “What do I do?” this is really just another way of asking “How do I force things to happen the way I want them to?” What kind of doing isn’t a type of forcing, after all? How could there be a type of doing that isn’t forcing? Once we see this clearly it really does take the wind out of our sails. As we’ve said, it seems to leave us in a very powerless place. The truth is however that this apparently ‘powerless’ place is the only place that actually contains freedom in it. It contains freedom because I’m not caught up in the trap of trying to control; it contains freedom because I’m not caught up in the trap of compulsive thinking (either of the negative or positive variety). The reason we find this as hard to understand as we do is because we’re seeing everything backwards – we see controlling as a way of obtaining freedom instead of seeing that controlling is actually a way of losing freedom.

 
Controlling is an unfree place! We are controlled by our need to control! If I am attempting to be in control then what this means is that I have to get things to work out the way I want them to work out. I’m trapped in it – the only way I can ‘get out’ of this constrained situation (this strait-jacket) is if I control successfully, and so I put all my energy, all my attention on doing this. The implication is that when I control successfully then I’ll be free so I am chasing freedom with my controlling, but then if I stopped to reflect on this I would see that it’s contradictory because what I’m doing is that I’m giving away my freedom in order to become free! So how does this make sense? How is this going to work? How is ‘giving away’ freedom ever going to lead to freedom?

 

When we switch into ‘control mode’ (or ‘doing mode’) we are delivering ourselves into the power of the thinking mind. Obviously this has to be the case – the thinking mind supplies us with the goal and it also supplies us with the means by which the goal is to be attained. It tells us where to go and how to get there. It supplies us with the goal, the method, the formula, the procedure, the strategy, the lot. The thinking mind supplies us with everything – it supplies us with our whole picture of reality, it supplies us with our ideas of what’s important and what’s not important, what we have to do and what we must not do.

 
The one thing the thinking mind does not supply us with is freedom! The thinking mind – when it comes right down to it – is entirely rigid – it is all about rules. It is all about black-and-white certainties and black-and-white certainties have nothing to do freedom. So what this means is that ‘control mode’ isn’t as empowering for us as we might have thought. The thinking mind sells itself to us as if it is going to empower us but really it’s disempowering. How can it be ‘empowering’ to hand over our freedom to a rigid system of rules? How can it be empowering to give away our freedom? So when we give up trying to control (because we realize that forcing always rebounds on us, because we realize that there is no way to use controlling to escape from a painful or unhappy state of mind) then although this initially feels like a very powerless place to be we are actually taking our power back. We are no longer afraid to be ourselves ‘just as we are’ in all our vulnerability – without strategies and without defences – and this is empowering rather than disempowering. We’re coming back to ourselves.

 
This point becomes very clear when we look at relationships – if I can only be in a relationship when I am heavily defended, or when I am controlling what is happening then although on the surface of things it may look as if I am in a ‘powerful’ position the truth is of course simply that I am acting out of weakness, out of fear. I’m scared to be genuinely in the relationship – I’m scared of taking the risk that it implies so I play ‘power games’. The only way to genuinely relate to another human being is by being open and vulnerable and by not playing any games – otherwise there’s simply no relationship, there’s only control.

 
The same essential principle applies to our relationship with life, and our relationship with our own feelings. If I try to be secure then I replace the relationship – which works both ways – with controlling, and this just isn’t going to work out for me. If I am afraid to let things happen as they will then I have to invest in control, and this means handing over my freedom to the thinking, game-playing mind. This is the hold that thought has on us – the only reason we think (in the rational/analytical way rather than the intuitive way) is because we are trying to change things. This can of course be helpful in some cases (where it relates to what’s going on outside of us, in the physical world) but it is not helpful when it comes to the inner world of our mental states, for reasons that we have discussed. Once we have gained this key insight into the ‘unhelpfulness’ of forcing and control in relation to how we feel then the incentive for us to buy into the thinking mind and its strategies is no longer there. Why would I be thinking all the time if I no longer want to change things? Why would be planning and analysing and calculating on a constant basis if I am not afraid to ‘take the risk’?

 
When we no longer feel that we have to be in control then our relationship with our thoughts changes in a radical way. Because we no longer feel that we need to be in control we don’t have to automatically hand over freedom to them. We don’t have to take our thoughts so seriously, in other words. Instead of taking our thoughts seriously we have a playful, curious relationship with them – we don’t fight against them and neither do we clutch hold of them in the hope that they are going to somehow save us. We’re not pushing them away and we’re not holding onto them – we have ‘taken back our power’ as a result of our equanimity, as a result of our fearlessness, and so we’re free to think if we want to, but we’re also ‘free not to think’…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not Scratching An Itchy Nose

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The key to finding freedom from compulsivity (which is where we very strongly feel that we have to do something!) is being able to hang out in our discomfort zones. It is the inability to hang out in our discomfort zones that makes us helpless slaves to whatever compulsion it is that comes along. A simple example of this principle is a person who cannot say no when someone asks him or her for a favour. Now it is of course good to do favours but it is not good if I help people out only because I am unable not to do so! Suppose that I am one such person. You ask me if I would mind looking after your three children for a couple of hours while you go off to see to some matter or other. On this occasion, let us say, I have stuff to do myself, and it would be very inconvenient for me to baby-sit. However, I know that if I say “no” then I will feel terrible – it might be that I will feel bad that I am so mean to you, or terrified in case you think I am an awful person, or frightened that I might be hurting your feelings by my rejection. I might feel guilty about not helping you – it is, after all, very easy to take on board someone else’s problems and then feel bad if we can’t do something to help.

 

It can be seen from this example however that my real concern is to do with not experiencing the pain of the guilt, or the pain of (possibly) hurting someone’s feelings, or the pain of being negatively evaluated by another person. Because I am so unwilling to experience the pain (or the discomfort) of not doing what you want me to do, I have to go ahead and say “yes”, even though saying “yes” is going to cause me a whole lot of trouble later on. I have no other choice. If I could find some way of saying “no” and avoiding the pain at the same time I would, but I am caught in a trap. Either I go along with what you want and put up with the inconvenience, or I say “no” and feel bad, and the thought of feeling bad makes me automatically take the first option. The cure for this situation is obvious enough – don’t be afraid of feeling bad. If I have no problem with feeling bad then I am not in a trap – I can say “yes” if it is not too inconvenient, or I can say “no”. In other words, I am free to say “yes” or “no”, I am not being pressurized. Normally, we think it is the other person (or the situation) that is pressurizing us, but it isn’t – it is our own unexamined refusal to experience discomfort that has us under pressure!

 

The example given above is a simplistic one, but the principle applies for all compulsions, without exception. Whether it is the urge to smoke a cigarette, the urge to lose my temper with someone who is annoying me, the urge to escape from an anxiety-provoking situation, the urge to feel sorry for myself – they are all compulsions and they all make me their slave purely because of my unwillingness to experience discomfort (i.e. the discomfort of not acting on the urge).

 

So now we have redefined the problem. Instead of saying that the problem is how to successfully obey the compulsion, or successfully fight the compulsion with an equal and opposite compulsion, we are saying that the problem is how to refrain from obeying and/or fighting. The problem is how to ‘hang out’ in the discomfort zone. In the most profound sense this is not a problem at all because there is nothing to be achieved that is not already there. I am already in the discomfort zone, and so I don’t have anything to do. In a practical sense, however, there is a problem because I don’t know how to ‘not do’. I am so used to automatically ‘doing’, automatically ‘reacting’, that I simply do not know any other way. Either I obey the urge, which is , or I fight the urge, which is . I don’t know anything else apart from oscillating between these two poles. Basically, I am trapped in reacting – either I react, or I react to my reacting. Either I say or to the original compulsion, or I say to my saying or , but whatever I do, it still inevitably comes down to or . So how do I escape my own automatic reacting?

THE ITCHY NOSE EXERCISE

There is a neat way of illustrating this predicament and that is the exercise of ‘not scratching an itchy nose’. All you have to do is wait until the next time you have an itchy nose and try out not scratching it. The first thing we notice is that the urge to scratch actually gets worse when we try to resist it – it dominates our consciousness, it becomes huge. What has happened is that we have made scratching/not scratching into a major issue, and as a consequence we have got sucked into an ongoing irresolvable conflict situation.

 

It is of course possible to sit there and deliberately not scratch, even though the itch has by now assumed unbearable proportions. The problem is though that the thing has already gone wrong because it has become such an issue – I have come to a virtual standstill because all my resources are going into fighting the compulsion, and the more I fight the more obsessively fixated I get on the little itch (which is by now not such a little itch). We intuitively know that the whole thing has become stupid at this stage and so what usually happens is that we just say – “The hell with it” and give the itch a scratch so that we can forget about it and get on with our lives. We know on some level that, even if we do successfully resist the compulsion, the victory is a false one because all we did was substitute another compulsion for the itch. In other words, I manage to not obey the ‘scratching compulsion’ by obeying the ‘compulsion not to scratch’, so actually I am still copping out. I am still scratching, only this time the itch I am scratching is the new itch which is the itch to resist scratching. I swapped itches, but I am still in the state of slavery to itches. I am still just an ‘automatic reaction machine’.

 

The point here is that it is totally and utterly impossible to defeat a compulsion by saying or to it. As soon as we do that we are lost, which is to say, as soon as we assume a deliberate posture with regard to the itch, we are reacting. Another way to explain this is to say that a compulsion is ‘an invitation to play the game’. If I say “Yes I will play the game” then I am playing the game, and if I say “No I will not play the game” then I am still playing the game, because by taking the compulsion seriously I have (without realizing it) accepted the terms of the game. The terms of the game are simply that the game by taken seriously, that the goals which are important within the context of the game should also be seen as important by me. Obviously, once I do that, then I am by definition playing the game!

 

We can also explain this by saying that the compulsion is a trigger – it triggers us to react, to do. It doesn’t matter what sort of reacting, what sort of doing, because as soon as we are triggered into doing we have got sucked into the game. The trigger is of no consequence if I do not react because nothing comes of it – if I do not ‘do’ then I do not make an issue of anything and so I do not get stuck in the issue, and so there is no problem, no conflict situation. Not doing – not reacting to the trigger – doesn’t mean ignoring the trigger (which is treating the trigger as something special), it means treating the trigger the same as everything else. In the terms which we have been using, saying and both means ‘treating the trigger as something special’. ‘Not doing’ can be expressed in terms of <?>, which is open, unprejudiced awareness. <?> is simply consciousness, or ‘seeing what is there’.

 

Going back to the ‘itchy nose’ experiment, what this means is that the way to do it is by just being aware of the itchiness, without treating it as anything special. Where I tend to go wrong is by thinking that I have to be ‘aware of the itchiness’ on purpose, which is a mistake because the awareness is there by itself. Seeing happens by itself, it is not something that we ‘do’. The crucial insight is that I cannot deliberately be in a state of open, unprejudiced awareness, because ‘deliberate’ always means prejudice. The answer is simply to be myself, but I cannot be myself on purpose because ‘being myself’ is not a deliberate stance – it is not a position in a game, it is what happens naturally when I am not making an issue of anything.

NATURAL BALANCE

<?> is a kind of natural balance point that needs no energy input to maintain. If I say then I have to maintain it and if I say I have to maintain it. I need to be there, to be actively involved in ‘propping up the situation’. If I take up a position then I need to defend that position. We can explain what we mean by this by looking at the problem of low self-esteem.

 

Often when a person has low self-esteem they are advised to try to think more positively about themselves. In other words, they are told to take up a certain position with regard to the question of whether they are crappy or not. We can analyse this in the same way that we have been looking at ‘scratching an itch’. In the case of low self-esteem, the feeling of inferiority (or embarrassment/shame) is the trigger and reacting to the trigger (i.e. scratching the itch) takes the form of either [1] saying to it by saying that “I am a crap person” or [2] saying to it by saying “I am a worthwhile person”. Both of these reactions provide momentary relief from the pain of the itch, but both also exacerbate the underlying problem – both responses make the itch worse, i.e. they make the issue bigger not smaller. The helpful thing to do is to take no position on the underlying painful feeling of inadequacy or inferiority. Seeing it is all I can do, really.

 

We might say that the thing to do is to take an ‘unprejudiced’ position but this would be misleading, because (as we have already noted) any position that I deliberately take is inevitably going to be prejudiced. It has to be prejudiced because it (i.e. the attitude or position) arose in connection with an aim or goal, and goals are by definition prejudiced! On the one hand what we are saying here seems to be ‘hopeless’ because what we are saying is that it is utterly impossible to mentally manoeuvre ourselves so as to not have low self-esteem, if we do have low self-esteem. There is no way to put a helpful slant on it in order to ‘adjust’ away the inadequate feelings. This sounds bad, naturally. On the other hand, what we are saying is actually good news, because what we are saying is that we are already doing the right thing, before we even started doing anything. The ‘right thing’ is simply to feel the pain and not try to fix things so I don’t feel so bad. Going back to the example of the itchy nose, the point is that it is okay for the itch to be there – the itch doesn’t really need a response, it just feels like it does. As long as I don’t fall into the trap of thinking that ‘I need to do something about it’, then there is no problem. I don’t need to react, and I don’t need to act so that I don’t react. The situation is right just as it is.

NOT FEEDING THE ENGINE OF AUTOMATIC REACTING…

We have used the example of an itchy nose and the example of low self-esteem. The principle applies across the board, as we have said – it doesn’t matter what the itch or compulsion is. In anxiety it is ‘the itch to run away’ (i.e. fear), in anger it is the itch to attack, or the itch to defend oneself, and in OCD it is the itch to check or correct. In all cases what is happening is that we are trying to avoid discomfort or pain, and by avoiding the pain we only succeed in making the underlying compulsion stronger, just for the sake of momentary relief.

 

The key is to not feed the engine of reacting, because when we stop feeding it the engine gradually runs out of steam, without anyone having to ‘do’ anything. One metaphor is that of the muddy pool. When a pond gets muddy no amount of stirring or ‘messing about’ will fix it to make it stop being muddy. The more we mess about with it the muddier it gets, because it is our attempts to clear the water that keep it cloudy. The cure is to leave it to be muddy, even though this might be annoying, frustrating or painful to us. Once we stop interfering the mud will unfailingly settle and the water will clear all by itself – it might take a while, but there is no way to rush it. There is nothing else to do apart from letting it alone. The exact same is true with the muddied pond of our thoughts and emotions. We cannot use thinking to clear an upset or distorted mind because it is thinking that made everything confused in the first place.

 

No matter how bad the discomfort is in our mind, if it is allowed (if it is left alone) it will return to clarity and peace. Even though this is a very simple remedy, it is still easy to get confused. It seems that we can’t help trying to ‘smooth out the wrinkles’ ourselves, and even when we understand the idea of ‘not doing’ we spoil it by trying to ‘do’ the ‘not doing’. Suppose I have a compulsion to scratch an itch. My original formulation of my predicament is to say that it is the pain of the itch, which I try to solve by scratching. My attempt to scratch is based on my desire to escape the pain. When I get a bit of insight I see that my predicament is actually my on-going attempt to ‘fix’ the itch, and my inability to stop fixing.

 

This is always the predicament when it comes right down to it. There is absolutely no way to deliberately free myself from automatic reacting, and my attempts to do so only serve to fuel the whole thing. This is the bottom line – I cannot escape on purpose, and if I think I can then that is only because I am psychologically unconscious. One way of defining the state of psychological unconsciousness is to say that it is pain avoidance which is so thorough that we do not even know that this is what we are doing. In other words, I believe that my motivation for acting is one thing, whilst actually I have a hidden agenda the whole time and that hidden agenda is to distract myself from seeing something that I don’t want to see.

 

When I am in the state of psychological unconsciousness I always believe that there is some way to ‘fix it’. Because of this belief, I am always on the move, never accepting the truth of where I am. Therefore, although the discovery that I cannot escape on purpose (become free from my mind on purpose) initially seems like bad news, actually it is a very helpful insight because it means that I am no longer unconscious. I am no longer avoiding the pain of seeing my true predicament, which is that I cannot really change my situation by deliberate action – and because I am no longer avoiding pain I am no longer feeding the engine of automatic reacting. Even though I can’t stop trying to fix, by seeing that my attempts to fix the situation are futile I am in the state of conscious frustration, and it is through conscious frustration that the engine of automatic reacting is drained of its terrible ‘dead momentum’. This is how we do psychological work.