We Can’t Hang Out’ On Purpose

One of the basic ideas in all anxiety management classes (and ‘anxiety management’ is not actually a very nice term) is that of challenging the avoidance of situations that provoke anxiety in us. This is fine as a far as it goes but we need to understand that ‘challenging’ isn’t really a purposeful thing in the way that we always assume that it is. If we don’t understand this then we are simply going to go around in circles. The point is that challenging isn’t something that can be done intentionally (i.e. as part of a strategy) because when we challenge intentionally then this too becomes ‘an avoidance’. This isn’t the easiest thing in the world to understand but we can get to it in easy stages. Avoidance is without any doubt at the very heart of anxiety because as soon as we avoid we automatically reinforce the belief that the situation in question is dangerous enough to be worth avoiding. We don’t stick around to see what is really going to happen, we just get out of there, and the instant sense of relief conditions us to do the very same thing next time. It is easy enough to see how this works: if I stay in the situation I feel bad, and if I avoid I feel relief, so what am I going to do? It’s a no-brainer, really…

 

What has happened when I get stuck in a pattern of avoidance is that I have created a mental barrier that corresponds to a ‘no go’ zone in real life. Every time I avoid going to the supermarket (for example) I reinforce the original belief that something terrible is going to happen to me if I stick around, and eventually the force of this belief may become strong enough to make me feel physically sick if I even think about going there. What is worse is that avoidance creates a precedence: if I have ’solved’ one difficulty by avoidance then I am more than likely to solve the next problem that comes along in the same way. Eventually I am going to be retreating on all fronts and the whole of life will be a ‘no go’ zone. So where does that leave me? In the end even my one ‘safe place’, whatever that is, will become threatened – just because I have ignored the bigger problems in life by ‘over-simplifying’ my interaction with the world, that doesn’t mean that my life will now be problem-free. On the contrary, smaller, pettier problems will unfailingly arrive to take the place of the old ones, and all the anxiety that used to attach itself to the original problem, will proceed to attach itself to the new one.

 

The point here is that the anxiety hasn’t actually gone away, and that it will always find something to associate itself with. It doesn’t matter how trivial the issue, the anxiety reaction will be just the same. This is a phenomenon with which we are all familiar – a tiny little difficulty completely upsets me, a minor inconvenience elicits a disproportionate physical and mental reaction. We know it is ridiculous to be worried by such a small thing, but this knowledge doesn’t help us. At this stage we might try to simplify our lives even more, so that there is less and less that can ‘go wrong’, but this doesn’t work because we can never control our situations 100% – that is a law of the universe – and the frantic attempt to do so is a one-way ticket to neurotic hell.

 

We see this, and so we decide to start challenging our patterns of avoidance – all well and good. Let us say that one of the situations that I have been avoiding is going to the high street and buying something in a shop. Let us also say that this is not my ‘Number 1 fear’ – it is quite low down on the list and so it is a realistic thing for me to try to challenge this avoidance. So what do I do? Well, because I am challenging the avoidance, I make a goal of doing the thing I don’t usually do, the thing I don’t want to do. I grit my teeth, I set my jaw firmly, I bite the bullet and I head off out the door. In my head there is only one thing, and that is the goal which I am determined to attain. What this means is that the whole time I am making my way to the shop, I am (in my head) there already! In my head I have already arrived…

 

It is true that there is a delay between me first getting the idea in my head, and that idea finding its fulfilment in reality. It is also true that I am very much aware of the discrepancy between ‘goal’ and ‘attainment of goal’, but because I am aware of this discrepancy, the whole time that this gap is there I am trying single-mindedly to close it. I only want one thing, I am only interested in one thing, and that is to make reality match my idea of it. Because I am only interested in the ultimate goal, I am not actually present as I make my journey to the shop; my body is there but I am ahead of myself, only concerned with getting where I am going – touching base. This is – again – a thing that we are very familiar with when we are suffering from anxiety – it is the phenomenon of ‘always skipping ahead’.

 

What this means therefore is that as soon as I do touch base I then have a new goal, and that new goal is of course to get back home as quickly as possible. There is no moment of freedom, no moment of rest, no release. I never let up on the unwavering control, not for a second, and so the whole process of ‘living in the future’ is repeated until I do get back home. When I get home I can relax (possibly), and I might even feel good about having achieved my target, but just how satisfactory is this?  Obviously it is a step in the right direction, but at the same time there is no doubt that the whole procedure is a bit of avoidance in its own right! What I have been avoiding is the ‘here and now’ – it is not good enough to be there in the shop and in the high street in my body because if my awareness is elsewhere (or willing itself elsewhere, which is the same thing) then the anxiety is still dictating the terms.

 

If I rush from goal to goal, then that is anxiety. That is anxiety in a nutshell. If I am in one place, and I make a rule in my head saying that I should be in another place, then that is anxiety. The only thing that isn’t anxiety is being in the place that you are, and not wishing you were somewhere else! What we are talking about here is this thing called ‘hanging out’. The day I really reverse the insidious process of avoidance is the day I hang out. ‘Hanging out’ means being present with no agenda and this is easier to talk about than to do because I always have an agenda. I can’t ‘hang out on purpose’, because if I am there with a goal in my head (even the goal of hanging out) then I am not really there – I am (as we have said) in my head, planning, wishing, wanting, controlling…

 

I cannot have an agenda to drop my agenda, because then that is still an agenda. I am there in one place (the place of having an agenda), and I want to be in another place (the place of having no agenda). I am making a rule in my head that ‘something should happen’, and this is anxiety all over again. I’m skipping ahead. So what do I do? The answer is simple, but it doesn’t come easily. The answer is to be in the place that I am already in, which is ‘wanting to be somewhere else’. So, if I am ‘not hanging out’, then I ‘hang out in not hanging out’. This means that I don’t try to force myself to be elsewhere – I don’t make a rule saying “This is not good; this is not the right place to be”. Wherever I am, that is the right place to be. It has to be! It must be right because I am there, and I can’t be anywhere else anyway, no matter how hard I try. Mental straining is always futile and when we start to see that it is always futile that means we are actually present. Normally, we’re not ‘present’, we’re not ‘conscious’, and that means that we don’t see that the straining is futile.

 

Experiencing fear is one thing, and being anxious is another. Fear is when I don’t like being in a place, but I know that I am there – I am present in it, in other words. Anxiety is when I am running away from my fear – which means that I believe (on some unexamined level) that it is possible to escape if I strain hard enough. Thus, all my effort goes into ‘straining to do an impossible thing’, which is what creates anxiety. I am not orientated towards reality – I am orientated towards my goal of how I would like reality to be.  This is why goals are useful when it comes to working with anxiety; goals mean that I want to be somewhere else (obviously enough!) and so how is this supposed to help me with anxiety? Having goals (or ‘relying on methods’) always feeds back into the anxiety, naturally enough, and it is easy enough to see this – if we are actually interested in seeing it.

 

The purposeful mind really isn’t the right man for the job here. The purposeful mind isn’t the right man for the job because it’s always ‘skipping ahead to the future’ and this is what creates the anxiety in the first place. It’s the purposeful mind’s job to be skipping ahead – very obviously that is its job – so we can’t blame it for this! ‘Purposes’ exist in the future, after all – they certainly don’t exist in the present. There are no goals in the present; there never could be any goals in the present. There’s nothing in the present but ‘hanging out’ and we’re not hanging out for a reason. We’re not hanging out in order to achieve or obtain anything.

 

This might seem like a rather simplistic point to make but it isn’t – when we see that there are no goals in the present and that the present is the only place we can find relief from anxiety (because there is then no rule saying that we have to be somewhere else other than where we are right now, which is the cause of anxiety) then our orientation naturally starts to shift. The orientation is no longer directed outside of ourselves to some ‘result’ we would like to see happen. We absolutely can’t shift our orientation on purpose but when the awareness comes to us that goals equal anxiety (which society will never tell us because it is based on goals) then we will naturally let go of our goals, to some extent. ‘Letting go’ isn’t a thing that can be made into a goal; ‘letting go’ comes only from awareness and awareness exists only in the present moment…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond The Paradox Of Purposefulness

Anyone who is seriously trying to come to grips with what is called ‘therapy’ is always going to come up against the same intractable problem. It’s only a matter of time – everyone is going to find themselves – sooner or later – in the same impossible position. There is actually no way around this! Therapy isn’t as simple or straightforward as we think – it isn’t just a matter of ‘following the therapeutic protocols’ or ‘following the prescribed method’. If we think that it is then we’re never going to get anywhere. If we think that it is then we’re being super-naïve…

 

What we come up against is a paradox, and the essential form of this paradox is that we find ourselves trying to ‘let go on purpose’. We know that letting go (or surrendering) is the answer, but the problem is ‘how do we go about doing it?’ There is no way to deliberately ‘let go’ because everything we do deliberately is always ‘done for a reason’ and the whole point of letting go is that we aren’t doing something for a reason. The whole point is that that we aren’t acting in order to obtain some kind of desired outcome. How can we be ‘letting go’ and yet ‘trying to obtain some kind of desired outcome’? ‘Letting go’ is letting go – there are no ‘desired outcomes’ – if they were then it would be controlling that we are looking at here, not ‘getting go’.

 

Instead of talking in terms of ‘letting go’ we could equally well talk about accepting – it’s the same thing. When we ‘accept’ we let go of any idea that we might have of how we would like things to be different. We let go of any idea that we might have of things being different to the way that they actually are. That’s what ‘accepting’ means. Very often we hear of the notion of acceptance in therapy and that’s fine as far as it goes, but the problem comes when there is some sort of implication that we ought to be able to do this on purpose. First we have the idea, and then we put it into practice. ‘Letting go’ or ‘accepting’ is the right thing to do, the smart thing to do, we are given to understand, so we just have to hurry up and accept. That’s what we’re ‘supposed’ to do…

 

This is a joke however because no one in the entire course of human history has ever accepted because it was ‘the right thing to do,’ because we have gone ahead and made the informed decision to do so’. We can’t accept on purpose any more than we can let go on purpose. When we ‘accept’ we always do so because we are trying to obtain something as a result and if we are ‘trying to get something as a result’ then we are in a ‘fundamentally non-accepting’ frame of mind. We’re not accepting the possibility that we won’t get what we’re secretly trying to get as a result of our so-called ‘accepting’.

 

We assume that acceptance is a kind of choice that the thinking mind can make – “I choose to accept”, I say. Choice means preference (or bias) however – one thing we want, the other thing we don’t want. One possibility is good, the other bad. When we talk about acceptance in the psychological (or spiritual) sense of the world what we mean however is going beyond preference, going beyond ‘like and dislike’. How then can choice, which is the same thing as preference, take us beyond itself? How do we imagine that this is ever going to work? How can I ‘choose not to choose,’ because that’s what I’m really trying to do here? I can’t use attachment to free myself from attachment, or use the thinking mind to free me from the thinking mind.

 

Our problem is that we can’t see that there is a big fat paradox there. Most of us – even if we are in therapy, or have been in therapy, for a long time – don’t ever see this. Most therapists won’t ever see this – they will skip blandly over the paradox as if it didn’t exist. How often do we hear in therapy anyone talking about the insurmountable paradox that is inevitably to be found waiting for us when we try to accept on purpose, accept because it’s the right thing to do, or ‘because it’s part of the prescribed therapeutic protocol’? Therapists very rarely talk about paradoxicality. The very existence of the paradox we are talking about makes a complete nonsense of including the notion of acceptance in any psychotherapeutic protocol. ‘Methods’ and ‘paradoxes’ don’t mix! What’s the point of having acceptance as part of ‘what’s supposed to happen’ if there is absolutely no way in which we can go ahead and do it on purpose? And if trying to ‘go ahead and do it on purpose’ has the opposite effect to what we want? What kind of a joke is that?

 

The reason the paradox remains invisible to us is because is simply because we’re too identified with the thinking mind. The one thing the thinking mind can never see is the paradoxicality that is adherent in its very nature and so when we are 100% identified with the instrument of thought (as we almost always are) then any talk of the logical paradox inherent in the structure of thought itself will remain a profound mystery to us, and it’s not a mystery that we’re in the least bit interested in either! When we’re not consciously aware of the paradox inherent in thought then we are doomed to go on ‘unconsciously enacting the paradox’ in just about everything we do. We are bound to keep going around and around in circles forever, in other words.

 

In order to be aware of the paradoxicality inherent in thought (or in purposefulness) we have to be – to some degree – separate from the thinking mind. It can’t be our total or exclusive viewpoint; there has to be some possibility of seeing things in a way that is not conditioned by thought. How do we get to separate our consciousness from the rational mind however? Clearly this is just the same paradox all over again because anything we deliberately do in order to (supposedly) separate us from the thinking mind actually ties us to that mind all the more. If we do anything on purpose, as part of some kind of ‘rational design’, then this reinforces the thinking mind. To use the thinking mind is always to strengthen it, after all! We can’t free ourselves from the instrument of thought (and the suffering that it causes) by using that very same instrument, which is nevertheless what we always try to do.

 

This doesn’t mean that our situation is ‘hopeless’ though – it’s just hopeless if we keep on trying to help ourselves by using the thinking mind! There is – no matter what might think – a process going on the whole time that is acting to separate us from the instrument of thought, and demonstrating to us that we are not this instrument, and this is the process of ‘disillusionment’ (or the process of ‘becoming aware’). Curiously therefore, it’s the suffering-producing activity of the thinking mind which facilitates this process. We might not be directly aware of how using thought to (supposedly) solve of all our problems infallibly results in us being caught up in the jaws of logically paradoxicality, but we get chewed up by these crunching jaws all the same, whether we know what’s going on or not. Paradoxicality with regard to our purposefulness comes down to counterproductivity – we act so as to improve our situation but we improve it instead. We try to escape from discomfort or pain and find comfort or pleasure instead, but things just don’t work out like this. The more we try to be in control of our situation so as to make our lives happier or more peaceful or more secure the more miserably neurotic we become. Cleverness and control never lead us to happiness, and yet we never seem to learn this. It’s as if we are constitutionally unable to learn not to trust the thinking mind in the blind way that we always do trust it – we keep on believing that rational thought can do what it can’t, that it can lead us to freedom and happiness when it never will.

 

Inasmuch as we are 100% orientated towards believing the thinking mind to be ‘an infallible guide in all things’ then we are constitutionally incapable of learning, but as we have said, there is another force at work apart from our blinkered ‘conditioned will’, and that is the force which acts, persistently and patiently, against our will and in the direction of freedom instead, which is the direction the conditioned mind can never take us. We don’t of course feel favourably disposed towards a process that is bigger than us and stronger than us and which takes us in a direction that we very much don’t want to go in. We don’t like it at all, but when we develop enough wisdom and insight to see this process for what it is then this changes our attitude in a crucial way; we will still fight against the ‘helpful’ process of disillusionment on one level, on a ‘reflexive-level’, but at the same time – on a much more profound level of awareness – we will assent to it, we will be ‘at peace’ with it. We are no longer worshipping our conditioned will (or ‘the conditioned mind’) as if it were the most important thing in the world, as if it were the Divine Source of All Wisdom, and it is precisely this ‘demoting of the autocratic thinking mind’ to a subsidiary position that takes us ‘beyond the paradox of purposefulness’.

 

 

Art: St. George and the Dragon by Vittore Carpaccio (1465-1526, Italy)