The best way to get a handle on the idea of ‘psychological work’ is to understand what it is not, and what it is not is our normal everyday mode of mental functioning! This ‘everyday mental modality’ – which is generally the only mode we have – can be neatly explained by saying that it is all about obtaining relief. This is not a particularly flattering way to understand ourselves but it is nevertheless a very accurate one. Despite any illusions we might have to the contrary, it doesn’t take very much at all to understand ‘what makes us tick’. Basically, the fundamental underlying motivation for our purposeful (as opposed to spontaneous) behaviour is the non-negotiable need to find relief from difficulty or discomfort.
It is this very simple motive that lies behind all of our purposeful or goal-orientated behaviour, and behind all our rational thinking. If I am busy performing actions, then what lies behind my busy-ness is the need to find relief and if I am busy thinking then what lies this busy-ness is also the need to find relief (in the case of thinking I am trying to find relief by analysing or problem-solving).
We don’t like to know this about ourselves and it is this resistance to seeing the less-than-glamorous truth that is the first obstacle to genuine self-understanding. We like to think that we are more complex, more diverse than simple pain-avoidance machines, mechanisms which are driven by nothing more interesting or heroic or inspirational than the need ‘not to challenge ourselves anymore than we can possibly avoid’.
This motivation is sometimes called the motivation of attachment and attachment covers both attraction (positive desire) and aversion (negative desire). In essence both attraction and aversion come down to ‘the need to seek relief from discomfort’ – when I am experiencing attraction it is difficult to be in the place where I haven’t yet obtained what I want to obtain and therefore the way that I look for relief from this demand is to try as hard as I can to succeed at obtaining whatever it is that I am experiencing attraction towards. I am automatically running away from the challenge of ‘doing the hard thing’ which is ‘not achieving the desired outcome’. When I experience aversion the same thing is true – some difficulty or discomfort is impinging upon me and the only way I can find relief is to somehow escape that difficulty. The hard thing in attraction is ‘not chasing’ or ‘not grasping’ and the hard thing in aversion is ‘not running away’, ‘not avoiding’.
Not to put too fine a point on it, what this means is that we are – for 99% of the time – no more than mere ‘relief-seeking mechanisms’. We don’t do anything for any higher purpose than self-interest although in order to protect our image of ourselves we dignify this self-serving activity by coming up with all sorts of validations for what we’re doing. We find some sort of reason for doing it, for going along with it. We say that we want to be doing whatever it is that we’re doing. We say that what we’re doing is ‘the right thing’, or ‘the good thing’.
As ‘relief-seeking mechanisms’ free will is a complete and utter illusion – our only freedom is the freedom to find the relief that we are so humourlessly seeking! When we express things like this it does not sound like a particularly convincing (or very enjoyable) form of freedom but when we’re actually stuck in the position of needing the relief (or rather feeling that we need the freedom) the freedom to obtain relief (whether it genuinely is freedom or not, or genuinely is enjoyable or not) is the only thing we’re actually interested in. As a ‘relief-seeking mechanism’, I really am not interested in anything else. Not only am I not interested in anything else, I’m not actually capable of understanding anything else. Can a machine be expected to understand anything or have appreciation of anything that in no way relates to its functional repertory?
This of course is fine and we can all grasp the above point perfectly well – the thing we can’t grasp however is why it should be the case that our psychology(when seen stripped of all the superfluous notions with which we like to cloak ourselves) should be that of a mere ‘relief-seeking mechanism. This, we can’t grasp at all! We don’t actually want to grasp it, in fact it could be said that our whole way of seeing things is orientated in such a way that we never do run the risk of seeing anything of the sort. We see things backwards – we see our constant looking for relief as something positive, we see it as the most wonderful expression of our own true volition, when the less-than-wonderful truth of the matter is that we’re simply looking for relief, in whatever way we can…
This of course sounds too ridiculous to us to even consider (we won’t consider it) and yet at the same time once we ‘get it’ it all becomes laughably obvious. We would wonder how on earth we didn’t see it before. We would wonder how we could have missed it, how we could have been so blind. The ‘trick’ is that everything has been turned upside down – everything we want to achieve we really only want to achieve as a release, and yet we see it as our own free will. We see the ‘achievement’ as an actual positive value in itself and this ‘reversed perception’ is what conditioned existence is all about – we fondly imagine that we are doing this, that or the other because we want to whereas the truth of the matter is that we have been conditioned to want to and this isn’t the same thing at all. Wanting something because you have been conditioned to want it is not just ‘not the same thing’ as genuine volition – it’s the complete antithesis of it.
All of the things we want, all of our ‘goals’ are simply ‘whatever we need to do in order to find (temporary) release from whatever pressure is acting upon us. We want the release from pressure that achieving the designated goal will bring rather than wanting the goal itself, but rather than seeing this we see it the other way around. We’re chasing ‘escapes from the pain we’re in’ not the things themselves; we’re pursuing ‘what the goal represents to us’ rather than the goals themselves. When we ‘do the thing’ (or ‘achieve the goal’) we feel good and so if we take a superficial view of this (as we do) it can very easily seem to us that it’s the fulfilment of our purpose that we want when actually it’s the good feeling that we get as a result of fulfilling it that we’re after. And of course it’s not just that ‘it could very easily seem’ that it’s the fulfilment of our goal/purpose that all the excitement’s about, it does seem that way to us. Our psychological makeup is such that that all our attention is directed onto what is going on ‘on the outside’ so that we don’t notice the mechanical processes that are going ‘in the background’. We don’t notice the pressure that’s acting on us, we just notice the relief that comes when there is a (temporary) cessation of this pressure and this manifests as ‘satisfaction’ or ‘pleasure’. Genuine volition is never to seek pleasure or satisfaction! How could it be? This ought to be obvious to us (how could it not be?) and yet it isn’t at all obvious. We know it isn’t obvious by virtue of the fact that no one ever sees it!
We don’t see that moving towards pleasure or satisfaction is a ‘down-hill’ (or ‘equilibrium-seeking’) movement – it is a purely mechanical process just like a tightly-wound steel spring unwinding and driving a system of cogs and wheels, just like a marble running down a wooden chute. This ‘purely mechanical process’ is not volition! Volition isn’t when we go along with the mechanical process; it isn’t when we work towards obtaining relief / pleasure / satisfaction. True volition is on the contrary when we don’t do this! Genuine volition is not (and never could be) about achieving goals. That’s just going along with the system of thought’ and the system of thought is mechanical through and through – there’s nothing ‘non-mechanical’ about it at all. What’s not mechanical about logic, after all? Yet to say that ‘true volition is not about achieving (or trying to achieve) goals is profoundly baffling to us. To say that this statement ‘goes against the grain of our everyday understanding’ is an understatement of epic proportions. We can’t figure this out at all. We might try to figure it out – if pressed – but we will still end up getting it wrong. If we say that trying to obtain pleasure or satisfaction is not genuine volition and that finding our genuine volition is the only thing that will free us from our wretched mechanical predicament then we will of course try to go against our mechanical impulses. We will try to oppose them but then this too is ‘mechanical’. Going against the mechanical impulses is still mechanical because all we have done is to swap one goal for another; we’ve switched goals but we’re still ‘looking for relief’ no matter what our goal might be. After all, all goals are ‘looking for relief’! We’re trying to get the system of thought to validate us, to validate what we’re doing. We’re trying to accord with some sort of logic. All we’ve really done is to switch a minus for a plus but NO equals the system of thought just as much as YES does!
So when we fight against mechanical impulses all we’re really doing is reversing the goal from a positive to a negative. Whatever the rational-logical mind presents us with as ‘a good idea’ is (of course) only ever going to be ‘just another goal’. Anything thought presents us with is a goal (or an anti-goal, which is the same thing. anything thought presents us with is always going to ‘definite’ and ‘definite’ – of any type or description whatsoever – always equals the system of thought. So what we’re essentially saying here is that the thinking mind can only ever provide us with ‘escapes’ from some kind of difficulty or challenge, and yet these escapes’ aren’t real. They aren’t real because thought itself isn’t real – thought is a system of abstractions. Thought presents us with escapes from discomfort / pain / fear, all of which have to do with our relationship (or rather lack of relationship!) with radical uncertainty, which is the unconditioned or uncreated reality; it presents us with ‘opt outs’ from reality which it calls ‘solutions’ or ‘answers’ or ‘goals’ – words which sound inspiringly positive to us! But no matter how positively we view these words, they are only ever ways of talking about ‘obeying the compulsion to escape’. It’s only fear-driven ‘relief-seeking’ we’re on about and there’s nothing particularly inspirational about this – we’re not heroes, no matter what we’d like to think! All we’re doing is ‘glorifying our running away’; all we’re doing is seeing ‘obeying compulsions’ as freely doing what we really and truly want to do.
So what we’re essentially saying here is that the thinking mind is no help to us at all with regard to psychological work. It always points us in the wrong direction. The rational mind is as we have said essentially a ‘relief-seeking mechanism’ and to the extent that we are identified with the rational mind so are we. This is why we are ‘relief-seeking mechanisms’ – because we’re identified with the everyday thinking mind. As soon as we have this insight everything that we have so far been talking about immediately becomes clear. Everything can then be seen in the most beautifully simple and straightforward way – we can see that psychological work is when we are NOT acting on the basis of thought!
This proposition is at the same time both wonderfully simple and formidably challenging – all we have to ‘do’ in order not to be evading reality (even though it is of course not a ‘doing’) is to be in the world independently, standing on our own two feet (as it were), as we actually are in ourselves, without any artifice, without any cunning. What could be simpler than this? Any child could do this! And yet this proves to be the hardest thing of all; as simple as it is, to just be ourselves without any artifice turns out to the greatest challenge we will ever meet in our lives. We don’t know how to come out of the constricting shell of the thinking mind even if we wanted to do so, even if we realized that we were trapped in this ‘shell’ (which we don’t). We do everything on the basis of thought, oPyschn the basis of the thinking mind. We live our lives pretty much entirely on this basis and because we do live our lives this way – minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, year after year – we don’t even know that there is ‘a basis’. We couldn’t be further from knowing that there is a mechanical basis to our living, to our being in the world. We don’t think we’re playing any sort of a game, we think that we’re ‘doing it straight’! We think that there’s no trickery going on, that there’s no manipulation – that this is just ‘the way things are’.
We’re tricky creatures. We’re ‘trick-loving creatures’ and thought is our trick! We have become inseparable from our trick – we are playing it all the time without knowing that we are playing it. To be separated from the trick that we are playing (without knowing we are playing it) would be the ultimately terrifying scenario for us. All of our fear and terrors come down to ontological terror in the end – lack of ontological security is the one thing that we never want to face. Anything rather than that! When our own trickiness catches up with us – as it always does – and constricts the very life out of us, we do our level best to come up with new, improved forms of trickery and we call this ‘therapy’! We do our level best to come up with new, super-sophisticated tricks to solve the problems that our original reliance on trickery has caused. It’s trickery on top of trickery, trickery trying to solve trickery. We think that cleverness is the answer. The one thing that we just can’t seem to see – to paraphrase Rumi – is that when we give up tricks and cleverness, then that will be our cleverest trick!