Being Possessed By The Reactive Mind

‘Reactivity’ is a curse from which we all suffer to some degree or another. Something or other (an event or something someone says) happens and instantly I am plunged into an overwhelming emotional and/or physical reaction. All of a sudden I am ‘not myself’ – I am plunged into a negative state of mind and am likely to say or do things that are not characteristic at all of my normal self. This sort of dramatic ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ type transformation really is the stuff of everyday life and yet – at the same time – it is nevertheless a very strange sort of thing to happen. After all, I am myself and so how is it that I can turn into someone different at the drop of a hat? How is it that a kind, fair-minded and humorous person can turn into an unkind, unfair and utterly humourless caricature of themselves? It is no wonder that the ancients used to explain the more extreme and long-lasted examples of this phenomenon in terms of demonic possession.

INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL PRESSURE

Reactivity is so much a part of everyday life that we don’t really think very much of it. We could in fact take the position that to react to what goes on around us is the same thing as ‘having an emotional life’ – we could simply say that ‘reactions’ are the same as ‘emotions’ and that if we didn’t react we wouldn’t be properly human any more. This is probably what most people would say, if you stopped them on the street to ask their opinions about it. On the other hand, we could also take the position that it is our freedom from reactivity that makes us human. We could say that when a person has no capacity to be in a challenging situation without ‘automatically reacting’, then they are not properly human. After all, if what I feel and think and do is merely the mechanical result of an interaction between ‘trigger’ and ‘conditioned response’ then where do I come into all this? I don’t need to be there at all – and in fact I actually am not there. All that is there is the habitual response – the inflexible and terminally unreflectIve robot that I have elected and empowered to take over the job of running my life for me.

 

 

In a reaction there is no trace of an autonomous consciousness, no ‘I’ which is independent of the world around it. This is like a person who always agrees with the prevailing opinion, who always thinks the same way as his or her companions. If I always agree with the people around me then obviously my opinion is not worth a damn. After all, I am bound to be continuously contradicting myself since I may support a certain viewpoint right now and yet be totally against it ten minutes later, depending on who I am with. My position is not autonomous, it simply depends on what is going on around me, and so I might as well not be there at all. After all, I am not exactly adding anything different or new to the situation.  It is easy to understand this argument with regard to a person who only reflects the views of others but less easy to see how it relates to cognitive or emotional reactions. The point is that when I react I automatically lose my autonomous or independent consciousness, and become totally controlled by something that is imposed upon me from outside. I am controlled by external mechanical factors.

 

 

What I am being controlled by has – we might say – an interior and exterior aspect. On the one hand we could say that I am being controlled by external events. If things go well then I am a happy person, if things don’t go well I am an irritable and angry person. I am therefore a puppet, not a true individual at all. I have no ‘autonomy’. Or to take another example – if everyone says I am wonderful I feel good about myself but if people look down on me I feel very bad about myself. Again, I am nothing but a puppet, waiting for others to pull my strings. I am a helpless bit of flotsam, bobbing up and down on the waves of arbitrary public opinion. I am always allowing myself to be defined according to ‘external pressure’.

 

 

On the other hand, it could equally well be said that I am being controlled by the ‘internal pressure’ of my thinking, and the pressure that this thinking is putting me under. This is what is something called ‘like or dislike’ – my thoughts (or my ‘evaluations’) tell me that one thing is good and another is bad and so I am then under pressure to obtain the one and avoid the latter. We don’t usually perceive this as ‘pressure’ (or as ‘being controlled by our thinking’) because we don’t see any conflict there – it is only when our thinking directly causes us distress that we start to realize that our thinking functions more as a dictator than an obedient servant. It is our thinking that causes us to react instead of responding with intelligence and sensitivity and it is therefore our thinking which is responsible for perpetuating our ongoing state of pain and confusion. We don’t actually see ourselves to be in ‘a state of pain and confusion’ and herein lies our problem. We are convinced – for the most part – that it is possible to respond intelligently and sensitively on the basis of rational thought. Yet the thinking mind can never be sensitive; thoughts are not sensitive, concepts are not sensitive, so how can the rational/conceptual mind be sensitive?

OUR THOUGHTS ARE ALWAYS AGGRESSIVE

Thoughts (or concepts) are like solid objects which have no flexibility to them – they are the shape that they are and that’s all there is to it. Our thoughts determine what the world looks like to us rather than vice versa; a particular thought, a particular concept will always make the world seem the same way! The thought or concept stays the same and we have to try to change the world to suit it. This is where the ‘like and dislike’ comes in – like and dislike is all about control and control is how we try to adjust the world (and ourselves) to our rigid or unchanging ideas about it. When like and dislike is all we know (which is the same as saying ‘when we have no actual sensitivity to things’) then we are forever trying to make the world be the way we think it ought to be and this spells nothing but suffering – naturally it spells nothing else but suffering since we are never going to succeed in this endeavour. And even if – hypothetically speaking – we were able to convert the world into a perfect copy of what we think it ought to be like, this would not be a good thing! Succeeding in getting things to be the way we think they should be (which is pure naked aggression) wouldn’t be a good thing because then the whole world would simply be an echo of our unexamined assumptions or prejudices and this would be a terribly hollow (or redundant) situation. That wouldn’t be ‘life’ so much as a horrible mockery of it…

 

 

Aggression always creates pain for us further down the line. ‘Reacting’ always creates pain for us further down the line – aggression and ‘reacting’ are one and the same thing. When we react we are ‘convulsively trying to get things to be the way that our thinking says they should be’. We are going all out to get things to be the way we think they should be because we are so threatened by the scenario of not being able to do so; if we can’t stay in control then this would be very frightening for us, very undesirable for us. It can be easily seen from the violent nature of our reactions that not succeeding in staying in control is simply unacceptable to us – not being able to change things in the way that we want to would be the worst thing ever and we cannot even bear to think about such a possibility. It is ‘bad’ and that’s all we know about it. The same thing goes for the desired outcome – the outcome that we are trying so convulsively to achieve is ‘good’ and that’s all we know about it. We’re not examining what we’re doing, we’re just doing it and that’s what reactivity is all about. It is when we get ‘taken over’ (or ‘possessed’) by mere mechanical impulses.

 

 

Reactivity doesn’t come from us, therefore – it comes from the thinking mind. The huge pressure we feel acting upon us, and causing us to do this or that before we even know what we are doing or why, has nothing whatsoever to do our own true nature. When we feel either very afraid or full of intense desire this has nothing to do with our own true nature; that is simply the ‘external mechanical factor’ either pushing us or pulling us. Our true nature shows itself when we are not being totally controlled by the thinking or reacting mind and it is marked by sensitivity rather than aggression. ‘Sensitivity’ is – we might say – the lack of mechanical aggression and the lack of mechanical aggression means that we are interested in the world for its own sake, rather than being interested in it for ‘what we might be able to do with it’, or ‘how we might be able to change it’. If I am sensitive to the world then I actually have a relationship with it; if I am sensitive to myself then straightaway I have a relationship with myself.  With aggression on the other hand there is never any relationship with anything – there is no relationship with the world and there is no relationship with myself! Aggression is a ‘terminal state of non-relatedness’ therefore and this is the state we find ourselves when all we know is reactivity.

LIVING THE MECHANICAL LIFE

Reactivity is a curse – it’s a curse because all it ever does is to cause us to suffer. Either we’re constantly struggling and straining to obtain something that doesn’t exist (but which is only a reflection of our own unexamined assumptions about the world) or we’re struggling and straining to avoid something that doesn’t really exist. What kind of a life is this, we might quite reasonable ask? Where is the dignity in this? And yet this is all we know, for the most part. Reactivity (or ‘like versus dislike’) is not seen for what it is by society – on the contrary, we are encouraged to act on the basis of mechanical attachment. This is what modern life is all about – being reactive, being insensitive, being psychologically unconscious. Anyone who doubts this need only look around at what is going on in the world.

 

 

Everyday life is all about playing the brutal and pointless game that we have been told we have to play and not ever asking ‘why’? This brutal and pointless game is what we call society, which is really nothing more than a system of mechanical (i.e. insensitive) interactions between human beings in which certain assumptions about what life is about get endlessly repeated. The mechanical versions of ‘who we think we are’ get promoted and rewarded, whilst any sign of the truth emerging is crushed underfoot. The ‘truth’ that we are talking about here is very easily explained – the truth that is constantly being covered up is that we are not who society says we are.  We are not who we are treated as being; we are not who are being pressurized to be! This is the most revolutionary understanding there is or ever could be, as Krishnamurti says.

 

 

Society (or ‘mechanical life’) is about one thing and one thing only – never examining what our assumptions about life are. If we were to examine our assumptions then everything would change all by itself – there would be no need for aggression, no need for violence. That’s the way true change always happens, after all. This type of spontaneous change is however the one thing we are simply not interested in…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deprogramming Consciousness

Conscious work (which is the only kind of work worthy of the name) can be very simply explained by saying that it is when we don’t exercise prejudice. Or rather, it is when we allow ourselves to see that we are operating on the basis of prejudice since there is no way to prevent ourselves from doing so! Going against our biases doesn’t undo them, it compounds them, it makes them more complicated, more convoluted. If I fight against my prejudices then all this does is to drive them underground, and at the same time give them even more power over me…

 

In meditation training we practice ‘observing the mind of like and dislike’, which is the only way to find freedom from that mind. We can’t become free from the mind of like and dislike by being prejudiced against that mind, by taking against it (or by supposedly ‘acting against it’). If we act against anything we are inevitably acting out our prejudices – all purposeful behaviour is prejudice-driven, just as all control is biased. My purposes are my prejudices; my attempt to control is the manifestation of my bias, my ‘prejudice with regard to outcome’.

 

When we exercise prejudice or bias but do not take the trouble to be aware that this is what we are doing then this is ‘non-work’. If conscious work is how we free ourselves from the mind of like and dislike then non-work is how we sign ourselves up to be its (unconscious) slaves! One way we get back our freedom, our independence, the other way we lose it (and also lose the ability to know that we have lost it). One way we come ‘back to ourselves’, so to speak, the other way we disappear under the weight of mechanical programming. The other way we get to donate our life-energy to the mechanical system, and make it stronger than ever…

 

There are only two possibilities in life – either we work consciously or we work unconsciously. Either we move in the direction of awareness or we fall deeper and deeper into the state of sleep, into the realm of fantasy. When we are involved in conscious work our fantasies are revealed to us as fantasies, and when we (unwittingly) allow ourselves to be operated by the mechanical system then these fantasies congeal and coagulate all around us, inexorably driving out anything else, anything of a ‘non-fantasy’ nature. Our fantasies solidify around us like quick-setting concrete and as a result all genuine movement (or ‘growth’) ceases.

 

We might ask why it is that there is this inexorable pull in the direction of ‘falling asleep’, the direction of ‘identifying with the mechanical system and allowing it to live out its crude ‘pseudo-life’ through us – as if this were of any value to anyone. Why do we give way so limply, so feebly, so resignedly to all the programming, instead of rebelling against it and persevering with this revolution until we had recovered our own true voice, our own true nature? Why do we let what Colin Wilson calls ‘the internal robot’ live our lives for us? Why – when a bias or prejudice gets activated – are we so keen to put every last drop of our precious life-energy at its disposal? What kind of perversity is this?

 

The point is that when we act out the bias something is being perpetuated. Something is being perpetuated that ‘wants’ to be perpetuated (so to speak). To not act out the prejudice that has been activated is to refrain to perpetuate this ‘thing that want to be perpetuated’, whatever it is. We are going against some kind of blind mechanical force. As we have already said however, we can’t actually wilfully prevent ourselves from acting out the prejudices or biases (although we might think that we can) but what is possible is for us to be aware that we are acting them out. If I take the trouble to be aware of what I am doing (instead of just automatically validating the behaviour) this makes a very big difference however. If I am aware of myself ‘obeying the rule’ this is actually the same as me ‘not obeying the rule’ because obeying the mechanical rule also means not seeing that we are obeying it. That’s part and parcel of the rule so already I am rebelling, already I am breaking free of its control. To become aware is an act of subversion; it’s an act of insubordination – we’re not supposed to be aware, we’re supposed to obediently swallow the official story!

 

There’s actually nothing we can do in order to become more conscious. It’s not a matter of ‘doing’ – when we purposefully do something it’s because there’s something we want to gain and something we want to avoid and this equals ‘a rule’, this equals ‘a bias’. Consciousness has nothing to do with rules and biases; it has nothing to do with trying to obtain one outcome rather than another. It has nothing to do with trying to reach one state of mind rather than another. If we are trying to reach some particular state of mind then this is simply the mechanical mind trying – as it always does try – to obtain what it sees as an advantage in the game its playing. Consciousness has nothing to do with trying to obtain the advantage…

 

The notion that some states of mind are closer to the truth than others is a typical delusion of the thinking mind. “The sufferings of birth and death are nirvana”, says Nichiren Daishonin… Whether a particular state of mind seems noble or ignoble, righteous or sinful, whether it is pleasurable or painful, triumphant or despairing depends entirely upon a wholly arbitrary point of view; the value we ascribe the mind-state depends upon the game we are playing, in other words. Take away the arbitrary POV, take away the game, and all states of mind are seen for what they truly are – nirvanic bliss. It’s only the biased or prejudiced viewpoint which is the self that divides everything into either good or bad, right or wrong, pleasure or pain. Whether a mental state is regarded as advantageous or disadvantageous is only so regarded from a wholly arbitrary viewpoint, the viewpoint of a self that doesn’t really exist.

 

What we may call ‘unconscious life’ is therefore driven by the compulsion to perpetuate an unreal self. When we are compelled to obey to act out our prejudices what we are really being compelled to do is to perpetuate a self that doesn’t actually exist! And by the same token, if we cease liking and disliking everything in sight (i.e. if we cease judging) then what we are really doing is that we are ceasing to promote or perpetuate this nonexistent self. As we have already pointed out however, we cannot deliberately or purposefully refrain from promoting or perpetuating the conditioned self because anything deliberate or purposeful is always done in service of the concrete sense of self. That’s what the word deliberate means – it means that the ‘me’ is doing it. That’s what ‘purposeful’ means – it means that there is a ‘me’ that has the purpose. What is possible however is for us to be aware of the judging, aware of the ceaseless activity of liking and disliking and in this gentle, unprejudiced awareness there is no ‘me’, there is no sense of there being a ‘concrete doer’.

 

No one does awareness, after all. Awareness is not a doing and there isn’t a right and a wrong way for it to happen. Being aware of the (unreal) self and its doing is work however because this awareness is not following the pre-existent pattern. Not only is awareness not following the pre-existent pattern, the established way of seeing and doing things, it is challenging that pre-existent pattern, it is going against that established order of things. The pattern cannot continue when there is awareness and so it could be said that awareness or consciousness is the enemy of the established order. This is always how it is – consciousness is always the enemy of the established order! Where there is consciousness there is change and change – needless to say – is the sworn enemy of the existing pattern, the existing way of seeing and doing things!

 

This is not to say that the mechanical mind (which is to say, the judging mind, the mind of like and dislike) is ‘the enemy of consciousness’. In one way it could of course be said that it is indeed the enemy since the mechanical system (whether we are taking about the ‘machine mind’ or the ‘machine world’ which is society) will automatically annihilate consciousness as a matter of course. It will gobble our awareness up in a flash like the big bad wolf, like Rumi’s ‘dragon in the snow’. The machine mind / machine world will, by its very nature, eliminate all traces of awareness by unceremoniously degrading or downgrading it into a system of mere mechanical reflexes. In this way the mechanical system may be said to be the enemy of consciousness, but in another way it is not an enemy at all but a helper. The mechanical order of things that does not – by its very nature – allow anything that is not itself is only our enemy when we are unaware of it, when we conform to it without knowing that we are conforming, when we do its bidding without seeing that we are. When we take the trouble to see what is happening however, the mechanical (or group) mind provides us with the necessary training ground (or gymnasium) to regain the freedom and independence that we have lost. As Paul Levi says, the mechanical system (the ‘dark father‘) then becomes the ‘worthy adversary’ which pushes us relentlessly and pitilessly to become who we truly are…