The Thinking Mind

How can computation, calculation, and data-gathering be the centre of all things; how can the measuring or quantifying mind be the basis for the whole world? And yet it is. There can be no doubt that this is the way things are – all we have to do is to pay careful attention to our day-to-day experience of what it feels like to be us, what it feels like to be a person. What the experience of being a person usually means is that we are always in the middle of a whirlwind of mental activity – evaluating things, judging things, analysing things, categorizing things, quantifying things, thinking about things…

 

We have made computing or calculating (or ‘measuring’) the centre of all things. We have done this without realizing what we have done, without appreciating that this is in any way strange. Whatever happens, we’re in a hurry to measure it, to compare it with the evaluating yardstick of the concept-making mind and see what we make of it. “What is this, what is this, what it this?” the mind is asking all the time. Every time a new datum comes along the mind tries to fit it into its overall picture of reality, to consolidate that picture. All the activity that goes on in the thinking mind is geared towards this end.

 

The questioning that the thinking mind engages in isn’t questioning of a philosophical type – it is on the contrary a pragmatic questioning, a form of questioning that is directed towards consolidating our conceptual ‘grip’ upon the world. We’re not asking open questions with our thinking in other words, but rather what we’re doing is that we’re trying to makes sense of the world within the same narrow framework of understanding that we always use to make sense of things, and this is a different matter entirely. There is no doubt whatsoever that our experience of being in the world is one of being in the centre of this maelstrom of thinking and evaluating – we can hardly pretend otherwise since if this were true then we would be going around in the centre of an oceanic sense of calm and serenity, and how often is this the case? The way things usually are is that we are agitated rather than calm, busy in the head rather than peaceful.

 

The question this raises is “Why?” Why is all this activity going on? Why have we made computation and measuring the centre of all things when it is clearly not necessary that we do so? We don’t need to be thinking about life the whole time, after all – we could just be living it. We don’t need to be analysing and evaluating and second-guessing our situation – we could just be taking it as it comes and enjoying it! Since everything is already perfect at being what it is, what is all this mind-created commotion about? What’s to be gained by it? What are we trying to achieve? What’s behind it all?

 

We have of course already alluded to what the answer to all these questions might be – we’re mentally busy in the way that we are because we’re trying to squeeze everything into a framework when it doesn’t really belong there. All the activity is because we’re trying to make sense of the world so that it makes sense in the way that we want it to. One thing is absolutely for sure and that is that if we were happy for everything to be the way that it already is then we would immediately be in a state of the most wonderful inner peace. Words would not be able to describe how peaceful we would feel – we would be at the centre of a veritable ocean of peacefulness. There would be a quality of serenity such as we are unlikely ever to experience in life. If we did experience it then we would be unlikely to forget it in a hurry…

 

We know that this oceanic sense of serenity and unity with the world comes our way only very rarely therefore – if at all – and so what this shows us is, very clearly, is that we aren’t OK about things being ‘the way that they already are’. Our day-to-day state of mind indicates clearly that we aren’t ‘accepting of things as they are’ but resisting of things as they are. Because we aren’t OK about things be the way that they are we are compelled, instead, to be forever trying to control and manage and regulate them instead. This draws our attention to a very curious thing therefore – how could we be resistant to reality across the board, and only be in favour of it when it meets our special requirements?

 

Even to ask this question is to begin to be aware of what it is that’s going on here. The point (which we have already alluded to) is that our relationship with reality is a controlling one, not a respectful one. If I am in a relationship with you and I am trying to control you (as is often the case in relationships) then I am only going to be happy with you when you do what I want. I’m not happy with you the way you actually are; I’m only happy with you when you’re the way that I want you to be and this is exactly what our relationship with reality is like, whether we like to see it or not.

 

Needless to say, a controlling relationship isn’t any sort of relationship at all, and yet we’re constantly fooling ourselves that it is. We’re constantly fooling ourselves to think that our relationship with reality is an honest and respectful one when this very much isn’t the case. The truth is that we don’t care what reality is in itself – we’re actually frightened to find out – we only care about what we say it is. As long as we have this type of controlling ‘relationship’ with reality we’re never going to be happy; happiness is out of the question, as is peace of mind. Everything is on a strictly conditional footing when we’re in ‘control mode’ – everything is conditional upon how well we do in our controlling. So if our controlling goes well then we’re ‘happy’ but this is only conditional happiness. It’s conditional happiness because it depends upon us getting our own way and what this means is that the so-called ‘happiness’ will turn around at the drop of a hat and become its opposite when things don’t work out according to plan. Satisfaction then turns into dissatisfaction, apparent ‘good’ humour turns sour. Contentment turns into angry frustration, and so on. All conditioned emotions are like this, all are liable to turn around at the drop of a hat, depending on circumstances. There is never any chance of genuine peace or happiness when our relationship with the world is a controlling one, therefore.

 

Peace of mind is alien to the conditioned mentality; it doesn’t belong there – any sense of peace or well-being that might seem to be there can be taken away in an instant and ‘peace that can be taken away in an instant’ isn’t peace! We can fool ourselves that it is, we can tell ourselves that all is well with the world and that the basis of our well-being is as solid as a rock but this just isn’t true. The basis for our sense of well-being is ‘us being successful in our controlling’ and there’s nothing rock solid about this. Our well-being is dependent upon external factors, upon ‘things going a certain way’, and a less reliable basis than this is impossible to imagine. When our sense of well-being is dependent upon successful controlling then, pretty obviously, peace of mind is not going to be the result! This is actually the recipe for anxiety, not peacefulness…

 

The thing that we generally have difficulty in understanding is this assertion that our relationship with reality (or the world) is almost always one of controlling – we don’t see things this way. Obviously we can see that sometimes we are controlling, or trying to control, but we certainly have the perception that this is always the case. This is because we don’t understand that thinking is in its essence all about controlling. Thinking is controlling because it always interprets reality on its own terms. Of course thinking always interprets reality on its own terms – that’s what thinking is. Thinking is the process whereby we subject the world to our rules, to our criteria, in order to it to compel it ‘make sense’. It is so normal for us to do this that we don’t really focus on what we’re doing, but what we’re doing is pulling everything into a framework of reference that we ourselves have decided upon. We’re making sense of things in a way that suits us.

 

If we didn’t think about the world all the time then it wouldn’t look the same at all. Our thoughts don’t exist ‘out there’ in the world, our concepts and ideas and beliefs don’t have an existence of their own – it’s us that make them, it’s us that have put them there. If we didn’t engage in all this mental activity then the picture of reality that we take for granted would wink out of existence immediately, as if it had never existed. This picture of reality – no matter how familiar it might be to us – is a conditioned one. It is conditional upon us making it be there, it is conditional upon the way that we choose to look out at the world.

 

To put this in really simple terms – the simplest possible terms – what we’re trying to do is make something be what it isn’t. This is the big endeavour that we are all engaged upon. Is it any wonder that we are kept so busy at? The bottom line here of course is that we just can’t make something be what it isn’t. That’s just not going to happen, plainly. But what we can do – for a while at least – is make it seem as if we’re getting somewhere, and this illusion will allow us to feel motivated and positive. What we’re actually doing however is that we’re rolling a boulder up a hill – by putting a lot of effort into it we can apparently get somewhere, but the moment we start to slacken it’s all going to go into reverse again. Things are going to start slipping…

 

So straightaway we have two types of activity that are possible, two types of activity that can arise. The first type of activity we can call ‘optimistic’ or ‘hopeful’ activity, the second ‘pessimistic’ or ‘anxious’ activity. ‘Hopeful’ activity is activity is activity that is motivated by the belief that we can roll the boulder up the hill until we reach a point at which it won’t come rolling all the way back down again. This is the outcome that we are working towards, this is the outcome called ‘success’. Anxious activity – needless to say – is still activity where we’re struggling to get that boulder up the hill but we no longer believe that we’re going to be successful at it. This doesn’t mean that we stop trying, it just means that we are now trying on two levels not just the one. We’re fighting to roll the boulder up the hill and we’re also fighting not to see that this can endeavour is never going to work.

 

Both of these are equally strong motivations – when we have our eye on the prize and we’re pressing home for the final advantage this is a strong motivation, and when we’re struggling to avoid missing out on the prize this too is a powerful motivational incentive! But it can be seen all the same that both motivations are also equally illusory – the ‘prize’ that I’m striving for doesn’t exist and because it doesn’t exist neither does the possibility of avoiding the threat of missing out on it. I can’t avoid not attaining the prize because attaining it was never a real possibility in the first place. The prize we’ve got our eyes on is – as we have said – the prize of not having to be working away forever at rolling the boulder up the hill. The prize is when we finally ‘get there’ but this just isn’t going to happen; we’re never going to reach the summit of the mountain in the way that we hope to and the reason we’re never going to be able to do this is self-explanatory – no matter how long and how hard we work away at maintaining a mental construct that construct is never going to grow legs and stand up all by itself!

 

This then explains why there is always so much thinking, so much mental activity going on – it’s because we’re engaged in a job that has no end to it, it’s because we’re engaged in a non-terminating task. We can look at this in two ways – either we can say that we’re struggling to fit everything into our narrow little framework of reference and that this is a NTT, or we can say that we’re struggling to maintain the artificial construct of who we think we are but aren’t, and this is a NTT as well. It all comes down to the same thing in the end because it’s only by looking at the world via our narrow frame of reference (as if it were the only way to look at things) that we can carry on believing in the reality of the self-construct. The bottom line is that mental activity – both conscious and unconscious – is needed on a constant basis. The best we can hope for is that the unconscious mental activity will carry on without us having to be made aware of it and that the conscious mental activity (the day-to-day thinking) will continue to appear entirely volitional and unconnected with the secret task of maintaining the self-construct. This is ‘unconscious living with no visible snags’, so to speak.

 

The worst that can happen, on the other hand, is where we do begin to become aware of what is going on and have to painfully escalate the thinking activity in order to try to cover up the true nature of what is going on, even though this escalation actually draws attention to what is going on all the more. This situation is called ‘neurotic mental illness’ – this is when our comfort zones start to fail us and we begin the slow and painful movement back to reality – however reluctantly. The irony underlying all this of course is that the thing we’re protecting isn’t really worth it. It isn’t really worth it because it isn’t real – what we’re struggling to protect is a knot of tension and struggling and stress which exists purely in order to maintain the fiction of who the thinking mind says we are, and yet who we really are – behind all this struggling and stress – is something far, far greater than we could ever even begin to imagine! We’re protecting the shoddy copy at the expense of the priceless original! This is the true nature of the ‘ironic struggle’ upon which we are perpetually engaged…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Conventional Therapy Is ‘Therapy To Keep Us Asleep’

Therapy’s a funny thing. It’s a funny thing because it isn’t really what we think it is; very often, what we call ‘therapy’ is just a way of confusing ourselves! Or as we could also say, it’s very often a way of delaying or postponing the moment when we get to see the truth about ourselves, and if we’re ‘delaying the moment when we finally get to see the truth about ourselves’ then this isn’t therapy, it’s merely a way of keeping ourselves asleep!

 

‘Therapy’ is a very comfortable and familiar word to us. It sounds like giving ourselves a bit of a treat, it sounds like something that’s going to take all those mental aches and pains away. Sometimes it is. But the problem is that these aches and pains have some sort of message to give us – they’re telling us something we need to know about. The pain we’re experiencing is serving a function rather than just being an annoyance or irritation to be gotten rid of. As Anthony De Mello says, most of us go to see a psychotherapist to get our toys fixed so that we can go back to playing with them. We don’t want to grow up and leave the safety of our beloved play pen!  We don’t want to face reality. We understand the outcome of effective therapy as being the elimination of all the symptoms that are afflicting us so that we can go back to the way we were before things started getting difficult for us…

 

What does it mean to ‘leave the play pen’ though? What is the ‘playpen’ that we are talking about here? The play pen – we could say, by way of a simple answer – is everything we know, everything we are familiar with, everything we habitually see as ‘being true’. It’s the status quo; it’s what we want to hang onto. The movement of life, on the other hand, is the movement of adventure, which is the movement away from all this. What could be more natural than to want to explore the world beyond the known, the world that lies outside of the safe perimeters of our well-managed everyday world? And yet there is of course another tendency at work here too and this is the tendency to flee from the unknown and pretend that it doesn’t exist. This ‘tendency’ is more commonly known simply as fear.

 

When therapy becomes synonymous with ‘returning us safely to the play pen’ (which is what professor of nursing Margaret Newman calls linear-interventionalism) it is no more than ‘fear in disguise’, therefore. It is us obeying fear. Linear interventionalism with regard to psychological therapy is in effect the legitimization of fear, the legitimization of ‘security-seeking’. The symptoms of neurotic pain that we are experiencing – and which we, naturally enough, want to see cured – are the inevitable side-effects of ‘hanging on’, the inevitable side-effects of fearing the unknown, legitimizing this fear, and resisting it for all we’re worth. There is no way that we can free ourselves from neurotic suffering and yet at the same time hold on to the known (or stay safely resident in the play pen) – that would be a perfect example of ‘wanting to have our cake and eat it’! When we resist the natural movement of life – which is of course our prerogative – then we are going to taste the lash of neurotic suffering, which is ‘the pain of having our growth arbitrarily restricted’.

 

Just as the yearning to go beyond our boundaries and move out into the Great Unknown is a natural impulse, so too is the impulse to run in the opposite direction. There are the two forces of life – the conservative and the exploratory (or ‘fear and love’, as Bill Hicks puts it). It’s all a natural process – it’s all the same natural process, working itself out. What happens in this process is that we resist our natural impulse to let go of the known and so instead we end up clinging to it for dear life. We attempt to make the play-pen the whole world and deny that anything else exists – we validate our ‘holding on’, in other words. We make a virtue of it and blame anyone who doesn’t do the same as us. We call them bad names. But what happens then is that the pain of trying to cling onto what can’t be clung onto (because it isn’t a real thing, even though we say it is) gets more and more unbearable – it grows and grows until in the end it becomes quite untenable. We finally see that what we’re fighting against is our own true self, our own true nature, and then it naturally happens – as part of the process – that we accord with our own true nature rather than fighting against it. To see that we are not according with our own true nature is the same thing as according with it! So then we become the explorers that we truly are and we embrace what Joseph Campbell calls the Hero’s Journey rather than shirking it, rather than outlawing it, or pretending that ‘there is no such thing’.

 

There is a ‘problem’ with the unfolding of this process however and this ‘problem’ is our collective way of seeing things. The problem is society, to put it bluntly. The problem is our culture. Our collective understanding of ‘therapy’ is that it ought to be something to help return us safely to the equilibrium values from which we have accidently departed. Our understanding of therapy is that it is an essentially normative process, that it is an intervention designed to return us to the linear time-line of our normatively defined lives. The symptoms of neurotic pain – whatever they are – are seen as ‘errors’ to be eliminated. We have no interest in these symptoms, beyond what we need to know in order to eliminate them. We have no curiosity about what they might be implying. When we have been effectively therapized then we can get back to so-called normal life again; we can take up our allotted roles in society where we left off. The only thing is, normal life equals ‘the play pen’; normal life equals ‘the known which we are afraid to let go of’. We make a whole world out of our equilibrium values and we (implicitly) say that there is no other legitimate world, no other legitimate way of doing things, when the truth is that our established, collectively-validated way of life (i.e. society) is an exercise in conservatism and nothing more. It’s ‘conservatism for the sake of conservatism’. It’s the rule of fear. It’s what Joe Campbell calls ‘the refusal’ – it’s refusing the call on a grand scale. It’s global refusal. We are refusing the call to be who we are and the price we pay for this refusal is neurotic pain  – instead of life all we’re going to get is a shoddy and degraded copy of the true thing. Anything else is a ‘cheap debased counterfeit’, as Rashid Dossett says. That’s our lot – that’s all we’re going to get…

 

Our way of understanding mental health perfectly illustrates our confusion. Mental health is implicitly seen as being the same thing as ‘being adapted to the reality that society has defined for us’. It is seen as being adapted to the reality that society presents us with in such a way that we don’t have any problems with it. We are supposed to value our lives (to see our lives as being ‘worthwhile’) on this basis.  A good illustration of this is the way in which we are widely supposed to find our lives meaningful (i.e. ‘worth living’) on the basis of our goals, which are when it comes down to it provided for us by society itself. It’s not put quite like this of course – the meaning of life is said to come from us being ‘free to pursue our goals’, whatever those goals (or ‘dreams’, as it is also said) might be. The thing about this however is that these goals are the goals that make sense to us within the structure or framework of society, which is itself an avoidance of reality. Our goals never have anything to do with ‘leaving the play pen’ – they are on the contrary ways of distracting ourselves from seeing that we’re in the play-pen. Our goals are the play pen…

 

Our goals and dreams are society’s goals and dreams because we see the world in the way that society wants us to. Society has given us its mind. That this should be so if pretty much a foregone conclusion seeing that the social milieu has been telling us ‘how things are’ from the cradle onwards. My map of reality has been given to me by society and this ‘map’ doesn’t permit me to see beyond it. In another way, it doesn’t matter whose goals they are anyway – the notion that we can obtain our sense of meaning in life with regard to a bunch of goals (whether they are ours or not) is fundamentally nonsensical. Waiting for our agendas to be fulfilled (or not fulfilled, as the case may be) does provide us with a type of ‘meaning’ of course – it’s just not a very wholesome one! This isn’t a wholesome type of meaning because it’s based on delusion. How can I possibly base my sense that life is ‘meaningful’ on something that hasn’t happened yet, something that only exists in my own head, something that is nothing more than a projection of my unconscious programming? What kind of craziness is this?

 

The sense of meaningfulness (or ‘worthwhileness’) we get from goals is an illusory sense of meaningfulness, an illusory sense of worthwhileness. It’s based on shadows, on fictions. It’s only a game that we are playing – whatever way I am feeling now, I think that there’s going to be some value added to it (hopefully a lot of value!) when I attain the goal, when I reach that special destination that I am aiming at. I live in expectation of this happening therefore – I live in expectation of the great thing happening and it is my belief in this happy eventuality that provides me with my motivation in life. The more I believe the more motivation I feel, the more ‘anticipatory excitement’ I feel. I’m essentially trying to ‘solve life’ therefore; I’m trying to solve life with my goal-orientated activities, although I won’t see it like this. But whether I see what I’m doing or not doesn’t change anything – it doesn’t change the fact that this is a very shaky basis for feeling good about things, a very shaky basis for me to say that ‘my life is meaningful’…

 

Goals don’t make our life meaningful. That’s the Western Delusion. That’s samsara. If my life didn’t feel OK before I get the outcome that I want then it certainly isn’t going to feel OK because of this! Life can’t feel meaningful (or ‘worthwhile’) because of something outside of me – it is completely nonsensical to think this! We might imagine – in some half-baked kind of a fashion – that good mental health can be obtained by ‘filling the hole inside of us’ but this is just not going to work for us. It is good for capitalism, it’s good for all the corporations that sell us stuff, it is good for the ‘Consumer Society’, but it’s not good for us. Looking for solutions for our emotional / mental pain outside of us just isn’t going to work. Therapy isn’t supposed to provides answers or solutions to our inner pain –that’s a false understanding of therapy. It’s sleep we’re looking for, not any type of psychological growth. Getting rid of the symptoms is just playing a delaying game, as we have already said – what’s needed is for us to get to the root of our suffering, and see clearly what this root is. Waking up is what helps, not taking more sleeping pills!

 

This doesn’t tend to sound too good to us. Looking into the root of our suffering (rather than ‘solving it’ or ‘making it go away’) doesn’t sound very good at all – it sounds suspiciously like saying that we have to sit with our pain, it sounds as if we’re saying that we’re stuck with our pain and can’t get rid of it. It comes across (perhaps) as a pessimistic message that tells us we just have to put up with the misery and learn to live with it, as far as that is possible. This is understanding things the wrong way around, though. The root cause of our suffering is that we just want to get rid of our symptoms every time they arise so that we can go back to our beloved play-pen, and carry on ‘playing with our toys’, as Tony De Mello puts it. This is the attitude that created the pain and misery in the first place. But when we understand this clearly then we don’t have to keep on suffering – if we weren’t 100% invested in clinging to the world of the known and pretending to ourselves (and each other) that this is the right thing to do then there would be no more neurotic misery. All of these neurotic ‘problems’ only exist because of our refusal to see the bigger picture, because of our resistance to change. ‘Not resisting’ doesn’t mean that we have to ‘put up with the pain forever’ (which is what the thinking, problem-solving mind tells us), it means that the pain doesn’t arise in the first place…

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Assertion Mode’ Versus ‘Reflection Mode’

When we are painfully caught up in neurotic distress it is very helpful to see that there are two distinctly different modes of awareness, which we can call assertion and reflection. The difference is that while one mode will free us from neurotic torment, the other will make the problem worse. We can explain these two modes very easily. In the case of assertion I am saying ‘This is true’, which is being specific, committed, and closed. In the case of reflection I am not saying anything, but my attitude is asking ‘What is true?’ Reflection is unspecific and open because I am not looking for any particular answer. Each of these two modes of awareness might be said to be linked to a different sense of ‘self’: in the assertion mode it is the purposeful self, which Krishnamurti calls the ‘self-image’, and in the reflection mode it is the spontaneous self, which we can call the ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ self.

 

The spontaneous self is easy to explain (in one way at least) because it is who we really are; here there is the free expression of our true nature. We don’t have to think about what we are doing or saying – it just comes out of us. The self-image, on the other hand, is the known self, the self that we deliberately project for the benefit of ‘an audience’ (which includes ourselves). Everything the self-image does and says is ‘calculated for effect’ – even if we don’t realize that this is the case. This is the self that we are conditioned to believe in and defend, and it is at the end of the day no more than an artificial construct. A curious and very troublesome property of this ‘image of ourselves’ is that we get caught up in it and take it very seriously indeed as if the well-being (or ‘integrity’) of the self-image were the most important thing in the world

 

We can explain this idea by saying that it is a bit like a position (or opinion) that we start defending in a conversation even though it doesn’t matter that much to us one way of another. At first we don’t really care if we are ‘right’ or not (our involvement is ‘playful’), but after a while a process sets in which means that we start to get invested in this position; from this point onwards it all begins to get very serious and ‘out of hand’. When this happens, I get caught up in all sorts of problems and difficulties that I didn’t really need to involve myself in at all. The effort (and subsequent suffering) involved is unnecessary because I am defending an unreal thing. I am defending something that only matters because I have said that it matters and I am getting so caught up in it I am forgetting that ‘it only matters because I say it does’.

 

We can in fact define neurosis in general as the situation where I am defending a false sense of self. The consequences of defending this ‘false self’ (or self-image’) are that all our efforts are in vain since even if we win we lose because it is not us but the false self that benefits. What is good for the false self is not good for anyone because the false self isn’t real, and so when we promote and defend the false self we have effectively become our own enemy.

HOW CAN I TELL WHICH MODE I AM IN?

If I want to find out which mode I am in, a good question to ask myself is therefore “What self am I serving?” If I am acting for profit (i.e. in order to benefit myself in any way) then it is the self-image that is being served. This is always the case when the underlying motivation is to obtain profit, or avoid loss. The two triggers of attraction and aversion always relate to the self-image (the managed or controlled self) because it is only this self which stands to gain or lose. Essentially, anything that helps to prop up (or support) the self-image is ‘GAIN’ and anything that threatens to show it up (i.e. damage it’s integrity or standing) is ‘LOSS’. The True Self, which is who we really are, has no fear of being exposed or damaged, and no hope of being vindicated or supported. It is what it is, and it needs no ‘spin-doctoring.’  Because it isn’t a pretence it doesn’t need to be propped up.

 

A good way to explain this is in terms of ‘the truth versus the lie’. The thing about a lie is that it can only survive if the truth is successfully covered up. If I tell a lie then I am invested in that lie, I am committed to maintaining it – I always have to be defending it or attacking other points of view (which comes to the same thing). The lie always needs propping up because it cannot stand on its own; I have to actively promote it because without my intervention it will be exposed for what it is. The truth, however, needs no propping up – it is called ‘the truth’ precisely because it stands up on its own, without any outside help.

 

The point here is that I do not need to assert that such and such is true; if I feel the need to assert the truth then that means that I have lost the truth, I have become separated from the truth! It means that I am now in fact defending a lie. This is the reason why the purposeful self can never truly find peace of mind, and why anxiety is never far away. From this we can see why assertion is not the way to find freedom from anxiety since if I am asserting then this is because deep down I suspect that what I am asserting is not really true at all. It doesn’t matter how vigorously I try to prop up my positive assertion – in fact the more energy I put into it the more I feed the anxiety. Asserting the positive only emphases the negative!

SPOTTING MY ATTACHMENT

If I notice myself maintaining or defending some position (whatever that position may be), then I know for sure that I am acting from the basis of the self-image, the false self. Or we could also say, when I notice myself defending a position, then this means that I don’t really believe it to be true myself!  Seeing this lack of honesty, however, is itself an honest act – which means that it is an act which the self-image is incapable of. The self-image isn’t interested in seeing the truth, it is only interested in promoting what it wants to be true, what it wants to be the case.

 

Seeing that I am defending (or asserting) straightaway gives the game away because as soon as I see that my position needs defending, then I know it is not true, and so I catch myself and don’t get caught up in the futile attempt to persuade myself that it is. I don’t get caught up in the defending because I immediately spot what I’m defending for what it is. So we can therefore say that seeing that I have to defend the false self weakens the false self since the truth is the one thing it cannot take. If assertion mode is where I promote and perpetuate the false self, then reflection mode is where I allow myself to see that this idea of myself is not who I really am at all.

 

This business of ‘seeing myself defending’ is clearly a very healthy and helpful process – when I see the falseness of what I am defending then I will no longer invest in it, I will stop putting my money on it because I know that it will not give me anything in return. This process means that I will gradually stop identifying with the false self, and this allows me to come back to being who I really am, which is the self that doesn’t have to be asserted or defined. The journey of dis-identifying with the false self – which is based on a whole load of stuff that I don’t even believe in – is the journey of psychological growth. Normally we see growth as the process in which we build up the image of who we think we are and so it can be seen from what we are saying here that genuine growth isn’t like this at all – genuine growth is where I see through who I thought I was, not where I keep on having to defend and prop up this false image of myself…

CONTROLLING EQUALS ASSERTING

It is important to understand that what we are talking about here is ‘noticing what mode of awareness we are in’ – not ‘changing the mode that we are in’. The reason for this is simple: if I try to change myself from being in the assertion mode to being in the reflection mode, this is in itself an act of assertion and so it cannot work. All that happens is that I get confused; I get confused between where I actually am, and where I want to be. As a consequence I get tied up in knots – always trying to solve my problem with the very thing that is causing the problem. I will be trying to control myself to stop controlling myself, trying to force myself to be free. This takes us back to our definition of neurosis because the self that I am trying to free is not who I really am; it is a fiction dependent on a constant diet of spin doctoring, so how can it ever be ‘free’?

 

What we are saying, then, is that we cannot change modes on purpose – all we can do is see what mode we are in. I cannot assert that I am in the reflection mode, or that I intend to be in the reflection mode because that is what I want to be true. What I ‘want to be true’ is a position that I have invested in, it is a lie that I need to maintain. The only truth is ‘what is’, not what I ‘want to be’.

 

Actually, I don’t need to change anything on purpose because the moment I notice that I am in assertion mode I am straightaway in reflection mode!

The moment I sincerely ask myself ‘what master am I serving’ then I am asking from the standpoint of the True Self because only the True Self is interested in the truth.

The false self cannot ever sincerely ask this question because it has a fundamental resistance to hearing the answer; assertion is all about not asking open questions – the principle of the false self is ‘keep moving because if we stand still for a moment we might hear something we don’t like’. The false self is pursued by a thousand demons, yet in reality its problems all stem from itself and its determination to not hear the truth; if it stood still for a moment it would learn that it doesn’t actually exist, and this in itself is no problem.

REFLECTION IS NOT THE SAME AS JUDGING

Asking myself “What master am I serving?” is not the same thing as ‘assessing my situation’. This is another mistake that we keep making. Judging is not reflecting because when I am judging I am providing my own answers. When I evaluate whether something is good or bad what I really mean is “Is it good or bad according to my likes and dislikes?” The point is, it is me who gets to say what is good or bad – I am in control, I am holding the reins. Of course, I cannot allow myself to see how I am ‘fixing’ the process of evaluation or I wouldn’t be able to say that it is objective. Therefore, I avoid seeing how I am secretly getting my own way by assuming that my likes and dislikes are objectively valid, i.e. that my way of looking at the world is the right way.

 

Finally, it must be stressed that we are not saying that reflection is good and assertion is bad (which would be a judgement, and therefore an assertion). Assertion is only a problem when we are too afraid not to assert. If I can stop and reflect from time to time then assertion is not a problem, and purposefulness finds its proper place within a context of ongoing questioning. When assertion and reflection exist together, then my purposeful behaviour is not ‘blind’ – it is not driven by fear (i.e. denial). When there is a balance between the two modes my activity does not stand in the way of learning and so I do not get stuck in static (or cyclic) behaviour patterns.

When I See That I’m Asserting Then I’m Reflecting

We have said that having an awareness that there are two mode of awareness, and being able to see which mode we are in, frees us up from neurotic conflict, which is where we try to make something be true that isn’t true. The cure is not to try to make that state of affairs not be so, but simply to see that we are trying to make something be true that isn’t true. In other words, the cure is being able to see when we are in ‘assertion mode’.

 

 

 

 

 

The Trouble With Wanting

The key to finding peace of mind is to see the hidden contradiction behind the state of desire, i.e. wanting. Wanting keeps us in a particularly effective sort of prison, a prison of the mind, and the reason it is so effective is because it is always offering us a prize – a prize that it can never deliver. Another way to explain this is to say that wanting, once we respond to its provocation and turn the wanting into trying, inverts our way of seeing the world so that we perceive everything backwards.

 

This ‘inverted’ state of mind is sometimes called psychological unconsciousness, which is where we live on a very superficial level and don’t have any insight into our true motivation for doing things. One way to explain the ‘thinking inversion’ is by saying that when we are under the influence of wanting, our attention is distracted from the desire itself, onto whatever it is that the desire is about. Desire is a compulsion, and a compulsion that I am unable to obey makes me feel bad, but rather than seeing that the source of my misery and frustration is the actual wanting, I perceive the problem to lie in my lack of success in obtaining what I want. So, if I am craving a cigarette, and there isn’t one there, I say that it is the lack of cigarettes that is the problem and so I apply all my cunning and ingenuity to the task of correcting this problem. Where the inversion comes in is that I don’t see the wanting that has got a hold of me as the true culprit, the true author of my unhappiness – if I did then instead of using all my intelligence trying to obey it, I would turn my attention to the root of the problem.

 

The wanting is telling me that once I obtain the cigarette, then everything will be okay. The wanting only hurts when I can’t get what I want, and so along with the ‘stick’ of the discomfort there is always the ‘carrot’ which is the promise of relief from pain (plus the satisfaction that comes with fulfilling the desire). Therefore, the promise is that when I obey the compulsion successfully, the bad feeling will leave and everything will be fine. In other words, once I get what I want, then the wanting promises that it will quit the scene (since it is no longer needed) and there will be peace of mind.

 

This promise is in fact a deception, because the wanting has no intention of leaving me in peace. The truth is that wanting is insatiable, and no matter how much it gets, it will always want more. To take the example of the cigarette, if I give in to the craving and have a smoke, then of course the craving will leave temporarily, but the one thing I know for sure is that it hasn’t really gone anywhere, it is just biding its time until it is ready to appear on the scene again, even stronger and even more insistent than before. The wanting is like a playground bully, who says that if you hand over your lunch money he will not bother you again. Actually, if you give in once, he will be back again and again, until you finally stand up to him.

 

Another example would be a spoiled child – a child who is always given what he wants, and as a result is never happy, never satisfied. Although caving in to the child’s demands for this, that or the other may bring peace for a minute, the one thing that we know for sure is that it will not last because the more I give in, the more I spoil the child. It only ever gets worse – in all such cases, freedom never comes from taking the easy option.

THE PATH OF ‘NON-VIOLENCE’

‘Standing up’ to compulsions does not mean fighting them, or trying to keep a lid on them. If we do this then we fail to see the contradiction, and so all our efforts rebound on us. The contradiction arises because we want to get rid of the enemy, which is wanting. We want to stop wanting, which means that we are using wanting as a tool to get rid of itself. This is like using violence to get rid of violence – no matter what happens, violence is the winner. My tendency to be dissatisfied with my situation does not go away just because I am dissatisfied about being dissatisfied – on the contrary, it gets stronger and the underlying problem gets worse. It is tempting to fight, even though it is not really achieving anything, because at least then I can feel that I am doing something, at least then I can have the illusion of progress. Once I do start struggling though, I am lost because I lose all perspective, and I am no longer able to see how my efforts are rebounding on me.

 

The only way to ‘stand up’ to compulsions is the way of non-violence, which means allowing the compulsion to be there. Normally, we either obey it or fight it, and the motivation in both cases is to escape from the pressure which it is putting on us. We are unwilling to accept the pain and so we have to do something about it, one way or the other. Yet the pressure the compulsion is putting on us is pure bluff – it threatens us with all our worse fears, but if we are not provoked to react then we find that what we were threatened with never happens. The terrible consequences that I am persuaded will occur if I fail to react are only ever a mental projection, whereas in reality it is the consequences of reacting which are disastrous to me.

NOT DIGGING A HOLE…

Allowing the compulsion, the wanting, to be there is the same thing as ‘allowing reality to be exactly the way it already is’. This is not something we do, but rather it is an act of understanding, which does not seek to change anything. An example of this sort of thing would be a situation where I have said something stupid and hurt someone’s feelings. I am desperate to put matters right, and say something to try and make everything okay again, but I find that whatever I say only makes matters worse. I am ‘digging a deep hole for myself’. As we all know from experience, the only cure for this is to leave things as they are – this is the most helpful thing to do. I am driven by the urge to correct the situation, because I cannot face feeling the shame or embarrassment. By correcting the mistake, I think that I can ‘undo it’, make it as if it had never happened. In order not to go down this road, the road of continually trying to make it better whilst actually making it worse, what is needed is that should accept the pain that I have incurred. This means facing reality and seeing that bad feeling which I am having is unavoidable. What happens then is that I unconditionally accept the mental pain involved, which, as we have said, is not a deliberate action but something that happens naturally (or spontaneously) as a result of gaining insight into the situation that I am in.

BEYOND ACCEPTANCE AND REJECTION

Another way to try to explain the idea of ‘unconditional acceptance’ is by using the example of being forced to spend time with some people whose opinions I strongly agree with. If I argue with them, driven by the need to prove that they are wrong and I am right, then they are just going to argue back. There is no way that I am going to change the way in which they think about things, and all that is going to happen is that there will be bad feeling between us.  Once I see this, then I just ‘let it go’ – I allow them to be the way that they already are and as a result of this there is peace. The essential element of this is that I unconditionally accept the pain of hearing them voice opinions which I do not hold with.

 

This does not mean that I judge them as being ‘wrong’, and then smugly tolerate them, safe in the knowledge that I am ‘right’. That would be a deliberate act, or posture, on my part and as such it is artificial (or unnatural) and therefore it would require constant effort on my part to keep it up. Instead of accepting the people I am sharing space with conditionally (which is to say, on the condition that I know they’re wrong), I accept them unconditionally. No effort or artifice is needed for this, and so there is no strain involved. This is the attitude which is sometimes called ‘beyond acceptance and rejection’. The point about this is that there is no choice involved whatsoever – there am I, and there is the situation that I am in. It doesn’t matter in the slightest if I say YES to that situation or if I say NO to it; my acceptance or my rejection are both equally irrelevant, equally ‘beside the point’. To put this another way, I am free to see the situation being the way that it is, but I am not free to choose whether the situation should be that way or not.

 

We can see the principle of the ‘inversion’ operating here if we look hard enough. When I feel that my acceptance is necessary for the whole process, then obviously this makes me feel like a significant or important part of the equation. I am unconsciously assuming that I am somehow still in control, that I can accept what is going on if I want to. This is plainly absurd though – my likes and dislikes don’t come into it at all. The inversion makes me think that my ‘say so’ is the crucial factor, whereas it is of course reality that is the crucial, all-determining factor. Basically, I am suffering from a distorted or deluded view of things which is a kind of ‘self-importance’ where I think that it is me (or my relationship) with reality which matters, rather than seeing that it is reality as it is that matters.

 

The same distortion creeps in when I judge (or evaluate) something, when I label it as being good or bad, useful or not useful, meaningful or not meaningful. Although on the face of it I am being open to what is outside me, interested in what is going on, actually I am only interested on the condition that I get to have the final ‘say so’, i.e. I am only open to what is there on the condition that what is there fits in with my preconceptions regarding what it should be like. Conditional acceptance means staying in control, whereas ‘no conditions’ means ‘no control’. Unconditional acceptance, therefore, means seeing that my likes and dislikes are irrelevant, which straightaway puts them in their ‘proper place’. The instant I see this my mind is no longer inverted – I am no longer coming at things from an upside-down perspective and I stop thinking that it is my responsibility to ‘do something’ about what is happening.

AN ACCUMULATION OF WANTS

All of this is not to say that we should never listen to our needs, that we should ignore every want. This would obviously be totally ridiculous. Suppose I want to go to the toilet, or suppose I want to get up because I am sitting on a thumb-tack? Clearly I am not going to get very far ignoring these wants. These are adaptive wants, they are motivations which we need in order to function as living beings. However, having said this, we must point out that we are not specifically talking about non-adaptive compulsions such as effect us in neurotic conditions such as addictions, anorexia, anxiety and OCD, although these are plainly deadly enemies of our well being. Rather, what we are getting at is the idea that there is a ‘general tendency to be dissatisfied’ which causes us to be helpless slaves to the niggling urge to correct or improve our situation. This ‘tendency’ is the hidden thief which imperceptibly steals away our mental freedom; the worse thing is that it is accumulative in nature, which means that as time goes on it tends to steal more and more.

LEARNING TO ‘DO NOTHING’ UNDER PRESSURE

The tendency to be dissatisfied is there the whole time, undercover but never far away. To come face to face with it, all we need to do is to stop doing the usual stuff that we do – and wait and see what happens. One way to do this is simply to sit down on a chair (or, even better, on the floor) and refrain from all preoccupations or entertainments for a period or ten to fifteen minutes. Almost immediately a host of little annoying wants will appear like horse flies trying to goad us to react. The first will probably be physical in nature: I will start to feel uncomfortable and so I will want to stretch out my leg or shift my sitting position this way and that. Then there are the mental discomforts which dominate even when I am physically comfortable (as we can see when we sometimes lie sleepless in bed). These take the form of little worrying thoughts and concerns, potential problems that need to be considered, or just random preoccupying thoughts – each one of which will make their claim on my attention.

 

All these thoughts are wants: either they cause me to want to do something, or plan to do something, or work out something; generally, they all compel me to think about the world in their on narrow, claustrophobic little way. These little compulsions, clamouring as they do for a ‘slice of the pie’, eventually spell the annihilation of my mental freedom, which is the freedom not to be pushed around by every little (mental) itch that comes along. We think (or we assume) that we will become free from obeying these itches, because when we scratch an itch it tends to go away, and we get a bit of relief. This is dangerously short-sighted of us though because scratching an itch to get momentary relief from it means that we turn ourselves into ‘slaves of the itch’. We are ‘free to obey our compulsions’ – which is of course no sort of freedom at all. True freedom is not the freedom to do what we are told, but the freedom not to have to do what we are told, which is what we learn from doing the ‘doing nothing’ exercise that we talked about a minute ago.

THE STATE OF PASSIVE IDENTIFICATION

When we carry out the ‘doing nothing’ exercise we are generally surprised by the amount of distractions that we encounter; if we thought before hand that doing nothing was easy, we now learn that it is not! Actually, it is not strictly true to say that all these wants suddenly appear when I do nothing – the point is that normally when a little want comes along I am likely to just indulge it and so the compulsion in question remains quite invisible to me. The reason ‘acting out’ a compulsion makes it invisible is firstly because as soon as I obey it, the niggling pressure ceases, and secondly (and more importantly) because when I automatically act out a compulsion I identify with it. What this means is that I align myself with the pressure so that it feels as if it was me that wanted to do whatever it was, rather than the compulsion that forced me to do it. So I don’t say “I was compelled to switch on the TV”, I say “I wanted to switch on the TV”. It can be seen that this process of identification is the exact same thing as the process of ‘viewpoint inversion’ that occurs when we obey a compulsion. We can also say that that the state of passive identification which we have just described is the same thing as the state of psychological unconsciousness, which we defined earlier as a superficial type of awareness where we do not know what our true motivation for doing stuff is.

 

In a ‘superficial’ sort of a way, it might seem that I have solved the problem of dealing with my wants by automatically acting them out, but all I have really done is to make my problem invisible. Not only is it invisible, it has been given the upper hand and this hand grows a little bit stronger, and a little bit heavier, every day. When I take a break from my normal more-or-less unconscious (or routine) behaviour pattern I am privileged to get a glimpse of just how powerful and insistent my tendency to be dissatisfied really is, and this insight is not usually very pleasant. From one point of view (my everyday, inverted point of view) I simply see this experience as a pain in the butt, I see it all as a bit of a nuisance or annoyance – my reaction is to exit the experience as soon as possible, and never go there again. If I could, I would make sure that I never have to encounter such uncomfortable little gaps in my life; if I could, I would wallpaper them all over with unconscious (or unreflective) living.

DROPPING MY RESISTANCE

From the other point (non-inverted) of view, I would see this experience as a marvellous opportunity, a chance for me to drop my habitual resistances, my automatic reacting to wants, and regain my inner freedom. Being able to see the problem is not a bad thing (which is what I automatically tend to think), it is actually a great piece of luck because unless I can see the problem I cannot ever stand a chance of overcoming it. If I am willing to confront the ‘uncomfortable-ness’ of my exposed tendency to be dissatisfied, then the situation can change so that it is no longer my master. In order to stay in the discomfort zone of ‘not doing’ all I need is the insight to understand that it is pointless being dissatisfied with my tendency to be dissatisfied; instead of fighting against this tendency I unconditionally allow it to be the way that it is. As we have said before, this is not an automatic reaction (or a measured, calculated response) but a spontaneous and intelligent appreciation of things as they actually are.

THE PROLIFERATION OF NEEDS

On last point that we ought to consider is the constitutional difficulty that we experience in seeing ‘doing nothing’ as a solution, and putting this into practice. This has a lot to do with the type of society which most of us live in – we have to remember that a consumer society is bound to encourage the proliferation of wants because each want that comes along translates into a ‘product’ which can be sold, or a ‘service’ that can be marketed. This means that money gets turned over and profits get made, which is of course what keeps the whole show running. In a consumer society the more needs there are, the better it is for everyone. What would happen to the rat race if none of the rats wanted to chase after the glittering prizes any more?

 

The right to satisfy all of our petty needs is enshrined deep in our culture. You can have whatever you want – just so long as you have the money to buy it, that is! The ideal state is to be wealthy enough to buy anything we set our heart on, and yet the richest person (the person no one says “NO” to) is also likely to be the person with the least inner freedom. This is another example of our backwards way of thinking – we imagine that we can become happy by chasing our desires and the more we are able to satisfy our wants the better off we think we are. But in reality, there is no happiness or peace of mind to be had this way. Paradoxically, true freedom is not ‘the freedom to realize all of our goals’ (which equals ‘the freedom to successfully obey our wants), but freedom from having to have goals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being Alive To Difficulty

In Chapter 71 of the Tao Te Ching we read the following:

It is by being alive to difficulty that one can avoid it. The sage meets with no difficulty. It is because he is alive to it that he meets with no difficulty.

When we are not alive (or awake) to difficulties then it is of course a very different matter! When we are not awake to the difficulties that come our way then we automatically try to push them away, full of nameless fear at their approach. When we’re not alive to difficulties then these difficulties take on a particular oppressive character to us; as everyone knows, when we’re afraid of something and try to run away rather than steadily facing it then whatever it is that we’re running away from has hugely more power over us. The fears then become fully-fledged terrors. The oppressive nature of what we are trying to avoid is not an intrinsic property of the thing itself however but simply a reflection of our own avoidant attitude. We’re assuming that the difficulty is something terrible – the fact that we are afraid to look it in the face is the manifestation of our attitude, and when we perceive that difficulty or problem as being our actual ‘nemesis’, so to speak, then as we have said what we are deludedly perceiving here is nothing other than our attitude reflected back at us.

 

When we’re not awake then anything that comes along as a difficulty or problem that needs to be solved simply reflects back at us our own reluctance to wake up. We don’t want to wake up. Sleep is sweet, as Gurdjieff says, whilst waking up is very bitter. We don’t recognize that we are ‘reluctant to wake up’ of course because when we’re asleep we always see everything backwards. We don’t recognize anything for what it is – if we did then we’d be awake. Saying that we’re not awake is another way of saying that that we’re ‘closed down’ and being ‘closed down’ simply means that we only ever perceive the meanings that we ourselves have projected upon the world. We live in a closed world therefore – a world that is made up of our own unacknowledged or unrecognized projections. According to Jung:

Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face. In the last analysis, therefore, they lead to an autoerotic or autistic condition in which one dreams a world whose reality remains forever unattainable…

We live therefore in a personalized or tailor-made ‘private’ world that is made up of our own unconscious (or unexamined) attitude being reflected right back at us, as if it actually existed in the ‘objective world’. When we are in this shut-down state then the real world is hidden from us by ‘the wall of the imagination’, as Gurdjieff says here:

Man is immersed in dreams… He lives in sleep… He is a machine. He cannot stop the flow of his thoughts, he cannot control his imagination, his emotions, his attention… He does not see the real world. The real world is hidden from him by the wall of imagination.

Our ‘reluctance to wake up’ always translates into aggression. This reluctance is aggression. When difficulties come along then as we have said we automatically try to push them away and the force of this pushing is the tangible manifestation of the degree to which we do not wish to wake up! We don’t recognize what we’re pushing away because recognizing things for what they are is not what we want to do – we wish very much to not recognize them, our entire effort is very much directed towards not being aware of what is going on. ‘Not being aware of what is going on’ is the game that we’re playing; that’s the whole point of what we’re doing…

 

So because we don’t recognize our own aggression we automatically personalize everything – the difficulties or challenges that are coming our way get personalized as an attack on us (just as someone who disagrees with what we’re saying will be seen as attacking us when we are unconsciously identified with our position). The world gets split into two halves, two possibilities – either it is for us or against us! Difficulties take on an oppressive, persecutory nature for us and because they have taken on this nature we fight back at them all the more. We push them away all the more. This of course confirms our original aggressive attitude – fighting against challenges confirms them as being something that need to be fought against. Aggression creates enemies, in other words.

 

Aggression on our part that we aren’t aware of manifests as a hostile environment that we have to fight against therefore, and when we do have this distorted perception our automatic attitude of aggression is validated and this creates a self-reinforcing circle of illusion that we get helplessly caught up in. We get caught up in it precisely because we don’t recognize our role in it – we don’t recognize that it is our own belligerence, our own hostility that is hemming us in on all sides. Rather than question our fundamental aggression we assume it as universal principle, a basic rule of existence. It’s a dog eat dog world, we say, unaware that we are at the same time both ‘the dog that eats’ and ‘the dog that gets eaten’. As Wei Wu Wei says in Why Lazarus Laughed

When you give a shilling to a beggar – do you realise that you are giving it to yourself?

 

When you help a lame dog over a stile – do you realise that you yourself are being helped?

 

When you kick a man when he is down – do you realise that you are kicking yourself?

 

Give him another kick – if you deserve it!

Our reluctance to recognize our own projections is the same thing as ‘our reluctance to wake up’. To recognize our projections for what they are is to wake up. We could also say therefore that our reluctance to waking up is the same thing as our reluctance to seeing that we are asleep; needless to say, we don’t see or experience ourselves as being ‘asleep’ in daily life – we would, on the contrary, swear blind that we are perfectly conscious, thank you very much. If challenged on this point we would insist – most vehemently – that we are awake and that we do not live – therefore – in closed world that has been created by the simple expedient of ‘ignoring anything that does not match our expectations or assumptions’. Such vehemence is of course entirely characteristic of the unconscious or ‘shut-down’ state of being. We’re vehement (or aggressive) because we’re in a state of conflict with the truth!

 

We ‘close down’ (or ‘shut off’) by refusing to acknowledge any order of being other than the one we already know about. This is the trick to closing down – this is how we do it. As soon as we do this we straightaway fall asleep – the removal of any possibility of anything genuinely new ever happening is the definition of being shut down. We’re shut down to life itself, since life is always new. The removal of the possibility of anything genuinely new ever happening turns reality into a game and when we play a game without knowing that we are playing it we are ‘asleep’. All we ever do in this state is to recycle old patterns over and over again – that’s all we ever can do!

 

Even though we have shut down, and do not recognize any order of being other than the one we already know about, this does not of course mean that reality as a whole does not in some way ‘impinge’ upon us. This is – needless to say – inherent in the nature of reality. Reality, being real, cannot be ignored with impunity! So in very simple terms, what this means is that there is always going to be something to ‘rock the boat’, even though it goes against what we want to see happening, even though we have made this unquestionable rule that ‘the boat must never be rocked’.

 

This way of expressing things makes it clear just how ‘brittle’ our situation is – we have (implicitly) said that the only world there is is the world that we know and are familiar with. We have put all our money on this; without realizing that this is what we have done, we have ‘made a bet’ that this is the case. But evidence is always coming up showing that what we have taken to be true isn’t true, that the order of being that we know and are familiar with isn’t the only one, and so we have to fight against this evidence without seeing it as ‘evidence’. We have to do our utmost to ‘stabilize our boat’ and this ‘stabilization process’ means referring to the evidence that shows we have placed a bet on the wrong horse as ‘errors’ that need to be corrected. Instead of seeing that we are ‘wrong’, therefore, we make reality wrong.

 

‘Making reality wrong’ is a very brittle business, however. It’s a wretched business. We have placed all our well-being in the one basket and that basket is the basket of reality being wrong rather than us. We have made a rule saying that the boat mustn’t ever be rocked, that it is very bad indeed if the basket is rocked, yet the stability of the boat depends entirely upon our half-baked assumptions about reality being true. The stability of our bat depends entirely upon there being no order of being other than the one we know and are so deeply familiar with. Our sense of well-being in the world is thus always going to be under serious threat.

 

A sage is one who does not put all his eggs in the basket of ‘him being right and the universe being wrong’. A sage is one who doesn’t put any eggs in that basket – only a fool would do that! A sage is one who doesn’t mind his (or her) boat being rocked, in other words. Whether we live life in a brittle, aggressive way or in a peaceful and secure way depends on how we look at things, therefore. If I say that my way of understanding the world is the right way and that no other way exists then I am creating a world of brittleness for myself and a world of brittleness is a world of suffering. There are always going to be cracks appearing and I am (as a result) forever having to try to paper them over. Life very quickly comes down to this futile endeavour of ‘papering over the cracks’. There are difficulties and problems everywhere. This is what life is like when we are asleep, when we are closed down to reality itself. We engaged in a gruelling and fruitless ‘fight against the truth’, even though we are quite incapable of seeing this.

 

But we don’t of course have to make this rule that ‘my way of understanding the universe is the only way’ (or that ‘my way of being in the world is the only way’). If we don’t make this rule, if we don’t put all our eggs in this basket, then every time our boat gets rocked it isn’t bad news. Each time my boat gets rocked this means that I am learning something new and if I am ‘learning something new’ then this means that I am finding out that the universe is a bigger, deeper and more mysterious place than I previously thought it was. What could be a better thing to learn than this? What could be more exciting and thrilling than this? Of course, if I have put all my eggs in the basket of ‘the universe being what I say it is’ then the discovery that the world is a bigger than I thought it was isn’t going to be exciting or thrilling at all. In this case it’s not going to be the most wonderful discovery there ever could be – on the contrary, this discovery is going to manifest to me as ‘the most terrifying thing there ever could be’…

 

 

There Is No Such Thing As Useful Thinking

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Thought Is A Salesman

Thought is a salesman wearing a flash shirt and a cheesy smile. Thought is a salesman and what he is trying to sell us is security.

 

Thought always tries to sell us security – that’s all it ever does, over and over again. Thought keeps on selling and we keep on buying!

 

There is a problem with this, though. There is when it comes down to it a very big problem with this arrangement and that is that security (which is the product that is being sold) doesn’t exist.  We could say therefore that thought isn’t so much ‘a salesman’ as it is a conman.

 

What thought is busy selling us the whole time simply doesn’t exist. ‘Security’ – in the psychological sense of the word – doesn’t exist. When we say ‘security’ what we mean is ‘absolute validation for the arbitrary position we have taken in life’. As soon as we express it like this we can see where the problem comes from – what we’re (implicitly) asking for is a contradiction in terms.

 

We don’t of course express what it is we want as clearly as this and so the stark contradiction is never visible to us. The self-contradictory nature of what we are asking for isn’t visible to us and so we keep on asking for it – we keep on asking for it, yearning for it, and yet at the same time we can never have it.

 

We don’t know that what we are asking for is for our arbitrary position (or standpoint) to be absolutely and unreservedly validated for us by the universe. We don’t – in all honesty – see that this is what we are asking for. We have no understanding at all of what it is we are actually requiring in our automatic desire for ontological security. All we know (and this somewhat dimly) is that we are feeling painfully insecure and we want this painful feeling to go away and leave us in peace.

 

This requirement of ours for ontological security isn’t something that we have carefully thought out (or even thought out at all) – it’s simply an automatic response to the unsettling feeling that we are dimly or not-so-dimly aware deep down in the core of our being. This uncomfortable or unsettling feeling is niggling away at us, it is gnawing away viciously at our vitals (so to speak) and our way of running away from it is by looking for external validation.

 

This is of course where thought comes in. thought comes in – as we have said – by offering us this external validation. It offers us ways of getting what we so badly want. This is not to say that thought (or the thinking process) is bad or wrong n any way, simply that it causes no end of suffering and confusion for us when we use it in a way that it was never really ‘supposed’ to be used (so to speak). When we let thought perform a function that it is not legitimately able to perform, then this is when all our troubles begin…

 

The ‘correct’ usage of thought – so to speak – is when we use it to fix legitimate problems in the external world, the physical world around us. There are of course many times in the day when such ‘legitimate’ problems may arise. What to cook for dinner might be one example; how to find the quickest route from A to B in a city with which we are unfamiliar might be another. Locating my mislaid mobile phone or set of keys is another. All such ‘technical’ matters are legitimate problems for the thinking mind to be solving.

 

Alongside all these legitimate problems there is however one huge illegitimate problem and this is where all the trouble comes from. The ‘illegitimate problem’ is that we want to fix the world so that it can provide us with the sense of security about things that we so badly want (even if we aren’t necessarily acknowledging that this is the case). The illegitimate problem is the existential pain that we’re in, in other words. We want to find the remedy for the ontological insecurity that we’re experiencing but not admitting to experiencing and this is the illegitimate problem, the problem that isn’t really a ‘problem’ because it can’t ever be fixed. It isn’t a problem at all – it’s simply reality!

 

Very often when we think we’re trying to fix purely technical issues what we’re unconsciously trying to fix is this underlying ontological insecurity. We may think that the reason we’re trying to attain X, Y or Z is what we say it is, but this is really just a smokescreen. We’re wanting something else really – something that we can’t ever have! When we are trying to solve insoluble problems (that aren’t really problems at all therefore) under the guise of solving regular or legitimate issues then this brings huge stress and anxiety down on our heads and we don’t know why. This is of course what we refer to as ‘neurosis’ or ‘neurotic fixing’.

 

Our trouble – as we have already suggested – is that we seem to be functionally incapable of seeing the root cause of all of this neurotic suffering. It’s not just that we seem to be functionally incapable in this regard, we actually are incapable. We’re incapable of seeing what the root cause of our insecurity is just as long as we’re operating on the basis of the rational mind. The reason for this is that it is the rational mind (and the fact that we are identified so solidly with its constructs) which is responsible for the insecurity we’re suffering from. The thinking mind is the cause of all the trouble, not the solution!

 

Why – we might ask – is the thinking mind the cause of our ‘unfixable insecurity’? The very simple answer to this question is that the thinking mind is always ‘insecure’ in itself because it presents a view of the world to us which is very far from being the whole picture whilst at the same time implicitly making the claim that this is view is exclusively (or ‘exhaustively’) true. A false claim is being made therefore and it is naturally quite impossible to make a false claim without on some level being fundamentally insecure about what is being claimed! We may compensate for our insecurity by being aggressively assertive and overtly sure of ourselves but this aggression does not make our insecurity any less!

 

A classic example of this sort of thing is dogmatism – when I am being dogmatic I am not any the less insecure for being so overtly confident in my assertions. On the contrary, my insecurity is visibly manifesting itself in the form of my aggression, inflexibility and obstinacy, all the characteristics we associate with dogmatism. We could say that our aggression and inflexibility is our way of compensating for our insecurity (and this is of course perfectly true) but it is also true that our aggression, our forcefulness, our rigidity is our insecurity, made plain for everyone to see. To be certain of something is to be insecure!

 

The self partakes fully in thought’s fundamental insecurity. How can it not when it is a construct of thought? What makes the self the self is the certainty it embodies – the self is ‘this but not that’. ‘This-but-not-that’ is the very essence of what it means to be the self. But if the self is this unyielding dogmatic assertion that I am ‘this but not that’ (as it is) then this straightway makes it heir to a fundamental, irreducible, irresolvable anxiety. The self equals ‘identification with a boundary that doesn’t exist’ (except according to itself) and this means that it is always going to be afflicted with the demon of insecurity, the demon of ‘secretly (or not so secretly) doubting what it itself proclaims so loudly’…

 

Saying that thought is a salesman is not quite the full story, therefore. Thought is a salesman and it is always trying to sell us little ‘sound-bytes of security’ in this quintessentially uncertain world but it is also the author of this insecurity at the same time. In this, thought is just like Duff Beer in The Simpsons, which is the cure and the cause of our woes at one and the same time. Thought (or rather ‘the unwise use of thought’) creates the problem at the same time as promising to fix it so that the more we depend on thought to shore us up and make us feel (however temporarily) OK, the more prone to anxiety and insecurity we become…

 

We’re really just going around in circles because if thought (which is fundamentally insecure in itself, as we have argued) is responsible for creating our idea of ourselves, our understanding or ourselves, our reassuringly concrete sense of ourselves, then how can we use thought in order to remedy the insecurity that thought is itself the cause of? We’re using thought to correct the problems that arise from (unwisely) using thought and this is causing us to spin. This spinning is being created by thought, is being aggravated by thought, is being perpetuated by thought, so when the next thought comes along fresh off the assembly line and offers us some kind of plausible ‘quick-fix’, some kind of ‘failsafe remedy’, are we going to believe it?