Going Beyond The Recipe

The thing about meditation that we don’t see at first – if indeed we ever do – is that it is not procedural in nature. We are not following some protocol or procedure in other words, even though it very much seems as if we are. We’re actually doing something entirely different.

 

‘Observing our thoughts’ isn’t a procedure, for example – if it was then we would be using a framework created by thought in order to observe thought and this just isn’t going to work! All that is going happen in this case is that we going to tie ourselves up very complicated knots. It’s going to tie us up in very complicated knots every time…

 

A ‘procedure’ is a process that the thinking mind is in charge of and whilst this is perfectly fine and unproblematic in very many cases, it’s not fine when it comes to meditation.  Procedures don’t work in the case of meditation because meditation is essentially about becoming free from the framework of thought. If meditation didn’t free us from our thoughts then it wouldn’t be meditation, it would be just like any other purposeful activity that we might engage in.

 

‘Purposeful activity’ and ‘meditation’ are two very different things – they are worlds apart. We can visualise purposeful activity as being that situation where the everyday thinking mind is sitting in the driving seat and is busy ‘driving the car’. Our ideas (or models of reality) dictate everything in this case. Our ideas are behind everything we do and so clearly we can never go beyond them! If we have an idea about meditation and we try to accord with this idea then we simply getting tangled up with our thoughts even more. We are worse off, not better off as a result!

 

As Krishnamurti says, meditation is ‘a movement into the unknown’. That’s what makes it meditation – we can’t have any ideas about how we are to do what we’re doing, or what should happen when we ‘do it right’ because then we will be jinxing ourselves right from the start. We would be ‘coming back to square one’ every single time in this case; we would be coming back to our thoughts about ourselves and the world every single time, and that’s exactly where we started off from. We’re always stuck to our thoughts about ourselves and the world!

 

So although we start off practising meditation by following some sort of ‘basic recipe’ (i.e. ‘paying attention to the breath’ or ‘observing our thoughts’) this is only the ‘diving board’ from which we are to launch ourselves into the unknown. If we cling tightly to that diving board then we will never launch ourselves anywhere! In this case we are ‘attached to the procedure’, which is the same thing as being attached to anything else when it comes down to it. We’re just ‘attached’ and that’s it. We’re stuck to our thoughts. We have to somehow let go of our automatic attempt to ‘stay in control’ of the process. If we can’t do this then how will we ever be free? If we can’t do this then we will always be ‘stuck to ideas about ourselves and the world’. If we can’t do this then we’ll always be ‘stuck to the known’, one way or another.

 

The process of becoming unstuck from our thoughts isn’t something that we can be control of, therefore. It’s not something we can regulate, or achieve by the simple precedent of ‘following rules’ in the same way that we can do so many other things in life. If I follow the recipe for scones accurately enough then I can be sure of getting the result I want, I can be sure of ending up with a batch of perfectly edible scones. Not so with meditation, however – meditation can never be the result of ‘following the recipe accurately’ (for the simple reason that all recipes are provided by the thinking mind). Thought cannot free us from thought, as we have already said.

 

Even with scones (or with any other type of cooking) there has to be some kind of ‘letting go’, some kind of ‘free-flow’, if what we end up with is not to be mediocre, indifferent, or average. When we get really good at what we are doing then we don’t have to hold onto the recipe so obsessively and as a result what we doing becomes more of an art than a science or technology. What we’re baking or cooking then goes beyond the mediocre, beyond the average, and we can’t say how this has happened. We can’t tell anyone else ‘what we did’ anymore than we can tell ourselves ‘what we did’ and this is precisely because what we are doing is an art, and not some mere technological procedure that we’re running through.

 

Bruce Lee said the same thing towards the end of his life – when asked by a student if he would teach his particular form of martial arts to him Bruce Lee replied that he couldn’t because it wasn’t a system and if there is no system then there can be no way to teach it. Only systems can be taught and Bruce Lee no longer adhered to any system.  The same is true for everything when we persist with it – if we keep at what we’re doing then we eventually go beyond the recipe, and we can’t for the life of us say how we do it!

 

With relation to meditation, this is very much the case – in meditation we are learning to go beyond the limitations and restrictions of the thinking mind and – in one way – this is the biggest challenge that we could ever possibly face in life. This is the ‘ultimate challenge’. In another way however we could equally well say that this process is perfectly natural – it is most natural thing in the world, which is of course why it doesn’t need to be controlled…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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….

 

 

 

 

 

Working With Anxiety

There is no such thing as a ‘technical fix for anxiety’. There can be on the short term, to be sure, but only at the price of ‘aggravating the original problem and causing it to rebound onus even more painfully in the future’. The so-called ‘technical fix’ isn’t any kind of ‘fix’ at all therefore, it’s only a postponement.

 

The only thing that can really help with anxiety is gaining perspective, and a gain in perspective doesn’t come about as a result of any technical procedure or methodology that we might engage in! Technical procedures only ever reduce our perspective; the ‘problem-solving approach’ only ever reduces our perspective. The reason for this is nothing if not obvious – by going all-out to ‘fix’ a problem we automatically reaffirm the importance, the centrality, the validity of that problem! We ‘narrow things down’…

 

Anxiety – we might say – is where problems or issues get ‘blown up out of all proportion’. This might seem like a rather childishly simplistic or ‘non-technical’ way of talking about anxiety (i.e. it may not sound fancy enough for us) but it is all the same an excellent, down-to-earth definition of what it means to be anxious. Things bother us that really oughtn’t to bother us, and not only did they ‘bother’ us and completely disturb our peace of mind, they put us through the ringer. This is no small inconvenience we’re talking about here –  if anything that comes into our head is liable to get blown up out of all proportion (and as a result cause us maximum distress) then life very quickly becomes all but impossible. We run into a brick wall.

 

Saying that things get ‘blown up out of all proportion when we are anxious’ is of course just another way of saying that anxiety comes out of our ‘lack of perspective’. Who could possibly argue with this? And what this means – as we have said – is that they cannot be any such thing as a ‘technical fix’. This ought to be obvious to us but somehow it isn’t – in this excessively rational world of ours we fondly imagine that ‘technical fixes’ are the answer to everything. We fondly imagine that control is the answer to everything, so that if only we can get good enough at controlling (and have the right strategies at hand) then all our problems will be at an end.

 

When we try to solve something then as we have said this automatically reaffirms whatever problem it is that we are trying to solve as being important, as having the status of ‘needing to be solved’. The issue in question undergoes a shift and becomes ‘absolutely important’ rather than instead of just ‘relatively important’, which is its true status. Fixing immediately narrows our focus, narrows our sense of perspective, and so the anxiety around the issue in question gets aggravated rather than lessened and there is no way that this cannot be the case! This is always, always, always what happens when we try to control.

 

When we try to fix (or solve) anxiety then we doing the most unhelpful thing we could ever possibly do! Straightaway we are losing perspective – straightaway anxiety is becoming a bigger and bigger issue, straightaway everything is becoming very ‘black-and-white’, which is another way of saying that they are only two possibilities for us – either we ‘fix’ the anxiety (which is that ‘good outcome’) so we fail to fix it (which is the ‘bad outcome’). Black and white thinking lies at the very heart of anxiety, at the very heart of neurosis. Black-and-white thinking actually IS anxiety!

 

The only thing that helps to ‘loosen the knot of anxiety’ is perspective, and there’s no technical fix for this, as we keep saying. They can’t be a technical fix for the increasing of perspective for the reasons that we have just gone into. The very idea that there could a technical way of increasing perspective is utterly absurd, utterly ridiculous. Perspective is what we get when we aren’t trying to control. We’d have to be suffering from a chronic lack of perspective not to see this! What this term ‘perspective’ means is that we’re not being hemmed in by any biases or prejudices; it means that we have lots of possible different ways of seeing or relating to the world, and as soon as we start thinking in terms of ‘defined outcomes’ and ‘specified ways of obtaining these outcomes’ (i.e. strategies’) then we end up with only the one way of seeing things. We end up with only the one way of seeing the world and this is the ‘black-and-white way’, the polar viewpoint which says there is either ‘winning’ or ‘losing’, ‘getting it right’ or ‘getting it wrong’.

 

This view of things (which equals ‘the fixing view’ or ‘the controlling view’) is the very epitome of an unfree state of mind, even though we can’t generally see it as such. We don’t see this black-and-white state of mind as being ‘unfree’ (and therefore ‘suffering-producing’) because we are so hypnotised by the prospect of the so-called ‘positive outcome’. We think that if we obtain the positive outcome then everything will be OK. We think that if we can just ‘tick this box’ then we will finally be free, then we will finally be at peace. This is completely and utterly untrue however – this belief is actually what is stopping us from being free, stopping us from being peace. What’s stopping us from being free is our black and white way of seeing the world, and straining after a defined outcome (or goal’) is not going to take us out of our black-and-white thinking! Straining to obtain the goal is only going to aggravate the problem yet further, as we keep saying.

 

When we try to ‘solve anxiety’ what we really trying to do, unbeknownst to ourselves, is ‘solve life’ and the reason we say this is because ‘life’ (or ‘reality’) is a state of unconditional open-endedness, which is to say, it is ‘the unbounded state in which there are an infinite number of possibilities, none of which have been decided upon yet’. Trying to ‘solve life’ isn’t a good road that to go down, obviously enough – it isn’t a good idea to treat life as ‘a problem that needs to be solved’! ‘Solving life’ means ‘narrowing it down to manageable proportions’; it means restricting it so that there aren’t so many different possibilities in it any more. ‘Solving’ life means closing it down, in other words, and this is what we are constantly trying to do with all our black-and-white thinking, with all our busy-busy goal-orientated activity.

 

When we reduce life down to ‘only the one possibility’ what we’re actually doing is turning it into something that isn’t life. This is our solution to life’s existential challenge – to hide away in our beliefs, our routines, our narrow way of interacting with the world. This solution – as any psychotherapist will tell you – is no solution at all when it comes down to it; it is no solution at all because instead of actually helping ourselves we are creating extra problems! By ‘running away from openness’ we are actually creating problems that aren’t really there; we are ‘reducing our perspective as a means of making things better for us’ and yet this lack of perspective – as we have said – is the root cause of all our neurosis, the root cause of all our anxiety and existential dread. Closing down life (i.e. ignoring it, or ‘living it only on our terms’!) creates all our problems rather than solving them.

 

This discussion is all very well, but what we really want to know is how to go about regaining the perspective that we have lost. What can we do to help ourselves when ‘straining for outcomes’ isn’t the answer? The very first thing that we need to know – and understand very clearly – is that ‘methods’ and ‘strategies’ and ‘procedures’ aren’t going to be of any help at all. This is a tremendous thing to understand – we are all so very convinced that controlling is the answer to everything that it takes an awful lot to shake this monumental belief! When we do see this then it naturally happens that we stop investing so very much in control, and this eases our anxiety straightaway. A precious bit of perspective comes back into the picture, like a ray of sunshine falling in a dark cave. We’ve come back to ourselves a bit.

 

It is the unexamined belief in the power of controlling to fix all our problems that fuels our anxiety – trying to control is ‘adding petrol to the fire in the misguided attempt to put it out’. When our absolute unquestioned allegiance to (or investment in) control as ‘the way to go’ has had a dent put in it then our ‘mechanical reacting’ no longer has the vicious force in it that it used to have. There’s still plenty of force there, there’s still plenty of momentum, but is not the same – the ‘dark spell’ that kept us trapped in this business of ‘blind mechanical reacting’ is now been broken and as a result things can only get better. What helps anxiety is not to compulsively try to fix it (or fix the particular problems that we are worried about) but to ‘practice staying in the present moment’ and this is not a strategy.

 

There is a ‘simple rule of thumb’ that we can apply here. There are (we might say) only two things that can be going on with us at any point in time – either there is ‘trying to control’ or there is ‘staying in the present moment’. When we ‘try to control’ then we are reaching out for defined goals, defined outcomes, and this is reducing our perspective on things and creating black-and-white (i.e. compulsive) thinking. Our attempts to control engenders anxiety in other words and this is the ‘basic equation’ that we need to remember – “the attempt to control equals anxiety”. There is no controlling involved in staying in the present moment – the present moment has already been obtained, after all! It’s already there! All we need to do is ‘notice what’s happening, no matter what is happening’ and there is no controlling in this. This is called ‘being in the world’ and this no controlling involved in ‘being in the world’! This is the very thing that we keep forgetting. We forget that we don’t need to do anything in order just to ‘be’ and as a result we get caught in the trap of trying to control our own reality.

 

Anxiety – we might say – arises out of unconsciousness. By ‘unconsciousness’ we mean ‘investing everything in controlling, and thereby turning our backs on the present moment’. Controlling may take us into the future, or it may take us back into the past, but it will never bring it into the present moment! Being conscious, on the other hand, means that we aren’t forever trying to stay in control. ‘Control’ and ‘consciousness’ exist in inverse proportion, therefore, and this is just another way of saying that consciousness is the same thing as perspective. This doesn’t mean that we can’t ever control, or that it somehow ‘wrong’ to seek to control, it just means that we don’t try to control what doesn’t need to be controlled. It means that we don’t try to solve life itself. We are controlling out of awareness, in other words, rather than out of blind reflexive compulsion. We control when it is helpful to do so and we ‘let go’ when it isn’t helpful and we are able to do this because we have a bit of perspective on things. Without perspective the inevitable result is that we try to control all the time; we try to control all the time because we have forgotten that we don’t actually need to! We are ‘slaves to the need to control’ and the need isn’t a real one – it comes out of lack of perspective, lack of awareness. We live in a world where everything is controlling in other words, and this is because we have lost sight of any other world.

 

It might seem rather ‘over-simplistic’ or ‘inadequate’ to talk about the answer to anxiety being something as nebulous as ‘staying in the present moment’. When we are suffering from anxiety it definitely doesn’t sound concrete enough (or technical enough) to be of any use! No one is telling us things that we need to do, steps that we ought to take. We have not been handed any method or strategy which we can place our trust in. But if someone did give us some concrete method or strategy then they wouldn’t be helping us, they would merely be adding to our suffering, as if there wasn’t enough of it there already.

 

Our usual approach is to narrow down the field of possibilities until only two possible outcomes exist; we ‘narrow things down’ until it seems to us that only the two possible outcomes exist – ‘succeed’ or ‘fail’, ‘win’ or ‘lose’. All that’s left for us then is to hope that we get the right rather than wrong! Neither of these outcomes are ‘real things’ however – they are simply ‘ideas’, they are ‘over-simplified mental projections of an imaginary future’. Out of our complete lack of perspective we have personalised life into only two things  – ‘fixing the problem’ and ‘not fixing it’, ‘getting it right’ and  ‘getting it wrong’. If we had our precious perspective back again however we would immediately see that life has got nothing whatsoever to do with fixing problems, we would see that it has nothing to do with ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

 

The only real thing there ever could be is the ‘wide-open field of undecided possibilities’ that is the present moment. There’s nothing over-simplistic or inadequate about this therefore – what IS over-simplistic is our regular approach to life, which is to try to reduce it into a set of abstract polarities, such as yes and no, win or lose, right and wrong. Staying in the present moment means disengaging from our thinking therefore and this isn’t a strategy because if it were then we would be engaging with our thinking rather than disengaging! When we disengage from our thinking we come back into the world where there is no right and no wrong, no need to control, no need to ‘automatically fix’, and this is a world which isn’t ruled by anxiety. This is the world that exists outside of our thinking.

 

 

 

Hooked On Controlling

Mindfulness – we might say – is where we aren’t fighting with ourselves, managing ourselves, controlling ourselves, repressing (or ‘soothing’) ourselves the whole time. It isn’t quite right to say this though because when we practice mindfulness we don’t try to stop ourselves from fighting ourselves, controlling ourselves, repressing or soothing ourselves – if it was the case that we were trying to stop ourselves from doing all this then we’d still be controlling ourselves!

 

And yet the other side of the coin is that when we really are trying to control ourselves, manage ourselves, et cetera, then all of our focus is on the goal of ‘being in control’, the goal of ‘successfully managing ourselves’, and whenever our attention is wholly upon this goal – or upon any goal – we not being mindful, we are not being aware. When our eye is ‘on the goal’ then it’s all about ‘how great it will be if the goal is attained’ or ‘how terrible it will be if it isn’t attained’ and this is the very antithesis of being mindful, being aware!

 

Mindfulness is so very often confused with ‘soothing the mind’ (or ‘quietening our thoughts’) but this then is merely another form of goal-orientated behaviour. When we’re engaged in attempted ‘self-quietening’ then we are not actually being aware at all because we are – as usual – fixated upon the two extremes of ‘getting it right’ and ‘getting it wrong’! To successfully soothe or quieten our minds equals ‘getting it right’ and not to do so equals ‘getting it wrong’; we’re busy controlling in other words, and when we’re busy controlling then there is never any time for awareness. There’s no time for life itself, when it comes down to it – ‘life is something that will happen when we successfully control, when we get to the end of our control sequence’, or so we think! First we have to ‘tick all the boxes’, in other words, and then we can live…

 

It’s not that we think this consciously – is just a kind of a thing we are automatically assuming without ever realising what it is that we have automatically assumed. We imagine that when everything is properly managed, when we get ‘all our ducks in a row’, then we will be better able to let go of our controlling and then ‘kick back and enjoy life’. We imagine that we’ll finally be able to ‘chill out and let our hair down’… We’re assuming, in other words, that ‘controlling/managing’ is somehow a good preparation for ‘letting go’, which is clearly not the case at all. Controlling no more prepares us for ‘letting go of control’ than taking heroin twice a day prepares us for giving up the heroin at some future date!

 

Quietening our minds isn’t a good preparation for being mindful therefore; it’s just another form of controlling and controlling is a slippery slope to yet more controlling. It’s certainly not a pathway to giving up controlling! And yet if we deliberately try to stop managing our own thinking then this too is ‘managing’, this too is ‘controlling’. So how do we get out of this trap? How do we let things happen naturally? How do we get back into the flow? The key is not falling for the trick that our mind is always playing on us, which is getting us to believe that when we control successfully, then we will somehow be free.

 

This really is the ‘big illusion’, the illusion that keeps us ‘hooked on controlling’. Controlling is an unfree state of mind – it’s unfree because we are constantly tied up by the need to make sure that the good outcome happens rather than the bad outcome. This doesn’t leave us any space (or ‘freedom’) to do anything else, or to be ‘aware’ of anything else. The goal (i.e. the ‘good outcome’) represents freedom for us and that’s why we chase it as avidly as we do! We are the greyhounds and the mechanical hare is the goal which represents our release from the mechanical (or ‘unfree’) situation that we are unhappily trapped in. The goal is unconsciously associated with ‘the end of all our problems’, in other words, which is clearly ‘wishful thinking’ on an epic scale!

 

To actually see the absurdity of this is to be free from the power of the illusion, therefore. This simply means ‘seeing things clearly’, or ‘seeing things for what they are’ – our belief is that if we control tightly enough, then through this feat of controlling we will eventually become free, even though controlling (i.e. being constantly subject to the need to control) is the very antithesis of ‘being free’. I’m doing the very thing that prevents me from ever being free, yet I imagine this by investing in it enough (and ‘enough’ here means 100%) then everything is somehow going to work out for me. I imagine, in other words, that the payoff for my dedication, the payoff for my investment, will be the prize of ‘freedom’.

 

Practicing mindfulness means that we are aware of our mechanical nature (i.e., our constantly controlling or managing or striving) without fighting against it. It’s one thing to have a momentary awareness of the mechanical forces that are controlling us and to immediately try to fight against them, and quite another to be aware, and yet not fight. We are living the unconscious (or mechanical) life, and yet we are at the same time aware in it. We’re living our run-of-the mill everyday life, as who we actually are, in accordance with the way that we actually are, but we’re doing it consciously, with great sensitivity and without lying to ourselves or turning a blind eye to anything. And the ‘key ingredient’ here is that we no longer have this flat unconscious belief that our mechanical behaviour is one day going to ‘pay off’ for us! There is a world of difference between being 100% committed to the mechanical way of life (without even knowing that we are) and ‘going through the motions’ of mechanical existence whilst no longer being 100% invested in the logic of that type of existence.

 

Normally – as we have said – we have total belief in the efficacy of purposeful or controlling activity to deliver the outcome that we want. Even if we aren’t particularly confident about our own ability to control, we still unquestioningly believe that controlling is the right road to go down, that ‘the instrument of thought’ and the purposeful activity that comes out of it can deliver us the outcome that we want. Even when we are anxious, and have a deep-seated doubt in our own ability to control effectively, and get things to turn out the way we want them to, we are still no closer to ‘doubting the doubt’, which is to say, doubting our unexamined belief that purposeful or controlling activity is the right tool for the job no matter what that job might be. I might be rubbish as a controller, which will I believe will have very bad consequences for me, yet I still don’t doubt that ‘controlling is the way to go’. I don’t doubt that ‘controlling is the way to freedom’. I only doubt myself.

 

This belief in the power of thought/control is pretty much absolute in everyday life and this is what keeps us unconscious (which is to say, ‘completely under the power of illusionary appearances’). To see with perfect, unstrained clarity that what is most important – which is to say, stillness or ‘inner connectedness’ – can never be attained through thinking or through purposeful activity completely changes things therefore. We are no longer ‘putting all our money on the wrong horse’, which is what is keeping us in the trap of the thinking mind. By pure habit we will of course still be putting a lot of money on that horse, but no longer all of it and that slight difference makes all the difference in the world! That in itself completely changes the dynamic of what’s going on – a little bit of light has entered the picture and nothing will ever be the same again…

 

Our normal way of being in the world is one in which we are constantly trying to achieve by purposefulness’. To be operating on the basis of the thinking/conceptualising mind is to be contingent constantly striving’, constantly trying to get things to be the right way’. That’s how the thinking conceptualising mind functions, that the way that it has to think to function. Thinking ‘strives’ just as a wheel rolls, just as the pendulum swings, just as an escalator escalates! Certainly it is true that some things need to be controlled, but the most important thing of all – as we have just said – can’t be arrived at via control or via purposeful doing, and this is stillness. We might wonder what is so great about stillness (which is obviously something that isn’t particularly valued in our society!) and the answer is simply that it is through stillness that we connect with who we really are. How important is that? This doesn’t mean that we have to be passive or withdrawn or disengaged – it just means that we aren’t constantly clutching at (or striving for) something the whole time. We’re not striving to attain the whole time, and this isn’t a mark of weakness or indifference! We can act all the more effectively when we are not constantly clutching or straining or striving – the action is much more spontaneous, much more fluid, much more ‘appropriate to the moment’ when we are not driven by ‘attachment’.

 

We can’t manipulate stillness, we can’t avail of it as part of our ‘overall strategy’ or ‘design’, we can’t make a goal of it any more than we can make goal of freedom. Particular goals are worth may be worth strategising for striving for, but life itself isn’t! Not only is life itself something that we can’t strain for or attain by skilful actions) it’s actually the case that we miss it every time when this is our approach, and when we are operating on the basis of the thinking mind then this – as we have just said – is inevitably going to be our approach. Thought can only ever grasp!

 

When we’re living life (or rather trying to live life!) on the basis of thought (or on the basis of control, which is the same thing) then we’re constantly ‘missing the mark’, we are constantly in a state of frustration, and this is why the Buddha states in his First Noble Truth that conditioned existence is dukkha, or ‘suffering/frustration’. Of course living on the basis of constant striving (or living on the basis of constantly ‘trying to attain’) is going to result in suffering and frustration – if the most important thing of all cannot be attained by striving, by controlling, by ‘managing’, then we’re actually working against ourselves the whole time, even though we think that we’re doing something to ‘help ourselves’…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Uneven Mind

Resistance is the single most important idea that we need to grasp if we are to properly (i.e. not intellectually) understand anxiety. Even if we disregard everything else, all the type of more-or-less useless stuff we always get told in anxiety management classes, if we were to understand this much that would be enough. It is our automatic resistance that causes anxiety and once we drop that resistance there is no way that we could ever suffer from anxiety. That would not be possible. Admittedly, this is not exactly what you might call a ‘quick fix’ – resistance is the ‘habit of a lifetime’ and it isn’t something we can dispense with anytime soon, but all the same it is the only thing we truly need to understand if we want to know what anxiety is all about.

 

What is more, resistance is actually a very simple idea – a PhD is not needed to understand it. As we have said, it’s not an intellectual type of an understanding at all but a ‘practical’ one. The only point that we need to make is that it takes (as we have just said) a huge amount of persistent and patient practice before we can find that we are able to drop our habit of resistance, and it is of course this that tends to put us off. As we have said, this is a ‘slow but sure’ approach, not a quick fix that wears off after a month or two. There’s no handy ‘method’ (or ‘system’) learning how to resist less in everyday life, and this is disconcerting, but the ‘plus’ side of the deal is that there is absolutely nothing in life that it is more helpful to learn! ‘Distress tolerance’ techniques are nonsense in comparison (naturally they are since techniques are just another form of resistance, just like everything else that comes out of the thinking mind) So what exactly is resistance, and how do we go about dropping it? There’s certainly no ‘technique’ for dropping it anyway, that’s for sure!

 

Resistance means that we are in one place, and wishing we were in another. For example, I might be in McDonalds, about to tuck into a quarter-pounder with cheese when I remember that the burgers in Burger King are really much nicer. So there I am in McDonalds, wishing I where in Burger King.  The fact is that I am not in Burger King , but because of my resistance neither am I wholeheartedly in McDonalds – I am there, but at the same time I am dissatisfied with where I am and so in a very real sense I am not there. You could say that I am in a sort of limbo because I am not getting the benefit of being where I am, and I am certainly not getting the benefit of being where I am not, because I’m not there! Needless to say, this business of being ‘reluctant to be where I am’ spoils things for me.  If I were a small child, you would probably say that I am in a bit of a sulk, but because I am a fully-grown adult we will say that I am exhibiting ‘resistance’. As we shall see, it is not quite the same thing as a good old-fashioned sulk because it tends to be a lot subtler, but it’s the same sort of thing.

 

Now, this is a bit of an over-simplistic example and so we need to take it further. When discussing resistance we are not so much talking about resisting our physical location but rather resisting our mental location, i.e. resisting ‘where we are in our heads’. So, I am feeling sad and wishing that I was not sad, or angry and wishing that I was not angry, or embarrassed and wishing that I was not embarrassed. Generally speaking, I am feeling bad and wishing that I was not feeling bad.

WHEN MY MIND IS UNEVEN

It is hard to see what is wrong with this – who wants to feel bad, after all? The little word ‘want’ is in fact the key to the whole matter because when it comes right down to it it’s not about wanting, it’s about what is. We tend to be preoccupied with ‘where we want to be’, and dismissive about where we actually are. We see ‘where we aren’t’ as having great value, and ‘where we are’ as having none. This means that my mind is uneven, and unevenness always leads to resistance.

 

Our problem (the unevenness) comes from our deep-rooted belief in the idea that there are RIGHT places to be and WRONG places to be. Resistance comes about because we want to avoid the wrong place and reach the right place. Again, it’s hard to see what the harm is in this, but actually it causes us no end of suffering – by resisting what is we make life far more difficult for ourselves than it has to be. A little bit of thought is all that is needed to spot the glitch. Ninjutsu master Hatsumi Soke has said: “There is no right way or wrong way, only a place from where to start.”  When we find ourselves in what we take to be a wrong place, we turn our backs on that place, we write it off. Like the guy in McDonalds who wishes he were in Burger King, we end up in limbo – neither in one place nor the other. What has happened is that we have severed our connection with reality so that there is nothing that can help us.  This is ‘cutting off my nose to spite my face’.

 

In order to start, we have to have a place to start from, and that place has to be a real place – not just a sort of ‘if only’ bubble floating over our heads.  When we really fall into a hole (when things really get bad) we write off where are, we say that it is a ‘wrong place’ or a ‘wrong way to be’, and this attitude condemns to get nowhere. This is like the joke where a lost motorist stops a local man to ask directions for a certain town. “Oh no” says the fellow, “You don’t want to start from here…”

The point of the joke is obvious – the local man is being no help to the motorist at all because the motorist is where he is, he isn’t at ‘the right place to start’. He is where he is – he can’t help being ‘where he is’!

GETTING ON WITH THE JOB

Another way to explain resistance is by saying that it is what happens when I am given a job to do that I do not like. Because I don’t really want to do the job my heart isn’t in it at all, and so the time seems to drag on forever. I don’t get any good feeling from what I am doing, because I am not actually doing anything! I am just going through the motions, reluctantly, whilst my mind is elsewhere. If, on the other hand, I had put my heart in the job the time would have flown, and I would have got a genuine feeling of satisfaction out of what I had done, no matter what the result. Because I know that I have not ‘copped out’, I have peace of mind.

 

Putting my heart in a job doesn’t mean fixing my thoughts on the ultimate goal and willing myself to reach it, it means being totally in whatever I am doing right now. Fixating on a goal means that I just want to get the job out of the way. If I am worried about whether I will succeed or fail, then that isn’t being wholehearted – being wholehearted about something means unreservedly accepting where I am, and unreservedly accepting the consequences of being where I am. Being wholehearted about doing the job that is given to you is also the same thing as being ‘even-minded’.

LOSING HEART

What does being ‘wholehearted about the job’ mean when applied to anxiety? It is easy to get confused here. When I am anxious I am running away from the ‘work’ of being where I am and it is this that is creating the anxiety. The job that I have been given is not to ‘fix’ anxiety or ‘fight’ anxiety or ‘escape’ from anxiety. The job is to be anxious if I am anxious, and not have my eyes fixated upon the goal of ‘not being anxious’. The job is to not resist anxiety, in other words.  Instead of chasing reality-as-I-would-like-it-to-be (which is unreality) I deal with reality as it is.

 

If the guy in McDonalds is half-hearted about being where he is, then I (as an anxiety-sufferer) must be ‘one tenth-hearted about being where I am. Or ‘one hundredth-hearted’. In an out and out panic attack the truth of the matter is that my heart is simply not in it at all! My resistance is at a maximum – I just don’t want to be here. Where I am is the wrong place to be, and I want out. And yet, that is where I am, and what greater authority can there be than reality itself? If I am there, then how can it be the wrong place to be? It has to be right, because where else could I be?

 

When I have no resistance to being where I am, then there is no obstacle anywhere, because the truth is that the only obstacle was in my mind. With no resistance there is no obstacle anywhere, ever. This is a totally unimpeded situation – it is complete peace of mind, it is the complete absence of anxiety. This does not mean that life is never difficult; it just means that when problems come along, I don’t have a problem with that.

 

Imagine that you have a beast of burden to bear your pain for you, to carry your suffering, and that this beast of burden can carry any weight without complaining or faltering. It can take on any job that comes along. This beast of burden is your ‘spirit’; in other words, it is the inner strength that is available to everyone when they draw upon it. The problem is that we have trained ourselves (very thoroughly and persistently) to believe that we are weak, when in reality we are not. By always trying to avoid situations that we think are going to be too difficult for us we have in fact trained ourselves to believe in our own assumed weakness, and so this weakness has become real. This is a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, which is something that we all do, all of the time – we identify (or ‘project’) limits, and then proceed to act as if these limits were real.

 

As a result of this we end up living out our lives within the confines of mental limits – neurotic limits that have no existence outside of our own minds. As Richard Bach says: “Argue hard enough for your limitations and, sure enough, they become yours”. Basically, we have ended up developing a strong faith in our own weakness rather than developing faith in our strength. The way that we have developed the curse of having ‘faith in our weakness’ is through resistance: what got us in this mess is our automatic and unreflective avoidance of situations that we don’t like. Resistance and ‘faith in one’s own weakness’ go hand in hand – the first leads to the second and the second leads to the first. Because we always try to avoid situations that we think are the ‘wrong places to start from’ we never discover that no place is the ‘wrong place to start from’.

TO NOTICE RESISTANCE IS TO UNDO RESISTANCE

Now it is important to stress that we can’t just drop a life-long habit of resistance just like that. It is not possible to just ‘drop’ a powerful habit in a week or in a month or even in a year. I cannot develop faith in my own strength overnight, and neither can I start by ‘slaying the biggest dragon’. If a panic attack comes along then my resistance will be automatic, it will just happen. I will try not to resist, but then I am ‘resisting resistance’.  I am turning my habit of resistance against itself, and so I am actually strengthening my habit of resistance. The only way to learn to drop resistance is by watching how we react to small things. A situation comes along that makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable and I notice how I start to react. ‘Noticing’ is the first basic act of dropping resistance – it is the start of a revolution (an inner revolution) because normally we never notice resistance. We just resist, and that is it. From then on, from the very moment we start reacting, it is all just automatic. There is no freedom at all, no possibility of getting off the merry-go-round of anxiety.

 

Being able to quietly notice things about how I am reacting is the beginning of freedom; in fact it is freedom – a very profound freedom. In order to escape slavery, we must first see that we are slaves, and then see how it is that we are slaves. Being a slave to resistance (being a slave to our own conditioned weakness) is not the same as being a slave to some external force because I cannot fight it. What we are slaves to is our own thinking, our own reasoning minds, and as soon as I fight (or do anything deliberate at all) I feed that thinking, I feed that reasoning mind. By ‘reacting to my reacting’ I reinforce the very thing that is keeping me prisoner.

THE ‘WILD HORSE’ OF THE MIND

A good way to explain the practice of becoming aware of resistance is by saying that it is like dealing with a wild horse that is easily spooked by anything that comes along. If I have such a horse then that either means that I have to make sure nothing comes along to upset the horse, or I have to find a way of taking the wildness out of it. The first method (the lazy man’s method!) is obviously no good because there is always going to be something unexpected to come along and so it is the second method that is needed.

 

The thing is, it is no good walking the horse down the road and waiting for a fire engine to go by with its sirens screaming to start getting the wildness out of the horse. The horse will bolt – it will lose its head completely and that will be that. There will be no talking to it. So what I do is get the horse used to little disturbances. If I keep this up the time will come when small things will no longer spook the horse. It will not gallop off down the road with froth coming out of its mouth and its eyes rolling and me clinging on for dear life to its back. So then I can work with slightly bigger disturbances, and get the horse used to them. Eventually, by a process of degrees, the horse will lose it’s ‘wildness’ altogether and nothing will spook it.  This means that the horse will become very useful to me because I will be able to go where I want. Before, when the horse was wild, I couldn’t use it and so I had no way of getting about. I was totally restricted. Now, I can go far and wide, as I please – I have the gift of freedom.

 

Now it is very important to note that the analogy of the ‘wild horse’ cannot be taken too far. We spoke of ‘taking the wildness out of the horse’ rather than saying ‘training the horse’ and this is because we have a great tendency to think that we can train our minds not to be anxious. It is training that has got us into the mess we are in now – there is no such thing as ‘good training’ – all training weakens us, all training creates ‘faith in our own weakness’. Actually, training is resistance. If I was to try to train my mind then I would reward myself for good thoughts (or good reactions) and punish myself for bad thoughts (or bad reactions). This creates a belief in a RIGHT WAY and a WRONG WAY, which is the root of our troubles. Training creates an uneven mind, and an uneven mind is a mind that never has any peace – it always has to manipulate, it always has to resist.

 

I take the wildness out of my mind by noticing it, not by controlling it, not by ‘managing’ it (and what a truly horrible world ‘managing’ is in this context!!). As we have said, the basic act of freedom is to quietly notice how we react to stuff. All reacting is resistance, but noticing that I am reacting is not resistance, because I am being where I am. After all, if I’m noticing it, I must be there! Resistance, as we know, means not being there, and so when I start to notice my resistance that is the first thing that is not resistance. From this humble beginning, everything else follows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Treadmill of Runaway Thinking

When we think we do so because we’re trying to change things from being ‘the way that they are’ to some other way, some other way that corresponds to an idealized view or concept of reality that we have. Or we could just say that we’re trying to change things from being ‘the way that they are’ to ‘the way that we’d like them to be’.

 

Sometimes this is useful – sometimes it’s actually vitally important, in fact – but at other times it’s not at all useful, very often it could even be the opposite of useful. Most of the time our thinking is no more than what we might call ‘a habit’ or ‘an automatic reflex’. This ‘automatic reflex’ dominates our lives – we actually think all day long, from the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we go back to sleep again. We’re so used to this automatic thinking that we barely register it. To be thinking all the time is the normal way to be – if we weren’t thinking then this would come as rather a big shock to us!

 

Thinking can be very helpful at times, when it is specifically and practically needed, but when we think all the time, by pure force of habit, then it is not. It’s not helpful to think all the time (whether we want to or not) because doing this stops us living in the real world. Our thoughts don’t take us into reality after all, they take us deeper and deeper into what we might call ‘the world of our thoughts’. Thinking all the time is a kind of one-way ticket into a ‘purely conceptual reality’ and to be caught up in a full-time basis in a purely conceptual reality is not a healthy thing!

 

If thinking is all about trying to change things (as it of course is) then clearly it can never connect us with the way that things actually are. This is the one thing thought can never do!  Thinking occurs in response to an ‘irritation’, we might say, and this irritation is ‘the way things actually are’. We’re ‘irritated’ by the world being the way that it is and we’re responding to the irritation with our thinking – our thinking is our attempt to soothe things, to ‘smooth things over’, to make things be a bit more comfortable (or ‘acceptable’) to us. If ‘the world being the way that it actually is’ is the irritation, then our constant thinking is the ointment or balm that we keep applying…

 

The world ‘being the way that it is’ is the itch and we are constantly scratching this itch, in other words. Oddly enough, therefore, we’re ‘scratching away’ all day long and we’ve grown so used to our constant habitual scratching that we no longer notice it. If we were totally at peace with ‘things being the way that they are’ then – needless to say – there would be no need to think. If everything was ‘perfect just as it is’ then we’d leave it the way that it is, obviously! We might think “Oh, this is perfect!” it is true, but then to think this would take us away from the perfection, not towards it. The thought actually detracts from the perfection rather than adding to it; it detracts because it takes us away from reality into the world of our thoughts, into the world of our ‘running commentary’! Who needs a commentary when the commentary detracts from what is being commentated on?

 

We might of course agree with this but then point out that everyday very rarely is ‘perfect’! We all know this very well! If life were perfect the whole time then this would be a different story and we wouldn’t need to be thinking all the time, but this is very much like saying ‘If pigs could fly’… This objection  – solid as it might seem at first glance – brings us back to the nub of what we started off by saying in this discussion – sometimes we come across ‘imperfections’ that both need to be (and can be) rectified and in this cases thinking is the right man for the job. But most of the time the so-called ‘imperfections’ can’t be fixed and actually don’t need to be fixed anyway. We only think that they are ‘imperfections’ and that they need to be fixed…

 

Generally speaking, what we automatically relate to as ‘irritants’ or ‘imperfections’ are seen as such purely as a result of our ‘arbitrarily-biased viewpoint’, purely as a result of our ‘likes and dislikes’ (or what mindfulness teacher Rob Nairn calls ‘our preferences’). This being the case, there is no real need to try to get the world to accord with our idea or it, our concept of it. The world is the way that it is (whatever that way is) all by itself, and there really is no necessity at all for us to take responsibility for it, as regards its ‘essential nature’. We clearly can’t do this – and even if we could (which would be a ridiculous notion) – that wouldn’t be a good thing. We don’t really know what we’re doing, after all, so why would we want to ‘put ourselves in charge’?

 

To control or regulate a few specific (or ‘bounded’) aspects of the world is one thing, and no one’s going to argue about the necessity to do this, but when we automatically try to try to control or regulate the whole of reality (without having a clue that this is what we are actually doing or why we might be wanting to do it) then this is another thing entirely. What we’re looking at here is the difference – we might say – between conscious and unconscious controlling. In ‘conscious controlling’ I do know what I am doing and why – it’s a practical thing that I’m doing here! I’m trying to obtain a pragmatically useful outcome such as ‘cooking the dinner’ or ‘avoiding a pothole in the road’. With ‘unconscious controlling’, as we have just said, I don’t know what I am doing or why I am trying to do it. I don’t even know that I am controlling, most of the time!

 

When I ‘m controlling and I know that I am then there’s a god chance that I will stop controlling once I have achieved what I want to achieve. When I’ve cooked the dinner I’ll let go of the idea of doing so; when I have successfully avoided the pothole in the road then I no longer have to strive to achieve this outcome! When I don’t know that I am controlling then how am I ever going to stop?  In this case we can say that ‘the controlling has taken over’ – the controlling has got the upper hand and it’s actually controlling me! The need to control is controlling me and so my constant controlling (or attempting to control) is really something that has been forced upon me. Very clearly, this is not a healthy state of affairs. Very clearly, no helpful outcome is ever going to be achieved as a result of ‘unconscious controlling’!

 

What we’re really talking about in this discussion is of course our thinking, and the unconscious habit that we have of ‘thinking all the time without paying attention to the fact that we are doing so’. Thinking and controlling are the same thing – we think in order to try to gain control and we can’t gain control without thinking. Just as runaway controlling can’t ever be helpful, neither can runaway thinking. How could runaway thinking ever possibly be ‘helpful’? We don’t even know what we trying to achieve with our thinking – we’re so lost in our thinking that most of the time we’re not even aware that we’re doing so. As Eckhart Tolle says, the human condition is to be ‘lost in thought’. Because we’re ‘lost in thinking’ there isn’t ever going to be an end to it!  When we’re ‘controlling for the sake of controlling’ then there’s no end to the controlling and when we’re ‘thinking for the sake of thinking’ then there’s never ever going to be any end to the thinking! We’re stuck on the treadmill of thought and we’re not going to get anything for it – there’s no prize, no jackpot, no bonus waiting for us at the other end…

 

When we are on the treadmill of runaway thinking then we’re disconnected from the world as it actually is in itself on a full-time basis. This doesn’t mean that we’re in a state of total dissociation (although this is of course a particular, extreme example of being disconnected), it just means that we’re living exclusively in the world of rational representations, which is the Conceptualized World (or ‘the world of our abstract ideas about reality’). The Conceptual World can match the real world so well (on a superficial level at least) that it is perfectly possible to get on in life and appear to be perfectly ‘well’ in ourselves, but there is nevertheless always going to be something important missing. What’s missing is the awareness of the actual freshness of life as it is in itself, which is an awareness that children have but which we as adults have almost entirely forgotten about. We lost our unconditioned awareness and we’re making do with conditioned consciousness instead, which will allow us to ‘go through the motions of life’ it is true, but as we go through the motions we nevertheless miss what life is really about. This constitutes a rather major ‘malaise’ therefore, and it’s a malaise that almost all of us are suffering from. It’s the malaise that comes about as a result of living life in a purely rational or conceptual way and the way it affects us is – as Jung says – in terms of ‘loss of meaning’.

 

We can live with this ‘loss of meaning’ because we can fill our lives with all sorts of empty distractions and entertainments (and this is exactly what we do do) but the price we pay is a lack of joy and peace in ourselves, a lack of any true ‘ease’. We may (and often do) deny this of course, and proclaim ourselves to be living happy and fulfilling lives but this is more of an image we feel obliged to project than anything else. If we’re all so fulfilled then why are more and more people presenting to doctors with anxiety and depression? Are we really as fulfilled as we like to say we are? Over-thinking means that our ‘quality of life’ has been tremendously degraded but because this has become ‘the norm’ no one ever remarks on it. What else do we have to go on, after all?

 

The percentage of the population suffering from depression and anxiety has been on the increase for the last sixty years and is expected to go on increasing, according to the World Health Organization, but still we go looking for an answer in all the wrong places. The medical approach suggests that it is mainly to do with our genes and how these genes affect our brain chemistry, for example. It certainly doesn’t suggest that our problem is that we all think too much! But how much simpler would it be if this was the reason – if this was the case we could all do something about it! We could start to become aware of our thinking for a start, and the more aware we become of our thinking the less it gets to control us…

 

 

Art: Mel Chin, Wake

 

 

 

 

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