Coping Strategies Weaken Us

We talk about ‘tolerating discomfort or ‘coping with stress’ or ‘managing emotions’ very easily indeed in the field of mental health – terms like this roll off our tongues with the very greatest of ease. We’re positively in our element when talking about stuff like this. It all sounds so easy. But what exactly does ‘coping with difficulty’ involve however and how – in strictly practical terms – do we go about it? What is the correct way to go about ‘tolerating discomfort’? Just how do I ‘manage my emotions’? That’s what we’re all trying to find out – that’s where the ‘smart money’ is…

 

This is where it all gets very interesting and very ‘counter-intuitive’. We tend to think that there is some method here that we can learn, a method or technique which we can get highly skilled at in time. ‘Tools’ and ‘skills’ and ‘strategies’ are buzz-words in therapy – we think that they can be the answer to everything! This is not at all the case however and we can easily explain why. If there was some sort of method or ‘thing that we can do’ then presumably using it (as some kind of helpful ‘tool’, as we like to say) would make us feel less uncomfortable, less distressed. If this were the case however then we’d be escaping the discomfort, not getting better at tolerating it! And if the method in question doesn’t cause us to feel any better then why would we do it? Why would we bother to use it in the first place? The problem is that anything we do that actually reduces our level of discomfort or pain is addictive; we won’t be able to help ourselves from doing it every time we feel bad, in other words. It will become a urge, a compulsion, an ‘unfree sort of thing’. The problem with this is of course that any ways that we might find of escaping from pain or discomfort don’t really serve us. They don’t really serve us because every time we avoid pain on the short-term this means that we get it back even worse on the long term! We only need to observe ourselves carefully in our day-to-day lives in order to see that this is true.

 

Deep down, we already know this – it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that our whole lives are spent learning this particular lesson, although whether we actually learn it or not is another matter! We avoid – as is perfectly natural – our legitimate difficulties only to find, later on, that these difficulties are revisited upon us in an even more terrible form than before. Or as we could also say (if we wanted to put it in more general terms) we avoid insecurity and uncertainty in life and create a type of existence for ourselves where all life’s questions come with nice simple (i.e. black-and-white) answers. We want ‘rules’, we want ‘right and wrong’, in other words. We want to make life simple for ourselves by avoiding the central existential challenge of ‘not knowing what to do about our difficulties’  but – again – we create a new form of suffering as a result of our evasion – we create what is called neurotic suffering. Neurotic suffering is ‘the pain that comes when we don’t want to have any pain’. It is, to paraphrase Steve Hagen, ‘the insoluble problem we always meet up with when we don’t want to have any problems’…

 

We can see from this that ‘learning to tolerate the discomfort that arises as a result of neuroticism’ cannot itself be ‘a procedure or simplification’; which is to say, it cannot itself be conveniently made into ‘a matter of right and wrong’. The art of being able to tolerate difficulty has nothing to do with following rules! ‘Following rules’ is an evasion. Methods – by definition – are always a matter of following rules and so straightaway we can see that this just isn’t going to work (although in practice we don’t tend to see it because that’s not really what we want to see).

 

So the question that we want to ask now is of course, “If ‘distress tolerance’ (or ‘the capacity to tolerate discomfort/pain’) isn’t a method then what is it? What is it and how do we do it?” Even by asking this question we are going wrong however. It is a characteristic of the technologically-orientated culture that we live in that we imagine that the capacity to bear pain or endure discomfort must be something ‘outside of us’, i.e. that it must be something we ’do’. And yet how can the capacity to endure difficulty be something ‘outside’ of us, something we ‘do’?

 

Clearly our way of looking at things is distorted here. The capacity to tolerate difficulty is inside us, rather than being some tool or accessory that we carry around with us, rather than being some sort of trick or procedure that we have learned to roll out when necessary. Tools weaken us when it’s mental health we talking about – they weaken us because we put all the emphasis on developing strategies and learning new methods rather than developing ourselves. Our tools become more and more high-powered, more and more time and energy consuming, but we ourselves become more and more enfeebled, more and more dependent upon our instruments or tools, more reliant upon external protective factors.

 

This tendency to become weaker and more dependent is – as we have said – absolutely characteristic of our current way of life. We can say – almost with complete assurance – that human beings have never been less autonomous than they are now. ‘Autonomy’ and ‘mental health’ are two ways of talking about the same thing and so we may also make the statement that throughout our long history we have never been less mentally well! ‘Health’ and ‘Whole’ are words that come from a common linguistic root and – very clearly – ‘Whole’ means that we are complete in ourselves, it means that we don’t require a whole heap of external assistive factors (or ‘accessories’) in order for us to feel okay about ourselves.

 

It is our ‘modern illusion’ that having lots of tools (both of the physical and psychological variety) empowers us and for this reason we dedicate all of our resources to acquiring many tools as we can, unaware that as we do this we weaken ourselves more and more. ‘Weakening ourselves’ – in psychological terms – means that we become ‘less and less ourselves’. By making our supposing well-being more and more dependent upon external factors we are allowing ourselves to be increasingly defined by these external factors and this is the point that we seem to be all but incapable of understanding. By expressing things in this way we have made it possible to clarify what we were saying earlier when we made the point that ‘the capacity to tolerate difficulty or pain is something that is in us, not something that we learn to ‘do’. What we really should have said is that ‘the capacity to tolerate difficulty or pain IS us!

 

That capacity is actually ‘who we are’ – we ourselves are ‘the magic ingredient’ that we have searching for. When we are truly ourselves, in other words, then we will find that this ‘capacity’ actually has no limits. There is no limit to the degree of difficulty that we are able to work with – it’s just that we have to get rid of the illusions we hold about ourselves first, and that that is not something that we can learn on a ten day training course! The very notion of ‘being trained to reconnect with our true selves’ is palpably crazy – how can taking on stuff from the outside (i.e. ‘conforming to external dictates’) help us in any way to connect with our true selves? How can that come from the outside? Conforming to external pressures, external demands, external requirements has the exact opposite effect, and that’s where we’re going wrong in the first place.

 

Being able to tolerate difficult situations without succumbing either to the urge to break and run, or fight madly (and counterproductively) for all we’re worth, turns out to be a far more profound matter than we had ever imagined, therefore. Finding new tools, finding new coping strategies is a trivial thing; finding out who we truly are – on the other hand – is the biggest thing ever there ever could be! What could be bigger than this? What could be more significant or more important or more meaningful than this? The only way we are ever going to honestly meet the challenge of life is to meet it as we actually are, not through surrogates or ‘generic versions of ourselves’, not through tricks that we have learned from other people who themselves are not meeting life ‘head on’. Anything other than ‘meeting life head on’ (which is to say, without any safety nets, without any defences, without any ‘personality armour’) is an evasion and – as we have already said– any evasion that we may make is inevitably going to cost us dear later on.

 

The fact that we are so very keen on finding ‘coping strategies’, the fact that we are so committed to developing our ‘distress tolerance-techniques’, shows us something very important therefore. This emphasis shows that our commitment is not to reconnecting with our true nature. More than this, it shows that our commitment lies in exactly the opposite direction, which is not finding out! Difficulties, when they come along, do have some saving grace (albeit a saving grace that is usually very well hidden). This ‘saving grace’  – so to speak – is that through going through the difficulty, unendurable as it may seem at the time, can allow us in time to become more truly who we are. We lose some of the dross (or ‘falseness’), we let go of some of the ‘rubbish’.

 

But the other side of the coin is that when we protect ourselves from the difficulties that are coming our way by utilising all our defences, by utilising all our ‘evidence-based coping strategies’ we are at the same time hanging onto all of this rubbish. We’re actually protecting it. We’re holding on tight to it, as if it were the dross (i.e. our ‘false ideas’) that were the truly valuable thing here. And the truly astonishing thing is that this was our agenda all along – our aim was always ‘to avoid having to let go of the rubbish’. Our unacknowledged aim was always to stay asleep, in other words…

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Wrong Horse

When we become aware of mental or emotional pain – of whatever kind – this pain is doing us a service in that it is making us aware of something that we would not otherwise be aware of. It is making us aware of something that, quite possibly, we will never become aware of – the untenable nature of the self-construct!

 

Suppose we never became aware of the self-construct (which is the same thing as becoming aware that it is untenable), what then? What happens next? Very clearly, if we never became aware of the self-construct, via the pain that it always brings about, then we would ‘carry on the same as always’ – we are bound to carry on not seeing the self-construct, and so we are also bound to carry on living life on this untenable basis. The status quo would go unchallenged and nothing interesting (or ‘real’) would ever happen to us. Nothing real / interesting would ever happen to us since the only time we can ever glimpse life or genuinely be a part of it is when we see beyond the self-construct and its ever-proliferating projections! Nothing else can be counted as ‘life’.

 

The ideal situation for the SC would be where it never does encounter any unpleasant mental pain or discomfort but this of course never happens!  As a consequence of things never really going the way it wants them to therefore, the SC has to spend a lot of time (or sometimes all the time) trying to evade pain and pain-producing situations, and ‘managing’ them when they do. Ideally, it would like to ‘solve’ them; then next best thing would be to ‘manage’ them. ‘Solving’ and ‘managing’ are its two favourite words! Managing the emotional / mental pain means putting a spin or interpretation such that it does not invalidate the SC.

 

The SC treats / responds to mental pain as an insult in other words, and this means that it has to excuse or defend itself in some way – it either has to say why the insult shouldn’t have come its way or it has to turn the insult back on someone else so that they get to be invalidated rather than it. Someone else always deserves to feel the pain rather than oneself, in other words! So to explain this in a more familiar idiom, this means that the SC will be spending most of its time (apart from the odd occasion when it gets its own way) either complaining about its situation or blaming / getting angry with other people…

 

There is another variation on this and that is where the SC does the opposite of justifying or excusing itself and responds to mental / emotional pain by blaming itself and perceiving itself as being defective or culpable in some way. The pain it is experiencing is its own fault and it cannot on this account forgive itself for this. This then means that the SC not has to bear the original pain but also the vicious lash of its own unforgiving self-recrimination. There is not only the original ‘insult’ but in addition to this (as if this original insult were not enough) the SC also insults itself for being insulted in the first place when it should have done something to prevent this. Instead of the pain being ‘acted out’ therefore, it is internalized.

 

All of this ‘pain-displacement activity’ is for the sake of preserving the integrity of the SC that has been insulted. Both responses work equally well in preserving the integrity of the SC because either way we aren’t ever going to ‘question the self’. No questioning or examining of the self is going on here – only ‘automatic pain-displacement’! There is however a third possibility which becomes visible at this point in the discussion and that is the possibility of allowing the validity of the SC to be called into question. Instead of either automatically justifying ourselves or recriminating viciously against ourselves we simply let the pain make us be aware of the SC being there, which is as we have already said the same thing as becoming aware of its essentially untenable nature.

 

Why is the SC’s position so untenable, we might ask? Is there no way that it might ‘strike the right attitude’ so that it can have its correct place in the world and establish a relationship with reality that is legitimate rather than being ‘untenable’? One way of explaining why this is something that can never happen no matter what is to point at the way in which the SC always does establish a relationship with reality – the way the SC operates is to validate all those aspects of its environment which agree with its way of looking at things and devalidate all the other aspects. It ‘selects its own evidence’ and steadfastly ignores anything that contradicts its central hypothesis (which is itself). Or as Emily Dickinson puts it in her poem of that name, ‘The Soul selects her own Society’.

 

The very same mechanism operates in all social groups (from the big one such society itself to the very small ones such as friendship groups) where we take care to associate with those who share our outlook (i.e. agree with us) and exclude those who don’t agree with us, those who don’t share our cherished views / beliefs. This is the only way that a group can work – the group wouldn’t hang together as a group otherwise. So the question we are asking is this: “Is there any viewpoint or belief that stands up alone and doesn’t need to be artificially supported or validated by some sort of ‘artificial context’ that we have created for the purpose?” Understanding this point clearly is the key to everything – there is no such thing as a viewpoint or belief that does not need to be supported by ‘selected attention to the evidence’.

 

Another way of expressing this is to say that there is no such thing as a definite statement about reality that accurately (or exhaustively) describes what it is supposed to be describing. When we put it like this the point that we are making becomes rather more obvious – if it were the case that there could be such a thing as a definite statement that completely describes reality then ‘the statement’ and ‘the reality’ would be one and the same thing and so there would no longer be any actually need for reality. The formal description itself would do perfectly well, which is Jean Baudrillard’s point when he talks about the all-consuming world of the hyperreal which is modern society. If it were the case that the description of (or theory about) the world and the world itself were the same thing (and everything is defined) then there would no space for anything to ever happen. There would be no space left for life since life is quintessentially ‘an unfolding of the new’.

 

The SC cannot exist in a truly open view of reality, in other words. It can only ever survive in a small world, a circumscribed world, a defined world. It can only exist in the world that is made up of its own narrow prejudices, which is a world of its own creation. This is why we say that the SC is an inherently untenable proposition – it is ‘tenable after a fashion’, it is ‘tenable just as long as we can maintain the narrow little world that is formed of our own unexamined prejudices’ (which is the closed world of our own unconsciously-made assumptions), but when we do this we put ourselves in a state of conflict with the wider reality, which is – needless to say – never the same as our unexamined assumptions / expectations about it! We have put ourselves in a never-ending conflict with reality that will not cease until we drop our frighteningly rigid requirement that ‘reality ought to be the same as our ideas of it’.

 

In summary therefore, the SC is a tenable proposition just so long as we maintain a ‘closed or shut-down version of reality’ for it to exist within, but this is no good because a ‘closed or shut-down version of reality’ is itself an untenable proposition! The problem hasn’t been solved at all therefore, merely extended. Maintaining a shut-down version of reality means ‘never learning anything new’, it means ‘fighting change to the best of our ability’, and we all know that this tactic never works! It never works any more than the resolute denial of a truth that we don’t like works – the more resolute we get in our denial the more the thing (eventually) explodes in our face! We’re trying as best we can to hang on to the ‘absurd and fragile make-believe pseudo-world which is the only world we know’; we’re trying to protect and perpetuate our half-baked ideas about reality, which actually have nothing to do with reality at all. We’re actually trying to maintain our own patented ‘shut-down version’ in the face of all the evidence that is contradicting it.

 

This endeavour – even if it may seem to be working for us on the short-term – is always going to prove untenable in the longer term and the way that this ‘untenability’ shows itself, as we were saying at the beginning at this conversation, is through the emotional / mental pain that we always see as having no helpful function at all. The ‘helpful function’ is that the pain we are experiencing brings us awareness of the way in which we are ‘putting all our money on the wrong horse’. The ‘wrong horse’ is the self-construct, which is the narrow and artificial perception that we have of ourselves, the narrow and artificial view of ourselves on whose behalf we are attempting to live our lives. All of our energy, all of our dedication, all of our resources is going in completely the wrong direction. This doesn’t mean ‘wrong’ in any big ‘moral’ sense, just ‘wrong’ in the sense that we are creating more and more suffering for ourselves, when this is the very thing that we are trying to avoid!

 

It is perfectly natural to resent and resist life’s sufferings when they come along, and then try to solve / fix / manage the mental or emotional pain that arises for us in these situations, and this is (almost) always going to happen. It is a rare thing to come across someone who can meet trouble with serenity. But even as we struggle against our pain, and react so as to try to control or contain it, there is always the possibility to see – with calm and clarity, and also a touch of humour – that the very pain which we struggle against is also the thing that is going to free us from the sterile prison of the self-concept, and that this painful process of ‘being freed from illusion’ is happening as a result of some sort of grace that is falling upon us, even though we don’t want it and are fighting tooth and nail to avoid it…

 

 

 

 

Transforming Pain

The everyday self is a self which ‘reacts’ automatically whilst believing the whole time that it is perfectly free. This self is characterized by the fact that it cannot (of its own free will) endure pain; it can put up with a certain amount of discomfort if it knows that it will get something out of it, but this is strictly ‘conditional acceptance’. If at all possible the ‘reactional self’ will avoid any sort of discomfort and it is extremely clever at doing this. It can even pretend to accept discomfort, and fool itself that it wants to accept discomfort, simply as a ploy to avoid it. Actually, everything this reactive self does is conditioned by its need to avoid pain, and ‘pain’ can be understood to also include receiving information that it does not want to receive.

 

For this self (which we will from now on call the ‘false self’) finding out that everything it does is motivated by the need to avoid pain is itself pain, and so it will assiduously avoid this awareness. Similarly, the false self cannot endure to learn that it is in fact incapable of enduring pain, and so it will avoid learning this too, and persist in believing that it can do anything it wants. This self-deception constitutes the ‘false freedom’ of the false self.

 

Once we understand that everything the false self does is motivated by ‘self-interest’, then it becomes obvious why the false self must avoid pain. From its inevitably narrow and short-sighted point of view there can be no reason whatsoever to accept pain. In a fundamental way, accepting pain just doesn’t make sense to it, and its inability to understand why it should is, as we have said, the defining characteristic of its nature. To unconditionally accept pain is an irrational, unselfish and unpredictable act and the false self is always rational, always selfish, always predictable.

 

What we have said so far allows us to pinpoint the precise nature of our predicament and this understanding can be expressed in the form of two linked statements:

[1] We are faced with pain that we cannot evade.

[2] We are identified with (or trapped within) the false self that cannot do other than continually attempt to avoid pain.

Clearly, the only answer to this predicament is to disidentify with the false self, to free myself from it, and the only way for me to do this is stop refusing the legitimate pain of my situation. But this is exactly what I can’t do! How can I do this, when it goes so completely against the grain of the false self that I am trapped within?

 

This feels like an impossibility, but there is a way, all the same. The key to ‘switching over’ from the false to the true self is by allowing the difficult experience we are undergoing to connect us to others, rather than letting it isolate us in sterile self-concern. It is possible to do this simply by thinking of someone who we feel love or compassion for: as soon as I feel the spark of compassion for someone else, then instead of trapping me in myself, in my disconnectedness, the pain naturally has the effect of relating me to something that is outside of me. The moment this happens I find that my pain is no longer ‘my’ pain; it is simply pain – it is not special to me, or belonging only to me, rather it is the same pain that we all suffer from, it is universal pain, it is part of the universal experience of life that we all share.

 

At this point pain becomes interesting because it is relating me to life itself – from it I am learning about something real, something bigger than ‘me’. Because it has become interesting I do not have the automatic reaction of putting all my energy into trying to push it away, and when I am no longer try to fight it or push it away the pain no longer traps me in myself. The curious fact (that we never stop to discover) is that fighting pain creates a false self that cannot ever truly escape pain, and if there is no fighting, no attempt to stay in control, there is no self to be trapped in.

 

Feeling concern for someone other than myself instantly connects me to the True Self, and from the standpoint of the True Self (which is the absence of the ‘small’ or false self) pain is not something that has to be avoided at all costs. The True Self, which is the essence of who we are, is not afraid of pain and is not harmed by pain. The greater the difficulty, the greater the challenge, the more the True Self rises to meet it. This is because there are no limits to what it can bear and what it can do – the only limitations are those which arise due to our own lack of understanding regarding this fact.

 

When I relate to pain in a closed way (i.e. in an avoidance-type way), then the experience that I have as a result is ultimately meaningless and I am effectively cut off from Reality itself. This is a disastrous situation because when I am cut off from reality I am cut off from my own strength and intelligence and as a result I can bear nothing and understand nothing. All I can do is endlessly attempt to hide behind layer after layer of self-deception. When I relate to pain in an open way, then as we have said the experience is meaningful and I discover that I can bear more than I thought I could, and understand more than I thought I could. In fact, I become as the result of my experience more than I was.

 

By relating to my own pain, I become able to relate to the pain of others. By shouldering my own pain, I become able to shoulder the pain of others. This gives genuine meaning to my experience because not only am I changed by what I am going through, I am changed in such a way that I become more useful to others, more useful to life. This transforms my experience of pain from being a sad and futile attempt to escape the inevitable into a ‘noble venture’, an adventure which takes me deeper and deeper into Reality. The pain itself is being transformed into wisdom and compassion; by breaking out of the sterile bubble of my own self-concern I develop a keen appreciation of the situation of others, along with the motivation to use this awareness in the service of a higher cause.

 

Beforehand, my pain was pure persecution – it was wholly against me, wholly negative and wholly ‘going nowhere’. Now, it helps me, it is PRO rather than ANTI, and it takes me somewhere real – it actually makes my life mean something. The important thing to understand about all this is that we can’t turn the experience around intentionally. We cannot transform pain on purpose because the ‘purpose’ in question always belongs to the false self; if there is purposefulness then there is a secret agenda behind that apparently positive purposefulness, and that secret agenda is always the same, i.e. it is the agenda of the false self to maintain itself at whatever cost. Transformation from unreal (or ‘theatrical’) to real (or ‘dramatic’) only occurs when the false self’s secret agenda is dropped, which is to say, when we give up, on a very deep level, the attempt to escape or control the pain.

 

As we have said, the key to the whole process is to dedicate the experience that we are going through to a ‘higher cause’. This makes the experience precious, rather than worthless, and this is a tremendous turnaround. This has nothing to do with rationalizing what is going on (i.e. saying “I am doing X because of Y”); it is not our head that we are relying on but our heart. Instead of a ‘shrewd calculation of ways and means’ (as Oscar Wilde puts it), we are trusting our heart, and we are tuning into the heart-felt desire to free others from their suffering, which springs naturally and spontaneously from the heart when the head does not get in the way.

 

Freedom is not obtained for selfish (or rational) reasons; it is not for myself that I go through what I am going through – if it were only for myself, then I would not be able to go through it. The strength and inspiration that I need in order to undertake the Internal Task of self-transformation comes from outside of the false self. There is never any shortage of strength and wisdom, only a shortage of faith. As a Buddhist text says – the harvest is abundant, but what is not abundant are workers who are willing to bring it in!

 

When we are identified with the false self we cannot avail of this ‘harvest’ since the false self has no faith in anything outside itself. Because of fear, it only trusts its own cleverness, and this is its downfall. The false self has a very simple behaviour pattern: it chases pleasure and it flees pain, and the result of this short-sighted motivation is that it goes forever around in circles. The circle it moves in is a circle of frustration since the whole endeavour is an exercise in unreality, an attempt to have one end of the stick without the other.

 

According to Alan Watts this circle of frustration comes into being because of our constant endeavour to be permanently ‘one-up on ourselves’, when the fact of the matter is that we can only be ‘up’ half the time, and must spend the other half ‘down’. The false self wants to be the winner of its game all the time, but what goes up must also come down, and so there is no winning without losing. No sooner does it obtain what it was craving for, than it has lost it, and must start the whole process over again. Overall, this is a self-frustrating circle of activity because whatever gains we may seem to have made at one point are inevitably lost later on, bringing us back to square one with nothing to show for our trouble.

 

If pain is not rejected, but used as fuel in the way that G.I. Gurdjieff speaks of to propel ourselves on the journey to freedom, then it takes us somewhere new, somewhere we could not even have imagined. This journey into the unknown is the journey of life itself, and the meaningfulness of the journey is the meaningfulness of life. It is the self-cancelling circularity which makes the ‘life’ of the false self essentially meaningless, and it is the movement out of this terrible circularity that gives us back the meaning of our lives.

 

Beforehand, I was isolated from life as a result of my insistence on acting only for myself, acting only out of blind selfishness. After the turnaround has taken place I find that I am acting in the service of life, instead of acting against it, and so everything that happens to me from now on goes on to have positive, helpful consequence. From then on everything that happens to me is equally beneficial, as Ram Dass says, it is all ‘grist for the mill’. Even if absolutely everything goes wrong for me, I can still work with it – the overall process of becoming increasingly free (and becoming increasingly ‘useful’ as a result) is not jeopardized.

 

The basic idea is that when difficult situations come along, we can go down one of two roads. The easiest road (the one we take by sheer reflex) is to identify with the false self. If we succumb to the temptation to do this, then all we have done is to dig an even deeper hole for ourselves than the one we were in to start off with. This is extreme short-sightedness; it is like the idea of the ostrich which was said to bury its head in sand when danger threatens. By identifying ourselves with the false self we alienate ourselves from the reality of what is going on, and at the same time we alienate ourselves from the only thing that can help us – the truth. What a wretched, miserable thing this is, to be stuck indefinitely in a situation that I dare not face.

 

If we take the other road, then as we have said, even the most dreadful circumstances are workable. The other road is where we use the pain of our situation as fuel to propel us beyond the deadly gravitational field of the false self. The rule here is simple: the worse the predicament, the more fuel we are given.

 

 

 

 

 

The Paradox of ‘Turning Towards’

rabia2

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

Someone said to Rabi‘a:

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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