The Problem of ‘Sitting with Pain’

When we try to ‘sit with our own pain’ (as we often do try to do when we are involved in psychotherapy or mindful practice) we generally run into a problem. The problem with ‘sitting with our own pain’ isn’t just the pain itself – which is of course what we think it is – but our purposeful attitude to this whole business of ‘sitting with pain’. The problem is that we can’t be present with our pain on purpose.

 

Because we have the aim or purpose of sitting with pain this jinxes the whole process – we want to become more present with ourselves but we become more absent instead! It backfires on us every time. There is no way that being purposeful about wanting to be present with our pain isn’t going to backfire on us because purposefulness is ‘control’ and control causes us to identify with the ‘abstract controller’ (which is another way of saying that it stops us being present). This is the very same paradox of ‘self-acceptance’ that Alan Watts talks about. The thing about self-acceptance, Alan Watts says, is that the self we should be accepting (i.e. the non-accepting self) is the very same self that we are trying to get rid of…

 

There is a point at which we decide that we need to change the way we are and become self-accepting rather than self-rejecting or self-denying and it is at this point that a new and problematic twist gets thrown into the equation. We’ve complicated things by turning our back on ‘how we really are’ in favour of ‘how we’d like to be’ (or ‘how we feel we ought to be’) and this means that our so-called ‘act of self-acceptance’ is really just another act of self-rejection – the latest in a long line of ‘acts of self-rejection’.

 

The problem is that every form of purposeful action that we might engage in is a rejection. Every purpose is a rejection just as every goal is a rejection – every goal is (of course!) a rejection of whatever it is that has not been designated as ‘the goal’. Purposeful behaviour is rejecting behaviour therefore – we’re rejecting anything that interferes with (or stands in the way of) the achieving of the purpose that we have set so much store in. Purposeful behaviour is all about attachment (or ‘like and dislike’) in other words – it’s all about ‘vehemently rejecting or eliminating what we don’t like’….

 

This tends to sound a bit complicated when we try to pin it down in the way that we have just been trying to but this is really just a problem with language (or a problem with thinking, which is the same thing). In short, ‘accepting yourself’ means – if it is to mean anything – accepting the self that you were before you decided to accept yourself and ‘sitting with your pain’ means – if it is to mean anything – being present with yourself as you were before you conceived the notion of ‘sitting with your own pain’. ‘Self-acceptance’ means – in other words – being unconditionally with yourself as you were before you got any clever ideas in your head about changing yourself or adjusting yourself to be some special way!

 

‘Adjusting ourselves so as to be some special way’ IS the jinx that always flummoxes us – that’s the whole problem in a nutshell. We are always trying to adjust, modify or change ourselves so as to be some special way – we do this so automatically, so unreflectively, that we don’t even notice ourselves doing it. We’re always being aggressive to ourselves – we’re not letting ourselves alone, we’re not giving ourselves any peace. Being aggressive towards ourselves doesn’t bear any fruit; it doesn’t change us to be the way we want to be – this has never happened in the whole of human history and it never will! Self-aggression has never resulted in anything other than ‘an increase in suffering’ and never could. Jinxes never stop being jinxes; that’s the whole thing about ‘a jinx’ – that it unfailingly catches us out every time. The whole point of a jinx is that it will never come good for us, no matter how long we keep on trying to beat it.

 

When we automatically try to adjust ourselves, modify ourselves, change ourselves, all that happens is that we create a barrier, a gap, an obstacle. As soon as we try to change or adjust ourselves we create a gap between ‘actually being in the world’ and ‘our experience of what it means to be in the world’ and this gap spells one thing and one thing only – it spells suffering. The ‘gap’ equals suffering and the reason that the gap equals suffering is because it’s a gap between us and life. We are life – we’re not something that ‘possesses’ life or is aiming or planning to gain life or maximize life – we actually are life and so a gap between us and life is a gap that stops us being what we really are!

 

What more terrible thing could there be than a gap between us and life? If there is a gap between us and life then where we are isn’t life – it’s somewhere else. We’re stuck somewhere else in a ‘non-place’ that isn’t life and we’re watching life at a distance through some kind of distorting lens. We’re alienated, dissociated, dislocated. We’re seeing life darkly, as if through glass, as it says in 1 Corinthians 13:12; we’re not seeing it as it is at all.

 

This is how we almost always are – it’s the human condition. It’s the usual state of affairs for us because we’re always trying to adjust ourselves, modify ourselves, change ourselves. That’s the thing we do without even knowing that we’re doing it. To live is to be constantly trying to change oneself and the reason for this is that we’re always living via the thinking mind. The thinking mind is a tool for changing things, a tool for analyzing and solving problems, and the one thing it can never do is ‘leave things alone’! The rational mind can never exist in a state of peace with the world – it always has to be trying to evaluate it and control it. The rational mind is a device for evaluating and cataloguing and controlling and it can’t do anything else.

 

Life’s a scab and we’re forever picking at it, in other words, even though this isn’t the prettiest of metaphors. When we’re coming at it from the point of view of the thinking mind life is continually irritating us, or perhaps even causing us actual pain, and we’re trying to fix that but by trying to fix it we’re maintaining the gap that is causing the pain in the first place. Generally speaking the gap between us and life is fairly imperceptible – it doesn’t cause us any conscious distress or sense of disconnection. For the most part the sense of disconnection and alienation that it creates is invisible to us; we don’t know that it’s there and we will in fact deny that it is if asked. We are used to it; we assume on some level or other that this is what life is supposed to be like so we pay it no heed. We assume that we’re supposed to be ‘separate from life’; we don’t miss that vivid immediacy of life because we don’t remember ever having it and this ‘forgetting’ is concomitant with the conditioned state of being….

 

When we are suffering from neurotic pain of one sort or another then the ‘gap’ that we are talking about gets exacerbated and because it has become exacerbated it becomes visible. The ‘disconnect’ becomes more severe, more pronounced, more painful and so we do notice it. We notice it all of the time; we can’t get rid of it in fact and our attempt to get rid of it, or fix it, makes it worse. Our mind keeps on working away at the problem and this restless activity of the mind keeps widening the suffering-producing gap. We’re caught in a loop, in other words – we’re caught in the loop of the analyzing/evaluating mind.

 

The mind always is a loop, whether we’re aware of this or not, and we’re always trapped in it. It’s only when the loop narrows so that we can feel the pain that it creates that we start to gain the possibility of seeing that we’re caught in a mental loop; otherwise life is full of enough distractions and diversions to keep us from seeing that our situation is in any way ‘prison-like’. That’s what distractions and diversions are for – to prevent us from seeing that we’re in prison, to prevent us from noticing that we’re caught in a mental loop. We could quite easily spend our whole lives without noticing this…

 

What maintains the gap is us automatically reacting to the pain that is created by the gap. We don’t notice that we are continually reacting in this way – it’s so normal for us that of course we don’t notice it. It’s just regular life, as far as we’re concerned. We’re too caught up in this mechanism that is forever ‘feeding on itself’ to ever question what is going on here. It is – as we keep saying – normal for us; the mental loop of the thinking mind is ‘normal’ for us because it’s all we ever know. To be is to react when we’re in the unconscious mode of existence; we’re owned by the mechanical forces of analysing and evaluating and controlling when we’re in this mode – just so long as we’re unconscious we are a vehicle for these forces and nothing more.

 

We often hear that the way to work with this situation (i.e. the situation of being the unconscious pawn of forces we do not understand) is by ‘not judging’, ‘not reacting’ and all this kind of thing, but this is only half the story. It’s only half the story and because it’s only half the story it’s not really going to help us! Being told to ‘not judge’ is actually a very confusing message, despite the fact that it sounds so straightforward. The problem is that the self (i.e. the thinking mind) can’t ever ‘not judge’, can’t ever ‘not react’. This is the supreme impossibility for it – the one thing the self-mind can never do is ‘stop judging’! The reason that this is a supreme impossibility is because the self-mind is created by judging, is created by reacting, so of course this entity is never going to genuinely embrace not-judging. It might pretend to (if it thinks that there’s something in it for it), but that’s as far as it goes…

 

‘Sitting with our own pain’ is a joke as far as the mind-created self is concerned. The very idea of it is ludicrous – the thing or entity that is created by resisting pain is supposed to be able to ‘not resist’, even though unreflective resistance is its very life-blood. All that’s going to happen in this case therefore (when we only have half the story) is that we’re going to learn to resist in a camouflaged way – we’re going to learn to disguise our resistance by calling it ‘spiritual practice’, by calling it ’sitting with my pain’…

 

The ‘missing half’ of the message (which is the half that we in the West don’t seem to be so keen on hearing!) is that we’re not this beleaguered self that is trying (and failing) to sit with the pain. We’re not that self and we never were. The whole thing is a ‘false problem’ therefore – it would be a problem of we were this self but because we’re not there isn’t. There isn’t a problem and there never was one – there’s no one who needs to ‘sit with the pain’ just as there’s no one who needs to ‘do the spiritual practice’.

 

In down-to-earth terms what we’re talking about here could simply be called ‘having a sense of humour’ or ‘not taking things too seriously’ (even though it might seem flippant to say this). We see that the task we’re setting ourselves is impossible and so we don’t take it so seriously. How can we take it seriously if it’s totally impossible? ‘Being present’ is an impossible task – it’s an impossible task because it isn’t a task. It isn’t something to be achieved. When we do treat ‘being present’ as a task we find that the more we try to succeed at it the less present we become. It backfires on us. Being serious about a task that isn’t a task is a double-bind – we’re jinxing ourselves by trying. We’re already present so how can this be a task? ‘Trying’ creates the separate sense of self that wishes to be ‘not separate’ and it tries to be ‘not separate’ (or ‘not disconnected’) by trying even more and this is the mental loop that we’re all caught up in…

 

 

 

 

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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

 

 

Being There Without A Reason

Whenever we’re doing something for a reason we’re not ‘in reality’ – we’re not in reality because we’re not in the present moment and there’s no reality other than the present moment. We can only be in reality if we let go of all the ideas that we might have of what we are doing and why so if we’re here for some reason or other then quite simply we are not actually here, we’re not actually ‘present’. We’re in our heads – we’re ‘there for a reason’ and this means that we’re not there. We’re not really anywhere – we’re absent rather than present. Doing stuff for a reason ensures that we’re not in the present moment…

 

And yet we’re always doing stuff for a reason – we’re doing it because of this, we’re doing it because of that, we’re doing it because of whatever. Even when we think we’re doing something for no reason that chances are that we still have an agenda there somewhere or other. We might be unconscious of this agenda but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. Lots and lots of our activity occurs as a result of unconscious motivation – most of it in fact – so not being able to see what our reason is, not having any awareness of it – doesn’t mean anything. Truly spontaneous  behaviour is rare in adults – everything has become contaminated with some kind of agenda, some kind of calculation, some kind of rational validation.

 

To let go of all our agendas – both of the conscious and unconscious variety – is the hardest thing there is. In one way it could be argued that dropping our agendas is easy since we don’t actually have to ‘do’ anything – all that is needed is for us to stop doing something (i.e. all we need to ‘do’ is stop holding on). This ‘not doing’ turns out to be much more difficult that we might have thought however. It’s a very curious thing because we always think that the challenge in life is to fulfil our agendas, not let go of them. That’s what we’re always being told, that’s the kind of message that we have been brought up on. The basic assumption in our culture is that when we successfully realize our goals then we will be happy. Everything then will be OK – all problems will then disappear.

 

The message we are always given is that goal-attainment equals the ultimate fulfilment, the ultimate satisfaction, in other words. It means everything to us. But this just isn’t true – the only thing that brings joy and peace is letting go, not holding on. Holding on only ever brings misery – we hold on out of greed, out of fear, out of insecurity and this is never going bring anything but suffering. Holding on we do by reflex – letting go, on the other hand, has to be a conscious thing. It is an expression of being present in the situation, not being absent! ‘Letting go’ is the challenge; ‘letting go’ is the challenge because it is the one thing we don’t want to do. As Eckhart Tolle says, everything hinges upon our relationship with the reality of the present moment. If our attitude is that we are refusing to surrender to the present moment, just as it is, then it is as if we are fighting with life itself. It isn’t just ‘as if’ – we are fighting with life itself and this the most gruelling and thankless task there is. There’s nothing more futile than this; fighting with life is the ultimate ‘fruitless endeavour’ – the only fruit we are ever going to pick from this tree is the fruit of suffering!

 

When we refuse to surrender to the reality of the present moment (and this ‘surrendering is a profoundly courageous rather than a cowardly act) then what this means is that we are trying to live life on our terms and we don’t even know what these terms are! We don’t know what the terms which we are trying to hold life to are because we‘ve never examined them, because we’ve never really looked at them. If we had looked at these terms of ours we would no longer be clinging so stubbornly to them – we would have dropped them immediately because they are so ridiculous! This is the whole thing about ‘holding onto our agendas’ – we hold onto them alright but we never look at why we are holding onto them so tightly or what exactly the expectations are that we are imposing on life. This is because ‘holding on’ (as we have said) always happens out of fear and when we are doing something out of fear we do not want to examine what we are doing and why. We just ‘do it’ – the reflex is triggered and we just go along with it. Fear is all about going along with automatic reflexes – to act on fear is to hand over responsibility to a set of mechanical responses. To act on fear is to become mechanical, in other words. When we are obeying fear then we are moving away from being aware – awareness moves towards looking at what is going on whilst fear runs in the other direction!

 

Another way of putting this is to say that when we are afraid and we go along with this fear, then we are handing over our autonomy to rules. We are giving away our power to some external authority. We trust that the rules (or the ‘external authority’) will save us and – at the same time – we make sure never to look at the rule (or the behaviour) too closely. Naturally we don’t want to look at the rules (or behaviour) too closely because if we did then we would be running the risk of seeing that what we have placed our trust in is never in a million years going to help us! To examine the rules or behaviours or reflexes that we have handed over our autonomy to is to run the risk of losing our faith in them (since they don’t by their very nature ‘stand up to scrutiny’) and then what would we do? We’d be thrown back on our own resources again; we’d have to face up to the difficulty all by ourselves, without some handy formula that is supposedly going to save us…

 

This is why no one can ever tell us what to do in order to ‘beat anxiety’, or in order to ‘overcome fear’. If they do then we will straightaway cling to the instructions (or rules) that they have given us; we will hold on tightly to the  formula that we have been given and holding on tightly to some formula, to some reassuring ‘external authority’, means that we are running away from fear not up facing it. So how is this supposed to help us? How is running away from what we are afraid of going to free us from fear? We are desperate to give away our power, our autonomy in the matter and at the same time we are expecting this to save us from the fear or from the anxiety. Our anxiety is a symptom of our refusal to relate directly to whatever is frightening us (it is a symptom of our attempted running away, in other words) so how can someone trying to help us in our ‘running away’ ever be expected to help us? When we try to give someone methods to deal with fear or anxiety all we are doing is colluding with them in their efforts to run away in the opposite direction of the source of the fear and so this isn’t helpful at all. ‘Methods’ are always an abdication of autonomy; ‘methods’ mean becoming more not less mechanical.

 

How can we possibly hope to become free from fear or anxiety by moving in the direction of becoming more mechanical? The root cause of anxiety is our fear of being present in the situation whilst being mechanical means moving even further away from the reality of the present moment, so utilizing methods and skills and ‘tools’ to deal with anxiety isn’t any sort of a cure at all – it’s a symptom. It’s a symptom of our very great reluctance to surrender to the present moment. It’s a symptom of our (unexamined) refusal to live life on life’s terms. What helps isn’t to invest in methods of dealing or ‘coping’ with life’s difficulties – what helps is to be present with these difficulties. Being present with the difficulty – whatever that difficulty might be – is the only thing that helps. Anything else is an attempted escape from something that can’t be escaped from!

 

‘Being present’ means not running away and so of course this is the only thing that is actually going to help us. The big challenge is however – as we have said – that no one can tell us how to be present with ourselves. There’s no set of rules we can follow. There’s no method for it – there’s no method for ‘being there without a reason’. If there was a method then there would be a reason, the reason being that it suits us to be there without a reason, and this itself constitutes a reason. This itself constitutes an agenda and so we have ‘an agenda for dropping our agenda’. This simply shows that ‘being present’ can never come out of the head, out of the thinking mind. Everything that comes out of the thinking mind comes with an agenda – there is no way that the thinking, purposeful mind can ever do anything without having a purpose in mind. The problem is therefore that we do everything out of our heads – we’re a ‘heady’ culture! We even try to ‘assent to life’ with our heads. The thinking mind – like some sort of terrible interfering busybody – wants to be involved in everything…

 

Much of what passes for mindfulness comes down to this glitched business of us trying to assent to life with our heads (which means ‘trying to assent to life for a reason’). Because we are so very used to seeing ourselves to seeing ourselves as ‘this mind’ (and we are brought up to see ourselves this very limited way) we simply don’t know any other way to be. The sense of ourselves as a ‘rounded and irrational whole’ rather than a type of ‘disembodied sharp-edged intellect’ is a stranger to us. It’s as if we live in a big house and never come out of the cramped and cluttered little room we use as an office. We don’t know ‘our Father’s house’ in all its spaciousness. Assenting to life is very clearly something that comes out of the Whole of us, not just a meagre part of us (i.e. not just the narrow rational intellect). Being here without a reason comes out of our heart, not our head! This is at the same time both an involuntary (or spontaneous) act of deep assent from the heart and a profoundly liberating insight – the insight being that there never was any possibility of us not being in the reality of our own lives.

 

 

 

 

 

Accepting Our Own Non-Acceptance

One of the biggest delusions that we are up against when we start practicing mindfulness (and there are many) is the delusion that we can (and indeed ought to) ‘accept ourselves’. This erroneous belief translates into a lot of frustration, a lot of suffering. It is therefore crucially important to realize – before we move on to anything else – that accepting ourselves is not something that we can ever do on purpose.

 

The very idea that we can or ought to be able to accept ourselves (or accept anything else for that matter) is self-contradictory – if I am trying to accept myself then clearly the reason for this is that I am not accepting of myself and so what I’m actually doing here – as Alan Watts says – is that I am ‘rejecting my own non-acceptance of myself’. So what I’m actually doing isn’t acceptance at all – ‘its non-acceptance flying under the flag of acceptance’. The way that I actually am is not-accepting and rather than accepting this non-acceptance of mine and seeing it in an impartial or unbiased way I am rejecting it – I’m rejecting it because I’m trying to change it. What I am really doing here is ‘rejecting myself as I actually am’ and this is – of course – exactly what I normally do anyway. Nothing has changed therefore – I’m at my old tricks again (as usual) and yet I’m hoping that things will somehow work out differently this time.

 

Acceptance can never happen as a result of a deliberate action or strategy on our part. Deliberate or purposeful action always comes out of our thinking and anything that happens as a result of thinking always comes about as a result of our non-acceptance of the way things actually are. Thought can never accept and acceptance isn’t a thought! We only think when we are interested in changing the way things are – if we were happy with things being the way that they are then where’s the need to think, where’s the need to control? If we don’t want to change anything then where’s the need for a method or strategy? Leaving things as they already are doesn’t require any strategizing, after all. There’s no problem and so there’s no need to intervene. Things can be ‘left as they are’ and so where’s the need for striving? Thought isn’t acceptance. Thought is resistance and resistance is thought, and this is all we ever know, generally speaking. We are all ‘addicted to control’ and if there are problems we automatically assume that this is because we’re not controlling effectively enough…

 

‘Acceptance’ has nothing to do with control – the one is the antithesis of the other. We can of course try to control ourselves to accept – we can try to control ourselves to accept until we’re blue in the face but it won’t do us any good! It won’t do us any good because we’re caught up in a self-contradicting struggle; we’re in a loop – we’re trying to control ourselves to stop controlling. So what can we do then? How do we free ourselves from the self-contradiction of trying to ‘accept on purpose’? The key to this apparently impossible dilemma is simply to notice the way things are, and getting better at leaving a gap between us ‘noticing the way things are’ and our automatic reacting, our automatic attempt to ‘do something about the situation that we have just noticed’. We’re can’t create a gap on purpose because control (or purposefulness) always ‘closes the gap’ – purposefulness is all about closing the gap between the way things are and the way we want them to be. What we can do however is to take an interesting in noticing the process that is taking place when we ‘automatically react’. Normally we don’t ‘notice ourselves reacting’, we just react and that is it. All of our energy, all of our ‘interest’ goes into the reacting and there is none left over to notice anything!

 

There is always a gap there between the awareness of what is going on and our automatic reacting to it (which is our thinking) and so just as soon as we do take an interest in the proceedings we will sooner or later notice it. The noticing itself is the gap, when it comes down to it – whenever we are aware of something there must always be a gap because without a gap between the noticing and the reacting there actually isn’t any noticing! This means that we aren’t creating a gap but rather we are just taking the time to get in touch with our own awareness, the awareness that was there all the time. Our awareness is never not there – it is just hidden beneath all the thinking, beneath all the reacting, all the compulsive goal-orientated activity. Another way of making this point is to say that the ‘key to everything’ is simply to be open to the truth. We simply have to notice the truth of what is going on without needing to worry about either accepting or not accepting it. So instead me of trying to ‘accept myself’ I just see the truth of the matter, which is that I do not accept myself. I own up to the fact that I am not at all accepting of myself and so there is no contradiction here. There is no contradiction and there is no needed for any sort of straining or striving. ‘The seeing is the doing’, says Krishnamurti.

 

What is really happening here is that we are taking back our freedom not to have to be scheming and calculating all the time. Only we’re not ‘taking it back’ because we had never really lost it in the first place. We’re just reconnecting with it. Somehow what happens to us is that we get ‘taken over by our own cleverness’ (so to speak) and as a result of being ‘taken over’ in this way by the rational faculty we think that cleverness (or rationality) is the answer to everything. We don’t have anything else but our cleverness – it’s as if we are our cleverness, it’s as if we are the rational intellect, whilst the truth of the matter is that we are much, much more than this. We are far more than just our rational-computational faculty – what we really are is this ‘capacity to unconditional accept’ that we have been talking about. The rational mind is pure and simply a system of limitations, it is the ‘incapacity to unconditionally accept’, whilst who we are in our essence is unlimited. It could be said that the thinking mind is a structure, whilst who we are in our essence isn’t any kind of ‘structure’ at all but the space within which all structures exist. We are this ‘all-accepting, all-facilitating space’, not the events that happen within it…

 

It sounds peculiarly passive (and therefore irresponsible) to say that we are our true nature ‘accepts everything’ – that sounds to us like being a doormat, as the expression has it. But awareness doesn’t accept in the sense of ‘passively going along with things’, it accepts in the sense of not being afraid of anything. Whatever is there it sees unflinchingly, in other words; it has no ‘preference’ about what it sees. When we put it like this therefore we can see that being ‘all-accepting’ isn’t a sign of weakness at all but rather it is an indication of tremendous strength. Our true or inherent nature is this tremendous strength therefore – it is the quality of strength that doesn’t need to ‘do something about it’. It is our false ‘cleverness’ that always needs to be ‘doing something about our situation’, that always has to have tactics and strategies ready at hand; it is our cleverness or trickiness that is weak and which, because of its weakness, always has to ‘go along with things’. It goes along with its own need to control, its own need to ‘prop itself up’. The thinking mind accuses unconditioned consciousness of being weak when in reality it is completely the other way around! Thought is always resisting because it always has a position to defend; awareness on the other hand has no need to resist because it is not tied to any precarious position that it needs to protect.

 

If we think that we ‘have to accept ourselves’ then this impression or belief is coming out of weakness rather than strength. If I feel that I need to ‘do something about my situation’ then this feeling comes out of my weakness not my strength. It is coming from my false idea of who I am, not who I actually am! Resistance (and also fear) always comes out of a false idea of who I am! ‘How then do I overcome my weakness?’ I might ask. I most probably will ask this. But the glitch here is clear – as soon as I feel that I have to do something about my situation and try to act on the basis of this impression then I am acting on the basis of weakness. Trying to remedy my weakness is a manifestation of weakness just as trying to overcome my fear is a manifestation of fear. We’re only going around in circles here. I’m not making things better no matter what I do; I am making problems no matter what tack I take. I am compounding weakness with yet more weakness, I am trying to overcome fear with more fear and this is just not going to help me…

 

When we see this glitch everything tends to seem utterly hopeless. How can I possibly get out of this? Every time I try to do something about my situation I am acting out of weakness and if I try to do something about that then I am still acting out of weakness. And yet at the same time I can’t not react; I am powerless – it seems – not to try to ‘do something about it’. I am compelled to try to fix or correct my situation. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of cope here therefore. There doesn’t seem to be any scope – the situation shows every indication of being a dead loss! What’s ‘hopeless’ however isn’t the situation but our distorted understanding of it; what’s ‘hopeless’ is our proposed ability to purposefully get things to be the way we want them to be. That’s a ‘no go’ for sure but nothing else is. Everything else is working just fine, just as it always did, just as it always will do. The insurmountable problems only exist in our rational/purposeful understanding, in other words.

 

Who we are in reality isn’t the idea that we have of ourselves; who we really are isn’t the limited and brittle concept we have of ourselves and so it doesn’t really matter that resolving the problem in the way that the mind-created image of ourselves would like to see it resolved is a ‘no go’. That doesn’t matter at all. It seems to matter an awful lot when we are identified with the mind-created image of who we are but because the impression that the mind-created self has of the situation is entirely illusory, entirely without substance, the fact that we think that there is an insurmountable problem isn’t a genuine obstacle! It’s just the illusory appearance of an obstacle – it’s the illusory appearance of a problem that is taken very serious by the imagined idea of who we think we are. The view that the self-concept has of the situation is illusory (just as that imagined self is) and this brings us to the crux of the matter. The concept of ourselves which is who we think we are can’t accept anything unconditionally – it simply doesn’t have the capacity to do so since it itself is a ‘conditional’ entity. But this doesn’t matter because it was never up to this fragile sense of self to do the ‘accepting’ – only consciousness, which is who we really are, can unconditionally accept.

 

As we cease to believe so much that we are this narrow and brittle little ‘idea of ourselves’ our capacity to accept (or be present with) our situation increases. This ‘capacity’ increases because we’re not relying upon an illusion to do the accepting, because we’re not relying on an illusion to be present! Unconditioned awareness accepts everything because it is its nature to do so not because we are requiring it to do so, or because we are instructing it to do so, and this shows the essential difference between the self and awareness:

 

The self operates on the basis of being told (or instructed) what to do and its nature is to resist (or judge), whilst awareness does what is in its nature to do (without the need to be directed or controlled) and its nature is to be impartial to everything, just as the sun shines impartially on everything or just as the rain falls impartially on everything.

 

Awareness and the conditioned self ‘run on two very different principles’, so to speak.We often hear the definition of mindfulness or being mindful as ‘being aware of what is happening as it is happening without judging what is happening’ and this is fine – the only thing about this is that the self can never refrain from judging, any more than the rational mind can refrain from analyzing or classifying things. To ask the self not to judge (i.e. to require the self to ‘unconditionally accept’) is to ask for the impossible. But we can clearly see that the conditioned self can never ‘not judge’, and this is a basic psychological insight. This is something that we can ‘get’. When we do see this then it could be said that we are ‘accepting ourselves as we are’, or that we are ‘accepting ourselves for what we are’. But the point about this is that the self is not unconditionally accepting the self here (that could never happen, as we have said), but rather we are being aware of the self and its nature (without judging it for having the nature that it does have), which is a very different thing.

 

 

 

 

 

The Paradox of ‘Turning Towards’

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In The Mystics Of Islam, Reynold A. Nicholson (1914) relates the following Sufi story:

Someone said to Rabi‘a:

 

“I have committed many sins; if I turn in penitence towards God, will He turn in mercy towards me?” “Nay,” she replied,” but if He shall turn towards thee, thou wilt turn towards Him.”

So God doesn’t bestow his grace on us because we ask, we ask because he has bestowed his grace. We find ourselves turning towards God because of God’s grace, not because of any connivance on our part. This Sufi teaching is applicable to all situations where we are trying to find peace of mind – we first need the peace of mind, the ‘inner stillness’, before we even know that inner stillness is what we are missing. Otherwise we won’t be thinking this way; it simply won’t be a concern of ours. Eckhart Tolle says somewhere that some stillness within us is needed before we can meditate – without it, all we know is forcing. Without some little seed of stillness within us all we know is aggression and manipulation…

 

Everything in mindfulness is based on us taking a genuine interest in our own inner process. This is why we hear words like ‘gentle’ so much – because the interest, the curiosity, the kindness has to be genuine rather than forced. It has to ‘come from the heart’, so to speak. Mindfulness – inasmuch as it has been taken over by clinical psychology – is invariably presented as a ‘technology’. In other words, it is presented as a ‘rationale for intervention’ along with a set of procedures or methodologies that when executed correctly will bring about the desired outcome.

 

So what’s wrong with this, we might ask? Isn’t this exactly what we want – isn’t this the whole point? If we think this however then we’ve missed the point. Mindfulness isn’t a technology – it isn’t a strategy (or set of strategies) that we can use to bring about a desired outcome. Mindfulness has nothing to do with outcomes; it has nothing to do with bringing about a particular or special state of affairs. This is the one thing that it isn’t! Mindful practice is actually the complete antithesis of this – it has to do with the dropping of our agendas, not the effective enacting of them. Mindfulness is about noticing the way things really are – not for any reason, not because we want to change the way things are, but just because that IS the way they are!

 

Our problem is that we only want to take an interest in the way things are because that might be a way of changing them. We can hardly deny that this is the case? If we have to ‘take an interest’ then we will do so. If we have to ‘allow stuff to be there, in a gentle, patient and non-judgemental way’, then we will give this a go. We will do our best to be accepting and non-judgemental, and all the rest. But would we be interested in our own inner state otherwise? Would we take an interest if it were not for the fact that we think it will do us some good? The answer is of course that we almost certainly would not be – we’re only taking an interest because we think that there is going to be some sort of pay-off, because we think that there is going to be some sort of advantage in it for us. That’s the whole point, after all. That is why – as a culture – we are interested in mindfulness, because of its benefits. Being an eminently practical culture, with very little interest in philosophy or mysticism, we just wouldn’t have cared otherwise!

 

Mindfulness (as far as we in the West are concerned) is a strategy and strategies are always carried out for a reason. Whoever heard of a strategy being carried out for no reason? Strategies are always carried out with an aim in mind; they’re all about the aim, in fact. Really – if we were to be totally honest – we would have to admit that we’re not interested in the way we are at all; on the contrary, we’re fundamentally disinterested. We’re fundamentally orientated towards heading off at top speed in the opposite direction – this is inherent in what we might call ‘the mechanics of the everyday or conditioned self’. This self maintains its integrity by not being interested in its own pain; it is only interested in a closed way, which is to say, it is interested only in learning how to do whatever it needs to do in order to make it go away. As G.I. Gurdjieff has indicated, the conditioned or everyday self is a ‘pain-avoiding machine’. Running away from pain (or insecurity) is the basic rule, the basic motivation. That’s our ‘essential tropism’.

 

Why – might ask – should this be so? Why should the everyday self be so fundamentally disinterested in its own pain, its own inner process? This seems like a rather dim view of things, to say the least. It has to be understood however that having an interest in our own pain, our own inner process, is a very big thing! Being interested in our own pain (without having an agenda behind the interest) constitutes a veritable revolution; it constitutes what the ancient alchemists called the ‘opus contra naturam’, the work against nature. We have to go against our own fundamental (conditioned) nature, and there can be no task harder (or more tricky) than this. Things will never be the same after we learn to go against our bed-rock psychological conditioning – the world becomes a very different place. Everything gets reversed – instead of automatically seeking security in all things, we become genuinely courageous (or ‘fearless’, as Pema Chodren says). We no longer go around doing stuff for a reason, always with an agenda, since when you are fearless you no longer need an agenda!

 

Inasmuch as our automatic allegiance to ‘preserving the status quo’ (which comes down to ‘preserving ourselves as we already – by default – understand ourselves to be’) we are absolutely NOT going to be fearless. We can’t have an agenda to preserve the way things are and at the same time be fearless, at the same time be ‘genuinely curious’ about the world. As we have indicated, the basic motivation of the everyday self is to preserve and perpetuate itself at all costs and ‘taking a genuine interest in oneself’ is going completely against this. We’d be going against the grain in a big way if we allowed ourselves to become genuinely curious; being curious is the biggest risk we’ll ever take – who knows what we might find out if we start getting genuinely interested in things (rather than just being ‘interested-with-an-agenda’)? Existence itself is the risk, as the existential philosophers have told us, and the conditioned self is never going to be ready to take that particular gamble…

 

We’re really making the same point over and over again here, in a number of different ways. Everything we do we do ‘for our own sake’ – we might like to imagine that this is not the case, but it is. As conditioned beings, we are fundamentally motivated by self-interest, as Anthony De Mello has said. Another way of putting this would be to say that any rational action we undertake necessarily involves taking our starting-off point (which is to say, the basis upon which we make all of our decisions) absolutely for granted. It just wouldn’t work any other way – we cannot proceed in a logical / rational way unless we first assume our starting-off point to be valid, or ‘right’. Otherwise we’d never get started; otherwise the whole endeavour falls to pieces before it gets anywhere. This is a basic principle in logic as well as in the mechanics of the conditioned (or rule-based) self – the axiom, the rock-solid basis has to be assumed; if we didn’t ‘assume it’ then it just wouldn’t be there…

 

When we apply any rationally-conceived / purposeful action therefore, we are necessarily going to be both conceiving and carrying out this action for the benefit of our taken-for-granted starting-off point. The action is an extension of our starting-off point, an extension of our hidden assumptions. We are – whether we care to admit it or not – ‘striving to uphold the status quo’ – the status quo being ‘everything in our life that we assume, everything in our life that we take for granted without ever realizing that we do’. Fundamentally, therefore, we’re not ‘risk-taking’, we’re ‘risk-avoiding’; anything we do on a rational/purposeful basis is always going to be for the sake of preserving and perpetuating the self which is who we think we are, the self that we’re very much in the business of ‘taking for granted’ in everything we do. There isn’t anything more inescapable than this. That’s what the purposeful self’ is – it’s something that takes itself absolutely for granted in everything it does!

 

As soon as we understand this point we understand why mindfulness can never be a system, can never be a strategy, can never be a technology. The moment we understand that the purposeful / conditioned self always takes itself absolutely for granted in everything it does we understand that mindfulness is by no means as straightforward a business as we might previously imagined. How do we turn around to face the source of our pain when our motivation for doing so is when it comes right down to it the motivation to run away from pain? How are we ever going to be genuinely interested in ‘what’s going on’ when – unbeknownst to us – our fundamental bedrock motivation is to preserve and perpetuate the standpoint that we’re coming from, which is ‘the self that we assume we are’? How can we be both ‘genuinely interested in seeing what’s going on’ and ‘fundamentally committed to preserving and perpetuating that self that we assume we are’? It’s either one or the other – it can’t be both.

 

This brings us back to the Sufi story that we started off with – if we are to sincerely ask forgiveness this does not come about as a result of our own agency; it is God’s grace that we do so. In the same way, if we are to take an interest in ourselves, in what’s really going on with us, this isn’t by our own agency. It is a grace that is bestowed upon us. This perfectly illustrates the difference between the Western and the Eastern / Middle-Eastern ways of looking at life – in the West it is all about the technology, the skills, the strategies, the tools, etc. But what have any of these to do with a grace that descends from above? What good are our technologies, our systems, our clever theories and models with regard to receiving grace?

 

We in the West are full of a type of false confidence, a type of confidence that looks good on the surface but which is really just empty bravado. We make everything sound so cut-and-dried, but it isn’t. We make it sound as if we are ‘in control’, but we’re not. We’re not in control and we never will be; after all, how can ‘who I assume myself to be’ be in control when this idea of ‘self’ is a wrong assumption to start off with? Controlling isn’t ever going to get us anywhere because it always proceeds on the basis of what we assume to be true but yet cannot ever verify. It jumps, but it never looks at where it has jumped from. It proceeds, but it can never examine its basis. The big snag here is therefore that everything we do is done (as we have been saying) on the basis of the self which we think we are and any journey from a false starting off point is guaranteed to get us nowhere! This ‘snag’ is inherent in the nature of the controlling or purposeful self, which is the self on whose basis we are doing the controlling. We should be a bit more careful before setting off on our journey; we should be a bit more careful before trying to control or manipulate everything in sight. Our ‘technology’ doesn’t really serve us, after all – it only serves the illusion!

 

 

 

 

Separating Ourselves From Our Thoughts

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paying Attention to Thinking

buddha.head

We normally think pretty much automatically, which is to say we passively allow ourselves to be ‘taken over’ by whatever thoughts come along. This doesn’t usually seem a problem until we find ourselves being plagued by thoughts that we do not like. When this happens we naturally try to rid ourselves of the negative thinking, but what we find then is that we are simply not able to tell the unwanted thoughts to ‘go away’.

 

The problem is that we have allowed our thinking to become automatic, which means (as we have said) that our thoughts take us over whether we like it or not. Automatic thinking is a habitual sort of thing and I cannot snap out of it all of a sudden just because I have suddenly decided that I don’t like the sort of thoughts that I am getting. What happens then is that I say ‘NO’ to my thoughts – I struggle against them and try to break free, but all that happens is that I feed the thoughts by fighting them. Saying NO to a thought strengthens it because saying NO makes a big issue of it; the thought is like a bully and if we run away or try to escape we only make ourselves more of a victim to it. We play right into the bully’s hands, so to speak.

 

It is perfectly possible to get out of the trap of negative thinking but in order to do this we must first start paying attention to all of our thinking, so that our thinking stops being so ‘automatic’. Basically, automatic thinking is due to our long habit of ‘not paying attention’ and so the only cure is simply to start paying attention! Even if someone tells me this, though, I still feel confused because I do not know what exactly I am supposed to be paying attention to. The best way to deal with the confusion that comes when I start wondering “What am I supposed to do?” is to look more closely at what thinking actually involves, and ask ourselves the question:

“WHAT IS THINKING?”

One way to look at thinking’ is to say that our senses pick up information from the world about us (or from our memories of previous sense-impressions) and then our thinking interprets that information for us – i.e. it analyses the data and presents us with solid conclusions, when it is able to. This is all one continuous automated process: first there is the sensory input, and then our thinking ‘processes’ this information and tells us what the information means, and what implications it has for us. It gives us (or so we assume) the correct interpretation. We then act on this basis.

THE THEORY OF INCOMPLETENESS

There is a serious problem with this way of looking at the thinking process however, and this is that it is unreflective. This means that we totally trust that thoughts are providing us with an accurate picture of what is going on; a thought turns up on our doorstep saying, “This is the story, this is how it is” and we automatically accept that this version of reality is true, or ‘right’. This is where the problem is because there actually is no ‘right’ way to look at the world. What we see when we look at the world depends upon the way which we choose to look it from – there are many possible perspectives that we could take, and each particular perspective gives us a different picture. But we can’t really say that one picture is right and the others are wrong because the picture that each perspective provides us with is ‘right’ for that perspective, but no picture is ‘universally right’.

 

A simple way to illustrate this idea is to thinking in terms of a house. When I look at a house from the front, facing the front door, it looks one way. If I go around and look at the house from the side, then the picture that I see of the house is a totally different one. From the back of the house I see another view, and if I somehow suspend myself in the air and look down on the house from directly above the roof, then I will get yet another perspective on the matter. So which is the true picture? Clearly, none of the perspectives taken provide the definitive ‘right way of looking at the house’ – they are all right in their own ways, and at the same time we have to say that none of them are absolutely right because there is always more to the house than we can see from any one viewpoint.

 

Perhaps, we might think, if we take all of the views and add them together we would arrive at the correct description? This seems sort of logical but it doesn’t work either. For one thing, we can only look at the house one way at a time (although for this example it is true that we could make a series of architectural drawings of different views and look at them simultaneously), and for another thing, there are an endless number of possible perspectives that we could take! As Robert Anton Wilson says, you can never have a map that totally describes the territory. The map is never equal to the territory, no matter how much detail you manage to cram in! The scientific term for this sort of idea is complexity, which simply means that there are many right ways to see anything, but no overall right way. As Nobel prize winning chemist Ilya Prigogine says, there just isn’t any ‘divine viewpoint’ from which we can objectively survey (and map) the whole of everything. This idea can be related, within the field of mathematics, to Godel’s ‘incompleteness theorum’.

THOUGHT IS LIMITED BUT IT DOESN’T SEE THAT IT IS LIMITED…

The example of the house is not perfect for our purposes because it is possible (as we have said) to visualize a number of different views simultaneously. This is not true for thinking because one thought excludes another – we simply cannot think two thoughts about something at the same time (at least, not under ordinary circumstances). I cannot think that something is good and bad at the same time; I may alternate from one to the other but that is it. Because one way of thinking about things necessarily excludes all other possible ways, this means that our thinking process cannot be trusted in the way that I do.

 

Now, it is important to stress that our thoughts are not actually ‘lying’ to us. They are telling us their own truth, which is necessarily limited (or ‘relative). Relative truth means that ‘it is true for that particular way of looking at the world’. The picture that thought gives us is true relative to the assumptions that had to be made before the thought in question could produce a clear cut (or definite) conclusion. Without making assumptions there can never be any solid certainty for us to rest on, and so another way of looking at this is to say that thought is limited because its always has to make unfounded assumptions before it can proceed.  Making ‘assumptions’ basically means that we have to assume that the perspective (or ‘angle’) that we are going to take is the right one; if I don’t take this first step of saying “I’ll look at it this way” then obviously I’ll never get anywhere! It goes without saying that I could have taken a different perspective, but then that would have had to been the ‘right way’. Therefore, the whole concept of ‘rightness’ is relative…

 

So, our thoughts do not lie but they only show part of the truth, not the whole truth. Where the problem comes in is when we take it for granted that this thought that I am having is absolutely true, not just relatively true. At this point, my thinking stops being helpful to me, and becomes a deadly sort of trap. What tends very much to happen is that we have an unconscious reason (or bias) to see things one way rather than another, and so I start selecting one view (often an extreme black or white view) without realizing that my data processing is prejudiced. Then, I fall into the trap of believing this black or white view of the world. I might think that I am a terrible person, and that my life is ruined; or I might think that I am a truly great person and that I am really going places. Both views are the result of unconsciously biased information processing.

 

What is the true story? Well the true story is that thinking can never give me the true story, and so the most helpful thing that I can do is to stop ‘jumping to conclusions’ and leave life as it is, an open book. The crucial difference between life and our thoughts is that our thoughts are always certain, whilst life is uncertain. Another way to put this is to say that our thoughts are conclusions – they are finished, whilst life itself is ‘unconcluded’, open, and always therefore unfinished. There is a secret reason why we opt for the certain (thought-produced) version of reality and the reason is that we cannot bear the discomfort of ‘not knowing’. We find uncertainty hard work because it demands something from us – if I can write something off by being final in my judgement then I do not need to do any work; I can resign, so to speak. If I think that I know the ending of the book then I do not need to carry on reading it, I can throw the book down and say, “What’s the point? I already know what is going to happen…” In this way I sneakily avoid the ‘work’ of being in reality, which is always uncertain, always developing, and I obtain the short term benefit of feeling justified in not giving life a chance to prove me wrong.

THERE IS ALWAYS A ‘HIDDEN GAIN’ IN BEING CERTAIN 

So far, then, we have said two things. The first thing that we said was that normal everyday thinking is an automatic process whereby we tend to unreflectively accept a partial picture as being ‘absolutely true’ and the second thing we said was that we always have an ulterior motive for accepting the certainty of our thoughts at face value in this way. All of this is pure theory however, and as such it is useless to us in any practical sense unless it makes sense to us on the basis of our own experience. A theory is like a thought – if I am tempted to either [1] believe it or [2] disbelieve it then what this shows me is that I have a secret agenda to take refuge in certainty (either of the positive or negative variety); which relieves me of the necessity to take on the responsibility (and the risk) for ‘seeing for myself’. This means exposing myself to the uncertainty of reality, where I cannot be sure what I will find.

 

We said before that the key to becoming free from the habit automatic thinking (i.e. taking stuff for granted) is paying attention, and we are now in a better position to understand what paying attention means in practice. Normally, we pay attention in a one-sided (or ‘uneven’) way, i.e. we notice the way in which the thought is right (or true) and we ignore the way in which the thought is not right and not true. This is like when I deliberately see only one side of the argument so that I can have the satisfaction of having a definite belief to hang on to. It is not that the evidence I am paying attention to is necessarily wrong, but where the thing is that I turn a blind eye to ‘competing’ evidence, and also turn a blind eye to the fact that I am turning a blind eye. The point is that ‘uneven attention’ is not attention at all, but rather it is a sort of unconscious manipulation (or distortion) of reality.

THE PRACTICE OF DEVELOPING AWARENESS

The first step in developing ‘evenness’ (or ‘lack of bias’) is therefore to pay attention to the way in which we are deliberately not paying attention. This means spotting the fleeting moment of choice in which we decide not to notice something, which also equals the moment of choice in which we decide to give away our freedom. The way in which we do this is very simple. The first thing that we have to do is just spend a bit of time reflecting on the ordinary everyday process of having thoughts. Basically, having a thought is like catching a bus – here I am waiting at the bus stop and a bus pulls up in front of me. The process of passive identification which we talked about earlier means in terms of this metaphor that when a bus pulls up, I automatically jump on it and let it take me for a ride. This process seems perfectly normal and acceptable to me and I don’t experience myself as having no freedom in it – the reason for this being that I take it that I actually want to catch the bus. I side with the compulsion so that it doesn’t seem like an external force, but my own free will.

 

But suppose a bus (i.e. a thought) comes along that I don’t like – a scary or unpleasant thought. Well, as we have said, the problem with the state of passive identification is that I have to go along with what ever comes my way and so if an unpleasant thought comes along I have to ‘go along’ with that too. This is the difference between buses and thoughts: I can choose not to jump on a bus if I don’t want to go where it is going to take me, but with a thought it makes no difference whether I say YES or NO to it because both positive and negative reactions create an unbreakable attachment between me and the thought. ‘Attachment’ means that there is an issue, and any purposeful reaction to an issue just confirms the issue as an issue. Thoughts are like traps because any reaction to them feeds them and makes them stronger – even if I deliberately don’t react (i.e. ignore) the thought, this too is a purposeful stance that I have taken, and it too will strengthen the thought in question.

 

So what can I do, if I can’t deliberately do ‘not doing’? The answer is very simple. If we go back to our analogy of ‘catching the bus’, what I do is that I catch the bus as normal. I have to do this – I can’t fight this automatic process because fighting always involves ‘identifying a certain reality’ and identifying a certain reality means that I am jumping on the bus just the same. So what I do is that I jump on the bus as normal and notice myself jumping on the bus as I do it. This ‘noticing’ is the key: to notice that I am catching a bus (i.e. to notice that I am forming an attachment with a thought) is to be aware that I didn’t have to do it. When I notice myself hopping onto the bus I am also at the same time noticing my lack of freedom in this – I am noticing the automatic quality of my thinking, which a completely new and surprising thing to see.

 

“And how exactly does this help me?” I ask again. Well, it is true that noticing doesn’t seem to be helping me. It makes the whole thing even more painful and frustrating than it was before. What I don’t see straight away is that this pain is how my increased freedom of perception shows itself. Before, I did not have the freedom to see that I wasn’t free and so all my problems were to do with unconscious suffering, which is where I suffer without understanding my suffering. Unconscious suffering is the usual state of affairs for us – it is when we do not allow ourselves to see the real problem, but pre-occupy ourselves with ‘phoney problems’ that are designed to protect us from being aware of what is really going on. If we solve the phoney problem we feel great (for a while), and if we fail to solve it we feel bad, but whether we win or lose we are still only involved in games, i.e. we are still ignorant of the hidden motivation behind what we are doing. When I see thinking as the automatic process that it is, then I am ‘free to see that I am not free’, which means that I am gaining insight into the hidden motivation that compels me to identify with every thought that comes along.

 

When the hidden motivation is no longer hidden, then the ‘integrity of the game’ is fatally flawed – it can no longer function. We can explain this in terms of the ‘self-distraction’: let us say that there are two possible states, one is present and the other absent. When I am present I am ‘here’ in reality, in touch with what is going on, and when I am absent I am away somewhere else, completely not in touch with ‘here’. In the second state I am distracted, and in the first state I am not. The point about this is that when I am distracted I do not know that I am distracted. I am ‘absent’ precisely because I don’t know that I’m absent! In the game of self-distraction it is absolutely essential that there is this ‘double not-knowing’: I have to ‘not know’, and not know that I do not ‘not know’; I have to be absent, and also absent from knowing that I am absent. Without the doubleness it doesn’t work at all, which is to say – if I am absent but I am not absent from knowing that I am absent, then I am not absent at all. To be present in my absence is to be present. What this means in practice is that the instant I realize (or see) that I am in a distracted state, then I am no longer distracted but back in reality.

THEORIES THAT BECOME TOO IMPORTANT

Having understood this principle in relation to the game of self-distraction, all we need to do now is to apply it to the game of thinking, which is not (as it turns out) that different. We can say that thinking is a game because it involves a hidden motivation, which means that is based on self-deception. The way the ‘deception’ works can be explained in the following way. A thought is essentially a theory or model of reality, it is a picture which comes with the suggestion that “This is the way things are”. As long as the thought is seen as a provisional theory and nothing more, there is no deception. A provisional theory says, “ Well, maybe this might be a useful approximation of the way things are…” and when there is this ‘maybe’ the theory keeps its legitimacy  – it is not taking itself too seriously and it doesn’t really matter that much if the theory turns out to be wrong because no one had invested in it. We don’t invest in maybes, we only invest in certainties. For example, I can’t get that excited just from knowing that there is a theoretical possibility that the world may end tomorrow, any more than I can get particularly excited by the remote possibility that I may perhaps one day win the lotto if I keep playing.

 

The thing is, though, that thoughts incorporate within them a sort of ‘slippery slope’ which we tend to slide down. When we start to slide we can’t stop sliding, and the whole process of ‘identification’ has happened before we know it. We have ‘bought the ticket,’ and we are firmly on board the bus. What has happened is simple: in order to produce any kind of a definite picture at all – even provisional dotted-line type picture – the thought has to oversimplify reality, it has to direct our attention in a certain direction, at a certain class of details, and therefore it has ignore all the other directions, all the other details that we might otherwise have picked up on. This is basically a process of ‘losing perspective’: when we toy with a certain view of the world, a certain thought, then there is naturally a temptation to follow the logic of the thought a bit further to increase the definition, which is to say, to join up all the dotted lines of the provisional theory in order to produce a ‘total picture’ – a solid picture made up of strong black lines and satisfyingly defined spaces. What happens then is that we lose a huge amount of perspective in one go, and because of this dramatic ‘information collapse’ we no longer have the ability to know that we are missing anything. The ‘doubleness’ of irreversibility has spring its trap on us: we have forgotten something very important (that the thought is only a theory), and we have also forgotten that we have forgotten.

 

At this point, the provisional theory has become unquestionable dogma  – we have a way of looking at the world which asserts itself to be the only way of looking at the world, and such is the authority of the picture we see that we become totally ‘brainwashed’ by it. The process of ‘yielding to temptation’ (sliding down the slippery slope) usually happens so very quickly that it is quite invisible to us; the whole thing is fait accompli before we know it, and therefore there is no feeling of choice at all. Going back to our bus analogy again, the automatic quality of the identification process means that we just find ourselves sitting on the bus going down the road – this happens every time, whether I like it or not, and there is simply no way for me to put the breaks on the flow of events by brute force.

DOING IT CONSCIOUSLY

The ‘self-distraction’ example allowed us to see quite clearly that no brute force is actually needed at all to fatally injure the integrity of the game – all I need to do is to be aware of myself being distracted and – lo and behold – I am no longer distracted. The hidden gain behind distracting myself is obviously that I don’t want to be where I actually am, and so I use some pretext to draw my attention away, but what is the hidden gain behind thinking? This is much harder to see because we are so sold on the idea of thought’s legitimacy, which is to say, we find it absurd to suppose that we think not to solve legitimate problems but rather to avoid some ‘awareness’ that we don’t want to have. We have already touched upon this notion, and what we said was that thinking is a way of avoiding uncertainty. The idea is that there is security in certainty, even when that certainty is negative, and so we tend to cling on to it despite the fact that this clinging is causing loads of long-term problems. In fact one handy definition of a psychological game is to say it basically involves the ‘one-sided’ (or (‘uneven’) operation of focussing on the short-term gain as a way of distracting ourselves from the inevitability of the long-term cost. Another way of putting this is to say that the secret agenda behind having a thought (or a theory) is to exclude any other thoughts (or theories), i.e. we want the feeling of being totally sure about something and we don’t really care what it is we are being sure about. For this reason, I am not really interested in seeing the process whereby I choose to identify with a thought, and see the world in that particular way rather than in another, all I want is the ‘final product’, so to speak.

 

At this point it is helpful to look even deeper into our motivation to be attached to our thoughts (as opposed to having thoughts but being unattached to them). Why are we so scared of uncertainty? One way to explain this fear is by considering the somewhat challenging idea that the self which we normally identify with is itself a game, which is to say, it is a picture that only looks real when I look at things in a certain way. Of course, as with all games, the point is that I cannot allow myself to see that my secure and solid sense of self is dependent upon me choosing to look at the world in a specific narrow way, because then the solidity (or certainty) which is so important to me evaporates into thin air. Anything that I do on the basis of this constructed self reconfirms the validity of that self, and so straight way we can see that no matter what the overt aim of my purposeful actions (which includes thinking) might be, the covert aim is to maintain and protect the integrity of the game of being ‘me’.

 

It is easy to see why there should be fears in connection with letting go of the empirical or game-playing self. This is a big step to take – it is unprecedented, in fact. What happens if I let go? How can I trust that everything will be okay if I take this unprecedented step? What lies behind the certainty of the familiar everyday ‘me’? It is not helpful to attempt to answer any of these questions because then all we are doing is swapping one certainty for another. What we can say however is that the deeply familiar sense of being ‘me’ is produced by deliberately losing perspective, which is to say, looking at things in one way only. If my perspective increases on the matter, the black and white lines or boundaries that define my sense of self become provisional and ‘open to interpretation’ – we find ourselves on shifting sands, in fact.

DEFINING ‘WHAT IS REAL’ DEFINES ME AS WELL

The narrowly defined self is just like a theory because it forces us to focus only on stuff that is relevant to our inbuilt data-processing prejudice. Basically, the self which I am identified with is a bias; it is an arbitrarily biased viewpoint that I do not acknowledge as being arbitrary. We have just said that the defined self forces us to see the world in a narrow way; contrariwise, we could just as well have said it the other way around – that the act of focussing on a specific way of looking at the world creates a specific observer. A defined view automatically generates a defined self. When our perspective increases (for whatever reason) we start noticing irrelevant information, information that doesn’t ‘fit in’ with our neat theory of the world. This means that I start to lose my grip my identity a bit. The general process is one of ‘increasing openness’: when boundaries (defining lines) get rubbed out, I stop feeling separate and isolated and instead I start to notice all the ways in which I am connected the world around me, a part of everything rather than a-part from everything. It starts to become impossible to say for sure where ‘self’ ends and ‘other’ begins.

 

As Alan Watts says, the everyday self is like a lap which seems to be there when we are sitting down, but which vanishes when we stand up. ‘Sitting down’ corresponds to the low perspective situation, and ‘standing up’ corresponds to high perspective. Using this analogy, we can say that the secret motivation of the thinking is to maintain a state low of low perspective, where we can’t see the wood for the trees. In a similar way, we can also say that the anxiety behind thinking is the anxiety of the lap being afraid (without admitting it) that it might evaporate out of existence. And yet the irony of all this is that the lap doesn’t really wink out of existence because it was never really there in the first place. It was only a construct of our way of looking at things and so what is there to lose?

BACK ON THE BUS AGAIN

Of course, despite the fact that in reality there is ‘nothing to lose’, we continue to hang on to our thinking for dear life. This is because thinking is a circular argument: if we could get enough perspective we would see perfectly clearly that we do not need our thinking (that our non-stop thinking has become pointless and unnecessary) but from inside the thinking, it all seems very necessary and very important. So yet again, it seems that we have got stuck, that we have reached an impasse. How do we work with this? In order to see our way out of the apparent impasse all we need to do is to go back to our practical exercise of ‘catching the bus’: I cannot deliberately stop myself from jumping on board the bus, but I can watch myself doing it. This seems so simple that we cannot see how it can possibly help and so it is worth just going over the principle again. The point is that when I see myself catching the bus I can’t help seeing at the same time that I didn’t have to catch the bus. I am actually seeing two things: [1] I am powerless to not catch the bus and [2] there is no absolute need for me to catch that particular bus – I could have caught any bus in fact. Or not caught a bus at all..

 

In terms of becoming identified with a particular thought, what this means is that I see myself having a thought, but at the same time I know that the thought I am having is not an absolute statement of ‘how things are’. Basically, I see how the thought is forcing me to look at the world in a specific way – I see it taking away my freedom to look at the world in other ways. This is where the similarity with the game of self-distraction that we talked about earlier comes in. Just as awareness of the fact that I am distracted punctures the integrity of the game of self-distraction, so too does awareness of the essential arbitrariness of thought puncture the integrity of the game of thinking. When I know that the way I am presently seeing the world is the result of the bias inherent in the thought, then what I have is an awareness of the relative truth of the reality that I am seeing. My thought is showing me a picture of ‘how things are’, but I know that this is just a version of reality, one of many. I cannot fight this version (i.e. deny it), but the whole point is that I do not need to fight it – seeing that a thought is only a thought and not reality is enough.

FEELING THE PAIN

It is important to stress that this awareness approach doesn’t ‘make everything better’ straight away. What happens is that we gain a greater insight into reality, whereas before we were using the ‘automatic-identification-with-thoughts’ process in order to avoid perceiving reality. The reason we were so happy to give away our freedom to perceive reality was because we were avoiding discomfort – this is the motivation behind all games – and so gaining awareness of the thinking process necessarily involves encountering that discomfort. We can give a straightforward example to explain this. When we feel seriously bad (i.e. when the ‘mental discomfort indicator needle’ jumps into the red), a certain type of thought automatically appears. This type of thought is basically about escaping from the mental or emotional pain that we are going through. The actual thought could be anything – I might think “If I have a drink I’ll feel better”, or I might think of doing something else that will straightaway make me feel better. All of these thoughts are offering me a way out, and they appear as if by magic as soon as the pain hits me. Even thoughts like “Why me?” or “If only I hadn’t…” are offering an escape from the pain (although this is not immediately obvious) because what I am still looking for a way out, only here I am doing it by leaving reality entirely.

 

This allows us to see clearly the (hidden) motivation behind believing in those thoughts – I desperately want to believe that there is a way out, and I am willing to bend reality if needs be. The actual reality is of course that there is no quick fix for the pain – there is no way for me to exit what I am going through. If I were to practice paying attention to my thinking, I would expose the avoidance game that I am playing, and so I would start to feel ‘worse’ because I would no longer be able to believe in the ‘false escapes’ offered by my thinking process. The thoughts of ‘how-to-escape’ still come thick and fast, but now I am unable to take refuge in them any more. The effect is painful, like adding insult to injury – not only do I have the original pain or discomfort, I also have to endure these utterly stupid and futile thoughts. I know that the thoughts are futile, but I am still totally powerless not to think them, and so as a result the experience is doubly painful.

 

Actually, I would probably prefer to go back to the old state of believing in my thoughts but once I have become disillusioned it is not so easy go back to the old ‘unconscious’ ways. I have sacrificed the short-term gain of false escaping for the pain of reality, and ‘reality’ is synonymous with ‘zero freedom of manipulation’ (i.e. the impossibility of doing anything about it). This does not look like much of an improvement, but it is. I have lost my ability to believe in illusory short-term escaping (and the false comfort that comes with it) but it is precisely because of this that I am no longer obstructing the natural process of change. When I see through the false comfort of my games I take on board the true nature of my situation and the long-term result of this is that I find the peace of mind that had been so long denied me.

FREE FROM THE NEED TO THINK

If we apply this principle to thinking in general, the long-term result is that we become ‘free from thinking’. This does not mean that we become totally mentally blank, but simply that the nature of our relationship with our thoughts changes. We can think, but we don’t have to. We’re free to think or not think. Eckhart Tolle says that he counts it as his greatest achievement that he doesn’t have to think if he doesn’t want to! So being ‘free from thinking’ means that if we do think, we think freely, and not because we are being compelled to do so by the overwhelmingly compulsive quality of the thoughts themselves. But being ‘free to think or not think’ also means that when we do have thoughts, we know these thoughts to be thoughts, which entirely changes the nature of the thoughts. The thinking process no longer determines reality for us, it no longer writes the script for us, and as a result we are no longer trapped in a prosaic ‘thought-created virtual reality’. As Eckhart Tolle says,

If there were nothing but thought in you, you wouldn’t even know you are thinking. You would be like a dreamer who doesn’t know he is dreaming. When you know you are dreaming, you are awake within the dream.