When We Accept Ourselves We Are Free

When we completely accept ourselves as we actually are (in a conscious way rather than an unconscious ‘taking-ourselves-for-granted’ type of a way) then we become free.


It’s not quite right to say this of course – we don’t become free, we discover that we were always free, as the mystics never tire of telling us. We learn of our freedom, which we were previously too obtuse (or too ‘crude’, too ‘crass’ in our perceptions) to see.


This is of course counter to conventional thinking, which states that we can only become free by engaging in ‘special types of activity’, special types of goal-orientated activity. Engaging in GO activity is of course very antithesis of ‘acceptance’ and so what this means is that our conventional approach to things is the antithesis of the ‘subtle’ approach that we are talking about here.


The ‘subtle approach’ is too subtle! It’s far too subtle for us to get. In the normal run of things, we couldn’t get it in a month of Sundays! We couldn’t get it in a year of Sundays – assuming that we had that long available to us. We are forever looking in the wrong direction; we are forever looking in the direction that thought tells us to look in, which is the direction of ‘improvement’ on the one hand and ‘disimprovement’ on the other. That’s all thought cares about after all; that’s all it can care about – either ‘getting close to the goal’ or ‘getting further away from the goal’. It cares positively one way, and negatively the other. It likes one and dislikes the other. It would be silly of us to expect otherwise since thought – by its very nature – can only ever concern itself with ‘abstract ideals’. We only need to reflect on this for a moment or two to see that this has to be true – how could thought ever possibly concern itself with something that is not an ‘abstract ideal’?


Appreciating things what they are in their essence is not the thinking mind’s job! The TM’s brief is to deal with the practicalities, the particularities, the technicalities of life. It’s not built to function as a philosopher – it’s not designed for ‘looking into the ultimate essence of things’. Where’s the practicality in that, anyway? The answer, as we all know, is that there is no practicality in this – there is no practicality in philosophy, no practicality in taking an interest in the ultimate nature of things. On the other hand, if we take no interest in the ultimate nature of things, if we devote ourselves entirely to the practicalities of life, and go helplessly along with the TM like some kind of camp follower, then before long life becomes unbearable. Life becomes intolerably arid when we make ourselves oblivious to the ultimate nature or essence of things.


This is – of course – the nature of the dilemma that we find ourselves in: either we take an interest in how things actually are in themselves (which we are averse to since we have absolutely no idea where this will take us and we don’t want to risk it) or we roundly ignore that side of things and concern ourselves wholly with the practical/technical side of life, which means that we will get stuck in the rational purposeful version of life, which is a version that suffers from the profound disadvantage of being completely arid, completely sterile. Our ‘resolution’ to this dilemma is to opt for the rational simulation of life and then use a kind of ‘trick’ in order to ameliorate the suffering that comes with this option. The trick in question is simply that we keep repeatedly utilising the rational-purposeful mechanism in order to distract ourselves from the present reality of our situation.


We don’t pay wholehearted attention to the present moment therefore, but rather we look ahead to some ‘improvement’ that is going to be made. This is our ‘gimmick’ in a nutshell. This is what ‘goals’ or ‘purposes’ are, needless to say – they are ‘improvements to our present situation’! When we think ahead about the improvement that is to come, then straightaway we feel better. Of course we feel better – why wouldn’t we? All we need to do in order to distract ourselves is therefore to think of some improvement that can be made and this in itself will usually make us feel better! The next thing to do is to work out some strategy to bring the improvement in question about, and then work away at implementing the strategy. The motivation to do this comes – of course – from the good feeling that is going to come our way when we successfully bring about the improvement. The euphoria we feel as a result of simply thinking about the improvement is merely a small loan or down-payment taken on the strength of the future improvement coming to pass, so how much better will the actual realisation of our goal causes to feel? The prospect of this satisfaction-to-come is more than enough to motivate us to engage enthusiastically in the strategy.


This isn’t to say that strategies of goals are always ‘gimmicks’ to help us avoid the aridity of the present moment, when that so-called- ‘present moment’ exists solely in the rational simulation of life, but rather that it is possible for us to use goals and strategies in this way, for us to use purposefulness in this way. The more legitimate the goal, the better it is for ‘exploiting’ as a way of living in the future rather than the present, when the present (or rather the ‘simulation of the present’) is not a place that we want to be in! So when we talk about ‘being interested in the ultimate essence or nature of things’, this is just another way of talking about ‘unconditionally accepting ourselves as we actually are’. First off, we could observe that this is going to be no benefit to us in purely practical terms since, as we have already said, taking an interest in things as they actually are in themselves doesn’t necessarily help us when it comes to engaging in whatever tasks it is that we are supposed to be focusing on. This is why when employees practice meditation at work this isn’t necessarily good for the corporation they work for since they are very likely to realize that the work in question is meaningless, if not actually detrimental to all concerned! But before we even get to ‘see ourselves as we actually are’ what we going to see is of course ‘ourselves as we are represented within the terms of the rational simulation’, which is another way of saying that the first thing we’ll see is our ‘idea’ or ‘image’ of ourselves, which may or may not be to our liking. Because the ‘mental idea of our self’ exists solely within the remit of the rational simulation (i.e. within the domain of the rational mind) it is always subject to judgement from that mind, be that judgement positive or be it negative. So although we hear a lot of talk about ‘accepting ourselves’ and ‘not judging ourselves’ this can only happen when we know are no longer operating from within the rational simulation (i.e. when we are observing things from outside the rational domain) and this is easier said than done!


When we are operating in the rational mode then there is absolutely no question of us ‘not judging ourselves’, there is absolutely no possibility of us ‘accepting ourselves’, and it is crucially important for us to understand this! All we can ever do (in this case) is ‘judge ourselves’, either positively or negatively, and then ‘react to ourselves’ accordingly! We are simply not free to ‘accept ourselves’ therefore and it would be absurd for us to try to force ourselves to do so! There is no freedom in ‘forcing’ after all, and if there is no freedom then there can be no ‘acceptance’. The freedom we do have however is the freedom to see that we have no freedom, the freedom to see the truth, which is that all we can do is ‘judge ourselves either positively and negatively and mechanically react accordingly’. This is the difference between ‘being conscious’ and ‘being unconscious’ in a nutshell – when we see that we have zero freedom to ‘not judge’ or ‘not react mechanically’ then we are conscious, and when we do not see this (which is most of the time if not all) then we are unconscious.


Spelling this out this allows us to see something very interesting – it allows us to see that we can actually ‘accept’ ourselves completely being completely non-accepting, that we can wholeheartedly accept the fact that we are completely judgemental and intolerant! ‘Acceptance’ as a subtler thing than we tend to think it is, as we have already said – it has nothing to do with ‘like and dislike’, ‘approval and disapproval’ and – as a result – it has nothing to do with any choices that we might make. This last point is something that we usually have the greatest difficulty in understanding; we persist in imagining that ‘acceptance’ is something that can come about by choice when nothing could be further from the truth. ‘Choosing’ runs on bias – there’s nothing else it could run on after all. There is nothing else it could run on because if we didn’t have some sort of bias there then how we know what to choose? Unless we have some kind of ‘like and dislike’ to draw upon to aid us in our decision then how could we possibly make a choice? Choice is a mechanical kind of thing after all – it’s something we do via the rational or thinking mind. We could of course object to this and say that we are making a decision on the basis of knowledge, not on the basis of subjective preference. We could say that we are choosing a particular option because it is the ‘right’ option to choose not because ‘we like it’. This argument doesn’t hold water however – how did we obtain our so-called knowledge other than by the exercise of bias, other than by the exercise of inherent prejudice? Whatever way of looking at the world we have, we must have ‘bought into it’ at some stage and the reason we ‘bought into it’ was because of our bias towards doing so, our predisposition to doing so. Ultimately, we always choose how we see the world, we can’t (in other words) claim the unquestionable right to see things a particular way!


When we say that we choose a particular option because ‘it is the right one, not because we like it’, then we are obviously ignoring the fact that we ‘like’ the right option more than the wrong one! The two concepts of ‘right’ and ‘the act of passing judgement’ can’t be separated and ‘the act of passing judgement’ – no matter what we may believe to the contrary – always comes out of ‘like and dislike’, always comes out of ‘bias’. If I say that something is right then this simply means that I have judged it to be so. Unconditional acceptance, therefore, has nothing to do with any choices that we might make, or any preferences that we might have on the matter. ‘Acceptance’ has absolutely nothing to do with bias and for this reason it has absolutely nothing to do with the thinking mind (since the thinking mind is nothing else than a collection of biases)


Just to repeat our key point here – acceptance is at far more profound thing and we always think it is! Acceptance comes out of consciousness, not the thinking mind, which is always superficial. When I see that I don’t have the freedom ‘not to judge’, or ‘not to react’ (to go back to our earlier point) then I am accepting that I have no freedom. This – as we have said – is not a choice. ‘Accepting’, in this more profound sense of the word means ‘seeing the truth of something’ and seeing the truth of something is never a choice. It is quite choiceless, as Krishnamurti says. If seeing were a choice then we would be in control of what it what is true or not, which would clearly be absurd! Seeing isn’t something that can ever happen on the basis of our biases, our preferences, our prejudices; if it did then it wouldn’t be seeing that we are talking about but rather ‘the automatic projection of our own conditioned viewpoints onto the world’. What we would be talking about, in other words, is the perfectly ubiquitous state of unconsciousness and so to use the word ‘seeing’ in this connection would be  completely inappropriate.


If we come back to our original statement now we will find that we are in a much better position to appreciate what is meant by it. When we accept ourselves as we actually are going then this means that we are not trying to change ourselves, not trying to control ourselves, and it is because we are not trying to change or control ourselves that we are free! In our normal (rational) mode of being we are always trying to control/change ourselves – we can never stop controlling (or trying to control). As we have said, everything that exists within the ‘rational domain (or, as we have also called it, the ‘rational simulation of life’) has to be controlled – the possibility of not being controlled doesn’t (and can’t) exist within this context. This is a ‘controlled’ (or ‘defined’) reality – unless something is a hundred percent defined it can’t exist in this realm; unless something is completely regulated then it can’t be accommodated within the ‘mind-created virtual reality’, and this is just another way of saying nothing can happen within the domain of the rational mind without it being judged, one way or another. The rational mind IS judging, after all!


We are inclined to say that we are ‘accepting ourselves’ when what we really mean is that we have judged ourselves in favourable way, but this (needless to say) doesn’t count because it is an unconscious sort of a thing, completely unlike the  conscious acceptance which we are talking about in this discussion. As we have just said, conscious acceptance has nothing to do with like or dislike, approval or disapproval, right or wrong. Crucially, seeing ourselves in an unbiased way is the same thing as ‘not identifying with the regulated or controlled mental image which is the self-concept’. When we are identified with the self-concept – this arbitrary construct of the mind – then there can never be any freedom for us. Freedom is not possible for the self-concept, as we can very clearly see when we aren’t 100% identified with it! When we are identified with the self-concept (when we look at the world exclusively ‘through its eyes’, so to speak) then this is the very last thing that we going to see. More than ‘the very last thing’, it’s actually the thing we shall never see.


Not seeing that freedom is an impossibility for us, we are going to put all of our efforts and ingenuity into ‘striving to be free’, which is what ‘trying to improve our situation’ really comes down to. The possibility of ‘improving our situation,’ is – as we have said – the outcome that the thinking mind keeps tempting us with. When we fall for this temptation (as we always do fall!) then this is the very same thing as what we have called ‘identifying with the self-concept’ and this utterly ubiquitous business of ‘identifying with the self-concept’ is – as we have just pointed out – the precise thing that absolutely guarantees we shall never be free…



Image: Street Art Phuket Town











Getting Off The Conveyor Belt

How do we start to be mindful, how do we get started being mindful for the first time when the practice of mindfulness (whatever that might be) is not something with which we are culturally familiar? Even the intellectual understanding of what is called ‘mindfulness’ is rather elusive; never mind actually putting it into practice. The great difficulty is that we keep thinking of it as a task, as something to ‘do’. We always think of everything as a task, and this is because we are always operating out of our thinking mind; we’re always seeing everything as a problem, in other words! As soon as we start thinking in this way then we automatically tense up in preparation for the act of ‘achieving some outcome or other’. We might not know what the outcome or result is supposed to be, because we are not familiar with it, but we tense up anyway in expectation of having to do something.We can’t help thinking that we have to ‘do something’, and this puts us under pressure…


This ‘tensing up’ is a habitual sort of thing – we are always doing it, it is the main thing we have to do in life, or so it tends to seem. We have to tense up in preparation for doing something, in preparation for ‘making something happen’… Life appears to be a series of problems or challenges, one after another after another, sometimes with hardly any break between, or even perhaps no break between them. If this is so (if life is a never-ending series of problems with scarcely any break between them) then what this means is that life itself is interpreted as a problem – and this is not an unusual situation. In everyday language this situation – where life itself becomes the problem – is known as generalized anxiety.Because we see life as ‘a problem to be fixed’, we become vulnerable to deep-seated doubts about our ability to do whatever it is that we are supposed to do (even though we don’t really know what this is).


The more we identify with the thinking mind the more we see everything as a problem because this is the only way the thinking mind can relate to things! It’s a ‘problem-solving machine’ and so that’s what it does. The rational mind is a machine for fixing problems and if we identify with it then that’ll turn us into a machine too!  We will become more and more mechanical, more and more rigid in our thinking, more and more ‘brittle’ with regard to surprising or unwanted outcomes. More and more of us are suffering from anxiety disorders in recent times for the simple reason that our technologically-orientated culture compels us to ‘identify with the thinking mind’. Our rational-technological culture forces us into a position of automatic congruence with the mind-created image of ‘who we are’ and this ‘confusion of identity’ can only ever lead to anxiety, in the long run…


Saying that we tend to relate to life itself as a ‘task’, as something we have to ‘do’, is the same as saying that we habitually tense up (mentally, and sometimes also physically) when we are confronted with any challenge at all. We tense up because we have to change something from the way it is into some other way. We have to take personal responsibility for doing this. If I do have some sort of physical task, such as lifting up a heavy weight, then of course this makes sense. Similarly, if I have to work out something, solve some problem or other, tensing up mentally (which is to say, concentrating) makes perfect sense. But tensing up in the fact of life itself, as if life itself were a heavy weight to be lifted, or a problem to be solved, takes us into the realm of anxiety.


When we are anxious it is this chronic unrelieved ‘tensing up’ that causes us all the distress, all the suffering. We don’t see this however because we think that it is whatever problems or  issues we are faced with at the time that are the source or origin of our distress, and so we try to solve them as quickly as we can so that we can be free from it. This only makes matters worse however because trying to get rid of all issues the minute they arise exacerbates the underlying chronic unrelieved tension, and it is this chronic unrelieved tension that is the true author of our suffering. Try to solve innumerable tasks and issues just drives the tension up a notch. The logic behind the attempt to eradicate all problems is of course that when they are all gotten rid of we will at last be able to relax, but experience shows that this never ever happens. There are always more issues piling up for us to attend to – life is a never-ending conveyer belt of problems and issues and tasks and jobs and ‘general responsibilities’.


We never obtain that longed-for relief as a result of frantically solving problems, sorting out tasks and attending to issues or responsibilities because the real source of the pressure isn’t in these problems, tasks, issues and responsibilities but in my ‘attitude’, so to speak. My ‘attitude’ is one of high-alertness, of maximum vigilance and tension. But we can’t say that this attitude, this constant unremitting underlying state of inner tension is ‘the problem’ because saying this simply adds more fuel to the fire. If we treat the constant unremitting underlying tension as the problem that need to be fixed or solved or otherwise dealt with then this just makes us tense up even more, in readiness to deal with the problem. Trying to do something about this inner tension only causes me to tense up all the more, and so if I was ‘feeling the pinch’ before I will be feeling it twice as much, three times as much, a hundred times as much. The more I try to do something about the tension the tenser I get and the tenser I get the more I feel that I have to do something about the situation! I’m caught on the treadmill of runaway thinking and I don’t know how to get off…


The reason we find ourselves in this trap is because we don’t have any other possibility of relating to difficulties other than trying to fix or solve them (or if we can’t do this, wishing or hoping that we could fix of solve them). This ‘lack of any other possible modality of relating’ is after all what lies behind the anxiety in the first place. All we know is the modality of ‘trying to change the way things are’ (or – failing this – of wanting or wishing to change the way things are, and feeling that we ought to change them even if we can’t, even if it is a practical impossibility for us to change anything). This is the modality of doing.


The possibility that we are missing when we are anxious is the modality of being. The possibility that doesn’t seem to be available to us (that we are in effect blind to) in anxiety is the possibility of being the way that we are rather than changing (or rather constantly trying to change) the way that we are. There is a reason for us being blind to this possibility. After all, in anxiety all we are is ‘straining’ or ‘striving’ or ‘trying’. Everything that we are is caught up within this constant massive effort that we are making. Everything that we are is subsumed within this habitual or automatic constant attempt to change things, or fix things, or escape from things. This is the essence of the situation – being subsumed in this way in ‘doing mode’ so that straining and more straining is all that we know. We are reduced to this – if straining or tensing up inside doesn’t work then the only option that is left open to us is the option of straining and tensing even more.


This chronic inner straining or tension is very much like a muscular cramp or spasm – once the cramping ‘takes hold’ then there is nothing we can do to avert the process. We just have to wait for it to ease up in its own time, acutely painful though it may be. Obviously if I ‘tense up’ against the cramp in any way this only exacerbates the underlying situation. The same is true for the mental cramp of generalized anxiety – anything I do to try to make it go away only adds to it. Even telling myself not to be anxious makes me more anxious – after all, telling myself not to be anxious, trying to ‘talk away the anxiety’, is me tensing up against the anxiety. Since the anxiety is nothing more than chronic ‘tensing up’ anyway, how can this possibly help? Even wishing that I wasn’t anxious is a form of tensing up – it is a form of resistance, and any resistance to anxiety always exacerbates that anxiety.


So what we need to learn is how to refrain from tensing up. What we need to learn is how to not resist the fact of our anxiety – which is itself nothing more than a huge mass of chronic automatic resistance. Our automatic reaction is of course to try to deliberately refrain from tensing up, to deliberately – by act of will – try not to resist. Needless to say this doesn’t work because anything I do deliberately is resistance, anything I do on purpose, as an act of will, is ‘tensing up’. I can’t do ‘not doing’. I can’t deliberately get out of ‘doing mode’. I can’t ‘not do’ on purpose because ‘on purpose’ means straining and tensing and striving and trying and wanting and hoping. So what is the answer? How do I get back from ‘doing’ to ‘being’?


The first step is not to try to stop trying, to not resist our own resisting. Instead of trying not to try, of trying to stop trying not to try, and so on (which is of course a road that never comes to an end) I give myself permission to be whatever way it is that I am just for five minutes. This is a small beginning but it is also a realistic one because this is always a possibility – I give myself permission to be whatever way I actually am just for this short space of time. Any longer would be asking too much. Any longer (in the beginning, anyway) would translate into ‘pressure to perform’, pressure to be a certain way, and that would be counterproductive. We don’t want to turn meditation into yet another task…


After giving myself permission to be the way I am for five minutes I can then begin to be mindful of the way that I am (whatever way that is). So I sit there (or lie there), close my eyes if I can and gently start to notice what is going on for me. The chances are that I will notice myself being tense, that I will notice myself automatically straining to change myself, or to change my situation. This is like noticing that my muscles are locked into a spasm or cramp. Noticing this inner underlying chronic tension is synonymous with feeling the pain of that tension – just as noticing a physical cramp is synonymous with feeling the pain of that cramp. At this point I remind myself – if necessary – that I have given myself permission to be whatever way I am and ‘the way that I am’ is ‘being tense’. So just for the next five minutes I can allow that tension to be there, having given it permission to be there, and also having given permission of the pain of the tension to be there.


Allowing myself to be tense means gently noticing that I am tense – I bring my attention to the pain of the tension and give that pain permission to be there, just for a few minutes. This is like touching something very gently with my finger – I touch it but I don’t try to push or apply pressure. I am just acknowledging that whatever I am touching is there, just by ‘tipping off’ it very gently with the outstretched tip of my finger. In the same way when I notice my underlying inner tenseness I just bring my attention (which is to say, my awareness) to it very gently, acknowledging that it is there without trying to change it in any way. This is a very gentle and undemanding exercise, but it is also highly significant because it is the beginning of what we have forgotten how to do – it is the beginning of ‘being mindful’, the beginning of the practice mindfulness. We’re learning something very challenging; we’re learning how to stop always treating life as ‘a task’, or as ‘a problem that needs to be solved’. We’re learning how to get off the non-terminating conveyor belt of the thinking mind….






Misrepresenting Mindfulness

Mindfulness has been fairly effectively misrepresented in Western culture. We tend to see it as a type of ‘all-purpose performance enhancer’, something that can improve our everyday functioning, something that can reduce stress and anxiety and make us happier as a result. Naturally, this sounds very good to us – it’s what we are always looking for!


Mindfulness isn’t really that though – it goes a lot deeper than that. Mindfulness isn’t a tool or instrument that can serve the status quo. Mindfulness (or meditation) is really a way of freeing us from the tyranny of the over-valued thinking mind (which is what lies behind every status quo) – it is ‘a way of liberation’, as Alan Watt says. The question arises therefore, do we really want liberation? Is that what we are really looking for? Or were we just looking for something to smooth out the rough edges of our life, the bits that don’t seem to be working quite so well?


This isn’t a minor point. It goes a lot deeper than we might initially think – the thing is that, in everyday life (whether we realize it or not), we feel ourselves to be the thinking mind. It’s not something we want to be free from therefore! That’s not what we’re looking for at all. Too much control and too much thinking causes suffering though – it degrades the quality of our life to the point where it becomes unbearable. It is the fact that the thinking mind has such a deadening grip upon us that makes us interested in ameliorating its influence by practising meditation, but that doesn’t mean that we want to get rid of it entirely! We want to ‘have our cake and eat it’, in other words – we want to ease the squeeze that the overvalued rational mind is putting on us, but we still want to let it run our lives for us.


There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. It is perfectly natural that we should want to find relief from the excessive busyness and perennial restlessness of the thinking mind (not to mention its constant pernicious judgementalism), and yet at the same time not want to be ‘thrown in the deep end’, so to speak, with regard to our fundamental fear of being separated from our mind-created sense of identity, which is what ‘being freed from the thinking mind’ always comes down to. So maybe we’re not looking for the ultimate spiritual adventure, maybe we’re just looking for a bit of ‘stress reduction’!


The question – although we are likely to see it as such – comes down to precisely this. The question is, “Do we wish to live our life on the basis of this construct that we call ‘the self’, and make that limited version of life as comfortable and stress-free as we possibly can, or do we wish to be wholly liberated from this mind-created identity, and all of the interminable petty issues it brings with it?” Again, we have to stress that this is not a ‘moral’ choice; it’s not a question of ‘what is the right thing to do?’ When we concern ourselves with the right versus the wrong thing to do, this invariably means ‘the right thing in relation to the mind–created identity’ and so we are seeing things in an inherently biased way right from the start. If we were asking ourselves this question in a more ‘essential’ fashion (if that happened to be possible for as at the time) so as to find out what we want to do in our ‘heart of hearts’ (so to speak) then that will be a different matter. We would probably come up with a different answer in this case.


The point is of course that we can’t ask ourselves the question as to which of these two options we would like to put our money on (i.e. whether we would like to make the best life we can for ourselves on the basis of the mind-created identity, or whether we would like to be liberated from this very hard–to–shift illusion) because we simply don’t have the awareness (or perspective) to either formulate such a question, or – indeed – see the sense in asking it. Everything depends on how much perspective we have; if we don’t have the perspective to see through the mind-created identity then obviously our ‘choice’ will be to try and improve the living conditions associated with it. This isn’t the’ wrong’ choice – it’s just the choice that makes the most sense to us! Given our limited perspective, it’s actually the only choice that makes sense to us.


When we talk about mindfulness (or medication) being ‘misleadingly represented to us’ therefore, this is not to say that we shouldn’t use it in narrow instrumental terms so as to try to solve psychological problems, reduce anxiety and stress, etc, but simply that by portraying the practice of mindfulness solely in this way we are effectively closing the door on its true significance. We are subverting it (inevitably so, given the nature of our culture) in the cause of enhancing our ability to do what we are already doing. We’re not wanting to do anything differently, we just want to do what we’re already doing in a more effective way!


What bigger difference could there be doing what you already doing more effectively, and being freed up from the perceived necessity to keep on doing it? Having asked this question we are bound to observe that this is rather a big difference in emphasis – it’s actually a 180° turnaround. This doesn’t mean that if we do enough meditation we will end up stopping doing whatever we doing and start doing ‘something else’ instead – that would result in pure chaos, obviously. That would be ridiculous. But it does mean is that we will stop doing what we’re doing for the reason that we were doing it! Our orientation will change. This is what gaining awareness/perspective is all about – changing the reason we are doing what we’re doing.


This ‘revolution’ is very easy to explain – beforehand we were doing whatever we were doing for the sake of something that doesn’t really exist (we were in other words doing everything for the sake of an illusion). The ‘illusion’ is the narrow view of who we thought we were, which is the illusion that society itself supports and fosters. The illusion in question is ‘the separate sense of being a defined or demarked self’. When we think that we are acting on behalf of ‘a defined entity’ – be it the mind-created identity, a group, a nation, or the organisation we are working for – we are dedicating our efforts to the cause of ‘furthering a fiction’ and no good is ever going to come from this. It won’t even benefit the fiction in question; nothing can benefit a fiction – all the treasures of the world couldn’t do this! We’re barking up the wrong tree when we try to do this…


All entities, all ‘things’, all defined principalities disappear when consciousness comes back onto the scene! We see beyond the limits, the boundaries, the demarcations that we ourselves are projecting onto the world, and making so very important. When awareness comes back on the scene we stop serving these limits, these boundaries, these demarcations and – instead – we serve what was previously being limited, bounded, and demarked. Instead of serving one or other of ‘the ten-thousand things’, we now serve the Dao, we now serve ‘the Way’ – which is ‘the way that belongs to no one’…



Art: Bansky. Taken from streetartnyc.org






Being In The World Without Thinking About Being In The World…

What we call ‘being meditative’ (or ‘being mindful’) simply means ‘being in the world without thinking about being in the world’. How simple is this? How much more simple and straightforward could anything be? And yet – simple or not, straightforward or not – the point is that we never ever do it. Being in the world without at the same time thinking about it is something that just doesn’t happen. It’s as if that is just too simple for us; we always have to think about we’re doing, we always have to over-complicate it. We always have to add that ‘extra ingredient’ – the extra ingredient of thought.


It’s not quite right to say that we never find ourselves ‘being in the world without thinking about being in the world’, however. On the very odd occasion it happens. Sometimes it happens. We’ve all had some experience of ‘simply being in the world’ – it happens every now and again, despite ourselves, despite our best efforts to keep ourselves perpetually busy! If we had to call ‘being in the world without thinking’ anything we’d probably just call it ‘an experience of peace’ or ‘an experience of stillness’. Such experiences are so natural, so unforced, and yet – in adulthood, at least – so very rare…


Even if we could just focus on this, and allow ourselves to see just how little genuine peace we have in our lives than that would change our outlook dramatically. It would wake us up somewhat, and then we might stand a better chance of not slipping right back into the busy-ness again. But we never do seem to focus on the startling ‘lack of stillness’ in our lives and as a result we carry on as we are, which is ‘moving from one thing to another without ever a break between them’. There’s no awareness of what we’re missing out on and so there’s no incentive to make any changes.


It gets so we think that this is what life is – going from one thing to another, seamlessly, without there ever being a gap. It’s like travelling on an escalator and never getting off because we’ve forgotten that it’s possible to do so. The ‘escalator’ is the thinking mind which keeps trundling on and on forever; of itself, it will never stop. As people often remark, the thinking mind doesn’t come with an ‘off button’ – it will never consider that it might be a good thing to switch off for a while. Or rather, it might sometimes think this but it will never ever do it. Thought will not cease its activity of its own accord any more than a boulder rolling down a steep hillside will suddenly stop by itself.


Life isn’t really ‘going from one thing to another’. That isn’t where life is to be found – on the contrary, life is to be found in the gaps, in the discontinuities, in the ‘cracks in the pavement’. It’s not to be found in ‘the official brochure of events’. Or to put this another way, ‘life is what happens when we unaccountably step off the escalator of the thinking mind’. Life is what happens we stop doing what we never do stop, which is thinking! Life – after all – is not a thought. Life isn’t what we think about life, even though we automatically assume (or ‘think’) that it is!


The problem is however that the world we live in – which is ‘the world of our structures and systems’ – tells us that life is all about going from one thing to another! In this world the message is that ‘the more things you can cram into the day the better that is’. Our culture doesn’t value peace or stillness – we hear the word used a lot but nothing is meant by it. It’s only lip-service. It’s a hollow word, like ‘freedom’. Our machine culture doesn’t value anything that isn’t constructed, produced or manufactured; it doesn’t value anything that isn’t ‘managed’ or ‘regulated’, anything that isn’t ‘an official or authorized product of the system’ – i.e. something that can be packaged up and sold to us. All the emphasis is on the wrong things; our attention is continually being directed in the wrong direction…


This isn’t a conspiracy in the usual sense of the word (although it looks very much like it), it’s just how thought works and the world we live in has been built by thought. Thought – or ‘the thinking mind’ – always directs our attention to ‘things’, which is to say, it always points at its own constructs, its own categories, such what we call ‘things’ are nothing more than the way it organizes the world. The thinking mind can’t focus on ‘the gap between things’ because it if does this then straightaway it turns ‘the gap between things’ into a thing, and this of course defeats the whole point of the exercise! The thinking mind can’t think about something that isn’t the product of its own thinking process – when it tries to then what happens is that it just ends up doing what it always does, which is ‘thinking about its own thoughts’.


We can’t blame thought for doing what it does and always directing our attention at its own constructs, its own categories because this is what it does. We can’t blame it for always pointing our attention at the ‘things’ coming down the never-ending conveyor belt rather than at the undefined space within which all of this is happening  since this that is something that it could never do anyway – that would be ‘outside of its design specifications’, so to speak, that would be outside its remit. Thought does what it’s supposed to do, and that’s all it ever can do. If we can actually see this – if we can see that we’re asking too much of thought, if we can see that we asking it to do something that just isn’t within its remit – then this insight would amount to a massive breakthrough in our understanding. This insight changes the whole dynamic of what’s going on…


We imagine that thought can do everything. We ‘over-value’ it, as Jung says. The thinking mind can’t deliver the world to us, even though we implicitly believe that it can, even though thought itself – like a clever politician – promises us faithfully that it can. Actually, what thought can do is very limited – it is very good at what it is supposed to do but this doesn’t mean that we should let it run our lives for us, which is what we do let it do. When we trust the machine which is the thinking mind to ‘run our lives for us’ then what we unfailingly end up with is this unremittingly busy world of ours that is made up of nothing else apart from logical systems and structures and which has the unacknowledged (or ‘covert’) function of keeping us distracted on a full-time basis from the reality of our own lives.


The reason why we can’t be in the world without at the same time constantly thinking about being in the world (which actually blocks us from being in the world) is before we are always ‘looking for advantage’. That’s one way of putting it, anyway – we’re looking out for the advantage in our situation and at the same time we’re watching out for any possible disadvantage, which comes to the same thing. What’s more – by way of an ironic twist – the reason we’re so busy scanning for the advantage the whole time is because is because the constraining or limiting effect of thought on us is causing us to feel (either unconsciously or consciously) that we are missing out on life  somehow and so we’re trying to make good this deficit. The other way this works is to cause us to be looking out for potential threats and dangers because the ‘invisible constraint’ that thought is putting on us is manifesting itself as a worry, either conscious or unconscious, that some disaster is lurking out there somewhere, and we have to take steps to secure ourselves against it.


Where the ‘irony’ comes in therefore is because thought is the cause of our problem as well as the (supposed) cure for it! The reason we have this conscious or unconscious perception that we’re missing out on something (or perhaps that we’re under threat from something, which is anxiety) is because we’re letting the machine of the thinking mind ‘run our lives for us’ and when we do this when end up – as we have said – being kept busy on a full-time basis but never actually getting anywhere real as a result and there’s no way that we can’t know about this ‘hollowness’ on some level or other. Thought constrains us, limits us, boxes us in, and effectively prevents us from having any genuine connection with the wider (or ‘unconditioned’) reality and so of course we feel that we are missing something. We ARE missing out – but thought can’t help us find what we’re missing!


When we are living life purely within the systems and structures that the thinking mind has created for us then this gives rise to a type of underlying pain or anguish that we cannot ordinarily be aware of and it is the need to do something about this ‘pain that we do not directly perceive’ that drives us in a lot of what we do. The unacknowledged need to escape this invisible pain is what is driving us to be ‘looking for the advantage’ the whole time. It makes us hungry with a hunger that can never be satiated. It drives us to be always calculating and controlling in our approach to life because we have the fundamental ‘base-line perception’ that something bad is going to happen to us (or could happen to us) if we don’t. We are living in ‘a fundamentally impoverished mind-created world’, in other words, and so of course we are always going to be ‘looking for advantage’, or ‘looking for gain’. This is what always happens when we unwittingly end up letting thought be our master.


What facilitates the whole ‘loop’ is our unexamined assumption that thought can solve all our problems, including those problems which it itself has made for us! This unquestioning trust in the power of thought to save us keeps us going around and around in the same old loop – the loop of thought. As soon as we actually see this however this unwarranted ‘trust’ in the thinking mind is undermined, and this insight changes the whole order of things, the whole dynamic of things. It’s like not voting for a politician! Thinking and scheming and analyzing won’t help us – that will just perpetuate our limited or constrained situation. Problem-solving and goal-setting won’t help us – that will just keep us prisoners in ‘the prison of thought’. What helps is to see the jailer for who he is instead of trusting that he is going to somehow save us! What will help us – in other words – is to place our trust in our awareness and intuition, instead of in the over-valued rational faculty…



Image taken from: photobucket.com








The Phantom Striver

Meditation isn’t a way that we can get to be calm or still peaceful or wise or compassionate or anything like that. That’s all crazy talk! That’s entering into a world of projections, that’s entering a world of hallucinations. That’s a fever dream…


Meditation isn’t a way to improve or augment or develop ourselves, which is just about the only reason we ever do anything. The urge to improve ourselves or make things better for ourselves is just about all we know. For the most part, it’s the only motivation we know. Meditation isn’t this, though.


Meditation is where we drop backwards into a place where we aren’t, and where the things we believe in aren’t either. It’s a place of discontinuity – a place where whatever it was we thought was happening is seen not to be happening. There’s no logic, no cause-and-effect, no before and after, no striving and no results. It is ‘somewhere else’ – a place that hasn’t been created by the thinking mind’s narrative.


In this place there isn’t us being calm, us being still, or peaceful, or wise, or compassionate, or anything like that. There isn’t us being anything. There’s no augmentation, or anything being improved. There aren’t any of the things that we think are good – these things are only ‘good’ in relation to our idea of things, our idea of ourselves, and those ideas are all gone now! These things that we used to think were good were only ‘good’ in relation to the mind’s narrative and there’s no narrative any more – the narrative has been broken off…


Generally speaking, as we have said, we’re always trying to improve our situation in relation to this all-important narrative. It could also be said that what we’re always trying to do is reach some sort of personalized ‘heaven’ – the optimum situation for ourselves, the solution or resolution of all our problems… The point is therefore that ‘heaven’ is always about me and my assumptions, me and my unexamined expectations of reality. What I see as ‘the ultimate good’ is a delusory projection, in other words – it’s a fever dream…


When we drop backwards into the discontinuity (rather than straining forwards towards the idealized state) then what we’re dropping into a state of complete surprise – it’s not a ‘trivial’ surprise, it’s not the surprise of ‘something is going to happen to me but I don’t know what’ because there isn’t the constant of the mental framework into which everything has to be (or the constant of the ‘me’ to which everything has to be related). It’s not that the uncertainty involved is only about ‘what is happening’; it is equally about the framework which we use to make sense of whatever it is that is happening – radical surprise (we might say) is when there’s no way of knowing what is happening and also no way of knowing who it is happening to. But saying this isn’t quite right either because there’s no separation of the two – there is only a separation of ‘what is happening’ and ‘who it is happening to’ when we feed reality through the mental framework of the rational mind, and thus turn everything into a narrative…


When we drop backwards into the discontinuity then there is no more polarity, in other words. The mind-created polarity of ‘me’ and ‘the world’ is no longer there; this basic orientation is gone. That polarity was never there anyway really – it was just a strange game that we got caught up in. Nothing at all has been achieved as a result of ‘dropping into the discontinuity’ therefore because ‘achieving’ and ‘not achieving’, ‘gaining’ or ‘losing’ only exists within the game, only exists within the polarity.


So the question is, ‘Are we really interested in being radically surprised in this way by a situation that we can never get a handle on, or are we – when we practice meditation – simply looking for ‘an improved position’ in life, so to speak? Are we merely looking for a better way to play the game, or are we happy to let go of the game entirely and see what happens then?’ The glitch that comes in here is that when we are operating on the basis of the polarity which is self/world, the polarity which is the thinking mind, then we’re always going to be looking for a way of improving our situation. That’s the only way we can look at things when we’re looking from the standpoint of the polarity – everything is always good or bad, better or worse, improvement or disimprovement. Everything is always about control, in other words. Or as we could also say, when we’re operating on the basis of the polarity of self/world then we’re always chasing life…


When it comes right down to it, we’re always trying to get a hold on life so that it can’t run away from us. We’re trying to pin it down but the thing about this is that when we do this we end up with a situation where life is always running away from us and we are always chasing it! We might – every now and again – that we have it but then at some point or rather we realize that it’s gone and what we have clutched in our tightly-closed hand is nothing at all and so then we have to start searching for it all over again – hunting for it, dreaming up schemes to catch it, investing in control and power, playing games, setting clever traps for it…


The most essential way in which we try to ‘catch life’ is by conceptualizing it, by ‘knowing’ what it is, but as soon as we ‘know’ what it is then, as we all know, it stops being interesting. The allure appears somewhere else, it appears in an adjacent pasture, but then when we get to that adjacent pasture and set up camp there the same thing happens all over again – we’ve ‘killed’ what we’re interested in by trying to secure. We’ve cleverly trapped the song-bird and put in a golden cage but now it has stopped singing! Our relationship with the world is aggressive, coercive, demanding and so what this means is that we just don’t have a relationship with it! Instead of a relationship we’re caught up in a self-perpetuating polarity – we keep chasing ‘the thing’ and it keeps on running away from us. The elusiveness of the principle of life is symbolized in alchemy by the motif of the ‘fugitive stag’ and what we’re really seeing here, when we look at the continual ‘fleeing’ of everything that is precious in life away from us, is our own sterile aggression reflected back at us.


Everyday life, which is always based on ‘trying’ or ‘striving’, is quintessentially frustrating therefore. We create a polarity such that the desirable or valuable aspect of life is outside of us and then we grasp at it. Polarity is always going to be like this – we are always in the place where we don’t want to be! From a naïve point of view it seems that skilful or cunning enough action on our part can bring about an end to this painful separation from the ‘good stuff’ that we see all around us on the inside but as we have said, this never actually works out for us! It never can work out for us because it is our trying that is causing reality to flee away from us – the more we try (i.e. the more aggressive we are) the more estranged and alienated from the world we become! And yet all we know is trying, all we know is aggression…


When we’re operating on the basis of a mind-created polarity then what’s actually happening is that we’ve played a trick on ourselves – we’ve divided everything into two when actually this isn’t the case. Reality isn’t ‘two’, it isn’t a polarity! Because we insist on perceiving the world in this way however (and just as long as we’re listening to the thinking mind there is no way that we can help from perceiving things this way) we’re always seeing the good stuff as being somewhere where we’re not. It’s always on the outside, as we have said. But the thing about this is that there isn’t ‘an outside’! How could there be ‘an outside’? However did we get to see life in this way? The ‘outside’ doesn’t exist – it’s a ridiculous abstract notion and yet we take this ridiculous abstract as seriously as we could ever take anything! There isn’t anything we take as seriously as this notion of there being an outside – we even see ourselves as living in this ‘outside’.


Both the outside world and the self that supposedly lives in this outside world are ‘the polarity’ – both equal ‘the ridiculous abstraction’. We might live out our lives there, we might pursue our dreams or goals there, but that doesn’t mean that it’s real! All of our achievements in this abstract realm are phantom achievements, just as all of our ‘failures’ here are phantom failures. The sense of concrete selfhood that we cherish so much and cling to so fearfully equals ‘the phantom striver’ – the one who perpetually strives after illusory gains and perpetually tries to run away from illusory set-backs… If we meditate on the basis of this phantom striver, therefore, all we’re doing is perpetuating the game, perpetuating the fever-dream, perpetuating the fantasy….



Art: Dream Striver, by Grace H. Gutekanst



There’s No Therapy For Life

The most counterproductive thing we can do with regard to our own emotional pain and mental suffering is to get ‘clever’ about it – which is to say, the most counterproductive thing we can do is to think about it! When we hear about ‘not thinking about our emotional pain’ we are very likely to take this to be the same thing as denying our emotional pain but this isn’t the case. Denial starts with a thought, it doesn’t come out of anything else other than our thinking. Everything else that happens afterwards comes out of that original thought, and therefore is that original thought. That original thought never goes away therefore – it might be unconscious, it might be buried deep, but it will continue nevertheless to have an enormous effect on our everyday lives. The more unconscious the thought (i.e. the more deeply buried it is) the more it will determine the course of our lives.


We place far too much reliance on thinking as a way of dealing with our difficulties; our reliance on thinking is of course just a manifestation of our desperate hope that we can escape from the difficult situation that we’re in. ‘Thinking’ equals ‘our attempt to escape’, in other words – it’s the same thing. We are all great believers is escaping – we call it ‘problem solving’ or ‘finding solutions’ and the very sound of these phrases make us feel better! We immediately feel better upon hearing phrases such as these because by using then we have legitimized escaping and made it seem both possible and the right thing to do. As soon as we hear the word ‘solving’ or ‘fixing’ we know we are barking up the wrong tree! Because our thoughts are more powerful the more unconscious they are the helpful direction to go in is the direction of bringing consciousness to these thoughts and this is not a ‘doing’, not a ‘goal-driven activity’. ‘Goal’ is a code word for ‘escaping our predicament’ after all so whenever we find ourselves being orientated towards some outcome or other then we should beware of this because we’re actually running away from our life.


Consciousness has no goal, just as life has no goal. Goals are solutions and solutions are fear. Solution-focussed therapies are fear-based therapies therefore and the search for solutions (or belief in solutions) is the sickness not the cure. The root of the sickness – we might say – is that there are parts of our life that we are fundamentally opposed to living. We REALLY don’t want to live these parts of our life and we never question why we don’t want to live them. We don’t question or examine our refusal or resistance and the more caught up in the resistance we are the more unconscious we become. Very quickly we become totally unconscious and our activity becomes nothing more than a reflex that has been triggered, an all-powerful reflex that has been ‘ruling the roost’ for a very long time. This is the time-honoured ‘reflex of trying to escape’!


When we come across part of our life that we don’t want to live then this is where all the ‘thinking’ comes in. This is what all the thinking is about – skipping over the unwanted bit of our life is ‘the goal’ and the thinking is our attempt to find an effective way of doing this. Escaping from the bit of our life that we don’t like is our ‘clever plan’. Solution-focussed therapies are – we could therefore say – ways of facilitating us not to live the parts of our life that we don’t want to live, that we have resistance to living. They are our way of ‘being clever about things’! It’s not that we actually see things like this, of course. We don’t see ourselves as wanting to pick and choose over which parts of our life we want to live and which we don’t want to live (as if we had the choice!) but rather we see the bits of our life we want to get rid of as being wholly negative and worthless, as deserving zero attention or care or interest on our part. Labelling an experience as being absolutely negative is of course the perfect justification for wanting to eliminate or escape from it – this part of our life is ‘a fault’, ‘a mistake’, ‘an error,’ a ‘bad thing’, and so naturally we don’t want to have anything to do with it. That goes without saying…


The logic behind this ‘rejection of the negative’ is extremely plausible, extremely convincing – we never question this way of looking at things for a moment. This way of looking at things EQUALS not questioning. ‘Thinking about things’ equals not questioning. There is a snag in this logic however – a glitch that we are always going to be unconscious of when we are busy dividing life into the parts we like and want to keep versus the parts we don’t like and want to get rid of. The glitch arises out of the fact that we CAN’T separate or divide life according to our preferences – this is just not a possible thing we can do and when we try we get caught up in the glitch. Life always comes as a whole – it’s all of one piece and we abstract only the elements that we like or find enjoyable. It’s all life, to paraphrase what Kurt Vonnegut says in Breakfast of Champions, there’s no part of it which isn’t, no part which is ‘something else other than life’.  All that’s happening when we reject one part of our life as not being worth living is that we are exercising prejudice, but that prejudice is entirely ours – it does not represent or correspond to anything in reality. That’s a glitch that comes out of our attitude, not out of life itself.


When we try to eliminate or escape from a part of our life that we have automatically labelled as unacceptable what happens is that our tactic rebounds on us. Resistance is always going to rebound on us! It can’t not rebound on us – all that’s happened is that we have put a kind of twist in things to make life even more difficult for us than it was before e started rejecting it. By refusing to live part of our own lives we have created a twist (or glitch) that we just can’t get past. What do we imagine happens to the unlived bits of our life, after all? Where do we imagine they go? Unlived life is still life whether we like it or not and because it is still life it has to be lived sooner or later. All that has happened when we reject it is that we have put it ‘on hold’…


There is more to it than just this, however. ‘Unlived life’ changes the way it subjectively appears to us – it becomes dark, it becomes subjectively hostile or threatening. It manifests as an enemy that persecutes us. The ‘demonic’ character of the life that we have rejected isn’t a property of that unlived life itself however – it’s simply a reflection of our own aggression. Aggression – as Chogyam Trungpa says – can be seen as a ‘refusal to communicate’. There’s no communication in the situation and this refusal to communicate gets reflected back at us as a terrible hostility. Our own refusal to communicate gets reflected back at us as the demonic quality that we are either trying to fight or run away from; fighting or running away doesn’t help the situation however because both fighting and running away equal ‘not communicating’! The demonic, persecutory aspect of our environment is really nothing other than our own attitude, our own aggression mirrored back at  us but we perceive it to be something that exists independently in the world around us – something that can be successfully eliminated if we try hard enough!


When unlived life takes on this persecutory nature that makes us resist it all the more, in other words, and this is the ‘glitch’ that we have been talking about, the glitch that we can’t help getting caught up in when we are living unconsciously. The rejected parts of our life take on the appearances of ‘avenging furies’, as M. Scott Peck says in The Road Less Travelled and the more we run (or the more we fight) the more furiously these demons (the demons that have been created by our rejection) pursue and terrorize us. We are at war with ourselves and we cannot win! Aggression is the same thing as ‘the absence of communication’ because we are always projecting our own meaning, our own categories on whatever is happening to us. We are perpetuating our own closed viewpoint, our own fixed framework of interpretation in everything we do and this means that there is zero possibility of communication. If we reject one part of our life as it unfolds then we reject all of our life. This has to be the case – if life is ‘all the one’, if it cannot be conveniently subdivided, then we cannot reject any supposed ‘part’ of it without rejecting all of it. It’s all or nothing, therefore. And the moment we start ‘picking and choosing’ which bits of life we want to live then it’s going to be ‘nothing’ rather than ‘everything’, therefore! This is the inevitable result of exercising ‘the mind of preference’.


Trying to pick and choose, trying to ‘get clever about things’, is the root cause of our sufferings, not the cure for it. That’s how ‘backwards’ we have got everything! If we saw things clearly then we would see that we don’t need a cure – as we have already said, what we fondly call ‘a cure’ or ‘a solution’ is simply our hoped-for escape from the parts of our life that we don’t like, the parts of our life that we have automatically rejected. There is no solution (or ‘therapy’) for life. Interference or control or manipulation is only going to multiply our woes – it’s only our fear that is driving this control, this interference, after all. It is not ‘therapy’ we need therefore but simply the willingness to live each moment of our lives exactly as it unfolds


This is what Pema Chodron calls ‘the fearless heart’. This panoramic fearlessness is also symbolized by ‘the lion that looks in all four directions at once’ – the Lion of  Ashoka that has been adopted as the state emblem of India. Rather than our customary one-sided ‘rational approach’ (which is based on always having plenty of clever strategies at our disposal), all that is required therefore is for us to live our lives ‘consciously rather than unconsciously’. We aren’t partisan, we aren’t mean-minded, we don’t exclude anything. And if we find ourselves rejecting or resisting life as it unfolds (as of course we will do), then we bring consciousness to that rejection, that resistance, too! That automatic resistance, that ‘attempted manipulation or control’, that ‘running away’ is after all as much part of life as anything else…






There Is No Such Thing As Useful Thinking

There’s no such thing as ‘helpful thinking’ as far as working with neurosis is concerned. There is absolutely no such thing as ‘a way of thinking that can help untangle us from neurotic patterns of thinking and behaving’. This is like saying that there’s ‘no such thing as useful thinking’ when it comes to telling the truth – if we have to think about it then we’re avoiding the truth, not telling it! Neurosis may be defined as the avoidance or attempted avoidance of pain that is legitimately ours (which is to say, pain that actually belongs to us). ‘Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering’, says Jung – it’s what we do instead of suffering. The reason neurosis is recognized as a problem is of course because as time goes on it has a way of becoming more and more painful itself, until it actually reaches the point where it is more painful than the suffering we were originally avoiding! This brings us to the nub of our argument – there is no such thing as useful or helpful thinking when it comes to neurotic patterns of pain avoidance (we may say) because thought itself is a form of pain-avoidance. Thought is therefore not the least bit of good when it comes to not avoiding our legitimate pain!


It sounds wrong to say that thought is itself a form of pain-avoidance – can’t thinking be used to solve our problems after all, and isn’t solving problems a way of meeting them head-on instead of running away from them? Isn’t solving problems ‘doing something about it’? Isn’t that a good thing? This is always a good source of confusion – we naturally feel that being proactive and tackling our problems before they can get the better of us is the healthy thing to do, the optimal thing to do, but this is simply not the case when it comes to legitimate pain. If legitimate pain is pain that actually belongs to us then solving this pain – so that it is no longer painful – is simply another form of avoidance. It might be ‘pro-active avoidance’, but its avoidance all the same.  Suppose I feel ashamed because I have done wrong to someone – is this pain that I should try to avoid? Or suppose I am grief-stricken because someone dear to me has died – is there a ‘right way’ to think about my loss to make the suffering I am going through more manageable? Is it by any stretch of the imagination ‘mentally healthy’ if I do find a way to rationalize either my behaviour in the first example or my loss in the second? Very clearly it is not in the least bit ‘healthy’, although we are course unlikely to see this so clearly at the time…


It sounds wrong to say that there is no such thing as helpful thinking when it comes to working with mental or emotional pain. Our whole emphasis – as a culture – is on trying to find the right way to think. Our whole emphasis is on managing emotions, managing stress, managing anxiety, and ‘managing’ means thinking about it. ‘Managing’ is all about skills and methods and tools and strategies and so on and all of this is thought. It’s nothing else but thinking. How can there be no such thing as helpful thinking? This amounts to heresy in this control-based culture of ours. But suppose that our problem is that the mind won’t stop thinking? Suppose that the thinking mind is on over-drive, that it is thinking about things too much? Are we to believe that there is some special kind of thinking that we can engage in that will calm the mind and bring a halt to the over-thinking? Are we to believe that by thinking even more than we already are doing we can bring order to this frantic mind of ours? Are we really to believe that thinking can in some mysterious way cure itself?


It doesn’t too much reflection on the matter for us to realize that there is something suspect about this assumption, something not-quite-right about this belief. Whatever thoughts we have when we are in an agitated frame of mind are themselves going to be of an ‘agitated nature’. Is it possible for an agitated mind to think a non-agitated thought? Is it possible for a fearful mind to produce a thought that is not fearful, or for an angry mind to engage in thinking that is not angry? Our thoughts are always going to be expressions of the state of mind (or state of consciousness) from which they arose; they certainly can’t be used to somehow ‘reach back’ and change the disturbed state of mind that gave rise to them. That is looking at things backwards. That would be a clear case of the tail wagging the dog!


What is needed – if there is to be any clarity – is for there to be actual awareness of the situation. Awareness is the helpful thing, not some specially indicated type of thinking. For me to start thinking about what the right type of thinking would be for the situation I find myself in would simply be compounding my confusion – this is just stirring things up even more. It is as if there is a corrupt police department and I am handing over the process of sorting out the problem to this very same department! Thought cannot cure thought – as professor of theoretical physics David Bohm says, the error in thought is a systematic one, which means that when we try to analyze the problem and then fix it, this very same error gets perpetuated and magnified. Our ‘blind spot’ – which is the blind spot (or entropy) inherent in all thinking – can only ever get bigger and darker than ever when we try to use thought to correct itself.


The confusion is only going to start settling when we can very clearly see that there is ‘no such thing as helpful thinking’ when it comes to freeing ourselves from the mess that was caused by our own thinking. Just as soon as we can see that there is no way for us to correct or fix the painful state of mind that we are in as a result of thinking about it then everything will slowly but surely start to settle down. And contrary-wise – if we don’t have this very clear understanding then nothing we do is going to help us. If we can’t see that there is no such thing as helpful thinking then it is guaranteed that everything we do is only ever going to compound our suffering. It is as clear-cut as this.


We can’t exit a mental state on purpose – we might very badly want to, but there is simply no way that we can do so. This is a very straightforward point to understand – there’s nothing fancy or intellectual about it at all – and yet in another way it is not so straightforward at all because we are so immensely unwilling to see it. There is no inherent ‘technical difficulty’ in grasping the point – a child could do so – but where there is a difficulty is in our willingness to entertain this possibility, our willingness to look at it. We could see it in a flash if we weren’t so resolutely opposed to seeing it but the whole point is that we are ‘resolutely opposed’ to seeing any such thing. We’d rather tie ourselves up in knots than see it – we do tie ourselves up in knots in preference to seeing this beautifully simple principle. We do this the whole the time, in fact – we do it on a regular basis. Tying ourselves up in knots in order to avoid mental or emotional pain (i.e. neurosis) is a characteristic human behaviour!


This immensely stubborn refusal to see that it is perfectly and sublimely impossible for us to change our mental state on purpose, either by our modern rational cleverness or by good old-fashioned forcing, is (of course) an attempt to help ourselves. By refusing to see that we can’t exit a painful mental state on purpose are essentially trying to help ourselves but the irony is that this infinitely obstinate refusal of ours to see something very simple is the cause of very great suffering – our attempt to help ourselves actually back-fires and brings huge suffering and misery down on us, and the more suffering and misery we’re in the more stubborn we get with regard to seeing that we can’t actually escape it. The whole thing is a trap, in other words. It’s an irreversible process – it just keeps on getting worse. We have started off going down this road that promises relief but actually delivers misery, and once we have committed ourselves to going in this direction it become progressively harder to question our original ‘choice’ (not that it was ever what we might call an actual conscious ‘choice’, of course, since the moment in question in all probability came and went far too fast for us to actually be aware of it).


Actually, it is the automatic, purely-mechanical attempt to ‘help ourselves’ that keeps us in the painful mental state that we wish to escape from. ‘What we resist, persists’, as Jung says. All of this – of course – makes a lot of sense. How can the automatic fear-driven reflex of wanting to fight against the pain, of trying to push it away or run away from it be expected to genuinely help us? This isn’t really a controversial point. We all know that the reflex attempt to fight or escape can’t help us really – the only reason we buy into it so very quickly is because we are afraid. Going with our innate wisdom exposes us to this fear, whereas ‘automatically going along with the comforting lie’ saves us from it – temporarily, at least! But even though buying into the reflex (and the comforting lie that goes with it) saves us (temporarily) from seeing that ‘we can’t escape from where we actually are’ it doesn’t save us from the pain of the neurotic torment that we are plunged into as a result of our automatic resistance to ‘what is’. Going along with the pain-avoidance reflex doesn’t save us from neurotic pain, it creates it.


‘Neurotic torment’ doesn’t necessarily have to seem like torment, not at first, anyway. It may seem just like normal, everyday life. Normal everyday life is a form of reality avoidance, after all – it’s a comfort-zone’. The comfort-zone of normal everyday has two components to it, we might say – one is the ‘comfort’ component (which we like, obviously) and the other is ‘boredom / frustration / despair’. All neurotic escapes start out with comfort, obviously – escaping from what we fear is by definition comfort and so when we automatically resist the reality that we don’t like, that we are afraid of, the first thing we feel is comfort. This ‘comfort’ is comfort because it is exactly what we wanted – it is like sweet honey to us and this honey is the lure that the neurotic trap is baited with. The sweetness of the relief from pain or fear is the ‘reinforcing mechanism’ for the behaviour; or as we could also say, it is the element in the mix that causes us to become addicted to the pain-avoidance routine.


The snag is that the place we’ve escaped to isn’t as great as it initially looks –  it isn’t actually great at all. It looked very good to us in the first instance because it represented ‘escape’ but if we had looked into the matter any deeper (which we didn’t, and don’t) then we’d see that we have been sold a dud. It is a ‘dud reality’ because it is completely sterile, completely lacking in any creative possibilities. Saying that the place which we have rashly escaped to is ‘completely lacking in any creative possibilities’ is just another way of saying that we can’t actually live there; there’s nothing there for us in the comfort zone – it’s like a bare prison cell. We can ‘hide out’ there, we can ‘pass the time’ there, but we can’t do any actual living there and that is why we have said that the other side of ‘comfort’ is ‘boredom / frustration / despair’.


Every time we automatically escape from a reality that we don’t want to be in we enter this cycle of ‘relief followed by boredom and despair’ and this unvarying cycle is what we have been referring to as ‘neurotic torment’. It is tormenting to be going around and around in circles, without ever getting anywhere new. There is never anything else other than this same cycle over and over again and nothing is ever going to change. And what’s more, just as long as we’re in ‘escape mode’ it is only ever going to get worse because (as we have already pointed out) the more ‘rebound pain’ we incur as a result of our automatic avoidance the more strongly the ‘reflex to escape’ kicks in. We try harder and harder to escape and the resultant ‘rebound pain’ increases proportionately…


If on the other hand we were to go with our ‘innate wisdom’ rather than ‘the automatic reflex to escape’ then we wouldn’t be drawing the endless horrors of neurotic torment upon ourselves. Innate wisdom doesn’t do this kind of thing – only unconsciousness does! If we were to be aware of what we are doing when we try to exit a painful mental state then we wouldn’t invest in the project so much, we wouldn’t place so much hope in it. We’d still be caught up in the reflex (because that’s the nature of reflexes) but the difference would be that we wouldn’t be ‘buying into it’ so much. What helps us, therefore (really helps us that is, rather than just ‘pretending to help us’) is to stay conscious of what’s going on – staying conscious of what’s going on simply means is that we don’t ‘hand over’ our awareness to the mechanical reflex. We don’t give away our responsibility to ‘the machine of avoidance’ which is our fear-driven thinking.


As we have said, it is fear that causes us to buy into the comforting lie that ‘the automatic escape reflex will help us’ – we’re actually believing something that is clearly dumb, clearly nonsensical but our fear pushes us into believing it because there is comfort there. Believing the comforting lie is the ‘easy option’. What helps therefore is to notice ourselves doing this – we pay gentle non-judgemental attention to ourselves ‘buying into the lie’ and as a result of this gentle non-judgemental awareness we see that the lie is a lie. And once we see that the lie is a lie then we can’t buy into it any more – not to the extent that we once did anyway. We will continue to have the tendency to go with the reflex, and ‘hope that it will save us’, but alongside this habitual / mechanical side of our nature there will be something else, something new in the mix – there will be the ally of our own ‘innate wisdom’, which fear was previously causing us to ignore…